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.
Finding Perspective in Your Practice: Dealing with Distractions August 1, 2017 14:33
What’s right in front of you matters. This moment matters. Navigating now seems simple in theory, but in practice…distractions can compete for your attention and hijack your intentions. They can dominate your view and force you to take unexpected detours and delays.
Last month, I took a personal retreat and spent a few days nestled in a small, circular cabin in the woods. My intention was to use this time to practice yoga, meditate, read, write, and simply enjoy being mindful and present.
On the first day of my retreat, I noticed a small spider that had created a web on the railing of the deck. Stretching to a cluster of branches in a nearby tree, this web was a perfect circle, and the spider sat in the center, patiently waiting for her lunch to arrive. She was beautiful. Her pale green body shimmered in the sun, and each leg curved like a tiny arch. I wanted to capture this moment, this now, by taking a photo.
Over the next three days, I attempted many times to snap a close-up photograph of this lovely, eight-legged architect. I had a small tourist camera—nothing fancy or expensive, but it had a decent zoom capacity. Unfortunately, it didn’t recognize the spider as the focal point of the shot, so it would zoom in on a nearby cluster of leaves or the trunk of a tree that was behind her instead. I struggled to capture the image that was right in front of me—the image that mattered most was elusive—the lens of my camera couldn’t recognize it as meaningful like my eyes (and mind) did.
I changed position, experimented with different angles, moved furniture around…no luck. In the meantime, I practiced yoga, meditated, read, wrote, hiked, and simply savored just being in each moment. Morning eased into evening. Sunlight shifted, moved, and disappeared through branches as the days progressed.
Meditation can be like this, too. Your intentions are good—you want to practice—you want to sit and focus on mantra recitations—but the phone rings, a siren sounds in the distance, a random memory or thought surfaces and will not let go. Distractions are a part of navigating now. Ignoring them, or growing impatient with them rarely helps.
Acknowledging them, however, is essential. It’s part of the practice. The phone is ringing…that’s an ambulance…this is a thought…that is a memory from the past. Taking a moment to breathe, briefly acknowledge what surfaces, and then offer a little time and space for these distractions to move, shift, and pass will help in navigating the detours.
Be gentle, and give yourself permission to continue your practice—to pick up where you left off—without berating or judging yourself for succumbing to yet another distraction. Be kind, mindful, and consistent with your practice. Eventually, the benefits will unfold and appear.
On the last afternoon of my retreat, I had returned from an hour-long hike in the woods. The sun was at just the right angle on the deck, creating enough shadow for me to zoom in and capture a close-up shot of the spider and her web. As an added, unexpected bonus, tiny orbs of dappled sunlight appeared to be caught, glistening and suspended in her web. Patience and consistency, these are the jewels of any practice.
Trusting the Circuitous Path: Navigating the Journey with Japa December 6, 2016 14:01
I was late to school this morning—over 45 minutes late. Normally, this would really bother me. I hate being late, the inconvenience of waiting and making others wait. However, today was different. On this cold, rainy December morning, the universe was placing necessary detours in my path in order to give me more time to slow down and think. A fender bender, flashing police lights, and a long line of traffic forced me to turn right instead of left. An endless stream of yellow lights and a delay on my usual interstate exit ramp convinced me to go way out of my way and explore the side streets instead. I took a break from my usual routine, letting go of time, letting go of the usual obligations, and, along the way, reflected on what I’ve learned during this past year.
*Trust Yourself: Follow Your Own Compass
Feeling lost has always been unsettling for me. I have friends who deliberately try to lose themselves in a forest or new city—they enjoy the adventure of finding their way out of the tangle of uncertainty. For me, that uncertainty creates mind-numbing anxiety and fear. I like to know where I’m going, and I’m really bad with directions, so finding my way is often a challenge and a real struggle.
This year I’ve had several opportunities to venture off the usual path, literally, and metaphorically—to explore new places—to interact with new people—to trust my own instincts and rely on my internal guidance more than external markers and guideposts. The more I can breathe, relax, and allow, the easier this process becomes, and the more I can enjoy the adventures.
*Establish Necessary Boundaries
Because I like to know where I’m going, I crave parameters. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to honor other people’s guidelines before following my own. This year, however, I have practiced making my own boundaries a priority, paying much closer attention to what’s happening in my own mind and heart. For seven months, I taught yoga at a studio that was an hour’s commute from my home. While I enjoyed teaching the class, and I enjoyed working with my students, the business owner wasn’t paying me regularly. After a couple of bounced paychecks and one too many half-hearted pleas for understanding and patience had worn thin, I walked away. I felt bad for leaving my students, but this obligation was becoming more of a burden than a joy. My regret, however, was short-lived. I currently enjoy having more time to spend with my family, and more time to devote to my own personal yoga practice at home.
*Relax, There’s Plenty of Time
Time dissolves when I do what I enjoy. For more than a year, I have dedicated time each day to a japa practice. I have worked with a single mantra (the long version of the Gayatri) and a specific mala for this practice, and I have noticed significant, positive changes as a result of this practice. I’m more patient with myself and others; I’m more flexible and willing to adapt when unexpected surprises occur; I’m more relaxed and comfortable with myself and others, and, most importantly, I’m able to recognize that time is an imposed construct--and that no one’s life truly revolves around it.
I was 45 minutes late to work this morning, and I didn’t really care. I listened to music on the way, I enjoyed the drive and the time to reflect, I arrived safely, and I was able to assist my students in a meaningful way during the course of the day.
Despite all of the setbacks and disappointments of 2016, this has been a good year. I’ve learned and grown a great deal, and I look forward to what 2017 has to offer. My japa practice has helped me navigate and manage the many ups and downs, and it’s been the steady needle of my life’s compass, helping to guide me along this amazing, circuitous path.