How to be sick well: Toni Bernhard's guide for the chronically ill



There is something satisfying about the tangibility of the beads. I like the way they feel in my hands, the smoothness of them beneath my fingers. I like the feel of one clicking against the next.

They sit in a coil on my desk. Every so often I pick them up, holding them in my left hand. I take one bead between thumb and forefinger, and in my mind I chant Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Adonai Echad.

The melody is one which I learned for a Sufi-style zhikr practice many years ago. In that practice, we chanted the words of the Shema over and over, leaning left (shema Yisrael) and right (Adonai Eloheinu) and then forward (Adonai Echad) and forward again (Adonai Echad.) I'm not moving my body now, any more than I'm singing aloud, but I am remembering the movements along with the melody and the words.

And then I click the bead down the string and take the next one under my thumb and mentally chant the lines again.

And again.

I do this while I'm on the phone, sometimes. Or while I'm reading. When the beads are under my thumb, the prayer just keeps repeating itself, a subroutine running automatically in the back of my mind while my forebrain is focusing on my reading or my conversation.

Listen up, you Godwrestlers! The Infinite is our God; the Infinite is One.

No matter what I'm doing, no matter what's happening in the world, everything is part of a deeper unity. God is One. And God is everywhere; as we read in Tikkunei Zohar, leit attar panui mineih -- there is no place devoid of the Presence. Everywhere, everyone, everything, is part of that unity. Ein od milvado: there is nothing else but God, in the end.

I can't walk around all day in mystical awareness of the Oneness of all things. In order to live in the world, I have to be an individual -- a single person, with a single mind and heart and soul. And I love being this person, in these relationships, doing this work in the world. But deep down, I'm not separate from you. Or from her, or him, or them. None of us is separate. We're all part of the One. We're droplets of water falling over the waterfall, and when we reach the bottom we rejoin the Oneness from which we came.

And with every bead I click along this string, I recite a line of prayer which reminds me of that.

Are mala beads an "authentically Jewish" practice? Nope. This is a practice borrowed from Buddhism. (Actually a lot of traditions make use of prayer beads, among them Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. This particular string of beads was a gift from a dear friend who is Buddhist.) But this piece of borrowed spiritual technology adapts well to the Jewish ideal of praying constantly. As Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (of blessed memory) wrote, "Prayer comes into full bloom only as we become aware that the soul-breath / the neshamah is always praying."

Moving the beads between thumb and forefinger is a little bit like winding the fringes of my tallit around and between my fingers while praying. I remember winding the silken strings of my grandfather's tallit between my fingers when I was a kid. There's something satisfying about the tactile experience of drawing the fringes between the fingers. Having recently learned how to tie tzitzit, I am extra-conscious of the fact that the windings and knots represent the phrase Adonai Echad, "God is One." Fingering my tzitzit is a reminder of that Oneness.

And because the Shema is my current mantra, fingering these beads is a reminder of that Oneness, too. A way of infusing my workday with a little bit of contemplative practice.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Adonai Echad.