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Foreword of the book "Magical use of Prayer Beads"

We have made beads for a very long time. The oldest discovered so far are Middle-Stone-Age pierced shells that date back 82,000 years.[1] They were transported more than 25 miles, some as far as 125 miles, inland from the North African shore where they were collected. These were no doubt precious possessions of the spiritual and temporal leaders of their communities, and are considered some of the earliest indicators of human symbolic activity.

What did our ancestors do with their beads? We cannot know, but we can make some reasonable guesses. No doubt they fingered them in moments of idleness, when worried, or when contemplating an issue, as people do now with their worry beads (e.g., Greek komboloi). The preciousness of the beads would reinforce the insights arising from a meditative state of mind and lead to the beads being understood as spiritual tools. And this is how prayer beads have been used, from Hindu malas in the eighth century BCE to prayer beads of all sorts in the present day.

Neoplatonic philosophy and theurgy (which are the heart of the Western esoteric traditions) provide a framework for understanding how prayer beads work as spiritual instruments. According to Neoplatonic cosmology, as found in Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblichus, and others, the cosmos is an emanation of The Ineffable One, the ultimate principle of unity, through several levels of reality. One of these is the Cosmic Mind (Nous, in Greek), which is the realm of the changeless Platonic Ideas and the eternal gods. Below this is the Cosmic Soul, which animates the entire universe and unifies it as a single living organism. It governs the Cosmic Body, that is, the material world, which we experience through our senses. Therefore everything in the world exists in lineages or lines of descent from the gods and ultimately from The One. As a consequences, objects, properties, actions and other things in the material world function as symbols (Grk., symbola) and tokens (Grk., synthêmata) that can be used to draw down these divine powers. More correctly, as Iamblichus explains, when used in ritual they tune our souls so that our souls resonate with specific divine energies and draw us up to the gods.

Prayer beads therefore are tools of theurgy (Grk., “god-work”), the use of ritual to bring us into communion with the gods. The more symbols and tokens that are used, the closer this communion will be (other things being equal). Therefore, in constructing or selecting prayer beads, we must choose symbols that correspond with the divine powers we intend to invoke. As explained by Grand Master Jean-Louis de Biasi, this includes the number of beads, their arrangement (e.g., division into groups), their material, their color, their shape, and all other aspects of their construction. Forgo no opportunity to strengthen the divine bond by means of correspondences.

Prayer beads are most often strung in a loop, which has great significance, for then the beads become a mandala, a symbol of the cosmos in its balance, unity, and wholeness. The string symbolizes the hidden inner bond that ties the disparate parts together, which gives unity to apparent multiplicity. For example, the beads may be divided into four groups representing the quarters (North, East, South, West) and other things corresponding to them, such as the four elements. However, a loop of prayer beads especially symbolizes cyclic time, such as the cycle of the year, the zodiac, the days of the week, and the phases of the moon. These lead to other correspondences, such as the Twelve Olympian Gods, the Seven Planets, and the Triple Goddess. Construct your prayer beads according to your spiritual goal.

Of course, after you string the beads, you have to tie the ends together in some way to make a loop. This is a magical binding operation and closes the circuit, so to speak, of the cycle and confines the energy in it. You can do this carefully, hiding the join, if your intent is to symbolize a cycle with no beginning and no end. But often we want to connect with cycles that have a special place in them, and so the ends are joined in a conspicuous way and bound into a Head with a linear string of one or more beads and a tassel. This too has important significance. For, as Aristotle explained, the circle represents the unending motion of the heavens, but the straight line represents change occurring in the material world, which begins and ends, the mortality of life on earth. In Greek prayer beads, the Head is called the Priest; in Hindu tradition it is the Guru bead. Therefore, the Head indicates a special point of entry into the cycle and of exit from it, a liminal place of contact with the divine.

Neoplatonic philosophy teaches that each level of reality obeys a triadic principle, by which it abides in itself, proceeds downward to create lower levels, which then return upward seeking order and harmony. We enact this principle in time when we pray the beads, starting with the Head, which remains in its place, and praying around the cycle, away from the Head but then back to it, over and over, in imitation of the endless cycle of procession and return. While praying we contemplate this circle that binds the levels of the cosmos into one. Each time we pass the Head, we contemplate The One, which binds the cosmos into a unity.

The beads also symbolize the human life cycle, starting with our descent from the divine realms, symbolized by the Priest, proceeding into greater material manifestation and then, as we pass the midpoint of life, a turn back towards the spiritual realms as we prepare to abandon the material world and return to the divine. Each time around the circle of beads is an opportunity to contemplate your life as a whole, what has passed and what is yet to come.

On a smaller scale, the loop symbolizes a single year with each bead representing a day (even if there are less than 365 of them). As you inhale and exhale on each bead, treat it as a new day, perfect in itself, without regret or nostalgia for those passed, and without worry or hope for those to come. The Priest/Guru bead represents a significant anniversary, such as your birthday or your date of initiation (your rebirth). Candidates for initiation may string their own prayer beads, but the teacher and initiate together tie the final knots — the binding — and consecrate the completed beads. Candidates receive their completed beads when they are initiated.

“Like knows like” is an ancient philosophical principle, which implies that to know the gods, you must become like them, that is, tranquil, impassive, stable, and consistent in character. Moreover, to know The Ineffable One, you must become like it, that is, completely simple, unified, and unchanging. You can approach this state by meditating on something simple such as your breath. The prayer beads help you to time your meditation, and each new bead reminds you to return your attention to your breath, in case it has wandered. To connect with a specific divine energy, you can repeat — in your mind or out loud — an appropriate prayer or mantra. Especially useful are very short arrow prayers, so called because they shoot your soul directly into the heart of divinity. (For more on arrow prayers, see my book, The Wisdom of Hypatia, chapter 11.)

Although it might seem redundant in the face of 82,000 years of practical experience, contemporary psychotherapy also supports the spiritual benefits of prayer beads.[2] In one respect, this is not surprising, since some psychotherapeutic techniques are direct descendants of ancient spiritual practices. An effective modern technique, cognitive behavioral therapy, which is based on reframing your evaluation of events, is derived directly from ancient Stoicism (the Second Degree in The Wisdom of Hypatia). Techniques such as active imagination in Jung’s analytic psychology descend from Neoplatonic theurgy (the Third Degree). All the many contemporary techniques of positive thinking arose in the New Thought movement of the early twentieth century, which was an outgrowth of American Transcendentalism, which was developed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other thinkers influenced by Neoplatonism and Eastern wisdom traditions.

Dion Fortune defined magic as the art of changing consciousness at will, and prayer beads are important magical tools for transforming consciousness. Psychologically, simple positive thinking may be ineffective, and what is required is a more explicit reconstruction of the narrative, that is, a reframing of some personal story so that it has a better outcome. To accomplish this, you can choose individual beads to represent specific ideas (e.g., people, objects, events, affirmations), and by stringing them together construct a narrative that transforms negative thoughts into positive thoughts. Obviously, you should think carefully about the symbolism of your beads, perhaps with the assistance of your spiritual teacher. This book will give you much good advice.

You can make your prayer beads for yourself or with the help of your spiritual teacher, who may have better insights than you do into your situation and how it can be improved. Making the prayer beads can be a fun and creative activity, which already begins the transformation to a more positive state. Make it a ritual, but a constructive, positive, joyous ritual.

If you wear your prayer beads or carry them with you, they function as a talisman, constantly reinforcing the psychical transformation they are bringing about. However, they are most effective when you use them in ritual, for as you pull each bead through your fingers, saying or thinking what it means, you are reinforcing the sequence of ideas that you have constructed, taking your mind through a sequence of states, and imprinting a pattern on it. If you speak your prayers out loud as you pull the beads, then thought, word, and action are united. If you also look at the colors and shapes of beads, then vision is engaged, in addition to hearing and touch. The calm and regular movement is relaxing and can induce a suggestible, hypnotic state. All these aid the transformation of your psyche. Praying the beads turns abstract thoughts into reality; it is a spell.

Prayer beads are simple yet powerful tools for self-transformation, proved through thousands of years of use in many spiritual traditions. The Magical Use of Prayer Beads will teach you how to use them to bring about your own spiritual transformation.

[1] Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, Nick Barton, et al., “82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104 (2007), 9964–9969.

[2] Uri Wernik, “The use of prayer beads in psychotherapy,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 12 (2009), 359–368.

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