Starting With Meditation: Mala Beads

mala beads

I hear a lot these days about meditation and its amazing benefits. Recently, I took a look at some of the research as a part of getting my own practice started. I wanted to start with something doable, so I decided I’d focus on meditating for 30 days. Here’s my update on what I’ve learned so far—along with one of my favorite techniques that I’ve tried.

Mala meditation

Since I’ve heard how it’s good for you, I’ve given several attempts at starting a regular meditation practice over the last few years. This is the first time I’ve really given it a go with a mala, and I’ve really enjoyed the results.

I found out about this modality of meditation from the memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. In her book, she explains a mala is a string of beads designed to guide meditation, and was actually a precursor to the Rosary. Though I now understand they can come in different sizes, the mala Gilbert described has 108 of the beads are evenly divided into three sections of 36, numbers that have spiritual significance in some traditions. A 109th bead, she goes on to explain, is where you pause and thank your teachers.

I actually purchased my own string of mala beads several years ago when I first read Gilbert’s book: a set made out of rosewood and turquoise that I found on Amazon. I came across the beads again recently, and, in combination with reading the book again, I decided to really try using them to meditate.

I have loved the result. I’ve been trying to use them in the morning to start my day, though I usually throw them in my bag when I don’t have time—I’ve enjoyed the meditation experience enough that I’ve wanted to fit it in sometime during the day even if I can’t in the morning. Here’s how I’ve been using them.

How?

When I use them, I find somewhere quiet to sit. So far, this has included my bedroom, our front porch, and my parked car. I’m currently a full-time student, and I did use them once at the library last week, too (holding them under a desk!). I also usually put in earplugs if there are any sounds that might distract me, which I’ve found quite helpful.

Next, I take a moment to think about a mantra for myself: This generally takes the form of a few specific words or sentences about what I’m hoping to do with that day. I include phrases like “happy,” “I can focus,” or simply, “I can do this.” I usually end up with about three or four, which seems to be about my capacity for remembering everything (though I have written them down for myself for this reason, too).

After that, I just take a few moments to close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. I focus on my breathing, and on the dark and quiet. The image of a stream flowing or shooting stars is helpful, and I try to picture all my stray thoughts gently passing by, letting my head clear.

When I feel quiet and calm, I start using the beads and mantras: I feel one bead, and mentally say one of the words or sentences I had picked for the day. Then the next bead, next mantra. Sometimes, I find myself moving slowly, letting each phrase really settle before I move to the next bead. Sometimes, it feels right to move much faster.

Why?

First of all, using a mala is a very doable way to meditate. Having something to physically feel and focus on is easier, in my opinion, then trying to just focus on silence. It makes meditation doable time-wise, also: I don’t use a timer when I meditate with the beads, or feel like I “should” be meditating for a certain amount of time. Instead, once I’ve worked my way around the whole string of beads, I’m done.

For the first two days I meditated with the mala, I was struck by how much more productive I was. As I mentioned, I’m currently back in school. I feel like I struggle a lot with focus while I’m doing school work (I’m sure you can relate!). But practicing letting stray thoughts pass during meditation carried over big time to studying. Instead of constantly pausing my studying to check my bank account or look up something I had heard about in the news, I was able to recognize these thoughts as unproductive, and then try to gently let them pass by. Since those first two days, I’ve noticed that, depending on the day, meditating doesn’t always have this same effect, though I do feel it helps overall with focus.

I’ve also found the concept of a mantra very helpful. I think some who have more experience meditating with a mala might say I should be using traditional Sanskrit sayings when I meditate. I have loved picking out an intention for the day, however, and then spending time to let it sink in. This has been a great way to encourage myself (like with the mantra, “I can be productive, I can do this, I can get stuff done”), as well as helping myself find balance (on one weekend: “Focused, productive, happy, restful”).

In conclusion

I started meditating with the hope that it would help me improve my mood. I do find it restful, and that it can help me “reset” when I’m really in a funk. I also notice, however, (like I mentioned above about focusing), that I don’t always get the exact same benefits every time I meditate. Sometimes it changes my whole day, and sometimes it just doesn’t (there was also the day where it just made me sleepy).

I feel like I’m learning a lot from my thirty-day experiment, though. I’m excited to continue—and to see what else I discover.

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