Saturday, July 2, 2011

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

There are a plethora of Buddhist books based on its theories, ranging from general explanations of the Buddha’s teachings all the way to philosophical analysis of Buddhist concepts. As to the practical side of Buddhism, there are nowhere so many – perhaps because there many more talkers than walkers – and these works tend to focus on meditation rather than mindfulness exercises. In Jan Chozen Bay’s book 'How to Train a Wild Elelphant,' published by Shambhala Publications, we have an excellent resource of the latter, full to the brim of both traditional Buddhist practices and experimental ones, summed up in its subtitle: ‘And Other Adventures in Mindfulness.’

Bays begins with a useful introduction which explains, “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 or judgment.” (Quoted from ‘How to Train a Wild Elephant,’ p.2) She states that mindfulness conserves energy, trains the mind, creates intimacy and is good for the environment. She also emphasizes that mindfulness is not about thinking, but rather letting go of thoughts into an “open awareness” of the present moment.

There are 53 exercises, one for each week of the year. (Well, Bays is a Zen teacher!) Some of them are based on traditional methods, and even found in Buddhist scriptures, such as No.7 Mindfulness of Posture, No.22 Bottoms of the Feet, and No.32 This Person Could Die Tonight. The majority of activities are centered upon our modern lives, which is highly useful, of course. These include exercises involving driving, receiving phone calls, and a “media fast.” An example of a more modern exercise is No.3:

“Become aware of the use of “filler” words and phrases and try to eliminate them from your speech. Fillers are words that do not add meaning to what you’re saying, such as “um,” “ah,” “so,” “well,” “like,” “you know,” “kind of,” and “sort of.” Additional filler words enter our vocabulary from time to time. Recent additions might include “basically” and “anyway.” In addition to eliminating filler words, see if you can notice why you tend to use them – in what situations and for what purpose?” (Ibid. p.25)

As Bays admits herself, this exercise can be one of the most difficult to sustain. Indeed, if we have someone else to assist us, especially children who might see it as a game, we can ask them to be watchful of our speech also. As an English teacher and amateur linguist myself, this was the first exercise in the book that I chose to do. (As a seasoned Buddhist, however, many of the exercises, or variations of them, were already familiar to me.) Trying this exercise myself, I found a useful initial approach was to be aware of other people’s use of fillers, and when I became adept at this, turn attention around to the words coming out of this mouth. This is a very revealing activity, and as Bays encourages us to do, reflecting on why we use such language is an important aspect of this awareness practice.

Experimenting with such exercises so that they work well is something that Bays herself would surely condone, as this is the way that many of the mindfulness exercises were developed, evolving over time in the monastery of which she is the abbess. It is encouraging to read that these exercises have been used there for two decades. As she notes in the introduction: “This is one of the most wonderful aspects of the path of mindfulness and awakening. It has no end!” (Ibid. P.18)

It is worth noting that Bays does not present this book as a comprehensive guide to the Buddhist life, nor does it include an account of Buddhist doctrine – these are to found in other works. And, from this reviewer’s perspective, mindfulness exercises are most effective as part of the Noble Eightfold Path that the Buddha taught as a holistic approach to the alleviation and eventual transcendence of suffering. (Or, perhaps, within the framework of some other spiritual path.)

Bays touches upon the theme of the Buddhist Path here and there, but never delves too deeply into it. Perhaps a more explicit exploration (however brief) of the Buddhist Way might assist the general reader in gaining a greater grip on the context of these practices. For, when used as part of a broader spiritual discipline, these mindfulness exercises might have their fullest effect in helping us to realize enlightenment (the ending of suffering).

To her credit, Bays does include a section at the back of the book that describes some basic meditation instructions. She relates sitting practice to the mindfulness exercises in the book as a way to deepen the calmness and insights that emerge from such activity. In this appendix, she describes a basic mindfulness of breathing meditation, and advises her readers to do this meditation for 20 to 30 minutes per day. Sound advice, if slightly pithy. To explore sitting meditation further, the reader must look elsewhere, which is fair enough as this book is about mindfulness in everyday activities, and is well over 200 pages in length.

In conclusion, ‘How to Train a Wild Elephant’ is a superb compendium of exercises to enlighten the day of its readers. There is enough in this book to help the most inattentive of us to introduce mindfulness into our daily schedules, in both fun and interesting ways. Jan Chozen Bays has written a work that anyone, Buddhist or not, can utilize in their busy lives: “You can waste your whole life waiting for happiness to arrive from the outside. A quiet, basic contentment is our birthright; it is already inside of us. Mindfulness gives us a vehicle that can drive us straight to the place where it lives.” (Ibid. p.192)

 How to Train a Train a Wild Elephant by Jan Chozen Bays is published by Shambhala Publications, and available from their website at: How to Train a Wold Elephant