Mercury retrograde has officially slapped my ass and named me its new love-toy. Out of four attempts at insightful and intelligent blog posts this week, all four have ended in muddled, frustrated failure. Oy. You’ll note that my one post of substance was actually written a year ago.
Rather than trying to delve into the depths of any particular spiritual concept, then, I thought I would share my latest mystical love affair: mala meditation. I hope this will be the first of several posts about global ways of prayer that can be adapted (with, of course, utmost respect to their cultures of origin, and the appropriate homework done beforehand) to Pagan practice.
Prayer beads are a feature of a variety of religious traditions, and for a person such as myself with a particularly rabid Squirrelly Mind, working with beads can be quite a boon to one's meditative practice. By giving the Squirrel something to latch onto, you lull him into a state of receptive Squirrel-hypnosis, and allow the Koala Mind* to come out and play.
The procedure is elegant in its simplicity: you recite a prayer, mantra, affirmation, or other sacred bon mots while touching a single bead, then repeat said prayer once for each bead all the way around the string. An Indian or Tibetan mala traditionally has 108 beads plus a terminal bead (called the sumeru, stupu, or guru bead) that’s slightly larger than the rest.
There are a number of ritual practices associated with using a mala--for instance, you are not supposed to hold the bead with your index finger, but turn it clockwise with the thumb. (The index finger represents the ego.) Also, if performing more than 108 recitations, the practitioner doesn't cross over the sumeru bead, but doubles back. Generally it's thought that, like any magical tool, the mala absorbs the energy of the prayer or mantra used with it, so it's best to use a mala for a single prayer or, as is my custom, several related prayers with compatible energies.
Though the practice of the Rosary in Catholicism is very similar in purpose, it has its unique attributes: the term "Rosary" describes both the beads themselves and the set of prayers that go with it, usually including the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary. A traditional Rosary has 50 beads, divided into sets of ten by larger beads, and a terminal charm (with its own associated prayer). Where the mala is usually more of a counting tool, a rosary is a devotional ritual with Mysteries all its own.
Over the years I've seen a variety of Pagan "rosaries" and even created my own, but never could quite strike up a long-term relationship with one. (Google "Pagan Rosary" if you want to give yourself a headache.)
Lately, however, my practice has become even more mystical than it was a year ago, and I am finding that using a single repetitive prayer facilitates a receptive trance state much more efficiently for me than a Rosary-based devotion. I feel it enables me to go deeply into the meaning of the prayer, to wriggle into all its nooks and crannies and experience its energy fully. I have been using my strand of rosewood beads for several prayers and mantras that are all tied in to my own personal spiritual evolution. Depending on what I feel I need to cultivate in myself I choose a particular piece to work with.
Keep in mind, if you decide to start using a mala, to start off small--I would recommend a piece of no more than four or five lines, as you have to repeat it 108 times. Reciting "Om Asatoma" (see below) with my mala with care and attention (not just rushing through it, but enunciating each syllable) takes nearly twenty minutes of continuous chanting, and while that's nothing for an accomplished yogi, for my jaw muscles it's like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Depending on your purpose, shorter or longer selections will be appropriate; I prefer shorter because I want to slip into a hypnotic rhythm and that's easier for me with only a few lines.
Here are some examples of prayers, mantras, and affirmations I have either used or have seen used with mala beads. I have also worked with the Gayatri Mantra quite a bit; it is very, very powerful, and a bit harder to memorize. It and the following can both be found in song format on Deva Premal's The Essence, one of my absolute favorite spirtual CDs.
Om asatoma satgamaya
Tomasoma jyotir gamaya
(Lead me from falsehood into truth,
from darkness into light f
rom death into life.)
May all things move and be moved in me
And know and be known in me
May all creation Dance for joy within me
Now may every living thing,
Young or old, weak or strong,
Living near or far, known or unknown,
Living or departed or yet unborn,
May every living thing be full of bliss.
Fill my heart with love,
That my every teardrop may become a star.
~Hazrat Inayat Khan
Help me to believe
The truth about myself
No matter how beautiful it is!
I am a child of the universe
No less than the trees or stars
Beautiful and complete unto myself
Blessed, essential, and perfect.
~adapted from the Desiderata
You are the soul of the Earth.
You are the drops of rain on a Spring Morning.
You are the cold silence of falling snow.
You envelope all life in your Life.
The Earth shall hold me up
The Air shall give me breath
The Fire shall burn away my fear
The Water shall wash away my doubt.
Lord, may I live each day in Your honor,
Lady, may my every step be a blessing upon Your body.
For more, spend a while clicking at the World Prayers Archive.
* - A Note on Koalas: A number of people have asked me about the dedication to Scott Cunningham in The Circle Within, where I state that he's "probably a koala right now." To explain: koalas are the highest form of life, according to REM front man Michael Stipe. During REM's episode of VH-1 Storytellers, Stipe related an anecdote about a trip to Australia during which he got to hold a koala, which peed on him. He concluded that koalas must be the form of life we all aspire to in reincarnation: they get to hang out in eucalyptus trees all day eating a mild hallucinogen, everyone thinks they're adorable, and their pee smells great. If you watch koalas hanging out on television, they have a certain Zen Jedi Master quality to them like a cross between Yoda and a total stoner.
Behold the Zen Master of Australia: