A japa mala is a string of prayer beads used in meditation that help count the number of times one has chanted her mantra. I was first introduced to this Hindu practice by my yoga teacher and I use it on occasion when my mind is too buzzy to find stillness on its own. There are 108 small beads and one larger one that I was told was not used for the mantra but to thank your teachers.
I never was initiated into a mantra by going to the local ashram as I intended initially; life got in the way and then it became less of a good idea to align myself with one tradition in such a manner. It seemed rather suspect that I could stop at the Tibetan store in town and essentially buy what looked like a necklace and then step fully into a new spiritual practice because I though Saraswati was neat. At this point my mantra is not even in Sanskrit and it has its own sort of ritual beginnings.
When I first learned about offering thanks to my teachers, I hesitated. Thanks to the guy on the cover of a book whose only chapter I had read was specifically on the mala? Thanks to Mrs. Clark from first grade? Thanks to my yoga teacher who was a friend of mine, a real world person? I knew just enough about the guru system to know that I had never encountered a teacher to whom I wished to offer that kind of fealty (though the professor who taught us that “Yeats was a genius” came close).
Beyond being concerned that the lack of alignment with any specific tradition separated me from a significant teacher/student relationship, I was deathly afraid of becoming an adherent, a groupie, a fan, someone who abdicated her own individuality in the face of another’s wisdom. Perhaps this was born of the fact that I had never found something I could embrace unquestioningly or that I wasn’t ready to make that kind of commitment. Maybe it was because I was afraid of endorsing another’s beliefs by becoming her student and then later finding out she was in fact human and flawed and just in it to make a buck or to revel in the power of it all.
I am coming to understand that a healthy resistance to placing my fate in another’s hands does not necessarily exclude me from acknowledging my teachers and offering them my gratitude. Certainly the authors that I have read over the past few months have shaped me in profound ways. The works of Andrew Harvey, Caroline Myss, Stephen Cope, and James Martin S.J. are incredible, and I can state that freely even if I have my reservations about aspects of their philosophies or business models. Naming those whose works have been filtered through publishers and editors is to recognize only the most obvious form of knowledge, of course.
The only answer to all of this worry about “who will guide me?” is to realize that I am guided by every experience in this life, both positive and less so. The luxurious stretch of a cat. The friendliness of the mailman. The closed bud of a rhododendron in the cold. The love of my family. My curiosity to understand it all. I can only hope that I can come to realize that my meditative state is not so fragile as to have to exclude all of these little daily examples, because what is meditation if it is not rooted completely in the pedestrian beauty of life?