Book Review: How to train a wild elephant and other adventures in mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays
by Guest Reviewer Aarathi Selvan
My day began with racing thoughts. I had so much to do and the to-do lists kept showing up at the speed of light. Almost. Every time I became aware of them, I would try to calm myself, calm my mind. As the day rolled by, I became gentler toward this noise in my head. I became more aware of the restlessness I was feeling. I began to watch my hands move- towards my little one, towards the bowl of rice I was feeding her, towards the food I was cooking, and the wheel I was clutching.
I then watched my hands relax as I let my little one take her afternoon nap on my arms. I felt my hands melt into the couch I was resting on as I joined her in an afternoon siesta. Mindfulness practices of using “loving touch” and “resting my hands” had become me.
How to train a wild elephant and other adventures in mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays is a treasure trove of mindfulness practices that one can practice week after week for the rest of their lives. Chozen Bays invites you to practice mindfulness by providing some simple truths about what mindfulness is.
“Mindfulness practice reminds us not to fritter our mental energy away in trips to past and future, but to keep returning to this very place, to rest in what is happening in this very time.”
What she says about mindfulness resonates with me:
“When we practice mindfulness, we learn to lift the mind up out of its habitual preoccupations and place it down in a place of our choosing in order to illuminate some aspect of our life. We are training the mind to be light, powerful, and flexible but also able to concentrate on what we ask it to focus on.”
The book has fifty-three wonderful mindfulness practices, some simple like focusing on the breath while others are far more challenging like going on a week-long media fast. Chozen Bays recommends joining a group to practice one exercise every week, placing reminders and discussing what worked and what didn’t as a way to glance at our habitual patterns, and as a way to bring us back into the present moment, because regardless of how you look at it, now is all there is.
This book has helped me move my mindfulness practice to everything I see, hear, feel, touch, and sense. The color blue brings me back to the present moment, my fingers typing away on the keyboard brings me back to the present moment, my hard stare at the computer screen brings me back to the present moment. All of them willing me to soften my eyes, relax my fingers, ease my posture and widen my awareness.
This week, I am practicing saying “Yes.” I am uncovering so many layers of defenses with this exercise. Most poignant of all is the realization that a “no” is hiding in the most unlikely of corners. I have begun to acknowledge that every time I react in a certain way and become irritated, angry or indignant by what I receive as a response from the person or situation, it is because my mind was already defensive. What followed was simple a result of my defensive stance.
I have this awful habit of pointing out mistakes in a long-winded, sarcastic manner. My husband became the recipient of this, this evening. He had made really little tea this evening (having lost touch with making it for four people at home he wasn’t sure about quantities, etc), and here I was, disappointed about having just 1/4th the amount of tea I usually drink in the evening. I initiated this twisted conversation about how much water he put, how many teaspoons of tea leaves he had added, why he had made so little, and did he think he was making tea for Anika (our baby girl), etc., leaving both of us exhausted after a debate of what I wanted originally and what had actually happened. Yes, I could have just said, the tea was great (which it was), and leave the amount of tea to be made for the next time. However, my mind was filled with finding out mistakes. This is precisely where I lose energy, time and again.
With this week’s practice of saying yes, I am going to turn inward and become aware of what I am feeling every time I say a ‘yes’ instead of a ‘no’. I am going to find a helpful way of saying something (or better yet, just remaining quiet) to conserve my energy rather than exert it in this futile debate of “no” and the defenses it brings forth. As I falter, I am going to enjoy and honor the defenses that come up as a part of this journey.
Chozen Bays’ book is full of discoveries I make every week that humbles me, tears me apart and fills me with immense gratitude, kindness and compassion. I let myself momentarily ride the guilt train when I don’t practice, immediately after, I smile and gently bring myself back to my loving hands, my gentle gaze, my deep breath and the car I am driving. I can already tell that I will be coming back to this book over, and over again.
Aarathi Selvan is the author of the blog Between Life’s Doing and a psychologist, a yoga practitioner, and a student in mindfulness. She also enjoys her roles as a mommy, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend.
Jan Chozen Bays is a physician, author of Mindful Eating, and a Zen teacher in Oregon.