Prayer beads are a nearly universal human religious expression: malas in Hinduism and Buddhism, rosaries in Christianity, prayer beads in Islam. Prayer beads also show up in Native American traditions, the African Masai tribe, as well as contemporary Paganism.
I find it deeply fascinating that so many dispersed religious traditions make use of prayer beads.
For example, in the Sufi Islamic tradition, prayer beads are an aid to the practice of dhikr (remembrance of God). There are 99 beads which correspond to the 99 names of God in the Qu'ran with an empty space (#100), that speaks to the Unnameable, Transcendent dimension of The Divine.
Many traditions combine the use of prayer beads with sound as well as breath. For example, in Hinduism, one may use a mala (prayer bead) and then recite the mantra, "So Ham" (I AM THAT). I am That One, the only One. This mantra can be said either aloud in a chanting style or silently within oneself. There may also be instructions to put one's focus on the heart region as well.
It is this joining of sound (mantra), emotion (heart), mind (attention), and breath (lifeforce) with touch (prayer beads) that I want to focus on.
The repetitive acts of circling the beads, repeating a phrase, breathing in and breathing out in rhythm, and placing attention in the heart, brings a focused clarity to the mind and emotions. It is a very simple practice that includes a great many dimensions of the human organism in a supremely elegant fashion.
Not only does a prayer bead function in terms of connecting multiple dimensions of our being it is very easily practiced in many kinds of settings. "Pray without ceasing" as St. Paul said. The prayer bead practice is a profound way to do just that. I often bring out my rosary on the subway, while waiting for the bus, or standing in line at a store. It works in just about any situation (except when you are driving!!!).
The Rose Garden
In my own tradition of Christianity, there are various forms of prayer bead practice, called rosaries. A rosary is a rose garden. There are distinct forms of rosary practice in The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions. The version I will offer is a kind of amalgamation of those practices that I've come to practice in my own life (though it's probably closest to the Eastern Orthodox variety).
But for a moment, back to the notion of the rose garden.
It's interesting that so many of the pivotal events of Jesus' life take place within a Garden. The night before he dies Jesus prayers alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood in prayer as he faces his own death. He asks God to take the cup of suffering from him, but prayers in the end "Not my will but your will be done."
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus' first resurrection appearance, to his beloved disciple Mary Magdalene, occurs in a Garden. Mary initially mistakes Jesus for "the gardener"--this is a subtle Biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden. The text is describing Jesus as a Second Adam, a reborn humanity, divinely breathed into life, who acts as the proper caretaker (or gardener) of God's creation. The job Adam was originally supposed to perform, but failed at.
Entering into a prayer bead practice--at least in the Christian understanding--is to enter a garden. A garden of delights (creation), sorrow (Gethsemane), and spiritual awakening (The Resurrection). We are meant to live all three of those--in the deepest spiritual place, joy and sorrow are completely intertwined.
Here, the tradition of Christianity, overturns the common wisdom which says, "I never promised you a rose garden." Well, according to this spiritual practice, this is precisely what God promises us. And as the great hair metal philosophers Poison remind us, "Every rose has its thorn."
In Christianity, the Rose is Red, for it sheds sacrificial blood.
When Cynthia Bourgeault led a Mary Magdalene inspired liturgy, in which I assumed the role of Jesus and Sr. Chela the role of Magdalene, we chanted repeatedly throughout the service: "Slowly blooms the rose within."
Devotional prayer practice with the use of beads is to enter the garden of the Divine, to have the soil of our being tilled, so that a rose might bloom spontaneously within. In the Buddhist tradition, this is same teaching as that of the lotus, which flowers pristinely from the seemingly ugliest, muddiest water.
The Spiritual Senses
This sensory and spiritual nature of bead practice is extremely important, particularly as it relates to touch. I believe touch is a profoundly under-appreciated human sensation in spiritual literature. I suppose that lack has to due with a worry that touch will lead to sexual touch, considered profane and unholy.
When it comes to spirituality, there is a great deal of emphasis on the sense of hearing: "Listen to the word of the Lord", "Hear this teaching", or even as in the Sikh and Hindu traditions of Shabd Yoga hearing the sound of the Universe.
Sight is another classic human sensation that is used as a spiritual metaphor: "Illumination", "Seeing the Light", "Once I was blind, now I see", as well as visualizations like in Tibetan Yiddam Deity Yoga, and so on.
But touch is often under-appreciated. Where touch does tend to show up in religious and spiritual literature it typically has to do with healing. e.g. Jesus touched outcasts and lepers.
I find the practice of circling the prayer beads in my fingers opens the contraction in my sense of touch, in my skin. There is something about touch that is most primary (see TJ's piece on this subject).
The use of prayer beads along with a mantra and breath pattern is in a very deep sense, an integral practice. Our energy (via the breath), our root physical sensation-experiencing self (via the prayer beads), our emotions (via the heart-attention), and our minds (via the mantra) all become coordinated and integrated through this practice.
Beginning and Deepening
The practice of using a mantra with breath and touch brings us into the subtler dimensions of ourself. It often leads to a deep resting in the Divine in a state beyond words.
Eventually as meditation or prayer deepens, one can let go of the repetition of the mantra and the touching of the beads. This practice is generally seen as a preparatory practice that helps relax the bodymind and open into much more deeply into the Divine. But as that relationship with God deepens, the prayer is said in its ultimate form in silence, communing directly with Spirit.
Along with its ease of use in many situations and its multi-sensory nature, this preparatory nature of prayer bead practice also makes it deeply suited to those who are perhaps just learning to take up a spiritual practice more seriously--like contemplative prayer or meditation. I often hear from folks that they would like to start meditating but they don't know where to begin. I find, particularly for Westerners, if they end up learning something like a Buddhist meditation which involves counting the breath, they find it "empty" and abandon it rather quickly. I think a prayer bead practice can help to bring a deeper rhythm of alert relaxation which sets a space for to make acts of deeper surrender which are necessary to really develop in the life of prayer or meditation.
Intercessory Prayer Beads
The other way in which a prayer bead can be used is to pray for the world (aka intercessory prayer). On various beads one may remember and send positive energy/blessing/good wishes different types of sufferers. For example: those in prisons, those in places of violence, the dead and dying, the hungry, the lonely, the sick, the addicted, the earth, animals, and so on.
In this fashion, the prayer bead practice can become a loving-kindness meditation, prayer of intercession, or a tonglen (breathing in the pain of the world and breathing out peace).
The intercessory and devotional sides of prayer or meditation are for me like the right and left hands of the spiritual life. Prayer beads are very effective in both regards.
My Own Form of Practice
The form of the rosary practice I use is the following:
On the inbreath I breathe in the Divine Spirit and say (or chant) Jesus. On the exhalation, I breath out and release into the infinity of space through the breath and say Christ.
Alternative mantras could be: Inhalation: I AM Exhalation: THAT. (In Sanskrit, So Ham...So on inhalation, Ham on exhalation). Or: AMEN. AH on inhalation, MEN on exhalation. Amen is from the same root as OM.
One bead corresponds to one cycle of in and out breath.
Attention comes to rest in the chest, in the heart region.
Over time it feels as if the mantra says itself from the heart--it becomes coordinated with the beat of the heart, throughout the day, whether in specific times of silent meditation or in the midst of the noise and business of daily active life.
My mind quiets and I enter more a feeling or heart space. There's a sense of quiet mystery and in its deepest moments a form of ecstasy where I feel like I'm being meditated (or prayed) into being by God. At that point, typically I notice the intentional saying of the mantra or the intentional form of the breathing has ceased and I'm more just swimming in an already occurring meditation or prayer. The pull of that state draws surrender out of me and the bead practice has served its function of placing me within the current of the Divine Meditation. Here the boundaries between who is I and who is it and who is meditating and who is being meditating start to blur in a way that can't really be described.
Coda: For all you Poison fans out there, here ya go: