Using Beads in your Practice

6 years 1 month ago #295151 by steamboat28
Throughout this document, “beads” will be used as a generic term for a string of beads used in prayer or meditation, in addition to its typical meaning as the plural of “bead.”

Why Beads?
Beads are used in meditation as “timers.” They are utilized as a counting aid, in accordance with a rhythmic mantra or prayer, that helps us determine how “long” we’ve been practicing. They are useful in that, unlike gongs and bells, they are very portable and do not sonically disrupt meditation the way cellphone timing apps do. The tactile sensation of running the beads through your hand adds another sense to your mindfulness, deepening the experience. They can be used with any mantra or prayer, they can often be worn (either as jewelry or keychain), come in many different sizes, and can be made of a variety of materials, including string alone. This versatility leads to beads being one of the best meditation aids for any given situation.

Kinds of Beads
There are many types of bead strings used for prayer and meditation. The two most easily recognized are probably the Roman Catholic rosary and the japa mala of many Eastern faiths. In addition, there are also many other types, some of which are discussed below.

The rosary consists of a number of “decades” (sets of ten small beads) separated by larger beads. These can range between one and fifteen decades, with the most common being the five-decade rosary. These utilize different prayers for each size of bead, keeping the prayer meditative without being too repetitive. It is typically seen as a Marian devotional, though Protestants have altered the prayers or number of beads to suit their own non-Marian devotional practices.

The japa mala is, appropriately enough, a string of beads used for japa, the practice of prayer or meditation via a mantra or divine name. It is most commonly found in strings of 108 beads and is found in use among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and some Sikhs. The significance of 108 is attributed to many sources, among them the number of upanishads in the vedas. Generally, these mala are moved without the use of the index finger, as it represents the ego, but Westerners seem to ignore this practice for the most part.

The misbahah is a string of beads used to keep track of tasbih, a devotional practice within Islam that is similar in nature to japa, using utterances of praise or glorification to Allah. It typically consists of 99 beads to represent the 99 Names of Allah, though 33 bead ropes are used as well (gone through 3 times).

Some Orthodox Christian sects use chotki (among other various names), a string of 100 knots to keep track of prayers. These strings may also have 50, 33, 150, or other significant numbers of knots, and are usually made of silk or wool. The knots are interesting to make, being tied in a ritual fashion that creates many crosses in the process before tightening.

The Bahá’í faith utilizes a series of 95 (or 5 repetitions of 19) utterances of a verse every day. Some members of the faith use strings of beads to help them count.

Many pagan and reconstruction groups have seen individuals using strings of beads of their own structure. Some practitioners use beads divided into four sets to represent the elements, or three sets (Earth, Sea, Sky, or the divisions of man into body, mind, spirit), or five sets. Some New Age adherents utilize strings of chakra beads, or rainbow colored stones, or the like. I am woefully undereducated about these kinds of practices, and need to learn more about them.

Beads can be made of traditional materials such as stone, glass, or wood, or can (in a pinch) be made of paper or knotted string. Eventually, if there is interest, I’d like to do a tutorial on the latter two so that people here can make their own beads with easily available materials.

Prayer or Meditation?
The difference between prayer and meditation is not as clear as one may believe it to be. The key difference between the two, in my opinion, is the direction of the attention. If the focus is on something inside yourself, you are meditating. If your focus is on Something external (the Divine, the Force, or some other concept or being), you are praying contemplatively. Both of these actions are meditative and transformative in their own way, and may even be practiced simultaneously. The choice is dependent on your personal practice.

Use of Beads
To use a set of beads, decide first upon what they will represent. Will each bead represent a single mantra, or will different beads mean different things? For my latest mala, I crafted it with 110 beads—ten decades of small beads, 9 large spacer beads, and a large “guru” (or ending) bead. Since there are 5 lines to the Code, that’s enough for ten beads per line, twice over. My spacer beads will remind me of the Code, and I will take up Chirrut Îmwe’s mantra for the individual smaller beads. That will allow me to keep the line of the Code in my mind while repeating the mantra keeps my monkey-mind busy.

Next, take your beads in hand. Do this however is most comfortable to you, but remember the point of this exercise is to “count” the mantra without keeping the numbers in your mind. You can pass the beads from one hand to the next, or you can pull them over a knuckle or the tip of a finger, it’s entirely up to you. I drape the beads over my middle fingertip and pull them across it with my thumbnail.

Now we begin our meditation. Say your mantra aloud, quietly to yourself, or in your mind. As you do this, move the bead in your hand to “count” it. As you are doing this, focus your mind’s attention on either the mantra itself, or the underlying concept you have chosen. In my example, this first set of beads represents the first line of the Jedi Code, so I will meditate upon the interaction between that line (”There is no emotion, there is peace.”) and the mantra I have chosen (”I am one with the Force, the Force is with me.”) That intersection is a mystery that will unfold in my subconscious as I progress over the next few beads.

When you have finished, reached the guru bead or the tassel, or whatever signifies the “end” of your beads, you may choose whether to turn them around and start over, or to finish your meditation. Whichever you choose, you will now be prepared to better engage in your meditative practices in the future.

As a final thought, beads are an easy way to add two senses—sound and touch—to your meditative practice, through the use of vocal repetition and tactile stimulation. This will help deepen your meditative state, assist in keeping focus, and ultimately enrich your practice when you choose to utilize it. There are many kinds of beads, and just as many ways to use them. Even if you cannot afford “proper” beads, there are ways to construct or make your own meditation ropes with which to enhance your practice. I do hope you’ll give beads a chance, as they’ve done quite a lot for my own meditative experience.

Further Reading

  • “Prayer Beads”, Wikipedia,
  • “Rosary”, Wikipedia,
  • “Hindu Prayer Beads”, Wikipedia,
  • “Buddhist Prayer Beads”, Wikipedia,
  • “Misbaha”, Wikipedia,
  • “Prayer Rope”, Wikipedia,
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    6 years 1 month ago #295171 by
    Replied by on topic Using Beads in your Practice
    That was really well researched and written, thank you! I'm kinda inspired to move back to my beads after having used my fingers for a while :)

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    • Visitor
    6 years 1 month ago #295195 by
    Replied by on topic Using Beads in your Practice
    I love you, Steam. Thank you for your work.

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    6 years 1 month ago #295640 by ghost of the mist
    Thank you for your insight. I was thinking of using beads to meditate, now I know more than I did. Thank you sincerely ghost of the mist
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    6 years 1 month ago #295641 by
    Replied by on topic Using Beads in your Practice
    Registering my interest for the paper/string tutorial.

    Thank you steamboat for a very informative post.

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    6 years 1 month ago #295652 by steamboat28
    Dano, I'll work on getting some tutorials up, and seeing about getting them linked here somehow. I have a few days off, and the busy-ness would do me good.
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