How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness

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Release Date: 
July 11, 2011
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“Only after the batteries were exhausted, and I had called both the electric and water companies just to say hello did I get off the phone. After that, I found that I was comfortable enough to spend one full evening without television before things returned to normal the next morning.”

Jan Chozen Bays is a big proponent of mindful living. And that seems, upon reading her book, How to Train a Wild Elephant, to be a very good thing indeed.

She writes, “Sometimes we are mindful, and sometimes we are not. A good example is paying attention to your hands on the steering wheel of a car. Remember when you were first learning to drive, and how the car wobbled and wove its way along the road as your hands clumsily jerked the wheel band and forth, correcting and overcorrecting? You were wide awake, completely focused on the mechanics of driving. After a while your hands learned to steer well, making subtle and automatic adjustments. You could keep the car moving smoothly ahead without paying any conscious attention to your hands. You could drive, talk, eat, and listen to the radio, all at the same time.”

Thus it seems that our lives are woven strands of mindful and unmindful moments. Moments in which we are fully aware, and other, more common moments, in which we chew our food like cud, blank out our awareness of our surroundings, and slump our way through our day, driving on automatic. And, as they say, admitting that there is the problem is the first step to a solution. So perhaps a more conscious consciousness is possible, wherein our food has flavor, our surroundings color and our bodies move purposefully through time and space.

This, says Jan Chozen Bays, is the stuff of mindfulness, which she defines as follows:

“Mindfulness is deliberately paying full attention to what is happening around you and within you—in your body, heart and mind. Mindfulness is awareness without criticism and judgment.”

Therefore: I see it, I experience it, but I do not judge it.

It is that last bit that terrifies.

Also, as Dr. Bays herself admits, there’s the getting started, the finding the time for basking in awareness:

“People often say to me, ‘I’d love to practice mindfulness, but I’m so busy I can’t seem to find the time.’

“Most people think of mindfulness as something they must squeeze into an already full schedule of working, raising children, caring for a home. In truth, making mindfulness part of your life is more like a game of connect the dots, or like a paint-by-the-numbers kit. Do you remember those pictures where each small area is labeled with a number that tells you which color to use? As you filled in all the brown areas, then the greens and the blues, a pleasing picture begins to emerge.

“Mindfulness practice is like that. You begin with one small area of your life, let’s say how you answer the phone. Each time the phone rings, you pause to take three long, slow breaths before you pick it up. You do this for a week or so, until it becomes a habit. Then you add another mindfulness practice, such as mindful eating. Once this way of being present is integrated into your life, you add another. Gradually you are present and aware more and more moments of the day. The pleasing experience of an awakened life begins to emerge.”

Having presented her readers with a simple definition of mindfulness and a basic plan for bringing it into her readers’ lives, Dr. Bays spends the bulk of the book sharing with her readers fifty-three different exercises in mindfulness, each of which was developed in the Zen monastery in which she serves as abbess; each of which is meant for the reader to work with for one full week, incorporating the action (“Silly Walking” or “Entering New Spaces”) or intention (“Become Aware of Your Center”) into everyday experiences.

Keeping in mind that readers are to attempt each exercise for a full week, turning to them multiple times per day, it occurred to this reader that, should he fully explore this book, any review of it (reviews, sadly, equal awareness plus judgment, which is certainly not mindfulness, if also not quite its opposite) would not appear for several months to come. Therefore, three exercises were chosen (which will be referred to as “the good,” “the bad” and “the very, very ugly”) and were attempted for one short day in order for this reader to get a feel for the requirements of mindfulness.

Among the exercises selected were:

Day One: Exercise Three, Filler Words (“The Good”): As Jan Chozen Bays puts it, the idea here is to “become aware of the use of ‘filler’ words and phrases and try to eliminate them from you speech. Fillers are words that do not add meaning to what you’re saying, such as ‘um,’ ‘ah,’ ‘so,’ ‘well,’ ‘like,’ ‘you know,’ and ‘sort of.’ To this list, she adds “basically,’ and ‘anyway.”

The idea seems simple enough. Just turn up the volume on the parental voice in your head and pay attention to that voice when it snaps, “Don’t say that.”

At 10:00 A.M. I was speaking coherent and cogent sentences, all without the offending fillers. At 2:00 P.M. I was speaking with a stuttering pause/stutter/pause/stutter stutter stutter of someone with PSTD. By 5:00, I had a severe headache. And yet, I was mindful, oh, so very mindful of how much of my speech was cluttered with “ums” and “ohs” and other Styrofoam peanuts of the mind. I was more than happy to see the day end.

Day Two: Exercise Seven, Mindfulness of Posture (“The Bad”): The idea here is to be aware of your body at all times and, when you find yourself slumping or otherwise acting in a non-mindful manner, subtly adjusting yourself to a proper posture.

More basically, it means being aware of being in your own body—how that feels and what that means. As the author puts it, “If you closed your eyes, what would be the clues that you are standing or sitting or lying down? For example, if you are sitting in a chair with your eyes closed, what tells you that you are in a body that’s sitting? Where do you feel pressure or movement?”

Honestly, I felt pressure just from having to sit upright for the day, as my usual posture is something combining a slump and a coma. But, once again, the parental voice was unleashed, this time to hiss, “Sit up straight,” every time my posture varied. No doubt, from another’s point of view, I looked like an off-season dreidel. But I spent the day accomplishing mindfulness of posture and being in my own body, if little else.

Day Three, Exercise Thirteen, Media Fast (“The Very, Very Ugly”): Bypassing such exercises as “When Eating Just Eat” and “This Person Could Die Tonight,” for the relative simplicity of “Media Fast,” I found the rules to be both simple and impossible: Do not listen to the radio, iPod, or PCs; don’t watch TV, films, or videos; don’t read newspapers, books or magazines (whether online or in print form); don’t surf the Internet; and don’t check on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.”

By 8:15 A.M., I felt noble; by 8:45 A.M., martyred. And by 11:00 A.M., I felt like a teenaged girl who has been grounded, her pink cell phone seized, all electronics in her room confiscated. I was left to guide myself through my suddenly dark and dreary world by having my fingertips touch the walls as I passed, struck blind by plight, until I realized that she had not said “No telephone,” and I shushed the parental voices in my head and reached for the cordless. Only after the batteries were exhausted, and I had called both the electric and water companies just to say hello did I get off the phone. After that, I found that I was comfortable enough to spend one full evening without television before things returned to normal the next morning.

While it’s easy enough to find a good many things to joke about in How to Train a Wild Elephant, there is great deal to praise it for as well. First and foremost is the idea of mindfulness, the idea that we can infuse our days with meaning, if we will only take the time to notice our world and then become actively involved with it. And then there are the exercises themselves. Surely, the whole world would be better off it only we could get every adult member of it to do one exercise—Mindful Driving—and surely the number of accidents related to “road rage” would decrease as well.

And happily, we do indeed learn how to train that wild elephant. That comes as part of Exercise Sixteen, Just Three Breaths, in which we learn to take frequent breaks during the day to breath deeply three times and then to open our senses to the world.

As the author then tells us, “The Buddha talked about the unrestrained mind as a feral elephant. Its strength is dissipated as it runs around wildly. To harness its power, we must first tie it to a stake. This is what we do when we tie the mind to breath. Then we teach the elephant to stand still. We teach the mind to empty itself and stand ready, alert but relaxed, waiting for whatever will appear next.”

To work the exercises is no doubt to find a way to better deal with the stresses of our world, to stand relaxed and yet ready. And the author leaves the reader with a perfect Zen prayer near the end of the text:

“May I respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost,
When this day has passed, or days of life will be decreased by one.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Take heed!

Do not squander your life!”

The weakness of this well-written and well-intentioned little volume is that in the end, it abandons us to figure out on our own how not to squander life.

While the exercises are well conceived and worth exploring, the text offers no plan of action to follow up, except for a very brief chapter on learning to do sitting meditation. Surely a book like this deserved a well-developed guide to resources in the back that the reader could use to find classes, books, and other tools toward enlightenment. Instead, we have a bibliography of just six books, one of which is our other’s earlier text, Mindful Eating.

That is likely a worthy book as well, but the readers of this book deserved something better, something more specific and more comprehensive in terms of guidance for what to do next, after mindfulness has begun.