Q: What is the difference between meditating and doing japa with a mala?
A: The process of meditation and doing japa (repetition of a mantra) with a mala are similar, but they are not the same. Practicing japa with a mala allows you to build a strong foundation for meditation. Using a mala during meditation practice carries an awareness of the number of mantra repetitions and—at least to some extent—awareness of the speed at which the mantra is flowing. But when you actually go deep into meditation, you are not aware of the number of mantra repetitions or of the pace at which the mantra is flowing. In fact, if you are truly meditating, you don’t repeat your mantra; you simply listen to it. Deep within, you are still. The sound of your mantra is already there and you listen so attentively and peacefully that you are not aware of any thought other than the continuous flow of your mantra.
The problem we face in learning to meditate is that an untrained, undisciplined mind has a hard time remaining still. It is accustomed to bouncing from one object to another and resists remaining engaged only with the mantra. Doing japa—repeating the mantra—using a mala is a constructive way to provide the mind with more than one object on which to focus. It is an effective way of training the mind to drop all other concerns and focus solely on the mantra.
Mala and mind form a partnership; they help and motivate each other. To do japa with a mala, hold the mala so that your fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders are free of tension while you are moving the beads. Remember your mantra silently while you move the beads. Your fingers will soon become adjusted to the beads and you will be able to move them effortlessly. The pace at which you remember the mantra and move the beads should be fully coordinated. Do not move a bead unless you repeat the mantra, and do not repeat the mantra without moving a bead. If the mind starts wandering or becomes drowsy, the mala will slow down, stop, or may even drop from your hand. This immediately lets you know your mind is no longer focused on the mantra.
The result of using a mala is that you remember your mantra with fewer distractions and disturbances. As your japa practice progresses, you may begin touching a deep state of meditation and find that moving the beads seems to be a lot of work. If your posture is correct and the mala and fingers are so familiar with each other that they do not require even the slightest attention from your mind, then japa with a mala continues, although you are neither aware of the beads nor of the process of moving them. However, before the mind slips into deep meditation, it often goes through a state of natural disinterestedness in moving the beads. In that case, let the mala drop and allow your mind to dive into the depths of that meditative joy and stillness. This state may not last long, and your mind may soon start entertaining other thoughts. The moment you realize this is happening, gently pick up your mala and resume your japa.
This journey—from japa to meditation and back to japa—is the best way to train and discipline the mind for the inward journey without fighting with your habit patterns.