Beauty...Beads...Breath: Practical Alternatives to a Chanting Practice October 5, 2017 19:43
I have a friend who loves malas, and she's purchased several Middle Moon Malas and requested various custom designs; however, she's not big on chanting. She recently asked me if chanting mantras was required. She was concerned that she was misusing her malas by not incorporating a japa or chanting practice. My response--absolutely not, and I offered her the following simple alternatives.
* Setting an Intention
Setting an intention or offering a dedication at the start of a yoga class can add even more meaning and significance to the practice. Similarly, setting an intention before donning a mala can be a powerful part of a yoga or meditation practice. It can serve as a meaningful reminder throughout the day, and it can help bring your meditation or mindfulness practice from the cushion or mat into your daily life.
Let's say you set an intention to be more present, more focused on the here and now. Each time you catch a glimpse of the beads around your neck or resting on the corner of your mat, each time you feel the beads against your skin or feel the weight of the mala as it shifts and moves across your body, as you shift and move throughout your day, these all serve as reminders of your intention. Be here. Be present. Be aware of this moment.
My intention with Middle Moon Malas has always been to create designs that are both functional and beautiful. Many of my customers tell me that they frequently receive compliments on their unique designs. Each compliment, each inquiry can also be reminders--be present--be here--be in this moment. No chanting necessary.
*Working with Breath
Another alternative to chanting is to incorporate a breath practice. Variety is important and valuable to just about anything in life. Just as practicing the same physical poses over and over can lead to repetitive stress and injury, mindlessly chanting the same mantra can lead to boredom and lack of focus.
There are no benefits to simply repeating or chanting a mantra--sharp focus and clarity of mind are essential to any meditation practice. Sometimes it's good to shake things up and add something different to the practice.
While I do have a daily recitation practice, sometimes I'll sit with my mala and let the breath be my focus. My right hand thumb and second finger on the first bead next to the guru, I take a long, slow inhalation. At the peak of the inhale, my fingers slide to the second bead, and I release a long, slow exhalation. One inhale, one exhale at a time, shifting to the next bead during the pauses between breaths. Again, no mantra, no chanting required. The breath becomes the focal point--the beads become tactile and visual reminders to remain present. Each sustains the other--to remain present--to breathe--and to be.
As with any practice, it's important to do what resonates with you. If chanting works for you, great! If not, great! You have options and choices. The important point is to cultivate a meaningful practice that is beneficial to you and that works for you.
One, Two, Three: Counter Beads and the Purposes They Serve September 6, 2017 18:20
What are counter beads, and why do some malas have them? A standard mala contains 108 beads; however, some malas include counter beads as well. These beads aren’t randomly placed extras. A japa practice is similar to a road trip, and counter beads can play an important part along the path of this mindful, meditative journey.
One of the primary purposes of counter beads is they act as rest stops or pause points in a meditation practice. Just like the brief pause at the peak of an inhalation, and the suspension at the base of an exhalation, counter beads can act as natural pauses in the recitation practice. They give practitioners a moment to hold space and take stock of the quality of the practice in that moment. The point of a japa practice isn’t simply to barrel through 108 recitations of a mantra. It’s not a race, and there isn’t a trophy waiting for us at the end of the finish line. A mantra practice is about training the mind; it’s about aligning and elevating our energetic frequencies so that we can become our best selves, and experience a sense of connection and interconnection with others and our world. There needs to be a balance between effort and rest, so in our practice, when our inner world is calling, counter beads remind us, “Please hold.”
Another important purpose that counter beads offer is they act as mindfulness markers in the practice. Much like street signs or mile markers on a highway, counter beads remind us to stay present, focused, and alert in our practice. They encourage us to drive safely and to stay on course as we navigate the circuit of our mala. They help prevent our minds from wandering away from our intentions, and they prevent us from getting caught up in a tangle of mental chatter. Counters help to gauge both time and distance in our practice, and they can ease the restless monkey mind when it asks, repeatedly, “Are we there, yet?”
Finally, counter beads can add a little bling, shimmer, and character to the mala and to the meditative journey. Much like fuzzy dice, a bumper sticker, or fancy detailing on a car, jazzy counter beads add a little bit of extra sparkle to help bring balance to the design of a mala. As a designer, I like to add counter beads that are different sizes, shapes, colors, or textures to break up the pattern of the design. Sometimes, it’s just a single counter bead after the 54th bead, or midpoint. Some malas include counters after bead #27 and #81, marking the first quarter and the last quarter of the design. For other pieces, I incorporate three counters, dividing the mala into four equal segments. Counters can be aesthetically pleasing to the eye or to the touch, offering visual or tactile interest to a design, which, as an added bonus, can inspire a meditator to practice, or simply make the journey more personalized, pleasing, or fun.
Whether you prefer a mala that includes counter beads or not, a japa practice is a meaningful journey, and having a mala that motivates you to practice and that reflects your intentions will help you grow and enjoy the ride.
The Benefits of Keeping a Spiritual Journal June 3, 2017 15:17
Over the years, I’ve kept various types of journals and logs. For the past three years, I’ve been keeping track of my japa practice in small, portable notebooks.
Though I’ve been pretty diligent about writing in these logs, I am horrible about taking the time to read over the entries (they’re more like lists, really) to reflect on what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown as a practitioner. Being in the present moment and recording the present moment is one thing—but taking the time to look over a year of present moments to note tendencies and patterns is a really daunting task. Honestly, I thought I might be bored out of my mind—many of my daily observations are really mundane and repetitious, but I did manage to find a few nuggets of wisdom among the pages.
*THE REPETITIOUS AND MUNDANE ARE EVIDENCE OF DEDICATION
8.12.16 “Chanted with the Olympics on mute.”
12.26.16 “Practiced yoga for over an hour to tango music in the living room.”
1.4.17 “Chanted before Yin—then watched Portlandia after class.”
Countless entries made reference to the practice—the yoga practice—the chanting practice—the meditation practice. Regardless of the day, the time, the location, or the circumstances, the practice was the hub, and the driving force of these entries. Practice requires commitment and dedication, and these entries, while repetitive, were solid proof of this resolve. Taking the time to reread them has bolstered my desire to continue all of these practices, including the writing practice.
*CELEBRATE JOYFUL MOMENTS (BIG AND SMALL)
10.1.16 “Jim and I attended a wedding (apprentice from the shop). The groomsmen had superhero action figures in their shirt pockets.”
10.15.16 “Took a photo of the full Hunter’s Moon as Hugo kept me company out in the yard.”
11.21.16 “Prajnaparamita arrived today. She’s beautiful.”
1.20.17 “Received a handmade card from a nun I’m sponsoring in India. Venerable Tsundue Palmo. She’s 12.”
There were several unexpected surprises hidden among the ordinary entries. Some of these nuggets of joy I had forgotten about; others, I remembered vividly. Reading these entries was a lot like looking over photos in an old album. The brief notations and descriptions were like faded photographs, but they were clear enough to trigger these pleasant memories so that I could enjoy them again.
* DISAPPOINTMENTS AND TRAGEDIES ARE OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH
1.23.17 “This lifetime is like a flash of lightning. Be hard on your delusions, not on yourself.”
2.10.17 “Went to Mike’s funeral. Jim did such a fabulous job. He spoke at the service—honest, sincere, tearful, funny. So proud of him. What a sendoff!”
4.3.17 “Hugo was really struggling this morning. Jim and I took him to the vet in the back of my car. Elise met us there. We said goodbye as a family.”
Just as there were many moments of joy—this year also brought challenging moments as well. Sadness, anger, despair, grief, and doubt were opportunities to implement the practice in order to heal and grow. This is where all of those mundane moments really paid off. I needed the help of all of the practices in order to allow and be, to sit patiently with these intense emotions until the storm surges settled. Taking time to remember and acknowledge these moments gave me an opportunity to appreciate what I have endured, and to value each fleeting present moment even more.
*TRUST… RIGHT PEOPLE, RIGHT PLACES, RIGHT TIMES
6.25.16 “Love and compassion are the keys to happiness, not money, power, and things.” HH Dalai Lama Lecture at State Fairgrounds
8.27.16 “Attended Teaching—Had lunch with sangha—watermelon slices with Geshe Kunga and Ten Pa. Stayed for afternoon prayers—Rinpoche blessed Josie’s mala—Green Tara—Heart Sutra—Lovely.”
11.2.16 “The Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 108 years. There are 108 laces on a baseball. Just strung the 108th bead on a Kumbaba Jasper mala—sending much love and light out to the Cubs.”
Every cell in my body resonates to the frequency of the belief that the right people and events will come into your life when they’re supposed to, and they’ll leave when they’re supposed to. I’m all about right place, right time, and this year was no exception. Whether it was listening to The Dalai Lama deliver a live lecture in Indianapolis, chatting with dear friends, working with students, discovering the right book, documentary, YouTube tutorial, or movie at just the right time, the best lessons and teachers have arrived at the perfect time and in the best way. I know that as long as I continue to practice—to sit, to chant, to breathe, to write, to step onto the mat, to be present…I will continue to learn, grow, and blossom, and, with a little luck, benefit others along the way.
The Subtle Side-Effects of a Chanting Practice March 2, 2016 15:00
Everything we are, and everything that is, is vibration. All sentient beings and all inanimate objects in the cosmos are teeming expressions of vibrational flow. When this flow is disturbed or disrupted, disharmony is the result. A mantra or chanting practice can help restore harmony and balance again by kneading the cells of the body with sound. One of the best ways to recalibrate and reboot your own system is through a regular practice of chanting Sanskrit mantra.
I've been practicing forty-day sadhanas with various mantras over the course of the last two years, and upon reflecting on this practice, I've noticed some interesting side-effects.
* Increased Presence
I'm finding it's much easier to stay in the present moment. This can be both a blessing and a curse. For example, I'm not writing nearly as many lists on Post-it notes, and I'm not as caught up in the trance of future thinking--the endless streams of "I have to do this," and "I have to do that," etc.
However, I'm finding that I immerse myself completely in the most mundane tasks. I'm totally engaged in loading the dishwasher or flossing my teeth, and time slips away from me. Last week, I spent twenty minutes in the produce section at Target--totally mesmerized by the colors, shapes, and smells of fruits and veggies, as if it were an art exhibit at the IMA.
*Managing Difficult Emotions
When anger, frustration, fear, resentment, and general crankiness rise to the surface, I'm able to stay with these unpleasant feelings for longer periods of time without casting judgment or pushing them away. I can sit (stand, walk, or drive) with them with an objective heart and mind--simply noticing and holding space for these feelings--until they dissipate on their own.
This morning as I was driving to school, a man in an old pick-up truck tailgated me all the way down Morgantown Rd. Every time I glanced in my rear view mirror, he made various aggressive hand gestures, clearly indicating his disapproval of me driving the speed limit. Instead of responding with equal and opposite frustration, though, I remained calm and focused, and when he barreled past me across the double line, I didn't take it personally, and I didn't feel the need to speed up and chase after him, which is evidence of significant growth for me.
*New Teachers and Adventures
One of the most pleasant side-effects of my mantra practice is that it has been sending new teachers and adventures my way. I've met amazingly creative,supportive,and nourishing people outside my usual circles who have helped me learn and grow in so many ways. They've helped me stretch beyond my comfort zones, offering guidance and encouragement at just the right time.
For a long time, I've wanted to visit the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana, and in the last few months, I've visited several times, attending various pujas, lectures, and events there.The monks have been very kind and warm-hearted, and their welcoming and open spirits have been both inspirational and refreshing.
In addition to honoring the Divine that dwells within, I've found that the heart of a regular mantra practice also includes elevating your vibrational frequencies. Each forty-day sadhana brings new experiences and insights, and each spiritual formula has its own unique lessons to teach. I'm looking forward to exploring the treasures that dwell in the next Sanskrit mantra.
Seizing the Present Moment: One Bead at a Time July 8, 2015 09:07
Like clockwork, the first warm July days bring one of my favorite sounds—that spiraling whir of cicadas grinding away the summer in the trees. Their song is bittersweet for me, reminding me that the summer is passing quickly. Their jarring, cyclical songs function much like a natural mantra, reminding me to “be present…be present…be present” and to enjoy what’s left of the summer.
Repetition is soothing and comforting. It creates a familiar and recognizable pattern that can offer reassurance when stressed and bring a sense of order to chaos. Everything in the universe is made of vibration, and all sounds create movements of energy. Mantra is a Sanskrit word that means “sound tool.” A mantra can be a word, phrase, or affirmation that is repeated in the mind, whispered, chanted, or sung in order to set an intention or aid in concentration during meditation practice. The mantras we use represent the qualities or traits that we wish to embody or to permeate our consciousness. When used in conjunction with a mala, the practice becomes even more visceral, and each bead is infused with the essence of the mantra.
The most effective mantras are the ones that are simple, significant, easy to remember, and phrased in the positive. In order for mantras to make a beneficial difference in our lives, they must be repeated often….and believed.
Example Sanskrit Mantras
Om—Primordial sound of creation. Brings us into harmony with the universe
Santośa (pronounced san-tōsha)—Contentment
Om Namah Shivaya—Honors Shiva, the god of transformation
Om Gum Ganapatayai Namaha—I honor Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. I ask for blessings and protection.
So-Hum or Ham—Sah—“I am that” or “That I am.”
El Shaddai—Hebrew name for God
Om mani padme hum—invokes blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion in Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Modern Examples—or Create Your Own Mantra
Today, I choose joy.
I am strong, I am confident, I am healthy, and I am well.
I love myself. I respect myself. I am worthy.
The universe is my source and will provide.
I send you joy. I send you peace. I send you health. I send you love.
In addition to calming the mind and silencing the incessant mental chatter of that nagging inner critic, reciting, chanting, singing, or simply thinking mantras can have other positive effects on the body:
*stimulates the relaxation response
*lowers heart rate and blood pressure
*stimulates immune function
*increases physical vitality and energy
*alleviates depression by decreasing stress hormones in body
*promotes breath control
*helps synchronize the left and right hemispheres of the brain
*oxygenates the brain through increased blood flow
*calms brainwave activity
*stimulates melatonin production, which can improve sleep quality
Hearing the cicadas’ collective song of celebration and endurance today inspired me to take my meditation practice outside. I sat under a white oak tree, mala in hand, and chanted along with the cicadas: “be present…be present… be present…enjoy this moment…this moment…this…moment…of…summer.”