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.
From Rut to Groove: Diving Deeply into the Heart of a Mantra Practice May 10, 2016 12:27
Repeating a mantra is like chanting the rhythm of your own heart. A mantra practice is a journey that spirals inward to the center of your capital “S” self. According to the Zen master Huang Po, our true nature “shines through the whole universe.” It is our “all-pervading radiant beauty,” and a regular mantra practice can be a vehicle to access and appreciate that shimmering, radiant beauty at the heart of the Self.
I’ve been exploring the adventures of a regular mantra practice for nearly two years. I’ve embarked on various forty-day sadhanas with different mantras—logging patterns, side-effects, and reactions much like an anthropologist or biologist in the field jots down notes and observations. After several months, I’ve finally hit a wall. Granted, my life has picked up momentum—I’ve grown busier with “have to’s” and domestic obligations. I have bills to pay, classes to teach, workshops to take, malas to create, yada, yada, yada.
Last night I found myself hurrying to complete a round of the long version of the Gayatri so I wouldn’t miss the opening scene of Penny Dreadful. That’s pretty bad (on many levels). When my mantra practice becomes another item on my checklist to complete, I know it’s time to make a change.
In the midst of managing the distractions and obstacles that life is hurling my way, I’d grown weary and bored with chanting, and my practice had become stale and mechanical as a result. Fortunately, a mantra practice is not a hindrance; it’s designed to help us navigate life’s challenging, murky waters.
My resistance is an indication that I’m ready to dive more deeply. At the surface, a mantra practice is the parrot-like recitation of spiritual formulas—the memorization of Sanskrit words—the tactile sensations of beads sliding between finger and thumb. However, this is just the surface—there is much more waiting to be discovered at the heart of the practice and within the heart of the Self.
Boredom, anger, and restlessness had settled into my practice —and while it’s easy to blame the busyness of my life, I know that’s not entirely true. It’s time to start listening to my heart—to begin to pay attention—to really pay attention to what I’m feeling—to be patient—to sit with those feelings–to allow them to surface—without judgment—without repressing them—to hold space for my heart to speak—to make time to listen and to honor its messages.
For now, I’ve suspended the forty-day sadhana experiments with supplemental mantras. I’m focusing my attention solely on the long Gayatri—rededicating—recommitting to my practice—but I’m also refining my intention and attention. I’m not simply reciting words and counting beads. I’m listening to my heart, I’m reconnecting to this practice, I’m trusting that it will take me where I am supposed to go, and I’m diving deeper, escaping the rut and plunging into the groove.
Hello 2016: Setting Intentions for the New Year January 1, 2016 06:52
It's that time of year again--January 1--the start of a new year. The potential and hope of 2016 is wide open and waiting. All we have to do is realize that potential. Right? In theory, yes, but in practice, things can grow a little murky and uncertain.
This year, I have committed to sitting in meditation every day--even if it's for just five minutes; my intention is to establish a seated meditation practice. Chanting in my car on the way to work--piece of cake. Moving meditation--whether while walking or while practicing a slow yoga vinyasa, no problem. At some point during the day, I usually sit in a chair or on the couch and complete a round of chanting with a mala, but it's not necessarily in the same place--and it isn't necessarily quiet. I may hear the sound of the TV drifting in from another room, or my husband or daughter will enter whatever room I'm in to ask me a question, or the bell will ring during a passing period at school, and my practice will be accompanied by the sounds of teenagers shuffling and chatting in the hall.
This year, things are going to be different. I even invested in a lovely zafu and zabuton set (thanks to Dharma Crafts) as an additional incentive and spent over an hour cleaning the living room which had been taken over by various boxes, bags, and books from my daughter's college dorm room.
It's January 1. I've cleared the space. I've made the time. I have the house to myself. I have a lovely place to sit and meditate. What could possibly go wrong? As I settle onto my meditation cushion and begin to connect with the rhythm of my breath, Maya, our four-pound Yorkie, and Hugo, our 100-pound Bouvier, decide that now is a good time to chase each other around the house. Hugo is twelve-years old, so his hips are a little arthritic, and he's a bit clumsy now as he stomps around the house like Frankenstein's monster trying to keep up with two-year-old Maya.
This, in and of itself, isn't bad. I can deal with the occasional sounds of the trash can or chairs being bumped around in the kitchen. Even the fast-paced sounds of Maya running around like Speedy Gonzalez followed by Hugo's labored clomping are manageable. It's when they both stop running in the hallway--and it gets really quiet--I can't abide that. I know what's happening--Maya has rolled over, showing her belly--and Hugo is licking her belly, and her face, and her legs, until she's totally soaked in his big dog saliva--wet,sticky,and smelling weird--that I can't handle.
I open my eyes, sigh, and walk down the hall, where they are both staring at me like guilty toddlers. Hugo is drooling on the floor, and Maya is a soaking-wet pupsicle. I grab a towel from the bathroom closet, clean up the puddle in the hall, scoop Maya up in my arms, and walk back to my meditation cushion. Hugo lumbers into the living room and sits down next to me, resting his head on the corner of my zabuton. Maya is in my lap wrapped up in the towel. They both settle and become still.
It takes me a hot second to recover from this ridiculous interruption. After about a minute, my giggling subsides, my breathing settles, and I am able, at last, to meditate. It didn't happen like I had imagined, but it did happen, and I was able to share my experience with my two puppy children, and, honestly, they seemed pretty open to the experience. That's the way it goes with resolutions...or intentions...or anything else, for that matter. Unexpected glitches occur, and things don't usually go as planned, but with a little patience, perseverance, and creative adjusting, they do eventually happen. Only 364 days to go....wish me luck. Happy 2016 everyone!
Tradition and Meditation Practice October 18, 2015 12:37
Tradition has its place in society. It creates comfort and stability. It offers a solid connection to the past and honors those who have come before us. Tradition represents the deep roots in the tree of life that can literally and metaphorically ground us.
For thousands of years, malas have been made of traditional materials such as sandalwood, tulsi, and rudraksha seeds. These were the materials available to the sages, rishis, and meditators in ancient India and Tibet.
What about meditators today? Is it appropriate to chant and recite mantras with malas made of gemstones and crystals instead of the traditional materials of the past? Well, it depends.
As in any yoga practice, a meditator's practice begins with an intention. The intention is like an electrical current running through and energizing the practice, and the mala is like the light bulb. The intention may be specific or general--it may be personal or universal. Whatever the intention, it must resonate in an authentic way with the practitioner or meditator. Through sincerity and dedication, a mantra or meditation practice with a mala requires clarity and connection.
If traditional beads made of wood, yak bone, or seeds resonate with the meditator, adding an element of authenticity to the practice and strengthening the intention, then, by all means, using malas made of traditional materials would be appropriate.
However, meditators bring meaning and significance to the mala--not the other way around. Each bead is energized with the intention, the dedication, and the presence of the meditator . The meaning doesn't reside in the beads, themselves. The practice brings meaning to the beads, regardless if they are made of rudraksha seeds, rose quartz, acorns, or miniature marshmallows.
Finding a mala that resonates with the meditator is an important aspect of the practice. However, attaching too much significance to the tradition and history of the beads or the meaning behind the gemstones is just another way for the ego to creep in and disrupt the practice.
Is it OK to use a mala made of tulsi, wood, or yak bone beads? Yes--of course.
Is it OK to use a mala made with gemstones, crystals, metal, and glass? Yes-- of course.
Is it OK to use a mala made of miniature marshmallows and acorns? Yes--of course.
Any mala that resonates with the meditator, that aligns with the intentions of the meditator, and that motivates the meditator to continue the practice is appropriate.
The mala that you use in your practice should resonate with you and your intentions. There is no "right" or "wrong." It is YOUR practice--it is YOUR energetic offering. The mala is simply the vehicle for the light to shine, not the light itself. As with any energetic practice, it's important not to confuse the current with the bulb.
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.”