Prayer Beads & the Pursuit of Happiness

About a year ago, I bought some prayer beads from a little shop downtown. I don’t recall what prompted this acquisition, no doubt it was inspired by some article I’d read, a theory I’d latched onto. The beads are lovely, an irregular rainbow, copper next to coal-black next to mustard, pale mauve, Caribbean green. They have weight, like tiny marbles and they’re cool to the touch. The loop is finished with a tassel of multi-coloured threads.

Once home, I didn’t know what to do with my newly-acquired beads, and so draped them around the neck of a laughing Buddha that sits on a side-table in my bedroom. I see them every morning when I wake.

I was reminded lately that such beads are often used in meditation, or prayer, to assist the meditator in staying on mantra. It struck me then, an image of myself, sitting contentedly, facing east and cross-legged in an easy lotus position, eyes lightly closed (but not to napping), fingering each bead and saying to myself: I am a writer now. A sort of Steven Covey-meets-Elizabeth-Gilbert approach to morning ritual. (To those who I’ve offended by my contemplated use of such beads for, arguably, non-secular, non-spiritual purposes, my apologies).

I should do this, I tell myself. Really, I should. It would, you know, help.

When I opened my eyes this morning, there he stood, the jovial Buddha with the prayer beads round his neck. I sat up, stretched and slipped out of bed, trying not to wake my husband who had slept fitfully, vexed by a sore back and, from the sounds of it, the beginnings of a head cold.

I tip-toe to the table and pull the beads from Buddha’s neck, making a snapping, clattering racket as I do. I hadn’t realized how loud they were. I seat myself in a plum-coloured armchair in the corner of the room, but feel ridiculous. I’ll go downstairs, I think, where there is quiet and privacy. I put the beads around my own neck, feeling sillier still, and slip out the bedroom door, closing it carefully behind me.

Once in the kitchen, I settle in a favourite chair, look out the bay window. I don’t need to close my eyes. I can contemplate the waking world outside instead. I slide the beads from my neck and finger them tentatively, repeat the mantra in my head: I am a writer now…. At bead number six, our grey tabby, Miley, interrupts me. This is her job: should I enter the kitchen, she is obligated to remind me, multiple times, that she enjoys a good brushing and she will meow, repeatedly, to get her point across. I set the beads down on the table and follow her to where the brush sits. Once she is satisfied, I return to my station, sit down and start again. I am a writer now… I am a..

No sooner do I begin then our tortoise shell appears at the back door, an expectant look on her face. I sigh, get up and open the door. I could use a cup of coffee about now, I think, and cross the kitchen to start a pot. And since there is no sense trying again before the coffee’s ready, I head to the powder room, only to notice that the Christmas soap dispenser needs retiring and the towels need to be changed. This, inevitably, leads to contemplation of all things laundry.

I give up on the beads. Well, not exactly, because all this while there has been an idea percolating quietly in back of my mind. A theory. It started last night as I closed the cover of “the Happiness Project”. I abandon all thoughts of laundry, and grab my lap-top instead. I pour a cup of steaming coffee while I wait for it to boot-up.

I picked up Gretchen Rubin’s book, “the Happiness Project” in an airport bookstore about a month ago. I love a good story from the front-lines of working motherhood and was drawn by the concept: can we act ourselves happier? I read the first two chapters with a sense of anticipation, and then something in the tone started to irritate me, a niggling feeling that something was not right in Happy-ville, at least not for me. I took another chapter or two of slugging to identify what was chafing me so.

It was the underlying whisper of “should”.

I should lighten up. Clean my closets. Sing in the morning. She’s right, I don’t deny it. My interior coach weighed in, too: I should home-school my kids, take on that new client, drink eight glasses of water a day. Floss. My shoulders tense just thinking about it. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I should really sit still for five minutes, repeat my mantra and tweedle those beads.

Nope.

By the time I reached “Lighten Up” in April, I started to skip passages because it had begun to take on the cast of yet another self-help book. I skipped parts that sounded screechily like advice or reproach and skittered instead through the anecdotal tales of Gretchen’s life as a wife, mom, friend and writer. Those, I loved.

I grant Gretchen much credit here because she did aptly capture an earlier period in my life, a time when I, too, was mired in home life and young children and somehow felt like I wasn’t doing it all well enough. If I had been, I felt at the time, I would have been happier. I didn’t eat well or exercise regularly. I didn’t work hard enough at new directions in my career (let’s be honest: I couldn’t have cared less about my career). There were so many things that I should have been doing.

That kind of ‘should’ thinking just about sunk me. Several years later – my kids are now 12 and 14 – I understand this. I have quit the Should Brigade. Mostly. But at the time, in my early thirties, I just felt like a big fat failure.

The beads sit on the table as I type this. I like their presence, their reminder. I also like the fact that instead of my sitting, stiff-necked, praying, I knew enough to let it alone. I took up the call, sat down at my computer and eked out this essay. My coffee has gone cold. The cats’ meows have gone unheeded. The laundry is undone. The prayer beads did help, just not in the way I expected.

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