My first mala was a silver capped Rudraksha I ordered on the internet about twelve years ago. It’s a half mala made of 54 beads and doesn’t fit all the way around my wrist in the bohemian chic yoga fashion we have all come to know and love, but it’s a good mala anyway. I learned there is such a thing as Shiva, mantra, and prayer beads as a necessary accessory simultaneously – I shopped immediately and with abandon.
I chose the silver, chain linked number for the same reason I bought that shirt with the zipper all the way up the back that time – style and function. By my estimation, if it’s chain linked then my mala isn’t likely to break, which back then would have been a travesty because I didn’t yet know how to make or repair them. This mala needed to be sturdy because I was hell on wheels; determined to do both spiritual practice and maintain the half drunk social life I cultivated all the way back in beauty school, it wasn’t uncommon for me to do my japa (mantra repetition) in the CVS parking lot where I bought my cigarettes on my way to the bar.
This mala, in particular, has seen the best and the worst I have ever had to offer. This mala witnessed nightmare boyfriends, all night benders and career changes at the speed of light. It was with me in teacher training and the first time I went to Kashi Atlanta; I wore this mala around my neck and I felt both conspicuous and liberated.
At some point, I wanted a new mala. This is when I decided to learn how to make my own and the rest is history. I make prayer beads all the time now; for sale, for gifts, for friends and teachers in training and I feel very lucky to to do it. That first mala is something special because I realized it could be done, that I could envision it and then have it in hand. It is black ebony with gold flecked acrylic accent beads and a black and gold elephant charm beneath a small Rudraksha (the same brown seed bead of which my first ever mala was entirely made) – this mala looks like it should be around Michelle Pfriffer’s neck in Married to the Mob.
You may wonder whatever happened to that unbreakable chain linked mala that got me all the way to the cushion to begin with? When I learned that it’s appropriate to drape a mala over a picture of a beloved Teacher or Guru, that’s exactly what I did. I don’t know how long those Rudraksha beads circled Neem Karoli’s image, but it seems like a long time. The silver began to look dull and the tiny dog tag with Shiva in place of a tassel tarnished so it was hard to make out the image of the meditating Lord.
I’m not sure exactly when, but that mala fell into a tea light so that two of the silver capped beads were coated in white wax. I wasn’t sure how to clean wax out of the crevices of Rudraksha beads and, having decided that it lent an authentic, well loved took to my altar, left them alone until last week when I wrote “clean wax off mala” on my to-do list in my dot journal.
I don’t know what inspired me to add this to my to-do list, but once it was there I felt like I should actually do it. I’d moved the mala from the wood frame to the bowl of a blue lotus candle holder once I decided to clean it, and I retrieved it from its ceramic cradle last night. I looked dubiously at the tarnished metal, uncertain of my plan to rehabilitate it and not even sure why I felt inclined.
Alas, I took it to the kitchen sink over which I began to pick at the wax with my thumb nail. I was delighted that it flaked off easily enough, but there was still the matter of more deeply embedded wax. My plan was to boil it out with hot tap water, which worked like a charm. The wax melted out of the small channels of the dark beads quickly.
I turned on the cold tap and gathered the mala in my hand so the water could wash like prayers over the entire strand and with the cool water running over my hands my mind wandered back to Kashi. I thought about the Kali puja I attended with my Teacher. It was the February weekend workshop that culminated in a timeless practice of devotion through which I sang kirtan among my friends.
I witnessed my Teacher offer her hands to the care of Kali in the temple where we practice and learn. The room was awash in sunlight but we were all transfixed by the devotion and offering of time and attention taking place before us. There were candles and incense, fruit and chocolate, ghee poured onto a flame, there was a garland and flowers for the Mother. There was a palpable awareness that none of us would ever be the same.
Like the snap back of the space/time rubber band, I realized standing at the sink with my hands and prayer beads in running water that to practice puja means to take care, to tend to, to attend to. In a flash, this realization changed the whole feeling of cleaning this mala from the physical removal of debris to an act of devotion to that which is in service of the Divine. What else is a Mala meant to serve?
I dried this mala and noticed it felt lighter and sparkly, though the beads remained dark from the recent flood of water and years of use. I oiled the beads with jasmine oil and a silent passage of mantra over the beads to tune into the mantra, the mala and the Divine. I spent some time polishing that silver tag bearing Shiva’s likeness so that the tarnish lightened to a patina.
I realize as much as I have wanted to be told what book to read or which website might teach me about puja, it’s actually something that dawns like light in the heart. I might have been told a million times in a thousand lives, but having been shown is like the equivalent of muscle memory in the energy body – retrievable, irreversible, immanent. It is actually and absolutely the product of Grace.
But with this information regarding puja, it opens the practice of puja to limitless possibilities. Even self care can be a form of puja to the Divine dwelling within the body; drink plenty of water, eat good food, walk on the Earth.
Make effort on behalf of the good.
Give your full attention whenever possible.
As my Guru would conclude her emails, “This is my puja, and this is my prayer.”
Sunlight made visible
the whole length of a sky,
movement of wind,
leaf, flower, all six colours
on tree, bush and creeper:
is the day’s worship.
Night and day
in your worship
I forget myself
O lord white as jasmine.