I was at a meditation retreat recently where I was using my mala quite a bit. My mala is a beautiful string of prayer beads given to me by my friend and teacher, Ron Teeguarden.
Ron bought the beads in Bhutan where they reportedly once belonged to a Buddhist monk; so they’ve been used quite a bit, which only adds to their mystique for me. I romanticize this mala and imagine all the blessings contained in its beads. In fact, they are not really beads at all, but hand-made discs. Over time, and because of its use by the monk-in-my-imagination and me, a few of the discs have split and become two or three instead of one. I’ve never wanted to fix them because I always felt those worn-out beads contained just a few more blessings than the others. After all, if they have been prayed on so many times that they cracked, they must be really special, right?
I became aware of something at the retreat, which is that many of the same people seem to show up over and over again in my life. I don’t mean the exact person, but similar characters seem to come and go from my life, playing different roles, but with strikingly familiar personalities, nuances, and tendencies.
I say this because for the first day or two of this retreat I found myself saying over and over to my wife, “Doesn’t that person remind you of so and so …?” Like a bad dream, I looked around and noticed all the familiar players of my life story. The funny thing is that the characters are never the ones you wish would show up again and again. No, they tend to be the ones who annoy the shit out of you. You know the kind of people I’m talking about: the woman with the loud voice who laughs at the top of her lungs and always seems to sit right next to you; the man with the body odor who just kind of lingers for no reason; the woman who sits down without invitation and unloads her problems on you. You know what I’m talking about, right? Those people, who just show up again and again like a broken record skipping on the most annoying part of the song, like “Ice, Ice, Baby … bum, bumbum, bumbadabumbum …” repeating over and over, again and again and again.
So I started thinking about this. I just kind of put it in my mind and let it play. Then one day during early morning meditation, my fingers ran over one of the cracked beads in my mala, and with the cracks telling me immediately where I was in the series of beads, I took a deep breath as my thumb moved over the final six beads in the meditation. I sat and contemplated on the beads. I thought again about fixing the broken ones and again decided not to. But this time the reason was different.
Those broken beads were like a GPS for my meditation, they told me exactly where I was. The first one, cracked in two, is a third of the way through the series. When I reach it I know I am on the way, but it’s also a reminder to relax and settle in. The second one, about 20 from the end, is cracked in three; it’s a real mess. On many occasions I have double or triple counted it. But I’ve learned my lesson now and know to not fall for that trick. The thinness of the broken pieces is my tip, like breadcrumbs on a trail; a reminder not to repeat the mistake of the past. And the final cracked disc is seven from the end. It has a jagged edge, and if I get lazy and use two fingers it pokes me on the bottom, so I have to keep my form and use my thumb to move it from the top. You see what I mean? In all their imperfections, those broken beads serve a purpose, they have taught me lessons, they keep me on track, and they tell me where I’m going.
I smiled at the beauty of this realization. I gave my beads a little squeeze of appreciation and then, on cue, the lingering guy with the BO came by and started lingering. I forgot the mala and, I must admit, thought some pretty bad thoughts about the guy. In the process of mentally dismembering the foul-smelling chap I squeezed my beads. I must have been holding them near the jagged disc because it poked me, hard. Now I was mad at my beads and the BO guy.
I got up to walk away and then sat down again. I closed my eyes and took in the irony of the moment. The familiar character showing up, my poking my finger on the broken bead. I knew better than to squeeze the bead like that, I had learned that lesson already. But I got poked nonetheless. Why? Because I had forgotten the lesson and I guess I needed to learn it again. Was it the same with all these people who kept showing up again and again? Was the merry-go-round of my life simply a reminder of lessons learned to keep me on track? Were the players in my life just like the beads on my mala?
Prior to coming to the retreat, I had taken a look at my life and found some areas I wanted to change. So I shook the tree of my daily routine to see what fell out. And sure enough there, disguised in new costumes, were many of the same characters of my life. Personalities I believed I had long ago discarded had showed up again. I was making progress, for sure. I used to marry these people, or make them my best friends, or work for them. This time they showed up as the pool guy and the pilates coach. Progress for sure; but still, how had they come back into my life?
Sitting at the meditation retreat I realized that I carried them with me, just like my prayer beads. These annoying fuckers I so longed to be rid of were, in fact, the lessons of my karma — the things I am to deal with in this life, the lessons I am to learn. And so they pop up everywhere, again and again … even at a meditation retreat on the other side of the continent.
I asked Guru Singh about this and he replied, “Existence is constantly doing this, where the masks switch again and again to insure that the absolute solution is absolute.” In other words, life gives us these characters again and again to make sure we learn the lesson. They show up until the lesson is learned in its entirety.
I like to think of situations like this from the perspective of, “Why did I call this person into my life?” (I have no answer for the BO guy because that goes beyond all spirituality and is a serious issue that just needs to be addressed at events like these!) But for the rest of the characters of my life, I think they are just like my prayer beads — they are a real-time feedback system that shows me where I am on my spiritual path. When the personality formerly known as my ex-wife shows up as a clerk at the juice bar, I can smile, congratulate myself on my progress, and then also check in on what I’m experiencing and why she’s there. Was I craving a little drama? Did I need some negative contrast to feel good about myself? When the loud-laughing lady sits down next to me, instead of feeling irritated, I have the opportunity to be glad that she no longer shows up as my friend who constantly causes disruptions and embarrassments. I now look at the subtleties that led me to sit next to this strangely familiar stranger. When I sit down in class and see an old boss in the eyes of the teacher, I find myself feeling so fortunate that even if I leave in the middle of the class, my financial well being isn’t affected because of my insult. But I also take time to contemplate on the reason he is “here” once again.
This process can, and should be, a friendly one, a learning experience that allows you to smile at yourself and your “unwanted friends” like a game of spiritual hide-and-seek with different parts of your life hiding out in the most random places. Have fun with the growth, love yourself, and celebrate even the smallest progress.
As I write this I am looking with supreme gratitude at my amazing wife, and it just seems like all those pokes from my mala were worth it. Although I think I’m going to super glue those broken old beads; lesson learned and time to move on to the next one.
Big hugs of love,