A leg up

108 Ways of Being

wooden wrist mala from compassion malas on Etsy

108 beads for 108 ways to be.

Whether we’re working to overcome a bad bout of depression, seeking to grieve and assimilate a new loss, or just evolving into yet another new type of awareness that’s left us needing to recalibrate a bit, a relatively objective self-assessment rubric can help. Mood trackers can be vague, even with a numeric 1-10 scale or a pre-set list of words to choose from. I know that my own sense of how I’m feeling in any given moment shifts with how I’m feeling in aggregate, and so it can be hard to tell if it’s the land or the boat that’s moving, y’know?

It would be nice to start with some objective measurement, like standing a child up to their growth chart on the wall. Really, though, life isn’t that linear. Our experience of moving through it is a little more like dead reckoning at sea. And really, that’s still pretty flat by comparison–only going from one dimension (up or down) to two (north versus south & east versus west). How do we tally up the more unquantifiable aspects of our infinitely faceted jewels that are always shifting in the light to reflect the countless others?

What about a more subjective measurement? I once made up a system that had such ratings for my sense of how I did in a day like RTW (rocking the world), JST (just slogging through), and such. While it gave me a fun and easy way to communicate my state with my counselor, it wasn’t really useful in terms of holding myself accountable in the name of personal growth. Under any scrutiny at all, those subjective assessments just collapse into various flavors and combinations of like & dislike (which, we know from the sutras, is a disease of the mind).

So, how do we break it down into as objective a series of parameters as we can? I recently met someone who had a great answer for that, even though that wasn’t what I asked him.

While attending a retreat at Upaya Zen Center, one day at lunch I found myself sitting across the table from Genzan, one of the novice priests (who has since become a friend and valued teacher), who was wearing a long mala wrapped around his wrist. I’ve always been curious about malas and their role in the practice. I’ve never seen my teacher use or wear one, and so they are not something that has formally played any role in my practice thus far. So, I asked Genzan about his. He replied that it had been a gift at his ordination. When I asked him what it meant or what it was for, the answer was a gift to us all.

Apparently, the 108 beads symbolize 108 ways of being. Our awareness can be placed in any of our 6 senses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; focused on any of 3 timeframes: past, present future; judged from any of 3 mindsets: positive, neutral, negative; and engaged with either of 2 states of attachment: grasping, non-grasping. 6 x 3 x 3 x 2 = 108. Wow.

When it comes to understanding, or even changing, our habitual states and patterns, awareness is the keenest tool. Time and again since learning about this, I’ve used it in moments where my feelings are stirred up. Whether it’s the mind+past+negative+grasping (in this model negative + grasping is aversion) of finding myself reliving old hurts from someone I hope to never see again, or the body+future+positive+grasping of looking forward to curling up to cuddle with my husband at the end of a tough day, it’s amazing how connecting with each of these aspects and calling them out for what they are almost effortlessly pulls that focus back to a-balance-of-the-six+present+neutral+non-grasping state of observation, even as the thoughts and feelings play on.

In Hakomi/IFS therapy (and likely other modalities, but that’s where I’ve heard it), that’s called being “in self,” and it’s that presence and mindfulness that spares us fresh trauma from the slings and arrows of our memories, fantasies, wishes, and wants and frees us to freshly see and fall in love again and again with each and every moment, just as it is.


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