One summer day in the early 1980s I found myself in an old growth redwood forest near Mendocino, California. I was sitting in a clearing with two men at a very thick redwood slab picnic table. We were finishing cups of tea made the old fashioned way that left tea leaf fragments collected on the bottom of the cups. The cups were beige colored, plastic, stack able, industrial, institutional and otherwise unremarkable.
The three of us occasionally talked but mostly listened and felt the huge sound of at least 30 big drums being stroked in solid close ordered rhythm. The sound was coming from a log cabin lodge hall across the clearing. We were part of a group of 90 plus men gathered for a week in great nature to explore heavy weight masculine issues with some great teachers.
The community of men had been divided up into three smaller groups and the group I was in had finished drumming some time before. Since the coffee pot was empty we were taking a tea break in the sunshine while another group was introduced to the power of the drum at what called drumming 101A.
Inside the lodge, built as a W.P.A. project in the 1930s, men were sitting in a circle of conga drums arranged in sections by pitch. The drums were grouped together from the highest sounding all the way down to the lowest pitched which the drum teacher called the Grandfather drums.
When the teacher had the Grandfather drums beating out a simple uh-one, uh-two, uh-one, uh-two by themselves inside the lodge, I could feel from across the clearing the vibration of their beat pressing on my back. It was as if my body were a drum. I placed my hands lightly on the table and it too was lightly throbbing like a drum. Hum-mm, I wondered. What's happening with the cup?
I looked down into my nearly empty mug of tea and saw, to my total amazement, a beautiful mandala pattern formed by the tea leaves. The tea fragments were in a perfectly coherent and ordered pattern. I then checked out another cup and it was the SAME! I didn't say, "Eureka!" but I surely thought it. Checking the third cup, there it was again. I called this phenomenon to the attention of the guys and we immediately stopped talking and just watched the leaf fragments.
When the Grandfather drums stopped their beat then the higher middle section of drums began to play. Our tea leaves mirrored their ragged beat as the first mandala from the deep sound disappeared into chaos. Then the miracle occurred again. As the middle drums 'got it together' so did the tea leaves. Now a different pattern emerged in all three cups.
After a while the two guys went for a hike. I remained watching the leaves and creating variables like a kid with a new toy. More tea fragments, less tea fragments. More water in the cup then less. Tea cup on the ground then held in the hand. Chaos and order. And the "order" was always moving toward beauty.
Then I thought, if this sound is affecting the tea leaves, what is it doing to my body? What is happening on a cellular level? Does my heart beat speed up when the drum does? Of the three basic drum pitches, what makes me feel really good? What happens to my body when I sing?
On and on the questions came while those tea leaves kept changing in front of my startled eyes!
Wendell Berry has a wonderful line in a poem called, Rising, where he says, "Ancient knowledge seeking new minds." Looking back on the excitement of the moment, I feel I had an encounter with very old, sacred and thinly veiled knowledge. A Rosetta stone moment of beauty if you will. The memory of that experience remains clear with me today. I count is as one of the pivotal encounters with something emense that placed me on this path of healing sound and vibration.