“Just as an untamed elephant can do damage, trampling crops and injuring people, so the untamed, capricious mind can cause harm to us and those around us[…] when a wild elephant is first captured and led out of the jungle, it has to be tethered to a stake. In the case of our mind, that stake takes the form of what we attend to in our mindfulness practice.” (p. 9)
With the inspiration behind the title of How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness explained, author Dr. Jan Chozen Bays introduces the reader to the practice and value of mindfulness. As a pediatrician, mother, grandmother, and abbess of a Zen monastery, she has uniquely positioned this book as a practical way to integrate a deeply meaningful spiritual life into the constraints and demands of everyday modern life.
How to Train a Wild Elephant is designed particularly for those who would “love to practice mindfulness, but…can’t seem to find the time” (p. 1). Dr. Bays repeatedly stresses the benefits of practice in the book’s introduction, breaking them into categories such as “conserves energy,” “strengthens the mind,” and “creates intimacy,” among others. The main premise is put forth:
“Much of our dissatisfaction with life will disappear, and many simple joys will emerge, if we can learn to be present with things just as they are.” (p. 4)
In line with the easy-to-use raison d’etre of the book, it is organized with one mindfulness exercise per chapter. Each is meant to be practiced for one week before moving on (or adding) to the next. The exercises are in somewhat random order, as perceived by the reader, but it may have been Dr. Bays’s intention to organize them in this manner. A practice such as “Mindfulness of Posture” is introduced and described as a task, with ideas included about how to remind yourself to do it. Then there is a section entitled “Discoveries,” which includes relevant research findings, if applicable, in addition to reports of insights, observations, and difficulties other people have found in doing the task. “Deeper Lessons” follows, where Dr. Bays connects the task to its larger meaning and life lessons before concluding with “Final Words,” a summation of what the task ultimately is. For example, for the practice mentioned above, the Final Words are:
“Body and mind are not two—they are deeply connected and interdependent. When the mind or mood slumps, try adjusting the body’s posture.” p. 45
More specific practices will be touched on in the following paragraphs, but in general, they all focus on one of three basic themes, all of which are central tenets of mindfulness: staying in the present moment, observing our own actions, and observing the world around us. According to Dr. Bays, following these practices will result in learning to escape the three poisons of Buddhism that pervade our lives: aversion (resistance/anger), clinging (greed), and delusion (ignorance) (p. 93, p. 184).
How to Train a Wild Elephant ends with a primer on how to learn to meditate (mediation being an essential complement to mindfulness). Dr. Bays includes basic instructions as well as examples of taking this “sitting practice” further (pp. 223-225). A section of suggested readings rounds out the additional resources offered.
Overall, the book is very well organized. The chapter/exercise format is fantastically easy to understand and easy to navigate, especially with the added punch of the Final Words at the end. A task as simple as “Notice Trees” becomes, with the deeper lesson, “Please remember, you are always supported by countless beings, including trees. You are never alone” (p. 86). Dr. Bays also does an admirable job of including outside support for the benefits of her exercises, from research studies to the integration of history and world cultures. Her sense of humor is a boon as well, showing that neither she nor her book take themselves too seriously.
Some of the exercises, of course, are harder than others. The thought of trying to remember to “Watch Your Hands” throughout an entire week seems much more difficult than remembering to take three deep breaths every time the phone rings (a built-in reminder!). Graduating levels of difficulty are built into the book’s chapter order. Near the beginning, watching your hands is hard enough; then, several chapters later, not only are you watching your hands, you’re resting and relaxing them every time you see them.
Some tasks are harder than they sound, like being mindful of “Entering New Spaces”:
“You find yourself walking toward a door, thinking, ‘Door. Door. Be mindful walking through the…’ and suddenly you find yourself on the other side of the door, with no awareness of how you passed through it.” (p. 81)
Some tasks, however, are so easy that kids could do them, and Dr. Bays encourages this:
“We discovered that silly walking is one of the fastest ways to change your mood, and the mood of those who are watching you. See if your kids will try it when they’re being cranky!” (p. 116)
A few of the exercises are very familiar, especially to readers who have been introduced to mindfulness before. “Mindful Eating” and expressing daily gratitude come to mind, but even for experienced practitioners, at least a few exercises are bound to be new, and for the familiar ones, the deeper lessons and discoveries that Dr. Bays includes lend a new light and understanding.
Each person will find both chapters to like and chapters to dislike in How to Train a Wild Elephant. Tasks such as “Loving Hands” might strike some readers as a little too esoteric for their taste, but other tasks, for example, “Waiting” are tailor-made for the modern world. Some exercises are pure fun, like thinking up and carrying out secrets acts of virtue for a week. Others, such as a complete media fast, give this reader palpitations just thinking about it.
Mindfulness is not presented as all sugar and rainbows, though. Dr. Bays is clear that confronting difficult truths is an essential part of the practice, shown in the chapter entitled, “This Person Could Die Tonight,” which encourages the reader to remember that when interacting with someone, it could be for the last time. In this society, we tend to avoid any thought or discussion of death unless absolutely necessary. According to Dr. Bays, however:
“A very important way to work with discomfort is to stop avoiding it. You walk right into it, and feel within the body what is true[…] When you are this attentive, when your meditative absorption is deep, what we call discomfort or pain begins to shift and even disappear[…] It is most interesting.” (p. 139)
The only question this reader had about the book was why a few of the chapters seemed to become redundant, beginning around halfway through. For instance, what exactly is the difference between “Mindful Eating” and “One Bite at a Time”? “Every Time the Phone Rings” and “Just Three Breaths”? “Mindful Listening” and “Listening Like a Sponge”? These exercises may be so important and helpful that this repetition is intentional, and given the rest of the book and Dr. Bays’s incredibly valuable writings, giving her the benefit of the doubt is the first instinct. It would have been useful, however, to have this explained in the introduction, where she does such as amazing job of explaining everything else!
How to Train a Wild Elephant is one of the best guides to practicing mindfulness out there. It explains, in detail, how to incorporate these exercises into everyday, busy life in a practical way. Unlike so many other works on mindfulness, it doesn’t assume one goes from normal, stressed, workaday person to Zen master, and doesn’t pretend to offer that magical transformation. Instead, Dr. Bays recognizes the limitations that many of us have, and works with them to allow even the most disconnected of us a chance at spiritual contentment. After all,
“The fundamental question underlying all of these mindfulness tasks is this: ‘Are you willing to change?’ […] True transformation is difficult. It begins with small changes, changes in how we breathe, eat, walk, and drive.” (pp. 192-193)
How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness
By: Jan Chozen Bays, MD
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2011