The Secrets of the One-Bead Rosary
by Craig Conley
Though we’ve got each other’s number,
It’s often under wraps, though not deliberately concealed. It’s virtually unknown, though by no means trivial. A humble tool cherished by the meek of spirit, the one-bead rosary has the power to bring simplicity to one’s fingertips and Unity Consciousness within grasp. Practitioners quip that the one-bead rosary takes a moment to pick up but a lifetime to get the hang of. Beloved by those called on a solitary quest, the bead’s mysteries can enrich anyone living a life of singular devotion.
Who can count to one?
—D.C. Hope, The Wolgamot Interstice (1961)
A standard multi-bead rosary is symbolic of advancement, one bead progressing to the next. The one-bead rosary is an escape from the endless loops and recurring dramas of life. It is symbolic of arrival. How can one know one has arrived if one hasn’t pinpointed a destination? The one-bead rosary encapsulates the power to seize destiny and make it one’s own.
The one-bead rosary accommodates virtually any spiritual path. Interestingly, the bead often represents an omniscient, divine eye that sees beyond the illusions of duality into the eternal now. For one practitioner of Norse ancestry, the bead symbolizes the eye sacrificed by the deity Odin. For one Hindu practitioner, the bead represents the Third Eye of Shiva’s insight. A Christian practitioner quoted a saying of Jesus: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”
For other practitioners, the one-bead rosary synthesizes the inspired wisdom of all the great traditions. These practitioners refer to the bead as a focal point of truth common to all teachings—the universal essence, if you will. The bead is a symbol of the particular path that fits one’s own disposition and aims, yet at the same time it fosters an attitude of openness to the richness of diverse perspectives. However, one does not have to be religious to make use of the one-bead rosary. For transcendental atheists, the bead serves as an interface for focusing one’s consciousness on something deep and ancient within oneself.
Each time archaeologists excavate another solitary bead, we add a new chapter to the fascinating history of the one-bead rosary. For example, though evidence is sparse regarding Iron Age culture in Birmingham, England, in 1960 a single yellow and white glass bead was found in the gardens of Castle Bromwich. Over 2000 years old, the bead now resides in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. “That single bead must have belonged to a necklace,” say historians William Dargue and David Adams, “and that necklace worn by someone who lived and worked near here, a necklace traded for something grown or made by the wearer. From one bead it is possible to conjecture a whole community.”1 Other intriguing one-bead discoveries include:
For all its simplicity, the one-bead rosary nurtures a myriad of secrets. But not all have been lost to the mists of time. The first secret handed down to us is reminiscent of a Zen koan: Count to one. Anyone who scoffs at counting to one may wish to recall that supercomputers count only to one. Of course, no computer can match the human mind, and in the final act of Hamlet, William Shakespeare suggested that a person’s existence is “no more than to say ‘One.’” It’s worth observing that counting to one is an age-old key to hypnotism. “When I count to one, you will awaken refreshed and renewed and ready to continue through life in a healthy and whole body” says hypnotist Lena Sheehan in her Basic Hypnosis Manual. But what is the true significance of counting to one? And is it more difficult than it sounds?
- On Grand Bahama Island, in an underwater burial cave of the now-extinct Lucayan Indians, a solitary bead on a necklace was found among the bones of a family grave.
- On Christmas day of 1969, a solitary, glazed earthenware bead (dating back to 2500 BCE) was excavated from an ancient cemetery in Chandigarh, India.
- In 1978, a single bead (dating back c. 1818) was excavated from House 37 of the New Montpelier Plantation in St. James Parish, Jamaica. The house served as sleeping quarters for West African slaves.
- In 1979, a single bead was excavated from the outer apse of the Scottish Church of St. Andrew in Jerusalem. The bead, found in a collapsed cave, was part of the burial gifts in a repository of bones.
- One shell bead was excavated from the Colonial Chesapeake Bay region at the Sandys Site in Virginia (c. 1630-1650).
- In 2003, a single bead was excavated in the ancient Indian city of Ayodhya, along with a talisman, a piece of glass plate, four pieces of broken bangles, and a bracelet.
In 1968, psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott pointed out that “mathematics is a disembodied version of the human personality.” The integer “1” is the starting point of arithmetic; the integrated “I” is the starting point of a healthy personality. Winnicott noted the coincidence between the Latin verb sum, meaning “I AM,” and the English noun sum, meaning an arithmetic total. Winnicott considered the capacity to count to one as a maturational achievement verging on the unattainable. “We might say that sum (I am) is the sum of innate potential and good,” notes poetry professor Julia Guernsey.2 Hence, the one-bead rosary calls upon a practitioner to compute the totality his or her latent merit. That’s why Winnicott intimated that counting to one is virtually unachievable.
Counting to one is challenging for additional reasons. Dance expert Sally Banes explains: “You have to measure, and divide, before you can count. Some people can’t count to one. Counting involves commitment, a commitment to the moment, but a willingness not to cling to it. In relinquishing the moment, one realizes it.”3 Buddhist theologist Steven William Laycock notes a profound challenge: “Even to count to one, we must stand outside the one counted (one implies two).”4
The practical challenge of counting to one is well-known by social scientists. One qualitative researcher explained: “To identify something, the observer must know what qualifies as that thing, or that kind of thing. This entails counting to one.”5 In other words, as a prerequisite to understanding, one must decide what to count, how to count it, and why.
So while the first secret of the one-bead rosary challenges us to undergo a difficult trial, it also invites us to detach from the outcome. A white coral abacus bead is typical of practitioners who seek to fathom the first secret. Recommended for rumination are Lewis Carroll’s whimsical mathematical pastimes, collected in such books as The Universe in a Handkerchief.
The second secret of the one-bead rosary concerns the concept of the Monad. In Gnostic traditions, the Monad is understood to be the spiritual source of everything—the Supreme, the Absolute. In the early 400s BCE, the Pythagoreans described the Monad as the male principle of Unity and constancy. It is the “Primordial One” of Sacred Arithmetic, containing the potential of all numbers and generating them in Actuality. The Monad is also the Logos or “Word,” the embodiment of Love, and the ultimate singularity. The Pythagoreans considered any whole sum to be the Monad, which means that the universe is the Monad, but so are the individual parts of the universe. For example, as an acorn contains all the potential branches of the mighty oak, both the seed and the branches encompass the whole tree.
What is the Monad’s secret? Infinity can be defined, when we mirror the universe. The German rationalist philosopher Leibniz suggested that one becomes an awakened Monad when one stops sleepwalking through life and begins living as a fully-conscious, self-contained individual. The Buddhist practice of walking meditation is a good example of bringing pure consciousness to activity. Mirroring the universe, one’s soul expands accordingly. For instruction on mirroring the universe, the classic texts of Taoism and Sufism are recommended, especially Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching and The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry.
The Pythagoreans represented the Monad as a circle enclosing a point. Practitioners of the one-bead rosary see the necklace as the circle and the bead as the primordial point. Because the second secret stresses reflecting the universe, a highly polished metallic bead is a typical tool for contemplation.
Whereas the second secret of the one-bead rosary concerns the Macrocosm, the universe beyond, the third secret deals with the Microcosm, the universe within. This secret echoes Carl Jung’s writings and Hermetic philosophy in general: The human being is a gateway connecting the greater and lesser worlds. This secret teaches that an intimate knowledge of the human body illuminates the mysteries of the cosmos. For essential background on the Microcosm, investigate treatises on quantum theology, as well as C. G. Jung’s Synchronicity and Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe. For an experiential approach to the Microcosm, pursue a course in the ancient Chinese physical discipline of Chi Kung, or a Hindu Yoga practice, as both cultivate knowledge of and control over one’s body as a portal to transformation.
A Rudraksha prayer bead from India is typical of practitioners who seek to fathom the third secret. In Hindu mythology, the Rudraksha is the one bead containing all deities. Shriniwas Joshi explains: “The mythological story is that three demon brothers, Tarakaksha, Kamalaksha and Vidyunmali had attained such occult powers that they had conquered both the worlds that of the Gods and ours. Shiva destroyed them but while doing so a tear from his eye fell on the earth that became a seed from which sprouted Rudraksha (Rudra is Shiva and Aksha is eye) tree. It is said ‘in the crust of the Rudraksha dwells Brahma; in its hollow rests Vishnu; and in its mouth is located Shiva; while in the Bindu abide all the celestials.’ One bead of Rudraksha, therefore, has all the Gods in it.”6
For some practitioners, the bead symbolizes the sun, a guiding star, the moon, the earth, or a ruling planet, as microcosm of the universe. Others see the bead as a human soul or world soul, the universal soul in miniature. Still others say their bead reminds them of the cycle of life, and therefore of the cycle of eternity.
There are, indeed, other secrets of the one-bead rosary. But the most profound secrets lie not wholly in knowledge. They lurk invisible in that vitalizing spark, intangible, yet as evident as the lightning—the seeker’s soul. Solitary digging for facts can reward one with great discoveries, but true secrets are not discovered—they are shared, passed on in confidence from one to another. The genuine seeker listens attentively. If you feel called to work with a one-bead rosary, may you summon the courage to honor its secrets and to bequeath them to one worthy.
1 A Brief History of Castle Bromwich and Its Church, 2004, chapter 2.
2 The Pulse of Praise, 1999, p. 161.
3 Reinventing Dance in the 1960s, 2003, p. 75.
4 Nothing and Emptiness, 2001, p. 85.
5 Riall Nolan, Development Anthropology, 2002, p. 131.
6 “Electricity Town Joginder Nagar,” Himachal Plus, Jan. 31, 2007.