daily activities

Mindfulness, step by step

Almost anything we do can offer us an opportunity to practice mindfulness. The most mundane activities, such as unloading the dishwasher, driving, or grocery shopping, can become part of our spiritual practice.

Walking as a Practice

Walking is one ordinary activity that we can transform into a vehicle for being more mindful. One of the benefits of mindful walking is that the body is easier to sense when it’s in movement. In sitting meditation a lot of people initially find it difficult to be aware of physical sensations. When we’re walking, the sensations are far more obvious. This means that walking can be a powerful anchor for our attention.

The Irish poet John O’Donahue wrote:

It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here.

Walking is something we take for granted, and we may assume that although we can walk to interesting places, the act of walking itself is inherently uninteresting. Yet the simple act of walking can be a rich and fulfilling experience. In relating to ordinary activities with mindfulness, we may find that they’re not so mundane after all. We begin to see everyday existence as a miracle. Ordinary movements can become a dance, everyday sounds become music, the uninteresting can become fascinating.

Mindful Walking Versus Walking Meditation

In many traditions there is a walking meditation practice in which we pace back and forth at an incredibly slow pace. In this form of meditation it might take several minutes to cover a distance that we would normally traverse in a few seconds. What I’m suggesting here is something different: focusing mindfully on the physical sensations that arise as we’re walking to the mailbox, or to the bus stop, or train station, or taking a stroll in the park, or in fact any other time we’re walking in daily life.

The practice

You can pause for a moment before you start walking, and simply experience what it’s like to stand, noticing the weight of the body pressing into the earth.

The Eyes

Let the eyes be soft and be attentive to the whole of your visual field.

In order to maintain your mindfulness as you walk, I’d suggest not letting your gaze wander any more than is necessary for safety. So avoid things like looking in shop windows or letting your gaze track people’s movements. Just let your eyes look straight ahead, and perhaps slightly downward.

The Pace

Your walk itself should be natural, although perhaps just a little slower than usual. When you walk at the same pace as you usually do, your mind will do the same things it usually does. In other words you’ll get distracted. Slowing your walk a fraction helps you to be less habitual.

The Anchor

The core of mindful walking practice is observing the sensations in the body. A good place to start is with the alternating pattern of the feet making and breaking contact with the earth. This is simple, concrete, and easy to notice. Those rhythmic sensations can be your anchor—they’re what you turn your attention back toward whenever you realize you’ve become distracted.

Walking Into Mindfulness

From there, you can start to become aware of the rest of the body. Start with the lower legs, where you can notice the tightening and release of the muscles. Notice also sensations such as the touch of your clothing against your skin and the vibration of the feet touching the ground rippling up through your flesh, bones, and joints.

You can notice sensations and movements in the thighs, the hips, and the pelvis. You can notice the spine, the belly, the chest. Notice all the movements of the breathing, and how it naturally fits in with the rhythm of the walking. You can notice the shoulders moving, the arms swinging, the way the head moves, and so on.

You’ll find that with the eyes soft and your field of attention open and receptive it’s possible to notice how each sensation of the walking is coordinated with all the others. The whole of our walking, from our breathing to the sensation of air flowing over the hands as they swing at the end of our arms, form one process—an elegant and fascinating dance, as we walk into mindfulness, step by step.

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Standing in line meditation

This nice little video from Sharon Salzberg arrived in my inbox this morning. It describes a simple practice of bringing mindfulness and kindness into the act of standing in line (or queueing, as we say in my native Britain).

This is something I do a lot. It transforms what can be a frustrating experience into one that’s grounding and joyful. Give it a try.

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Shortcuts to Inner Peace, by Ashley Davis Bush

In the interests of full disclosure I should say that Ashley Davis Bush, the author of Shortcuts to Inner Peace: 70 Simple Paths to Everyday Serenity, attends the same Buddhist center I teach at. I’ve bumped into her and her husband a literally a couple of times, but it’s a large center, we’re not by any stretch of the imagination friends, and I’m under no obligation, inner or outer, to say nice things about her book.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Shortcuts to Inner Peace grows out of the meeting of Bush’s practice as a psychotherapist, and her personal Buddhist practice. She knew that many of her clients would benefit from meditation, and yet it was also obvious that few, if any, of them would be able to set aside the time for a regular practice. And so began a project to “sneak” (my word) mindfulness into daily activities.

Title: Shortcuts to Inner Peace
Author: Ashley Davis Bush
Publisher: Berkley
ISBN: 978-0-425-24324-4
Available from: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, and Amazon.com and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

And here is where Bush reveals herself to be a master teacher. She is positively cunning at finding ways for people to practice more mindfulness.

Here are a few examples:

  • Go With the Flow: Whenever you’re at a sink and touch water, let the stream of warm liquid cue you to say, “Go with the flow” or “I trust the universe” or “Everything is as it should be.” This reminds you to let go and flow with the current of life. (p. 46)
  • Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Look at your reflection and say simply, “I accept all of you.” For some people “I forgive you,” “I love you deeply and unconditionally,” or “You are doing the best you can and I admire you for that” also work well. If nothing else, give yourself a vote of encouragement with a “hang in there.” (p. 61)
  • Lend a Hand: When you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Place one hand on your upper chest and your other hand on your belly. Apply some light pressure, breathe deeply into your belly, and then as you exhale slowly, rub your hand in a circle on your upper chest. (p. 97)
  • Play It Again, Sam: When you find yourself grumbling over an unpleasant household chore … Sing a specific song or play special music when you’re engaged in that unwanted chore. Decide to let yourself have a positive experience and actually let it fill your body with good sensations. (p. 128)

There are almost 70 of these exercises in this quite substantial book. Most of the actual presentation is in short chapters or usually two page, with a brief précis of the exercise as I’ve given above, accompanied by a more expansive account of the background of the practice, with examples drawn from real life. Each practice chapter concludes with a summary of the deeper purpose of the exercise, so that it’s not just a “trick” you can pull in order to change your emotional state, but part of a total transformation of the way you relate to your life. There are also introductory chapters that “set the scene.”

The practice chapters are organized into different sections, covering ways to weave mindfulness into daily activities, into relationships, into our experience of the senses, as well as sections on ways to calm the body, quiet the mind, open the heart, and to connect with a sense of purpose. At the end of the book there is a cross-reference list of the exercises so that you can find techniques that address specific problems, such as being angry or tense. Shortcuts to Inner Peace is nothing if not thorough!

There have been several books out recently that have addressed how to bring greater mindfulness into daily life. I’ve recently reviewed How to Train a Wild Elephant, by Jan Chozen Bays, and One Minute Mindfulness, by Donald Altman. All three are excellent books. If I had to distinguish between them I’d say that:

  • How to Train a Wild Elephant is ideal for the experienced practitioner who wants to go deeper into mindfulness, or for the committed beginner who is already able to devote a reasonable amount of time and thought each week to mindfulness practice. The practices are deeply transformative, and come from two decades of monastic practice, although the lessons given are applicable to “normal” life.
  • One Minute Mindfulness is similar in presentation and content to Shortcuts. It’s a little less imaginative in approach, but still a very fine book.
  • Shortcuts to Inner Peace would be my highest recommendation to anyone beginning to explore mindfulness and meditation, and who is having problems “fitting practice in” to their lives. I would also highly recommend it for anyone who has problems with anger, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, or any of these manifold contemporary problems of finding emotional balance in life.
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Driving as Preparation: An excerpt from One-Minute Mindfulness, by Donald Altman

The act of driving requires our full attention. I know of a woman who drove through her garage door one morning because she was on automatic pilot and didn’t notice that it was still closed! The lapse of a split second can have devastating results. How do you approach your morning drive?

Do you use the morning drive to prepare for the day to come? Is driving a placeholder, a time for fitting in extraneous activities? Do you let the frustrations of the road soak into your body and spirit, filling you with anger or draining you of energy? A one-minute mindfulness approach to driving can improve your emotional tone, stress level, and ability to be open and adaptable.

When I discuss the brain and multitasking in workshops, I often ask participants to share stories about multitasking while driving. Here are a few that stand out: eating soup, with a spoon; putting on makeup and getting dressed; reading the newspaper or a book, even on a busy freeway; simultaneously smoking a cigarette, drinking a cup of coffee, putting on mascara, and backing up the car.

Title: One Minute Mindfulness
Author: Donald Altman
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-60868-030-6
Available from: Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

Ample evidence shows that the brain does not multitask very well. A recent study showed that simply talking while driving can negatively impact our driving skills. Researchers also found the reverse to be true: driving reduces a driver’s ability to recall a conversation by as much as 20 percent. According to psycholinguist Gary Dell, one of the study’s researchers, “You might think that talking is an easy thing to do and that comprehending language is easy. But it’s not. Speech production and speech comprehension are attention-demanding activities, and so they…compete with other tasks that require your attention — like driving.” In other words, something will suffer if we decide to split our attention when we’re behind the wheel.

Basically, there are two ways to drive. The first is to drive in order to get where we’re going. Driving then is a means to an end, an act that has little intrinsic value. In this case, we may be preoccupied with other things when we get in the car. Our minds may wander off to the future. Maybe we’re engaged in a conversation with someone, literally or mentally, as we pull into the street. Our attention might be focused on listening to a radio station or thoughts about an upcoming task. I’m not suggesting that we avoid all sources of sensory input while driving but that we practice sixty-second intervals of awareness to notice when we are driving mindlessly, with our bodies going through the motions.

Fortunately, there’s a second way to go about this: drive with the sole purpose of driving. It’s that simple and direct. It’s about full participation in what we are doing with the next sixty seconds, before we even climb into the car and turn on the ignition. For example, what details do you notice about your vehicle’s door handle as you open the door? Its temperature, shape, the feel of it? How does your body bend and move as you climb into the driver’s seat? Feel your hands as they grip the steering wheel. Notice the sound of the pavement as the tires move along the road’s surface.

When we bring awareness to the next minute, we gain traction instead of dis-traction with our surroundings, from road signs and road conditions to bicyclists and pedestrians. We can also find gratitude each time we drive somewhere. Fully participating in the journey of moving from one place to another leaves no time for anxiety about the future. Driving in order to drive requires our presence in each moment — and that sets our consciousness to sixty-second time.

PRACTICE
In the next day or week, take one driving trip where you are focused only on your driving, with no distractions. Do this when you are alone, and try to be as present as you can every sixty seconds. You don’t have to be perfect when doing this. When your mind wanders, to the past or the future, gently bring it back. You can even mentally affirm your present moment intention with the words “driving, driving.”


Excerpted from the book One-Minute Mindfulness © 2011 by Donald Altman. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

Donald Altman, M.A., LPC, is the author of One-Minute Mindfulness, The Mindfulness Code, and Meal-by-Meal. Known as America’s Mindfulness Coach, he is a practicing psychotherapist who conducts mindful living and mindful eating workshops and retreats through colleges, community centers, and health care organizations. Visit him online at https://www.OneMinuteMindfulnessBook.com.

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“One Minute Mindfulness,” by Donald Altman

A few years ago I came across and reviewed a book called Eight Minute Meditations. Then I saw a book called The Five Minute Meditator. Then The Three Minute Meditator. Now we have One-Minute Mindfulness.

This isn’t at all a bad thing. The perception that meditation is only useful in large doses does tend to put some people off of establishing a practice, and much can be accomplished in a short space of time. Mindfulness is an activity that takes place moment by moment, as we observe our experience unfolding. Each moment brings an opportunity to choose between reactivity and creativity, negativity and positivity, habit or freedom. Mindfulness actually takes place at a timescale far below that of a minute.

Title: One Minute Mindfulness
Author: Donald Altman
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-60868-030-6
Available from: Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

And that, really, is the message of Donald Altman’s One-Minute Mindfulness. Altman is not saying that all you need is one minute of mindfulness in a day, and then you’ll be set. He’s saying that one minute’s mindfulness can have a profound effect. And our days, after all — our entire lives, even — are made up of many, many minutes, each of which can be an opportunity to bring awareness and compassion into play. Altman invites us to live consciously, minute by minute.

One-Minute Mindfulness offers 50 short reflections, often accompanied with a case history or reference to a sceintific study. Each reflection suggests a specific way that mindfulness can be brought into our lives.

The exercises are grouped into five sections, covering home, work, relationships, health, and finally the broad category of “nature, spirituality, and contemplation.”

Sometimes the suggestions for how to use a minute mindfully focus on practical and experiential exercises, such as breathing with the diaphragm, or walking mindfully. Other times we’re asked to reflect, and to make a list — for example things we are grateful for, or qualities that are important in friendship.

Altman is a practicing psychotherapist and he brings a wealth of experience to his instructions and reflections, which are clear and well-written. I’d imagine that the exercises would be beneficial mainly to beginners to meditative practice, who are wondering how to integrate mindfulness into their daily lives.

The “One Minute Mindfulness” idea is a good one, although I soon wearied of hearing the phrase repeated over and over, and it was a relief to reach a run of chapters about four fifths of the way into the book where the phrase was dropped for a while. It’s a good phrase, and the concept behind it is a valuable one, but it came to feel like the author was trying to sell me a product I’d already bought.

Of course, the author recognizes that one minute is not always enough for practice. Reminding ourselves to be mindful at various points during the day will take us so far, but deeper reflection takes longer, and to attain any depth of stillness or lovingkindness in our lives we need to spend much more than a minute in meditation. And so, inevitably, the “one minute” message becomes one of taking a minute to get started. For example, in the section on volunteering as a way to “be the change we want to see in the world,” we don’t volunteer in a soup kitchen for sixty seconds, but use the minute to call to mind role-models, or to think about volunteering opportunities. Even here, though, you might not get very far in just sixty seconds. But the important thing, often, is just to get started. One minute leads to another … and another.

As it happens, I’ve recently read a couple of similar books. How To Train a Wild Elephant, by Jan Chozen Bays contains (if I remember correctly) 52 mindfulness exercises, drawn from exercises practices at Bays’ monastery, developed over twenty years. That particular book is the finest guide to mindfulness in daily life I’ve come across. The exercises are intended to be used for a week at a time, not just for sixty seconds, and the reflections that accompany them come from a place of deep insight. Beginners wanting to get started may prefer One-Minute Mindfulness, while for more seasoned practiioners looking to deepen an existing practice I’d recommend How To Train a Wild Elephant.

The other similar book I recently read is Ashley Davis Bush’s Shortcuts to Inner Peace: 70 Simple Paths to Everyday Serenity, which I hope to review shortly. Some of the exercises, even, are similar, as you might expect, since both Shortcuts and One Minute Mindfulness deal with mindfulness in daily life and its recurring events, challenges, and opportunities. Both Bush and Altman are psychotherapists who use meditation and mindfulness in their practice. Both use similar categories for organizing their exercises. Both books contain exercises that are intended to be accomplished quickly, while also engaged in an everyday task. In both books, the chapters are two to three pages long. Which book is preferable is of course a matter of taste and style. I found Bush’s approach to be more imaginative, and in fact I told the author that I thought she was “cunnning” in her ability to find ways to sneak mindfulness into everyday life.

And this is the real problem with One Minute Mindfulness. It’s a fine book, but there are so many others. Just knowing about those two titles I happen to have read makes it harder to enthusiasticaly recommend Altman’s book. How to choose? And as I mentioned in the introduction to this review, there’s a proliferation of books on “x-minute” mindfulness/meditation. This year also saw the publication of 5-Minute Mindfulness: Simple Daily Shortcuts to Transform Your Life, and Goldie Hawn’s 10 Mindful Minutes. Altman, in fact, was beaten to the punch on his own title: another book called One Minute Mindfulness, by Simon Parke, was published earlier this year, although it’s only available in the UK.

Perhaps my next book should be 30 Second Mindfulness, or even The Nanosecond Meditator? That’s pretty much what you’d have to do to stand out from the pack.

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Loving Touch: An extract from “How to Train a Wild Elephant”

elephantThe following extract from Jan Chozen Bays’ How to Train a Wild Elephant is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Shambhala Publications, Inc.

The Exercise: Use loving hands and a loving touch, even with inanimate objects.

REMINDING YOURSELF

Put something unusual on a finger of your dominant hand. Some possibilities include a different ring, a Band-aid, a dot of nail polish on one nail, or a small mark made with a colored pen. Each time you notice the marker, remember to use loving hands, loving touch.

DISCOVERIES

When we do this practice, we soon become aware of when we or others are not using loving hands. We notice how groceries are thrown into the shopping cart, luggage is hurled onto a conveyor belt at the airport, and silverware is tossed into a bin.

Title: How to Train a Wild Elephant
Author: Jan Chozen Bays
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1590308172
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

We hear metal bowls singing out when stacked carelessly and doors slamming when we rush.
a particular dilemma arose at our monastery for people who were weeding the garden. how can we practice loving hands when we are pulling a living plant out of the ground by its roots? Can we keep our heart open to it, placing it in the compost with a prayer that its life (and ours) will benefit others?

As a medical student, I worked with a number of surgeons who were known for their “surgical temperament.” If any difficulty arose during an operation, they would act like two-year-olds, throwing expensive instruments and cursing at nurses. I noticed that one surgeon was different. he remained calm under stress, but more importantly, he handled the tissue of each unconscious patient as if it were precious. I resolved that if I needed surgery, I would insist he do it.

As we do this practice, mindfulness of loving touch expands to include awareness not just of how we touch things, but awareness also of how we are touched. This includes not just how we are touched by human hands, but also how we are touched by our clothing, the wind, the food and drink in our mouth, the floor under our feet, and many other things.
We know how to use loving hands and touch. We touch babies, faithful dogs, crying children, and lovers with tenderness and care. Why don’t we use loving touch all the time? This is the essential question of mindfulness. Why can’t I live like this all the time? Once we discover how much richer our life is when we are more present, why do we fall back into our old habits and space out?

DEEPER LESSONS

We are being touched all the time, but we are largely unaware of it. Touch usually only enters our awareness when it is uncomfortable (a rock in my sandal) or associated with intense desire (when she or he kisses me for the first time). When we begin to open our awareness to all the touch sensations, both inside and outside of our bodies, we might feel frightened. It can be overwhelming.

Ordinarily we are more aware of using loving touch with people than with objects. however, when we are in a hurry or upset with someone, we turn him or her into an object. We rush out of the house without saying good-bye to someone we love, we ignore a coworker’s greeting because of a disagreement the day before.This is how other people become objectified, a nuisance, an obstacle, and ultimately, an enemy.

In Japan objects are often personified. Many things are honored and treated with loving care, things we would consider inanimate and therefore not deserving of respect, let alone love. Money is handed to cashiers with two hands, tea whisks are given personal names, broken sewing needles are given a funeral and laid to rest in a soft block of tofu, the honorific “o-” is attached to mundane things such as water (o-kane), water (o-mizu), tea (o-cha), and even chopsticks (o-hashi). This may come from the Shinto tradition of honoring the kami or spirits that reside in waterfalls, large trees, and mountains. If water, wood, and stone are seen as holy, then all things that arise from them are also holy.

My Zen teachers taught me, through example, how to handle all things as if they were alive. Zen master Maezumi Roshi opened envelopes, even junk mail, using a letter opener in order to make a clean cut, and removed the contents with careful attention. he became upset when people used their feet to drag meditation cushions around the floor or banged their plates down on the table. “I can feel it in my body,” he once said. While most modern priests use clothes hangers, Zen master harada Roshi takes time to fold his monk’s robes each night, and to “press” them under his mattress or suitcase. his everyday robe is always crisp. There are robes hundreds of years old in his care. he treats each robe as the robe of the Buddha.

Can we imagine the touch-awareness of enlightened beings? how sensitive and how wide might their field of awareness be? Jesus became immediately aware of when a sick woman had touched the hem of his garment and had been healed.

Final Words: “When you handle rice, water, or anything else, have the affectionate and caring concern of a parent raising a child.” —Zen master Dogen

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How to Train a Wild Elephant, by Jan Chozen Bays

elephantI remember that “wow” moment when I first read Thich Nhat Hanh’s now-classic The Miracle of Mindfulness, in which he outlines, very simply and with a sense of authenticity, powerful and effective methods of bringing mindfulness practice into daily life, such as washing the dishes as if they were sacred objects, and eating mindfully.

That “wow,” was uttered repeatedly, in with an even greater degree or reverence and appreciation, while I was reading How to Train a Wild Elephant, which is a worthy successor to Thich Nhat Hanh’s earlier work, taking the teaching of mindfulness practice to a new level.

I had heard of Jan Chozen Bays, mainly in the context of quotations floating around on Facebook and Twitter, but I wasn’t very aware of her as an author. That turns out not to be surprising since she hasn’t published many books: one on mindful eating and two works on the topic — obscure to many westerners — of Jizo, the Japanese Bodhisattva of children. Having read the book currently under review, I’m strongly tempted to seek out all of her previous work, for Chozen is an skilled writer and a consummate teacher.

Title: How to Train a Wild Elephant
Author: Jan Chozen Bays
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1590308172
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Chozen is a Zen master in the White Plum lineage of the late Maezumi Roshi. She is also a pediatrician who specializes in the evaluation of children for abuse and neglect. She is a wife, mother and grandmother. Along with her husband, Hogen Bays, she serves as an abbot and teacher at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon. How to Train a Wild Elephant is rooted in twenty years of collective practice at the monastery, and this intense, prolonged, and repeated exploration of mindfulness is what gives the book its depth.

The book contains 53 exercises (one for each week of the year and one for luck?) in mindfulness, each of which has been practiced at Great Vow repeatedly, for a week at a time, year after year. The depth of this exploration shows both in the nature of the exercises themselves, and in the reflections that Chozen brings to them. Each exercise — which Chozen says we can regard as “seeds” that can be planted in the many nooks and corners of our life in order to “grow mindfulness” — has several sections. First there is a simple description of the task, in just a few sentences or paragraphs. The tasks might involve using your non-dominant hand (exercise 1) or seeing the color blue (exercise 21), or looking deeply into food (exercise 47).

The description is followed by a section called “Reminding Yourself,” which shows how we can use notes, images, or other supportive practices in order to help remind us of the mindfulness exercise we’ve committed to doing. After all, one of the most challenging tasks in developing mindfulness is remembering to be mindful! As Chozen says, “This is the essential question of mindfulness. Why can’t I live like this all the time?” Indeed.

The next section, “Discoveries,” includes observations, insights, and common challenges of following that task — drawn both from Chozen’s own experience and from the reports of her students. It’s particularly useful to hear of people’s resistances in order to learn that you’re not alone, and to learn that these resistances can be overcome. The “Discoveries” section also frequently alludes to scientific research on the topic at hand. It’s fascinating to learn, in the section “Smile” (exercise 52), for example, that “people who smile in a wholehearted way live, on average, seven years longer than people who do not have a habit of smiling.” (A minor nit-pick: I would have loved references for these kinds of statements).

Each exercise has a “Deeper Lessons” section that explores the “themes and larger life lessons” connected to it. These are often breathtakingly profound. Here, for example, is part of the reflection from “Loving Eyes” (exercise 14):

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out? [Emphasis added]

Or from “Notice Trees” (exercise 18):

Whenever I am working on a tangled mind-problem, I go into the woods and sit down, leaning up against a tree. I merge my awareness with the awareness of the tree, stretching my imagination from the ends of the roots deep in the damp earth to the tips of the topmost leaves blowing about in the breeze.Then I ask for the tree’s perspective on my dilemma. It always helps.

Or from “Entering New Spaces” (exercise 17):

As we walk toward a door, our mind moves ahead to the future, toward what we will be encountering and doing on the other side. This mind movement is not obvious. It takes careful watching. It makes us go unconscious, just briefly, of what we are doing in the present. The unconscious or semiconscious mind, however, is able to steer us through the movements of opening the door and making our way safely through.

Finally, each exercise concludes with a few “Final Words,” which are pithy reminders that drive home the import of the exercise. Sometimes these are hilarious, as in this Suzuki Roshi quote that sums up an exercise on mindful speech: “I think you’re all enlightened until you open your mouths.” Often they are simple slogans that could be borne in mind as teachings: “Don’t be annoyed when you have time to wait; rejoice in extra time to practice being present.”

“How to Train a Wild Elephant” is a rich resource for anyone interested in practicing mindfulness in daily life. The exercises, although they are rooted in monastic practices, are skillfully related to the activities of ordinary life; remember that Chozen, as well as being an abbess, is a pediatrician and a mother (and anyway, let me tell you from experience that running a monastery — or in my case a retreat center — is no easy task). You’ll learn how to be more mindful in the supermarket, in the car, and while working in an office.

I have minor reservations that focus on some of the language used in the introduction. Chozen, in her prefatory essay on mindfulness, uses phrases such as “the eternal presence we call the Divine,” or “we are looking for the Divine in all appearances.” In the exercises themselves (which constitute the vast bulk of the book) this language is rare and cast in terms of being the language of other traditions (“This is called our Buddha Nature; in other religions [emphasis added] it is called our divine nature,” for example). It’s puzzling why Chozen opted to use this terminology so frequently in the introduction, especially since she never says there what she actually means by it. There are similar expressions as well that I didn’t understand: “Great Presence” for example. While I see no problem with making a nod to the language of other traditions, and thus helping non-Buddhists orient themselves in a world of perhaps unfamiliar terminology, it’s a shame to end up disorienting Buddhist readers.

This minor quibble aside (and it’s possible these questions of terminology may be changed before the book hits the shelves in July), “How to Train a Wild Elephant” is an indispensable guide for those who have been attempting to practice mindfulness in daily life and who appreciate the guidance of a master in taking them deeper.

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15 ways to practice mindfulness

mindfulness reminders

Each and every day we have many opportunities to practice mindfulness.

Here is a list of ways to practice mindfulness. Choose one to practice for a day or a week and give it your wholehearted attention.

1. When you wake up in the morning, notice your breathing before you get out of bed. The quality of our breath tells us a lot about our state of being. When the breath is slow and steady we are calm and peaceful. When the breath is constricted we are tense.

2. Before you get out of bed, notice your thoughts. What was your first thought upon waking? This practice helps us get in touch with what is on the mind and in our dreams

3. When possible, eat silently. Before you eat, consider all the people involved in providing the food on your plate – farmers, truck drivers, people in supermarkets. Offer gratitude for all these people.

4. Notice your environment: sunlight, rain, the wind, trees, sights and sounds. On your way to work, school, an appointment or your daily errands, be mindful of driving your car, walking, sitting on the subway, arriving at your destination, your state of mind and your thoughts. Are you in the present moment or thinking ahead to what you will be doing next? Notice your body, and let your breathing help you relax your shoulders, soften your face.

5. Notice when you can stop the pressure of pushing to get where you are going and simply enjoy the process of getting there.

6. Practice mindful, conscious breathing throughout your day: at work, while sitting down, at your desk, at your computer, while speaking on the phone and in person.

7. Allow yourself to be calm and peaceful. Use daily cues as reminders to be mindful: the doorbell, the telephone, a mindfulness bell on your computer, turning on a light, checking your watch or a clock for the time.

8. Approach meals with mindfulness and gratitude.  Really taste what you are eating.

9. As you leave your daily activities, take a moment to appreciate what you have accomplished and consider how you have interacted with others.  Wash your speech kind, helpful and appropriate to the situation?

10. Consider your trip home as a transition time between your daily activities and your time at home.

11. Become aware of your breathing, smile, notice the quality of your thoughts and feelings.

12. Approach your homecoming and the people you come home to, with peacefulness and kindness.

13. You can use conscious breathing – awareness of the breath – as a foundation to encourage mindfulness in all of your daily activities, just as you use it as the foundation for your sitting and walking meditation practices.

14. Eat meals without doing anything else. Eat them sitting down, rather than standing up or in your car or on the run. Taste every morsel of food and enjoy the aroma and texture of your food.

15. As you go to bed and prepare for sleep, breathe, become aware of your body and relax, and let go of daily activities and of your anticipation of tomorrow.

Wishing you the gift of mindfulness each and every day.

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