A String of Restarts: Using Mala Beads in Non-Mantra Mindfulness Meditation

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Disclaimer: I wrote this article because I could not find another one like it. Unlike most pieces about the power of utilizing mala beads during meditation, espousing their ability to help one in the counting of the recitations of a mantra, this method uses no mantra.

The “Wasted” Meditation Session

How long did it take before you experienced a “failed” meditation session? An instance where you feel like you would have been better off never having even attempted to meditate at all due to the noisy state of your mind? Two weeks? A month? Six months?

For me, I’d say it was about three days of meditating before I was routinely saying to myself, “Well, that was pointless.” My primary cause for hopelessness was what felt like an inability—or at least strained ability—to recenter my focus following the realization that I was lost in thought. In these moments, I felt like I just couldn’t shake lingering thoughts—like toilet paper on my shoe. 

Though this is a rather typical experience for Mindfulness Meditation practitioners, I’ve found some reasonable relief from this mid-session hopeless in an unlikely source; mala beads, also referred to as a mala.

“Hey, You’re Using That Wrong”

A mala? Aren’t those for mantra-based meditation, such as Transcendental Meditation? You’re absolutely correct. You’re so correct, in fact, that I have yet to find any writings online or elsewhere that outline how to use to a mala in Mindfulness Meditation—thus the purpose son for this article. This isn’t to toot my own horn—perhaps I’m just a weaker meditator in need of such a security blanket or the Mindfulness equivalent of a fidget spinner. Still, for the myriad varieties of meditation methods, I’m surprised that I haven’t found this technique mentioned.

For a quick background on mala beads for the unacquainted:

A mala (Sanskrit word for “garland”) is a string of 108 beads (a special significance in the Buddhist tradition) including a main “guru” bead to denote the beginning. Malas are traditionally used for counting Buddhist chants, prostrations, or mantras. The beads can be made of anything from wood and seeds to specific stones.

How Malas Can Be Used In Mindfulness

Though malas are synonymous with meditation, to my understanding, they’re almost unheard of for use in Mindfulness Meditation. Despite this, using a mala’s beads as a tactile denotation of mental recentering following the awareness of a thought during a sitting Mindfulness Meditation session can be transformative. It goes a little something like this:

Using a Mala for a Sitting Mindfulness Meditation Session

mala mindfulness meditation

  • Sit in your usual Mindfulness Meditation posture — likely with your eyes closed, spine straight, and your head level.
  • Take the mala in your dominant hand, lightly holding the bead just following the largest “guru” bead between your thumb and middle finger. The index finger traditionally represents the ego, so out of respect for the mala’s original intent, it may be best to hold it in its intended way here.
  • The duration of holding a single bead denotes one instance of constant mindful focus, however long that happens to last. It could last two minutes or two seconds.
  • Once you notice the presence of thinking or rumination, make a mental note of it, and realign your focus on the breath.
  • Once you have realized you are thinking, treat the new bead like a restart button for your focus on the present moment.

The tactile sensation of moving from one bead to the next following a mindful restart of present consciousness allows for an enhanced distinction between one micro-meditation session and the next.  Simply put, use the bead as a “RESTART” button like you would with a computer, mobile, or video game console—instead, this restart is for your focus on the breath and, thereby, the present moment. 

Though the use of a mala to mentally distinguish this restart is not mandatory (it’s actually downright unheard of for the most part), moving from one mala bead to the next with every mental recentering helps to separate mindful moments from mindless moments.

Begin Again

Since using a mala in my Mindfulness Meditation sitting practice, I have yet to experience the same feelings of hopelessness in the face of a seemingly irredeemable meditation session. Instead, each restarting denoted by moving to a new bead feels like a brand new meditation session within a meditation session. It’s not unheard of for me to go through the 108 beads in a single 20-minute sitting Mindfulness Meditation session. That means I allowed myself to restart over 100 times within the span of 20 minutes — all without beating myself up over my inability to focus. 

It is important to remember that unbroken focus, though a pleasurable “in the zone” sensation,  isn’t the goal of Mindfulness Meditation. Instead, the goal is to notice wandering thoughts without judgment or analysis before they derail our practice, decrease focus, or incite anxiety and depression.

Wearing a Mala Outside of Meditation

mala mindfulness meditation
Bob Ross also helps me remember to remain mindful.

I have grown to enjoy wearing my mala as a necklace during the day. Not only does it allow for quick meditation sessions on breaks, but it also reminds me to remain mindful — truly in the moment — anytime I feel its presence. Some may not recommend wearing a mala, especially if you’re not Buddhist (which I am not), but this remains a personal choice.

Where to Obtain a Mala

Malas can be obtained from most any meditation goods store—whether brick and mortar or online. While you can find malas on Amazon for as little as $7 of less, I personally recommend shopping Etsy to support smaller businesses and to receive a quality, handmade mala that is likely the product of more responsible working conditions. Spend a little time finding a mala that resonates with you as you’ll likely be spending a lot of time with it.

mala mindfulness meditation
My rosewood mala with Eitz Chaim (“Tree of Life”) pendant — representing the life-sustaining nature of the Torah for Jews.

In Conclusion

I hope that this piece was helpful. If I’m entirely wrong about this practice not being mentioned elsewhere (and I hope that I am), I wholeheartedly welcome and even covet feedback on the matter. This piece is simply me sharing how borrowing the tools from one particular meditation practice to enhance another.

Happy meditating.

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Also, I’ve recently (as of December 2019) authored a short book about my own experiences in developing transformational habits in 2019 entitled A Year Ungraded. You can download it for free here.