The Didgeridoo as a Tool for Meditation
By Nobleman Nash Hollowhill - October 14, 2009
The Didgeridoo (Didjeridoo, Didjeridu) is commonly accepted as the second-oldest man-made musical instrument on Earth. After bones, sticks, and various other incarnations of the drum which eventually consisted of animal hides stretched over a hollow gourd or other round vessel, this instrument came into use by the Aboriginal people of ancient Australia, who called it the Yidaki. Because it follows the drum, it is evident that meditative states of musical creation were a seminal part of Man’s cognitive development during early stages of his cranial evolution. These instruments do not lend themselves well to the melodic or harmonic structures we now commonly associate with musical motifs, as the drum can only produce short, percussive sounds devoid of pitch or tonic, and the didgeridoo can only in and of itself produce a single low drone, though the subtler overtones of this note can be manipulated if practiced well. In order to make progress learning the drums, the player must use introspection to determine which modes of operation will be useful and which will not. In order to make progress learning the didgeridoo, the player must trick his brain so that he can simultaneously exhale and inhale, in order to play for as long as possible, and this usually follows a strong beat. The limitation to playing only rhythmic structures thus shaped the way our early ancestors expressed themselves musically, and gave them a very basic but fertile ground on which to expand their creative styles to the later musical instruments.
Meditation is an essential part to the process of playing any musical instrument correctly, for it requires an alert and versatile mind, and an admirable degree of patience, as well as various other typically meditative (think: loving) mindsets and modes of body-language. However this is most obvious in the processes of playing the drums or the didgeridoo, because an emphasis on rhythm rather than pitch exists like nowhere else in music. Rhythms are particularly effective at bringing the awareness to the present moment, and playing rhythmic drones with the didgeridoo accomplishes this even more efficiently because focusing on the breath is at once a physically relaxing process and a mentally stimulating exercise if done consistently. While higher pitches tend to excite mental concentration on the present more efficiently than drones, this end is accomplished in the manipulation of overtones by movements of the tongue while playing.
I have experienced firsthand the relaxing principles at work with the process of learning to play the didgeridoo sober and under the influence of various entheogens. For instance, while rock-climbing near the top of a canyon on LSD, I brought along my didgeridoo for breath control exercises. LSD is notable for increasing the heart- and breath-rates, and through these means inducing difficult experiences. Didgeridoo playing/Meditation have all of the opposite physiological and mental effects. While skirting the edges of roughly hundred-foot precipices on this substance, my vertigo (usually nonexistent) was giving me a mind-bendingly terrifying sensation the closer I got to the edge. I experienced realms of palpable fear previously unexplored, which transcended the fear of madness I had previously encountered, and proceeded directly and appropriately to the fear of death. This caused an uncontrollable shortness of breath and irrational thought patterns when I was in unstable territory or in a contorted position, which happened often. To counteract this automatic mechanism, I played the didgeridoo.
Even at the absolute brink of a clumsy and painful death, I was able to harness self-control over my breath and surpass the tyranny of time, which was otherwise inescapable due to my shortening attention-span. I found it almost impossible to play the didgeridoo properly in any position except laying down in the Corpse Yoga Position with my legs crossed at the ankles, my arms up holding the didgeridoo, and my head leaned backwards while I relaxed all of my muscles. This led to ecstatic feelings of both absorbing the latent energy of the cliffs to ground and empower me further and further as I relaxed, and at each inhalation from near-empty lungs, the slight sensation of being reborn into my body from my pineal gland. Because I was using my breath as steadily as possible, and I explored this creative realm for as long as I felt I could, I began to feel as if I was no longer at the edge of a cliff, nor under the influence of LSD, but completely sober, at home, and calm. I know I will absolutely never be able to shake this memory.
Just as each phrase played on the didgeridoo is unique to itself unless practiced many, many times, each didgeridoo is 100% unique. Aborigines use eucalyptus branches, bamboo, or agave cactus, and hollow out the tubular shape either with burning embers or more traditionally, termites. The length of each didgeridoo is slightly different, longer didgeridoos having lower pitches, the widths of the mouthpiece and bottom end are all slightly different, and each has its respective influence over the pitch of the drone. The curves and twists of the wood itself creates a unique pattern of reverberation which interacts with the air inside the lungs, mouth, and nasal passages to give it a sense of identity and weight while played. Likewise Aboriginal dot painting is a meditative process that creates vivid, colorful, unique, and even psychedelic artwork that is pursued independently, or in many cases, on the outside of the didgeridoo. I have experimented with this process just once, with a friend, and from 11 PM to 4 AM one night while we listened quietly to jazz playing on the radio. Because my dad was asleep upstairs, we carried out this process mostly in low whispers and often without speaking.
At first I felt as if I was going to fall asleep, while we were waiting for the initial solid green coat to dry. But when we started to use multicolored dots to encircle the didgeridoo, we both got excited, and we were sucked into the artistic process. We only had one paintbrush, so while one of us was painting, the other spent time practicing various self-centering techniques such as Meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Sensory Deprivation, reading, or almost any combination of these. I tried to incorporate slow, deliberate, Walking Tai Chi into the later portions of my work so that I would not lose control over the flow of my body. The experience itself was truly a work of art. The painting of small dots takes great care, concentration, and a finely-tuned sense of Chi, both as it exists in the torso, all the segments that make up the arm, hand, and fingers required, as well as those involved with balance like the other arm and the lower body. A sense of great awareness passed through both of us which allowed for the ecstatic opening of a timeless space, where great progress was made in a small period of time to the wonder and enjoyment of the creators.