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Bead by Bead

A spiritual journey nourished by constant self-reflection and meditation mala beads.

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Woman meditating with strand of mala beads

DragonImages/Thinkstock

I knew the small, cozy neighborhood bookstore by heart. Blindfolded, I could have found my way to the poetry and psychology sections. One night, in the middle of a crisis, I fled to this refuge. I had been working with a psychiatrist to heal from a traumatic life event, but had suffered a setback. In a panic, I had called him to ask for a prescription for a tranquilizer to help me get by.

“I know you don’t want to rely on medications,” he said, “and we both know you are resourceful enough to find a better way to heal yourself.”

This reminder and challenge were like a divining rod, guiding me past the always comforting psychology and poetry shelves to a section in the store I had never visited – Spirituality.

I was in my mid-thirties. Organized religion had never appealed to me. But as a teenager, I had had a glimpse of a “oneness” that spoke to something larger than myself. I was sitting alone in a little sailboat out on a lake in Maine as the sun was setting. Ribbons of pink and violet wrapped the sky. Suddenly, “Joan” vanished. Only deep peace remained. I was one with the setting sun, the still lake, and the ribboned sky. But I had no words for this experience or any understanding that it was something that could be cultivated.

Now in the bookstore, I found myself holding a book called A Guide to Spiritual Communities and looking up the word “ashram” in the glossary.

The next thing I knew, I was on a train headed to Kripalu Ashram in Sumneytown, Pennsylvania. And to an immersion into a new way of understanding the world and the self. Soon my bookshelves needed a new section. Be Here Now. Rumi. Autobiography of a Yogi. Foundations of Eastern and Western Psychology. Yoga. Meditation.

It was not just my library that was expanding. On my many trips to the ashram, where I’d meditate for hours, interspersed with attending lectures from Guru Amrit Desai, I felt my consciousness expanding as well. I had never believed in traditional psychiatry, which is to say being given a diagnosis from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) book of mental health conditions and then the corresponding psychotropic medication. I had tried that and found it lacking. When I heard the guru say, “You are not the writings on the blackboard, you are the blackboard,” I knew on a very deep level, that if I could master this liberating concept, I could heal myself without medication. Be the blackboard. I was mastering tools to accomplish that.

The meditation (mala) beads that I bought at the ashram helped—108 beads, strung in circle, made of Rudraksha seeds from a large evergreen tree. I pressed each bead between two fingers and said my mantra, leaving all other thoughts behind.

I felt no need to become a disciple or have the guru give me a spiritual name, but I still wanted to dub myself something that honored this spiritual journey I had begun. I remembered being in group therapy once and having the leader ask everyone to chant the word “OM.” I had no idea what it meant, but the power behind the group chant had unsettled me. Now, hearing it at the ashram and understanding that it meant divine energy, I embraced it, calling myself “Omji.” (Ji in Sanskrit means affection and reverence.) I considered Omji my higher self, a totally new concept.

Of course, the biggest challenge was to maintain, or at least access, that peace I first glimpsed on the lake and later at the ashram while living in the “real world.”  I was still rebuilding my life after the trauma I had experienced, and had moments, although diminishing, when “You’re the blackboard” and meditation beads, and “Omji” seemed inadequate tools.

Once, after several months of visiting the ashram, I was meditating with my beads and had a profound moment of clarity. I realized that a meditation bead I held between my fingers was the same size of one of the psychotropic pills I had, against my beliefs, succumbed to taking. Then I saw the whole string of beads like an umbilical cord which connects a baby to its mother for nourishment. But this cord of beads was connecting me to a new part of myself – “Omji,” capable of self-nourishment. Tears from a very deep place fell onto my beads as I realized, bead by bead, I was finally learning to cultivate the peace I sought. 

Prompts for Reflection, Therapeutic or Creative Writing:

  1. A book that has changed your life.
  2. A healer who has changed your life.
  3. Your feelings about organized religion.
  4. Experiences of “oneness” you have had.
  5. Your feelings about traditional psychiatry or traditional medicine.
  6. Eastern thought that you have explored and/or adopted.
  7. A quote that has been pivotal in your psychological or spiritual development.
  8. A spiritual name you would give yourself.
  9. How you relate to these quotes:
    “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”  Theodore Roethke
    “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.”—Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Your relationship with meditation or prayer beads. 

This excerpt will be published in Matryoshka: Uncovering Your Many Selves Through Writing—Personal Essays and Questions for Reflection by Joan Leof. For information, go to  www.joanleof.com.


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