When I was in teacher training I found a place in India from which I could order all sorts of malas. There is one in particular I still wear all the time. It has Rudraksha, crystal beads, Tulsi, Sandalwood and Lotus seeds all strung like popcorn ’round a Christmas tree. It has a blue tassel, which I am not sure is traditional but what I asked for and what they sent me.
When I ordered these malas I ordered a 27 bead Rudraksha, which is a brown seed sacred to Shiva. I ordered other stuff, too, but these items are what I want to talk about now.
I’ve been making malas since February. Making malas began out of necessity; I had one in mind and couldn’t find it anywhere so I made it. It is awesome, too, and I took it directly to Atlanta and asked Swami to bless it. Since then, it has been broken, re-strung, re-blessed and held with love in the silence of my meditation space.
I don’t take this mala out too much. It is quiet and dark much like the space in which I meditate. I like to feel the subtle energy between the beads and the soft drape of the black tassel. It’s my praying mala.
Not all malas are meant to be kept in the dark. The one from India with all the different seeds on it goes out in public, gets left in the baby’s bed and dropped into my purse when I’m about to teach headstands and don’t want it to fall unceremoniously over my head onto the floor. It’s my teaching mala.
Then there’s the woobie mala. You DO know what a woobie is, don’t you? A woobie is typically a blanket one uses not for warmth or cover necessarily but as something to cling to and rub for emotional support. Woobie.
On the topic of malas and also woobie, I should add for those who don’t know that malas are prayer beads, typically used to count mantras or prayers so a practitioner can keep track of their practices. You know, chant this mantra for 108 times for 40 days and see what happens. See if you can’t transcribe the meaning onto your bones in the process.
Sometimes when chanting it’s a relief to get to the 108th bead, especially if it’s a longer mantra. Sometimes the practice is so grand and sweeping you’ll want to go another round, and another and another. But there comes a time when the mantra doesn’t really stop, but your practice begins to encompass your entire life. Eventually, hopefully, you don’t stop the mantra and the mantra doesn’t stop you. (For more on chanting and kirtan I suggest you listen to anything Krishna Das has to say on the subject.)
If this is so, then why in the hell have a mala to count anything? If 108 times ’round the mala is only the beginning, why bother counting?
This leads me back to the Theory of Woobie. The mala, much like a woobie blanket, is something we can cling to. There is something beyond even the chanting of the mantra, though. After a time of practice I think these malas hold the current of our practices so we can draw on them when we can’t seem to find the resources within.
I’ve found that the mala doesn’t even have to be one on which mantras have been said very much at all. The small hand mala I mentioned earlier, the one made of Rudraksha and with only 27 beads, stays in the same place most of the time. This mala has been known to make it to the top of a harmonium during kirtan, but for the most part it remains draped over a photo.
This mala made it to my upper arm a few nights ago. I wrapped it ’round my bicep and got in bed. I could feel the round grainy texture of those beads pressed gently into my ribs and there it remained all night. Why? I cannot say, but with tender awareness of its presence I drifted into sound sleep.
Counting mantras has been around a long time and they’ve been doing it all over the world. But I wonder if counting mantras is only part of the reason to use malas. I wonder if the malas don’t become some sort of containment unit for Shakti, like She hides in there as an act of Grace. For in our moments of forgetting we may draw on it when our energy is low and when we need sustenance Papa John’s simply cannot provide. Inherent in the design, are malas simultaneously the lasso that ropes us back onto our path and also a conduit for the current we dive into again and again?