I always loose my malas. I only ever accept these as gifts, so I can never replace them when I lose them. I think these are very useful devices, and so one of the techniques I’ve used in place of a mala is by counting on my fingers.
I count the segments of the fingers instead of the actual fingers. (I know these are often called phalanges, like the bones, but I prefer segments.) With three segments to a finger (sorry, I don’t count the thumb), there are twelve to a hand, and so you can count up to 12 on one hand or 24 on both hands. This is especially useful for counting seconds of minutes.*
There are a few ways that I count on my fingers in place of a mala. For your standard mantra, I try to recite it 108 times. Conveniently, that’s nine times over one hand. With one hand you count each recitation, and with the other hand you count sets of twelve recitations. So for nine sets of 108 recitations, that’s three fingers. It’s a very natural way of keeping count of such a large number.
Other times I use my fingers to count my breath. I’ll move my thumb over each segment, and for each segment I’ll mindfully breathe in and out. This practice is no more than another way to do breath meditation. Counting on my hand is an aid for concentration. Especially at work or on the bus, counting on my hand also gives me a simple limit so I can get back in touch with my breath, but not for too long, be it 12 breaths, 24 breaths or 108.
Lastly, I also count the segments of my fingers for metta meditation. For this, I think thoughts of loving kindness for a single person or group of people for each segment. Staring with myself, I move all the way down to all beings. I’m still working out an assignment for each segment. (I get uncomfortable that I’m giving too much metta to some and not enough to others. I know, it’s a bit neurotic.) In the meantime, I’ve stuck to the old practice of wishing metta to myself, someone dear to me, someone neutral, someone towards who I feel some antipathy, to all four of us and then to all beings.
All these little meditations can be done with a mala too. For the most part, I count on my hands is because I either don’t have a mala or I’m afraid I might lose it. Forgive me for the corny title, but I couldn’t think of a better one!
* This method of finger counting is a very common way of counting in Southeast Asia, but when I searched for a reference online, all I found were mentions of Sumerians and ancient Egyptians. One of my best friends is Bengali, and he tells me that you can count up to twenty on a hand, but I have no idea how he does this.