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Book Review: How to Train a Wild Elephant by Jan Chozen Bays

Simple daily mindfulness practices for living life more fully and joyfully

How to train a wild elephant by Jan Chozen Bays — Book review by Vidya Sury
Vidya Sury

You hardly need me to tell you that busy lifestyles and increasing stress levels can only endure up to a limit. Soon enough, we reach that point when we yearn to slow down and become desperate to find ways to bring back that balance in life.

Here’s where mindfulness comes in, as a solution for those that aim to lead a meaningful life. Of course, there’s research for the skeptic, proving that mindfulness brings significant benefits — both for mental and physical health.

Mindfulness is the act of consciously paying attention to everything happening around us and within us, without criticism, without judgment. It is about not living on autopilot.

The book How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness: Simple Daily Mindfulness Practices For living life more fully and joyfully By Jan Chozen Bays offers ways to do this.

Book blurb

A growing body of research is showing that mindfulness can reduce stress, improve physical health, and improve one’s overall quality of life. Jan Chozen Bays, MD — physician and Zen teacher — has developed a series of simple practices to help us cultivate mindfulness as we go about our ordinary, daily lives. Exercises include: taking three deep breaths before answering the phone, noticing and adjusting your posture throughout the day, eating mindfully, and leaving no trace of yourself after using the kitchen or bathroom. Each exercise is presented with tips on how to remind yourself and a short life lesson connected with it.

My book review

Why the title “How to train a wild elephant?” According to the Buddha, taming the mind is like taming a wild forest elephant. You know what havoc a wild elephant can create; in the same way, the untamed mind can harm us and those around us.

We know that our mental capacity is far more than we realize, and mindfulness is a potent tool to train the mind, helping us realize the true potential for insight, kindness, and creativity. Once we tame our minds, we become calm and stable as we face tough times in life. Rather than run away from problems, we see them as a way to test and strengthen our physical and mental stability.

It is easy enough to start practicing mindfulness; all it takes is for us to focus on one small area in our life until it becomes a habit. Gradually, as we add more mindfulness practices, we become present and aware of each moment and open up to an awakened life.

In her beautifully presented book How to train a wild elephant Jan Chozen Bays, who is also a long-time meditation teacher and physician, shares a series of exercises that specifically outline how to cultivate mindfulness. They address various aspects of our lives and are geared to help the reader become aware, happy, and comfortable with her busy life.

I particularly enjoyed the layout of the book.

Each chapter offers one exercise and is divided into several sections beginning with a description of the task and ideas to help you remind yourself to do it throughout the day and week. This is followed by “Discoveries” listing peoples’ insight and feedback and “Deeper lessons” which explore the themes and life lessons related to the exercise. The chapter concludes with “Final Words”, a summary of the exercise.

The 52 exercises in the book are fun and easy. Some examples are:

  • Use your non-dominant hand to perform routine tasks each day.
  • Choose one room in your house. For one week, leave no trace that you used that space.
  • Eliminate filler words from your speech, that is, words that add no meaning to what you say.
  • Once a day, think of someone close to you and give them a genuine compliment.

A great suggestion offered in the book is buddying up with others to take action on the 52 interesting exercises described as individual chapters.

The point is, mindfulness is not something one must squeeze into an already full schedule. Rather, incorporating mindfulness into our lives is a game of connecting the dots. Quite like those paint-by-numbers kits where each section is numbered to tell you which matching color to use. As you follow the color codes and color the picture, a pleasing visual emerges. Doesn’t that sound nice?

The best part is, you don’t need to seek expensive retreats or invest in expensive gadgets to practice mindfulness. You already have what you need. What you do need to do is make a shift in your perspective.

The whole point of the book is to become mindfully aware and be present in each moment so we can appreciate it and be grateful and be happy. The author specifically lists the benefits of mindfulness while busting some interesting myths about being mindful.

You must have figured out by now why the book has 52 exercises — the idea is to make mindfulness a habit by using one exercise per week for 52 weeks of the year.

The author also suggests journaling your experiences to record and review your experience, and I think that’s a great idea. I’ve tried and made it a practice.

Some of the exercises in this book can be extended into periods of meditation, contemplation, or prayer.

The “Deeper lessons” part of each chapter is invaluable, giving us an insight into the benefits we can enjoy by practicing the exercise.

The message of the book, mainly, is this: not being present leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness, while being in the present moment is restful and enjoyable, bringing a sense of discovery to even the most mundane of everyday activities. Being mindful is clearly the best way to improve our overall quality of life.

The book carries a subtle sense of humor in parts, for example, the “Final words” at the end of one of the exercises made me laugh:

I think you’re all enlightened until you open your mouths. —Zen master Suzuki Roshi

Little gems such as The two hands work together effortlessly to accomplish many wonderful things and they never harm each other. Could this become true for any two human beings?” brought home wonderful life lessons.

How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness, Simple Daily Mindfulness Practices For living life more fully and joyfully By Jan Chozen Bays, M.D. is a brilliant and practical book, easy to read, and easy to keep returning to, any time.

I loved it, and so might you.

Published by Shambala Publications, Inc., 224 Pages | ISBN 978–1–59030–817–2. You can buy it on Amazon. (affiliate link)

Here are some quick and easy mindfulness meditations that will make you happier in 5 minutes or less.

Vidya Sury Collecting Smiles ❤ Did you smile today?

I love Medium and the wonderful writers I engage with. One of the reasons I write is to support underprivileged children. Currently, the Medium Partner Program is not open to writers based in India. Would you consider buying me a cup of coffee? Thank you so much!

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Vidya Sury, Collecting Smiles

Vidya Sury, Collecting Smiles

Writing about Self Improvement, Mindfulness, Meditation, Parenting, Health, Travel, Life, Books. Showing my diabetes who’s boss. Visit: https://vidyasury.com