Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Few Good Beads

Beads are pretty ubiquitous in religious circles. Most religions that have a developed tradition of meditation also have some form of prayer beads. There seems to be an irresistible urge to get your body involved in meditative prayer and beads fill the bill just right - they give you something to help with your concentration, and something to fiddle with, to deal with stray emotional energies.

I've been thinking for a good many months now about getting some wrist beads. They are a sort of bracelet that is worn just above the wrist. I've liked the idea of having beads so close to hand - literally. I've had tiny rosaries that you carry in your pocket, but they don't "do the job" for me - I just don't have my hand in my pocket that much, and I find myself carrying around forgotten beads most of the time. So I thought that the wrist model might do the trick. They certainly would be available, and also visible, and presumably having them on your wrist would keep them in the back of your mind.

There are Christian versions of these rosaries, usually with wooden beads strung on a flexible cord and with a little cross tied in where the two ends have been joined. We've even had them in our store from time to time, but we don't have any right now. However, I knew just where to find some. I have a friend who is a Tibetan rug weaver and he has a store in Woodstock that has bins and bins of wrist rosaries - Malas the Buddhists call them. So I popped into The Tibet Store when I was last in Woodstock about 3 weeks ago and said hello to Galla, and rummaged through his stock of wooden, plastic, jeweled and other miscellaneous types of malas. I picked up a few - you need to have a spare, because if you use a cord rosary very much it doesn't last long. The cords fray and break, and then you have to gather up the beads and restring them.

Wearing my wrist rosary has been a fascinating experience. Having used prayer beads in formal meditation for years and having carried some around in my pocket, I thought I knew pretty well what it would be like. But I didn't. For one thing, the wrist beads are more "insistent" than any other kind. You feel them all the time. They accompany you through every minute of the day, and since your wrist is a pretty sensitive part of your body, they don't go out of mind very easily. They call pretty insistently.

And I find myself answering the call pretty frequently. That's why I got them, after all. And they are so easy to use. A flip of a finger and they are in your hand. When you're done, an easy slip of the fingers through the mala and they're back on my wrist. And that very easiness of use has put them in my fingers more than I thought they would be. Standing in lines is a very good time to use them. Walking is also good. It is about 1/10th of a mile from one end of our buildings to the other, and I do that walk a number of times during the day, and often as not I'm by myself. So just in this short time I've found it pretty automatic: I start off walking and the beads are in my fingers, sort of all by themselves. Any kind of waiting time is also good. The beads seem to be doing their own waiting there on my wrist for an available moment to come along - before and after Offices, in silent moments at my desk, in the Incense workroom. And at more public times, when actually fingering the beads would feel pretty ostentatious or inappropriate, their gentle pressure is still there, asking for a little attention.

I usually use the Jesus Prayer to pray with my beads: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy." A prayer to a bead, sometimes really focused, sometimes just as a sort of background accompaniment to the task of the moment. The beads draw my heart to Christ, and they serve as a way to intercede for the people around me and to express whatever is in my heart as I walk along. I have found that they have filled a lot of my day with prayer. Do you need to have beads to do this? Of course not! Do I need to have beads to do this? Well, the embarrassing answer would appear to be "Yes". At least a lot of the prayer I might have been doing didn't get done until I had them. How often do we say - even monks - that we can't find the time to pray. The beads are gradually teaching me that the time is there, just waiting for me to turn my attention and my heart towards God. Quite a lot of time, in fact, is there,in which God calls to us. The beads are a way to answer.

And they accompanied me on quite a journey this past week. On Wednesday afternoon I had dental surgery. It's been scheduled for quite a while because it was going to take a whole afternoon, and we had to find a day when the Periodontist had that much time in his schedule. I had to have a tooth pulled, and a good deal of accumulated infection cleaned out from my jaw and then the pocket had to be packed with bone fragments, which will act as a 'scaffold' on which my own bone will begin to grow back. I knew it would be quite a process, but I wasn't worried about it. The doctor is very skilled and I have a lot of intuitive trust in him, though he has never done this kind of work on me before. But I have had this sort of work done before, and, all things considered it isn't what I would choose to be doing on a Wednesday afternoon, but it's not the end of the world, either.

So I wasn't particularly anxious. Or so I thought. I sat there in the waiting room. And sat. And sat. This apparently was going to take some time. Four other people were there. One by one they went in ahead of me. Ok. I got the message. I slipped my beads into my hand and began to pray: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy"..... The woman next to me had her attention on her book. A teenager was looking out the window. The woman across the room was wondering what on earth I was doing. "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy."

The first thing that happened was that my anxiety was revealed to me. I was carrying it around under a veil of denial, and one of the first things that meditative prayer can do is reveal what you are really feeling. There is was, a great lump of it, and it felt pretty overwhelming. "...... have mercy". But it was there, and I was there, so it seemed that we should get acquainted. I felt my anxiety in my chest, and my stomach and my throat. I felt my surprise that it was there. I just let it be there and kept company with it. "......... have mercy."

And then, surprisingly, in a very few moments, my heart opened wider and there was a feeling of spaciousness and calm - a nice big space to be peaceful in. And as that happened, the door opened and a nurse said: "We're ready now."

So into the little room, and into the usual dental chair. The paper bib. The mouthwash. The the nurse said: "Can I get you a magazine?" Obviously this was going to take some time. So out came the beads again as I refused the magazine and said: "Nope, I'll just use the meditation beads." And her face lit up and she said: "Wonderful" and went on her way. Maybe some day I'll find out what that was about.

By the time the doctor appeared I was ready. I really was relaxed this time, and confident. It's just as well. The procedure took 2 1/2 hours. That's a long time to keep your mouth open!

And you may not believe this, but it was also interesting. I had the most fascinating dialogue with the doctor as he did the surgery. When he discovered that I was actually interested in what he was doing and that I had a scientific background to back up my interest, he began talking with me about the operation and what he was doing. He described it for me step by step. He showed me the pieces of the tooth that had come out. He showed me the granulated bone that was going in and the little collagen blanket that he was going to spread on top. I even got to see some of the infection that he scraped out.

And then we had a long talk about which pain killer to use, and how to treat the site and what to eat (surprise! - no soup. Or, no hot soup. Only cold things. Ice cream is perfect. What a nice doctor!)

But there was so little pain. Nothing like I expected. In fact, most of the rest of the day was a breeze. At bed time I took a couple of Tylenol, and that was all I needed. I slept like a baby the whole night long.

Did my experience with the beads have anything to do with that? Well actually I hadn't even connected the two things until I sat down to write this. But now that I think of it, the connection seems pretty clear. I think probably it would have been a whole different experience if I had gone in there with all that unacknowledged anxiety to cope with. I think it might have been a very different 2 1/2 hours.

Especially since I didn't do anywhere near as good a job of being with my own unacknowledged agenda the next day, and I found it a whole lot harder. I had a lot of problem getting my strength back (why is this a surprise? After all, I'd been through a pretty long and traumatic experience the day before). I felt depressed and "complainy". I dragged through the day and didn't get anything much done. Wouldn't it have been better to let the beads do their work? Someday I may learn.

And so that's been my experience this week. I recommend beads. Even more, I recommend whatever will draw you to the prayer that's waiting for you and calling you. You'll have your own version. Some little idea will call to you. Some little prayer-invention is lurking around somewhere. It will come to you in good time. Just have your ears (or your heart) open.

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