By Kellie Schorr
Early in my mindfulness journey I bought a mala—a set of 108 beads worn around the wrist or neck.
I wear mine on my wrist. Traditionally it is used to count repetitions when someone employs a mantra as part of their centering or awakening practice. I didn’t have a mantra at the time so I wore it as an external reminder of my internal commitment to be compassionate, fearless and awake in the world.
Every day I lean on its lessons as I traverse the wild world of friends and strangers, highways, byways and grocery store lines. Trust me, when you’ve been standing at the register for 15 minutes because the lady in front of you opened a Ziploc bag and poured about 50 unsorted, possibly expired, coupons on top of the scanner, a little external reminder that you’re a Buddhist could save a life, or at least save you from spending the rest of the night regretting “the thing you said out loud.”
Aware of spiritual materialism (the practice of doing or owning spiritual things just so you feel/look more spiritual), I wanted the mala to have some real involvement in my practice but I was a little intimidated by the idea of 108 repetitions of a phrase I barely understood.
108? Who was I kidding? I still have to sing that song to get through a 26 letter alphabet!
For a while I turned it into portable “worry stone.” I could use it to push the beads around with my thumb and drain off excess energy from social stress. Still, I felt it should be more. In one of the more nerve-wracking places I have found myself, I discovered it could be.
I was sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for some test results. Nervously, I pawed at my mala, sliding my thumb over one bead and then the next, sort-of channeling the Loving Kindness mantra. The first few beads were an exercise in everything I desired:
May I be safe.
May I be well.
May I be happy.
May I live with ease.
May the doctor be in a good mood.
May the scale be friendly.
May my blood work come back alright.
May my insurance pay for the labs.
May I not stare at the apple peel stuck between that lady’s bottom teeth.
Then I began to branch out. The woman with the apple in her teeth was older, worried. I saw her fear when they called her husband into the exam room and he tottered a second before leaning on his cane and walking forward. She reached out to him, her hand behind his back to brace him, but once he got steady she quickly pulled her arm away so he wouldn’t notice she feared he might fall. He’s still got his pride.
May he be safe.
May he be well.
May he be happy.
May she be happy.
May they live these frail years in joy, not fear.
I imagined them as young people and passed over each bead of my mala at a likely stage in their life.
The day she met his mother.
The day he bought a ring, or they picked it out together.
The day she told him she was pregnant.
The first time she felt the child kick inside her.
The little jealousy he felt because he’d never know how that feels.
The things they said.
The things they didn’t say.
The outrageous number of meals they’ve eaten together.
The stacks of bills they’ve paid to keep the lights on.
The work they did to pay them.
The jokes they laughed at.
The midnight fights.
The morning-after make-ups.
The day he saw her first gray hair.
The number of days he waited to mention that, then realized it was gone. She pulled it without saying a word.
The day there were too many gray hairs to pull, and he said he really liked the way it looked.
This sweet older couple lived an entire life in my mind, bead by bead, moment by moment, love by love. It didn’t matter that the images may or may not have been factual. What mattered was the amount of compassion and care I felt swelling inside me. A heart that feels so deeply is a heart unafraid, even when the next name the nurse calls is yours.
A few days later, I watched Cathy sleeping on the couch with the dogs piled on top of her, a stack of nursing articles on the table, and the TV remote still in her hand. I started going through the mala, replaying the litany of our life together. I ran out of beads before I ran out of moments and had to start a second pass.
108? I could have found 1008 things to inspire my gratitude. So much love there. Every bead was a step to another in an unending circle of our intimacy. We’ve lived a good life, by the bead.
Eventually, I developed a mantra devotional practice that was traditional, but I still use my mala when I think about others. It comes in handy when someone is testing my limits and I need to relate to them with compassion, or I just want to luxuriate in gratitude and kindness.
That’s what a mindful life does best. It finds ways to make us aware of where we are, what we know, who we are, and what we carry in our hearts.
In your spiritual journey you will come across so many facts and artifacts, rules and practices. Never be afraid to explore them outside of their traditional lines. Start where you are, learn as much as you can, and let your instinct play a part. You don’t have to settle for someone else’s meaning. Find your way, breath by breath, bead by bead.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
(“Ode” by Arthur O’Shaughnessy).
Editor: Dana Gornall
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