There is a pond near my home that fills itself with water from natural springs. The burbling and bubbling comes between granite stones and down several rocks into the water filled with fresh cress and ducklings. I often walk to sit on a bench near the water, hidden behind a grove of young trees, and count the stones in the water.
For years, I hid in the forests of my childhood. The jack pines behind our trailer were my watchers, my guardians, as I journeyed through books and music and poetry. I escaped the harsh reality of my family by hiding in the trees. It was my refuge, my safest place. I built a shrine, deep in the forest, carrying stones I found in the woods and the field across the road to build an altar, counting each stone.
As a young child, I didn’t understand the importance of 108. I only knew that when I had carried that many stones, the altar was complete. When I was older, I learned about the mala, about the counting of beads as an act of meditation, a commitment to connection. As an adult, I honor and recognize the power of numbers, hold sacred the practice of japa.
There are many meditation teachers who have told me that the only “true” way to practice japa is on a cushion, with a string of beads in my hands, eyes closed. The chanting flows through the lips, easy as breath. All other acts, they said, are imitation. And yet, curled up on a bench in the middle of January in Wisconsin, counting the stones leading from the running spring to the creek at the opposite end of the pond, I am here: ओं मणिपद्मे हूं Om Mani Padme Hum. I am learning. I am open to the teaching.
Once, when I moved, my mala snapped in two, the beads clattering across the wood floor and under the furniture. It wasn’t until all the boxes had been carried out that I found the final bead, the ending and beginning, tucked into a corner. I re-strung the rosewood beads, counting each with intention, but it feels different, changed somehow. There are gaps between the beads, an excess of string.
I no longer live near the altar in the forest, but the stones in the duck pond serve as reminders of that place. When the mala feels not-quite-right, when the sun is bright against the cover of snow, I trudge out to the bench, settle in with mittens and warm tea, and count.