Using Mala Beads to Develop Compassion and Mindfulness

Mala Beads - Wikimedia Commons

Mala Beads – Wikimedia Commons

by Paul Garrigan
One of the new practices we have introduced as part of our mindfulness program at Hope is using mala/prakam beads. This simple technique will lead to improved concentration and awareness while also helping you to develop compassion for yourself and other people.

Prakam Beads in Thailand

Here in Thailand, the word for ‘mala’ is ‘prakam’ (ประคำ) or ‘maagnap’(หมากนับ) – ‘prakam’ is most commonly used word. These beads are used as a tool when engaging in Buddhist chanting or prayer, but they are not quite as much a part of Thai Buddhism as they are Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, there can be an association here between using prakam and engaging in black magic (ไสยศาสตร์ – saiyasat). So, you might be careful about counting your beads outside of Hope in case somebody thinks you are trying to cast a spell on them!

The first time I used prakam was at a retreat in Chiang Mai where we required to meditate for 72 hours without sleep. The head monk gave me a set of beads and told me to count the number of times I felt myself about to nod off. He was actually tricking me into being more mindful – by getting me to count these spells of sleepiness, I became more objective around them, and this prevented me from actually falling asleep. We are using the beads here in much the same way, we are trying to trick ourselves into being more mindful by giving ourselves something to do.

Using Mala Beads to Develop Compassion and Mindfulness

Hope Meditation Room

Hope Meditation Room


Prakam/Mala – How Many Beads?

It is usual for a mala to have 108 beads or else a fraction of that number such as 54 or 27. There are many theories as to why a mala traditionally has 108 beads but the simplest explanation would be to say that it is considered an auspicious number.


How to Use Mala Beads to Develop Compassion and Mindfulness

The mala practices at Hope are divided into three stages – each stage will take approximately one week to complete.

Note – the following instructions are based on using a mala with 108 beads. If you are using a set that has fewer beads, you adjust the instructions to reflect this – so for example, if you are using a wrist mala with 27 beads, you would multiply the number of required loops by four.

General Advice about Using the Beads
There is always a larger bead with a thread attached to it – this is known as the ‘guru’ bead. You begin any loop with the bead next to the guru bead and work your way around. When get back to the bead next the guru bead – you move back in the opposite direction rather than crossing over the guru bead. Hold each bead between your thumb and index finger – as soon as you have said your slogan, you move onto the next bead.

There is plenty of flexibility about where and when you when you do your mala practice. You might like to do it alone in your room, but you can also do it walking around the grounds of Hope, sitting on the balcony, or you can find a quiet spot in the midst of nature – it’s up to you. Do the practice with your eyes open or closed, but if you are out walking, it is highly recommended you keep your eyes open!

Stage One – Learning to be Mindful

To begin the practice, we just focus on repeating the following metta (loving-kindness) slogans while counting the beads (one bead per slogan):

May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I be safe
May I be at ease

Notice the texture of the bead in your hand as you say your slogan. Say the words with as much sincerity as possible – really mean them. You can repeat the slogans mentally or under your breath. Don’t rush your words – it should take you about 4 minutes to complete one mala loop. At stage one, it is recommended that you do at least 3 mala loops per day focusing on the metta slogans above.

Stage 2 – Expanding Your Compassion
Repeat the same instructions as for stage one but we are now going to slightly change the slogans to:

May I be happy – May Everyone be happy
May I be healthy – May Everyone be Healthy
May I be safe – May Everyone be Safe
May I be at ease – May Everyone be at Ease

The fact that these slogans are longer means that it is going to increase the length of time it takes to do a loop – it should now take about 8 minutes. Continue to do at least three loops per day.

Stage 3 – Increasing Your Mindfulness

The same as the instructions for stage 2 but increase the number of loops per day to at least four. You can also experiment with saying the slogans in tandem with the breath – e.g. breathing in ‘may I be happy’ and breathing out ‘may everyone be happy’. Don’t try to control your breath in any way while doing this – just follow your natural breathing. You can also try choosing specific people to send metta to – e.g. ‘may I be happy, may X be happy’

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Compassion and Mindfulness

The Purpose of the Metta Slogans

Just saying the metta slogans is probably not going to make you happy, healthy, safe, or at ease. There real purpose is to increase your ability to self-soothe. This is important because our usual response to pain is to become negative and fearful, and this is one of the reasons we turn to negative behaviors such as substance abuse.

It is suggested that one-quarter of our mental discomfort is due to the normal ups and downs of life, and the other three-quarters is due to the things we do to avoid that one-quarter. You will eradicate a great deal of unnecessary suffering by learning to be with your pain – you will also find over time that being with this discomfort is nowhere near as hard as you might think. These metta slogans will increase your ability to self-soothe so you feel more able to face your pain.


Benefits of the Hope Mindfulness Mala Practices

  • It increases your ability to self-soothe
  • It improves your concentration and leads to mental clarity
  • Increased compassion means increased joy (“if you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion” – Dalai Lama)
  • It can be a remedy for insomnia
  • It can improve your ability to deal with depression and anxiety
  • It increases your compassion for other people
  • It improves your relationships
  • It can fit in well with the other aspects of the Hope program such as the 12 Steps

Final Tips on Using the Mala Beads

    • In the beginning, you might find it difficult to say the slogans with much sincerity – it can feel stupid or a waste a time – but just give the practice a chance.
    • If you notice somebody using the mala beads, please give them some space
    • Please write down the number of mala loops you are completing every day in your journal and bring this information with you to your mindfulness one-to-one sessions (also record any other mindfulness practices you are doing)

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