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.