Unlikely Offerings September 15, 2020 15:52
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It's early morning. I light a stick of incense, grab a Granny Smith apple from the bowl by the fridge and a scoop of birdseed from the bag near the front door. I pick up Maya with my free hand (which is a challenge because she's jumping up and down in excitement) and slip into a pair of sandals.
With both hands full, I carefully open the storm door with my left elbow and walk toward the small garden in the front yard.
The tip of the incense stick is glowing bright red in the early morning light, and white smoke that smells of juniper wafts around us.
I am thinking about my friend's dog who recently passed away. I am also thinking of another friend's son-in-law and a former colleague's brother--both of whom have died within the last few days.
I carefully place the incense stick in a small metal bowl at the base of a tree stump and sprinkle the cup of birdseed into the open palms of a concrete Buddha statue.
Maya and I walk down the driveway looking for a few acorns that have fallen from a nearby white oak, and I also pluck a few black-eyed Susans that are blooming near a mulberry bush.
I place them on the tree stump near the Buddha statue, along with the green apple.
We do this twice a day, this simple ritual of offering. It's dedicated to all sentient beings: insects, animals, loved ones, strangers, celebrities who have passed away in the last 49 days (in Buddhism, the intermediate state, or bardo, can last up to seven times seven, or 49, days). We make these offerings so that these beings may navigate their way safely through the bardo in the hopes that they find happiness in their next life--so that they may be of benefit to others in their next incarnation.
I offer a brief prayer to the outdoor altar, and then Maya and I make our way back to the house.
This is an example of a traditional offering: flowers, fruit, incense. However, offerings don't have to be traditional to be meaningful or valid.
Offerings can be very simple, subtle, and sometimes...unlikely.
Anything given with an open heart and from a spirit of kindness and generosity could be considered an offering. Here are just a few practical examples:
* Sharing home-grown veggies from your garden with friends or neighbors.
* Helping someone who's having technology issues or a friend who needs help with a home-improvement project.
* Letting someone enter the flow of traffic, especially when traffic is heavy.
*Offering kind words of encouragement.
* Acknowledging and thanking a cashier or clerk by name at a grocery store, bank, or gas station.
* Wearing a mask and honoring social distancing guidelines during a pandemic.
Offerings can also be a blend of the traditional and everyday common courtesy.
I often practice japa when I'm driving. I use a clicker counter or knitter to keep track of the recitations (and it's safer than using a full mala for me). Often, when I'm reciting, I offer the benefits (or merits) of the recitations to the drivers, passengers, and pedestrians around me:
* May they arrive safely to their destinations
* May they be happy
* May they be well
Even during a more formal sitting practice or during a sadhana, it's not unusual for miscellaneous memories or sudden flashes of people I haven't seen or thought about in years to pop into my head. Instead of viewing this as an annoying distraction to resist or push away, or interpreting this as evidence of being an undisciplined meditator, I briefly acknowledge them and wish them well:
*I see you
*I love you
*I remember you
*I forgive you
*I honor you
Usually, when I take the time to witness and appreciate these "surprise visitors," they dissipate fairly quickly, and it opens up even more space for my practice. In fact, I see acknowledging and honoring these memories and flashes as an important part of my practice.
So, what are the benefits of making daily offerings, whether they are tangible objects, courteous acts or gestures, or meditative thoughts?
* They encourage generosity and selflessness
One of the quickest ways to bust out of an "I,I,I...me,me,me" mindset is by considering or giving to others instead of thinking about yourself.
* They foster connections and interconnection with others
Offering words, thoughts, or things with a kind-hearted spirit helps dissolve feelings of separation or disconnection toward others.
* They inspire a sense of purpose and meaning
On an individual level, offerings can add a little structure and motivation to a practice. When the intention is right, and when the desire for recognition is absent, it feels really good to do charitable things or offer kind words of support to others.
Offerings can strengthen and bolster compassion for self, for others, and for the planet.
By the way, supporting a small business is another wonderful way to make a meaningful offering. Feel free to visit the Middle Moon Malas online shop (here) to purchase a one-of-a-kind mala for yourself or a loved one. These beautiful designs are intended to enhance your own practice, and they make wonderful gifts....or...offerings.
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.
Resolve and Dissolve: Setting Intentions and Managing Changes in 2017 January 2, 2017 20:02
Yep--it's that time of year again. It's the start of a new year, which brings change, new beginnings, and the hope of a brighter future. The ball drops, fireworks bloom in the night sky, champagne, kisses--the works.
Most changes occur slowly, which is good. It makes them easier to process. However, managing change--even small ones--can seem daunting at first. I like setting intentions at the start of a new year. It's not unlike embarking on a mantra practice, or designing a mala. The following tips help me stay clear and focused, and they help me navigate my way through change in order to grow.
*Don't Focus on the Whole...Focus on the Individual Pieces
Managing fresh starts and new patterns requires patience, practice, and time. At first, the project, goal, or intention may seem overwhelming. When I'm designing a mala, for instance, I arrange the beads one at a time. When the layout is complete, and the stringing begins, all that matters is this bead, this loop, this knot. One, by one, until the design is complete. It's that simple. I don't worry about how many beads I can string in an hour--or when I'll be finished. Focusing on the individual pieces is like appreciating each step on a journey rather than fixating on arriving at the destination. Focusing on what's right in front of me keeps me rooted in the present, and it allows me to enjoy and appreciate the adventure, no matter how long it takes, or if it's completed at all.
* Offer a Dedication
Purpose helps to add meaning to any task, even mundane ones. Usually, I practice japa in the evening. I'm more relaxed, and I generally have more time to devote to the practice. Sometimes, however, I wait too long--I'm tired, impatient, and just want it to be over, so I can go to bed. Chanting a mantra just to recite it 108 times is a waste of time and energy. Offering a dedication to the practice adds sincerity, significance, and motivation. For example, before I practice, I hold my mala in my hands and offer an intention--that my students will do well on their final exams--or, I dedicate my practice to a friend who is dealing with the loss of a parent--or to a friend who is giving birth to her first child. I may offer peace and healing to strangers who are suffering in a city halfway around the world. By doing this, I'm not just practicing for myself--I'm practicing to benefit others as well. Big or small, offering a dedication can bolster motivation and infuse any resolution with purpose and meaning.
* Seek a Fresh Perspective
I like variety, I like having options, and a change of scenery can do wonders for a resolution or intention that's reached a plateau or grown a little stale. Sometimes I like to work on a mala at the kitchen table. I like the lighting and the view from the window. Sometimes, I prefer to work upstairs (we have more channel options on the TV), so I can string beads and watch a movie. (One of my favorite designs was an Unakite mala that I strung while watching the Bollywood classic, Bride and Prejudice :). If the weather's nice, I can work outside at the patio table and listen to birds, cicadas, children laughing in the neighbor's yard. A change of setting can offer much needed inspiration, a change in perspective, or a boost in creativity.
I'm not sure where 2017 will lead, but my intention is to continue to learn,grow, and navigate the changes and surprises that this year will undoubtedly bring by continuing my japa practice, and to enjoy creating beautiful malas for others. Happy New Year, everyone! Enjoy this year's journey.