Prayer Beads: What “thoughts and prayers” can actually do

What do the words “prayer beads” make you think of?Prayer Beads in Tibet

If you had asked me what prayer beads were fifteen years ago my mind would have gone immediately to the Hindu and Buddhist mala beads popular among yoga practitioners. If you had asked me thirty years ago, I might have been aware of the Catholic Rosary, but not because I’d ever actually touched one.

When I think about it more deeply, however, I realize I’ve been engaged with prayer beads, or with things very much like them, for at least 25 years.

My first set of prayer beads

was given to me by a circle of dear friends just before my daughter was born. Each of them had brought me a special bead to commemorate my impending motherhood. During a beautiful home-made ritual, they each held their bead, spoke to me about their hopes and prayers for us in our new life as a family, and then strung them together for me. It comforted me for many years, through worries and celebrations.

Later, I received a set of handmade glass beads lovingly created by another friend to accompany me on a solo journey – a pilgrimage of sorts. Each bead reminds me of a particular element of our shared island home, and holding it brings my friend’s love to me every time I touch it. The making of the beads themselves – spinning the glass rods into a round bead in torch fire – must have been a practice of deep attentiveness as well.

Prayer beads take a more central role in my life now.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been introduced to another particular prayer bead practice, called the Paidirean (Gaelic, pronounced PAH-jur-in) in my current studies. Like other prayer beads, it is based on repeating a prayer or mantra sentence or word, and using the beads to count. That might make it sound like a rote practice, with little meaning – adding up the rows like an accountant. The opposite is true. By engaging my body (my fingers moving the beads, my breath with each prayer) my attention is brought more fully to the prayer or the mantra words, and I can drop deeper into their meaning. I’m not looking at a clock because I’m trusting my fingers to tell me where I am in the process.

The “thoughts and prayers” that happen when I use my prayer beads take me to a place where I work to align myself with peace. I feel helpless when confronted with the realities of a dangerous and violent world, and while prayers alone will never accomplish the change that needs to happen “out there,” my actions will never accomplish peace unless they are grounded in a truer knowing of what peace feels like. This doesn’t mean squashing down or denying my fear and rage. It means allowing myself to feel these feelings and allowing them to move through me, to transform into the kind of energy that makes political action possible and sustainable. The letter I can write or the speaking up I can do from a place of compassion will have more effectiveness than hurling angry words rooted in deep fear.

Woman with Prayer BeadsDo you have a prayer bead practice?

Or do you have another way of connecting to Source (God, Spirit, or True Self, however you might name it)? How does it help you to ground yourself during times of fear or anger? How do you sustain your ability to act and move in the world? If you’re interested in this practice, or other mindfulness practices, you may find a workshop HERE that works for you.

Mentors and Memories

 Mentors

This past week I learned of the recent death of the first person I ever consciously identified as a mentor. His name was Don Evans. He was my professor of Philosophy and Religion, among other courses, at the University of Toronto in the mid-1980’s. He had been on my mind a lot this January. I didn’t really know why, except that I was feeling some regrets at losing touch with him in the late 90’s.  It has felt, over the past year or so, like I have circled around once again to encounter who I was when I first met him, with new layers of growth and understanding.

 I would have liked to share my journey with him, and to express my gratitude to him for what he gave me. Even more, I would have liked to get to know him again and to hear about his life over the past twenty years. When I knew him I was too young to have a mature relationship of reciprocal compassion. Instead I had the privilege of being a student, and later a mentee, to be a sponge that soaked up his offerings of information, values, compassion, spiritual guidance, and perspective.

It was bitter-sweet to read his obituary  and to learn how widely appreciated he was, and how blessed he was in his family. When I first met Don, he wasn’t Don to me, but Professor Evans. I was 18 years old (barely) and still completely unclear about my direction in university, or life for that matter.

 The first course I took with him was the Philosophy of Human Sexuality, which was a very clever title to get university students to voluntarily study ethical philosophy and some early psychology. Beyond the cleverness, however, he was kind and compassionate. I was taking this course with my boyfriend (naturally!) and Don remembered and took an interest in the evolution of our relationship through all the years I knew him. When I was 20, when we caught up with each other casually on campus one day, and I told him we were getting married, Don put on his pastoral hat and insisted that I recognize the deeper value of the ritual, and that I should expect the change from living together to mean something. My immature view of it was that a wedding was just something formal. I don’t know if he ever realized that his brief conversation that day held me to a vision of commitment and intimacy that I’m still figuring out. Perhaps he was just having a fatherly moment, and feeling as apprehensive as my parents were at our decision!

Mentors mean relationships                                                                                                                                                                                       

The biggest difference between a role model and a mentor is that you can have a role model that you never meet in person. A mentor knows you. I can look back now and see several important people who have been beautiful mentors to me. The best have been those who were quite conscious of their role. Teachers can be mentors, but aren’t always. A teacher can limit their sharing to the information they are trying to pass on. A mentor also includes an awareness of the social or emotional needs of their protégé. A mentor gives you a glimpse of what it’s like to do something with grace, with skill, responsibility, and with wisdom. Sometimes they are the ones to be honest or challenging with you when friends or family can only be encouraging. Mentors often hold us to a higher standard, or to a discipline that they know is necessary for our growth or development.

Life transitions often require mentors

After that first course, I also studied the Philosophy of Religion with Don, and eventually joined his meditation classes outside of the university curriculum. He was the first person who introduced me to practices that were truly self-nurturing. I first learned the power of metaphor and visual imagery in his meditations. What he taught me eventually meshed with what I learned in poetry and literature. Don helped me understand that imagery has power beyond and deeper than the “I like it “ or “I don’t like it” distinctions of skilled or unskilled poetry or art. It has power in our bones and in how we live our lives. The right image is able to draw us further forward, plunge us deeper into an experience, or inspire us when we are at our lowest.

 I lost touch with Don at just about the same time as I lost touch with myself. It wasn’t a sudden event or a rupture; I just drifted away – across the country, and into a new stage that required different things from me. My focus shifted into the rigours of intense parenting, and away from nurturing my own spirit. It has taken me a long time to find my way back. Other teachers, other paths, and even new mentors have found me and helped me, but there, back at the beginning, was Don. How sad and yet sweet it is to find him again now. May your rest be only as tranquil as you wish it, old friend. Ido hope that I will meet you again, in one form or another.

Who are your mentors?

Spend a little time this month with your mentors – those in memory or those who hold you now. What have they brought you? And what do you bring to those who follow after you?