mindfulness in daily life

STOP and be mindful

People often come to my meditation courses because they want to learn how to slow down their crazy busy lives.

So you start sitting for 10, 20, or maybe even 30 minutes a day. But after some weeks of this, you still feel like things are crazy busy and all over the place. So your meditation isn’t working, you say to me.

Here’s my first thought. I’m wondering if you’re thinking of meditation as something you can drop into your life for say, 30 minutes a day, and have it counterbalance the other 15 or so hours that your mind is on full tilt. (I’m assuming you spend 8 or so hours sleeping or resting). Certainly, meditating 30 minutes a day is better than not doing it at all. But looking at it from a common sense perspective, is it reasonable to expect a 30 minute sit to cancel out the effect of 15 hours of frenetic activity?

Hmmmm…. so how do we slow down? Obviously we can’t quit and go live in monasteries.

I think a shift of perspective is in order here. There’s a much bigger context that we need to take into account.

Meditation isn’t like an anti-anxiety pill that will slow things down just by dropping it in. It’s really more a way to begin training ourselves to BE a different way. The point isn’t just to relax and recharge – and then go right back to what we were doing before. We practice BEING more calm and measured in the laboratory environment of a sitting practice so we can learn to BE that same way in the rest our lives when we’re NOT meditating. Even in the midst of a frenetic day. We’re training ourselves to stop feeding that busy energy into our body and mind, so that over time, a measured steadiness flows out of us naturally. All the time. Not just when we’re on the cushion.

And it’s not the 30 minutes of sitting alone that does the trick. It’s the thread of mindfulness that we carry throughout our day that brings the sanity back into our lives.

But that’s HARD, you say. Yes, it is. But it’s doable.

Here’s one tool to help you get started. This simple acronym — STOP — reminds us to be mindful during the day. It stands for

  • Stop: Mentally step back from whatever you’re doing, even for a second or two.
  • Take a breath: Literally, bring your attention back to your breath.
  • Observe: Take stock of what’s happening right now, especially in your body and mind.
  • Proceed: Resume ONLY after you’ve really paused to assess where you are.

This doesn’t take any extra time out of your day. It’s not something additional you have to do. It’s a simple but powerful way to insert a sliver of mindfulness in your day. It’s also a way of taking what you’re practicing on your cushion out into your life.

We need both a formal sitting practice AND an informal mindfulness practice. The analogy is like learning to play an instrument. The formal practice helps us to gain our “chops” in a quiet, comfortable place at home. But then we also need to practice how to perform on stage, in riskier situations and with other people in the mix. To be a true musician, and a true mindfulness practitioner, both are absolutely essential.

At first, you might feel lucky to remember to STOP only once a day, and maybe only just before you go to bed. That’s OK. That’s a good start. Do it whenever you remember. Over time, it’ll come more often and more easily. Give it time.

Yes, it’s a slow process to train ourselves this way. It’s not a quick fix. But it’s a way to create change at the core of our being. And isn’t that really what we’re after?

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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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A little calmness can go a long way

I just read a news story about an 18-year-old woman whose car went out of control and hit a dump truck. The woman and her 10-month-old son were killed. On her phone was a half-finished text message.

Now, not all multitasking is as catastrophic as that. We do it all the time, don’t we?

But why do we do it? Sometimes we say it’ll make us more efficient, but if you’re trying to type a report and keep interrupting yourself to send text messages and check Facebook, you’re not exactly being very efficient. It seems to me that what’s really going on is that we’re being anxious, and trying to find a distraction from our anxiety by looking outside of ourselves.

We’re not taking an interest in ourselves, so we hope someone out there is taking an interest in us. Maybe someone’s sent a text message, or has phoned us, or has replied to an email. Maybe we can say something funny or even annoying on Facebook, and get a response. As soon as we’ve finished checking one source of stimulus, we move on to another.

So we keep cycling through all these different things — anything to take us away from the rather boring experience of just being ourselves.

And none of this actually helps with anxiety. In fact it makes it worse.

Research by psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard University says that all this multitasking and overstimulation can lead to what they call Pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder, where we’re constantly seeking out new information, but when we find it were not able to concentrate on it. So we keep surfing the web, for example, looking for really interesting stuff, but when we find it our minds just can’t get engaged, and then we’re off looking for the next thing.

So what does help? We can learn to be happy with our own experience. That’s what helps.

Meditation is a way of learning to be comfortable with ourselves. Its a way of learning to really value our experience.

And one important thing about meditating is that it’s a form of “uni-tasking.” We’re more and more just doing one thing. It’s a bit like defragging your computer’s hard drive so that it runs more efficiently.

This is one reason that we feel refreshed and calm after meditation. We have calmed the mind by just focusing on one thing, and by letting go of some of the crazy pointless maddening thinking that we do.

It’s good, at least sometimes, to take that into our daily lives as well.

So here is a practice for you — one that you can take into your daily life. It’s just one example.

Next time you’re brushing your teeth, for example, just brush your teeth. Don’t check your cell phone. Don’t read something. Don’t wander around. Just brush your teeth. Pay attention to the movements in your arm. Notice the feeling of the bristles on your teeth and gums. Notice the taste of the toothpaste. Notice your breathing. Notice thoughts arising, and let go of them. Notice how you feel. Notice if you feel bored or restless, and just allow yourself to feel that way. Don’t feel you have to run away from boredom. Be patient with whatever you find. Relax. And just brush your teeth.

You can do this with many things. Not just brushing your teeth, but walking, driving, taking a shower, cleaning the house, preparing food, eating.

Paying attention to your experience in this way will bring a little calmness into your mind, and even a little calmness can go a long way. It might even save your life.

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“Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miller

This is my first time reviewing a book for Wildmind. I agreed to write this on Bodhipaksa’s recommendation that this book might be “up my alley” since one strong interest I have is in how the Dharma works for me in my life right here and right now. This is how Karen Maezen Miller’s book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, came into my hands.

Another thing I especially delight in is books written by women. Sexism is a meme that’s still alive and well in the world, and I love coming upon anything that tends to dispel that kind of malignant influence. Dharma books by women teachers have been especially dear to me.

Title: Hand Wash Cold
Author: Karen Maezen Miller
Publisher: New World
ISBN:
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle store, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

I haven’t done a book report (fancy name for a review) since junior high school, but I remember some of the key things our teacher wanted us to address. What is this book about? Who is the main character and why do you care about what’s happening to this person? What’s the main message of this book. Should we read this book too? Or don’t bother? Why and why not?

At first, I was charmed but her use of the “hand wash cold” metaphor; but then, I began to get annoyed and also a little confused — was this a clever dharma talk? a women’s magazine confessional à la “Can This Marriage Be Saved”? I found myself saying, “Come on, where are you taking me in this story, and are we there yet?” Which is a curious thing to need — to go somewhere (anywhere!) when the main event in Zen (and really most of Buddhist practice) is to stay right here, fully attentive, in the present moment-by-moment.

At the same time I was reading “Hand Wash Cold”, I was reading “The Great Failure” by Natalie Goldberg. I often have several books going at once, and often I get rewarded by unexpected concurrences and contrasts. Now, Goldberg is a writer by profession, and you could argue that her superior technique turned my head. You might be right, too, but I think I’m seeing something other than technique that is bothering me about Miller’s story. Both used a confessional format as a way of demonstrating things that are true for all of us. But where Goldberg’s story was no less painful or baffling to her as she was living it as Miller’s must have been, Goldberg let the drama of her story be something that carried the forward pulse of the book, if you will, but this was far from the point of her telling the story. Miller’s story was dramatic but in a way that seemed to be trying to capture the experience solely from the standpoint of where she was then, in that more self-centered, egoistic voice. This made it hard to cheer her on or see where she was going with this (except to relate this to her housework metaphor). Goldberg let the maturity of her practice — that is her present experience, the benefit of the wisdom she has accumulated — inform the story of the not-wise-yet past “her” and how she wised up. It is in this way that Miller’s effort shows the limitation of making the metaphor work so hard to organize the ideas and insights that it loses its ability to zing and reframe. Yeah, we do all these ordinary tasks, and they’re great occasions for mindfulness, but in and of themselves, they’re too flimsy to hold the Dharma.

I do a bit of gardening from time to time, and there are times I’ve been pulling weeds and think of how it’s such an apt metaphor for how we purify all our ratty, pernicious, negative habits — and how simply cutting them down leaves the roots intact and able to grow back — gotta dig right down into the dirt, get your hands dirty, and slowly but surely pull, pull, pull and then out they come, and that’s the end of it. I wrote a dharma talk one time using gardening metaphors for dharma practice and the spiritual life. By the time I was done, I was really tired of that metaphor. It ended up barely material enough for a 30 minute talk. For a whole book? No metaphor is sturdy enough to carry an entire book. I think Miller fell in love with this metaphor and then got stuck with it. It’s a danger we all face whether writing something, giving a talk or even in how we converse in everyday life. Just like the time I had made a decision to buy a vintage Volvo wagon and restore it and then saw Volvos everywhere. That was cool, for a while, but then it wasn’t, and that car needed to be sold some time later, and then I bought a Honda Fit and then I saw THEM everywhere. There are, in fact, all sorts of cars everywhere, but what we fall in love with we then see to the exclusion of other things and our world narrows.

So there’s a big long part (or it seemed long) where Miller is young and concerned with her hair and make-up and career and “having it all.” Then her marriage becomes unsatisfactory, and she tells us all about how it was unsatisfactory and she didn’t know what was what or how to make it better, and I kept thinking, “And where’s your practice?” It wasn’t clear to me when she actually began taking her spiritual life seriously — it seemed like one more thing she was doing so well — but there wasn’t a sense of increasing depth or how she saw her practice as integral to making sense of the rest of her life. The story of that would have been much more interesting. And then she’s a teacher at a Zen Center … how’d that happen? And so now everything is okay? Hmmmm… and is all her laundry fresh and sweet and all put away now?

So I think in the best, deepest sense, this book is about how we have to wash the ignorant and unskillful parts of ourselves with our own hands. That the accoutrements of modern life, which can, in our immaturity, include our Buddhist Center, teachers, sangha-members and even the Dharma and practices themselves, aren’t enough if we’re passive consumers of them. We change us, accompanied and influenced by everything and everyone that surrounds us, seen and unseen. And we accompany and influence them as well, whether we see how we do that or not. But better to see, and see more deeply and compassionately, and commit to doing so on purpose.

I wish Miller all success; I’d give this book a miss.

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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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Sally Kempton: Living from the center

A month after I started meditating, I went home to visit my mother. This was back in the day—only a few years after the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, and caused a storm of mostly satirical press commentary. Meditation was still considered an activity for eccentrics and hippies, and my secular humanist mother found my insistence on sitting every morning hilarious at best. In the mornings, while I was sitting in meditation, she would walk past my closed door every few minutes and call out, “Aren’t you done yet?”

I rolled with it on Saturday. But on Sunday, when she knocked on the door for the third time in twenty minutes, I lost it. Bursting with anger, I got up from my seat, opened the door, looked at my mother and said, “Can’t you leave me alone?” And my mother smiled a ‘Gotcha!” kind of smile and said, “I knew you hadn’t become a saint.”

That was the moment when I realized that effective meditation practice is not just what you do when you’re sitting on the mat. It’s also about how you react when your loved ones (and not so loved ones) do all those things that have historically annoyed or frustrated you. It’s not that meditation will turn you into a saint overnight. (The fact that you haven’t turned into a saint is one of the best reasons to keep on meditating!) Yet, one of the gifts that meditation can give you is the ability to use certain inner skills—skills like self-inquiry, substituting a loving thought for an angry one, gentleness, and especially the insight to notice a reactive emotion before you act on it—in difficult moments.

Meditation is for living. The inner practice is meant to radiate outward until your whole life becomes an ongoing training in living from your own center. As the intrinsic alchemy of meditation works…

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its subtle changes in your consciousness and character, it simultaneously challenges you to take action on what you are becoming—to bring your meditative skills, insights, and experiences into the rest of your life.

The strength of your practice is tested in every single moment and interaction. Are you able to bring the love you experienced in meditation into your actions? Are you able to stay in touch with Awareness when you are working, when you are moving into a new house, or when someone you care for disappoints you? Are you speaking and moving from that deeper level of being, or are you on automatic pilot, perhaps even doing the right thing but with no sense of contact with your deeper being, no access to its inspiration and love?

Certainly there will be times when the inner world with its inspiration and broader vision seems to be at your fingertips, moments when love sweeps over you all on its own. You may suddenly find yourself in the state called “flow,” acting unerringly without any apparent effort and with a quiet mind. The witness may rise up in the midst of an argument or crisis, holding you steady and poised in a situation where you would ordinarily go off the emotional deep end.

You might have mornings when the world shimmers with sacredness, when you find meaning in the blown leaves on the sidewalk, when the newspapers in the gutter seem to pulsate with the overflow of your own happiness. You will experience the ongoing magic of synchronicity, when a conversation overheard on the bus or a message seen on a billboard seems to give subtle spiritual teachings. At such times, work is transmuted into worship, and a walk in the woods turns into a processional up the nave of a cathedral.

Yet there will be other moments, many of them, when the gifts of meditation are there only if you work for them. The mere fact that you meditate will not suddenly make you immune to psychological pain. It won’t eliminate mood swings, feelings of inadequacy, or problems with other people. In fact, people who meditate can be just as subject to ups and downs as anyone else. The major differences lie in their attitude toward their mood and tendencies and in the resources they have to deal with them. When sadness, anger, and frustration arise, they have learned how to separate their intrinsic sense of self from their moods and feelings. They know that a core part of them is untouched by the emotional weather. Not only that, they have learned some skills in meditation that can help them through a difficult encounter or a mental traffic jam. They have more choices about how they deal with their feelings, how they work with the desires, fears, and crises, which might otherwise derail them.

Living from our own center takes effort, but it is also exciting. When we see life as an ongoing spiritual training, we live inside a view that lends significance to even the most ordinary interactions. We don’t think so much in terms of winning or losing, success or failure. Instead there is only the training, the consistent effort to come back to the love and lucidity we carry inside and to bring the values of the inner world into our outer actions.

This, then, is the second level of practice: the waking practice of staying in touch with our center, cultivating our character, contemplating and learning from the situations life presents to us, and discovering the techniques, teachings, disciplines, and forms of open-eyed practice that will allow us to live from the developing awareness of the Self.

Maintaining Inner Attention

In the Shaiva yogic tradition of northern India, an enlightened being is said to live in shambhavi mudra, a state in which, even when her eyes are open, her attention is centered in the inner field of unchanging luminous Awareness. This is a powerful depiction of the enlightened state; it is also a key to open-eyed practice. Open-eyed practice is a kind of “as if” game. You are practicing to be an enlightened being by acting and thinking as you would if you were actually in that state. A key practice for this is to maintain inner awareness—a steady current of attentiveness to your own Awareness, to the sense of being or Presence that you tune into when you turn attention back on itself.

Like most essential practices, this one is extremely simple without being at all easy. Inner attentiveness has a frustrating way of dissolving at crucial moments, when you are worried, excited, or under pressure. Even on ordinary days, you naturally move in and out of it, since that essential Awareness tends to be experienced in flashes, in glimpses that come and go. That is why it is helpful to work with different practices at different moments. At times you will face directly into the light of Awareness. At other times you will approach it sideways, through the breath, a positive thought, or even a physical posture.

To maintain inner attention in a steady way demands a threefold effort:

First of all, you need a set of practices for inner focus or remembering the Self. They should be practices that work for you, and you need to do them regularly.

Second, you need to be doing “character work,” examining your motives and attitudes and learning how to express the qualities of the Self—compassion, gentleness, kindness, steady wisdom, truthfulness, and the rest.

Third, you need to develop the habit of checking in with yourself to monitor your state so that you can recognize when you have slipped off center and then discover how to return.

Many meditation practices—practices like mantra repetition, awareness of Awareness, focus on the inner witness, attention to the breath, seeing thoughts as energy—are also meant to be practiced in day-to-day situations. So are the different attitudes you work with when you meditate. Just as you can begin meditation by offering your practice to God, or for the benefit of others, you can also offer your daily actions as service and see how that simple act shifts you out of self-centeredness and unknots the tendency to grasp at outcomes.

Your sitting practice of becoming aware of Awareness, or being the witness of your thoughts, can become an inner baseline that you return to during the day. It helps you move out of heavy emotions, distractions, or neurotic thinking patterns. Remembering oneness, holding the understanding that the seemingly solid world is essentially energy, will let you act in the world with more openness and fluidity, and with a sense of your kinship with others, with nature, and even with inanimate objects like your computer or your car.

Walking-Around Practice

It can be helpful to create set times in your schedule for your practice of mantra repetition, awareness of Awareness, or remembering oneness. You could make offering your actions, thoughts, and feelings a daily ritual at the beginning and end of the workday. You could make a habit of remembering to place your attention in your heart once every hour, or you could set your wrist alarm to ring five minutes before the hour, and then use that five minutes to bring to mind a teaching you are contemplating, or to ask yourself a question like “What would love do now?” or “What would kindness do now?”

You might work with a different practice every day until you find the practice or practices that feel like yours, and then spend some time exploring them deeply. As you practice this open-eyed meditation, you will see its effects. First of all, you should feel more integrated. There will be less of a gap between sitting meditation and the rest of your day. It will be easier to go into meditation when you sit; and you should need to spend less time “deprogramming” yourself from the stresses of the day. Then, during your waking, working hours, there should be a certain sweetness to life, a sense of openness and space in your world. You’ll find yourself feeling closer to others, less afraid, calmer, and more inspired.

During anxious moments, busy days, and periods when life seems to be caving in on you, these practices can become a real refuge. They help you stabilize your state.

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“Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving,” by Michele McDonald

Awake at the wheelThere are pitfalls in listening to mindfulness tapes in the car. Once I was talking to a woman at a workshop I was leading in Spokane, and she related that she’d once been so engrossed in a mindfulness tape by Thich Nhat Hanh that she’d rear-ended a truck. It’s for that sort of reason that I’ve never acted on any of the suggestions various people have made over the years that I should record a CD about mindful driving.

Michele McDonald, however, is made of braver stuff, and with both hands firmly (but gently) on the wheel she set off to record guided meditations that help turn driving into a mindfulness practice. And she’s done a good job.

Title: Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving
Author: Michele McDonald
Publisher: More Than Sound
Available from: More than Sound (download or CD).

Awake at the Wheel is a two-CD set of mindfulness exercises, also available as a download. There are seven exercises in all, from around five minutes in length to just over 16 minutes. The same exercises are repeated on both CDs, with less guidance being given in the second set.

McDonald is the founder of Vipassana Hawai’i and has been teaching vipassana meditation for over 25 years. Her Facebook page says that she has been a “quiet pioneer, having being the first woman to teach a formal retreat in Burma.” This experience shows, for her teaching in Awake at the Wheel is exemplary. She begins, in the introductory track, with emphasizing the need for safety, care for ourselves and others, and lovingkindness. And the final track is simply entitled “Kindness,” and is a what I’d call a “moving metta (lovingkindness)” practice. This framing of the entire program in terms of mindfulness is good on two counts: first, the listener may (we hope) avoid the pitfall of rear-ending a vehicle while listening to someone talk about mindfulness, and second, it emphasizes that lovingkindness and mindfulness are complementary, and even inseparable, qualities.

McDonald’s teaching is carefully crafted. She introduces mindfulness skills a little at a time, first just emphasizing the two “anchors” of noticing the sensations in the hands, and what we’re seeing in our visual field. In the first exercise she rather cleverly asks the driver to use oncoming regularly spaced objects (think telephone poles or fence posts) as ways to break the experience into manageable chunks. She builds from this to noticing the thoughts that arise when we space out and slip into autopilot, skills of “noting” (gently applying mental labels to our experiences), being aware of the body, our hearing, and our emotions.

In several cases she introduced a brief exercise, and then asks us to repeat it. This is an excellent way of helping people to, as McDonald puts it, “build a skill-set.” Her choice of words is excellent, and she has some insightful phrases, such as “The willingness to start again is the most important aspect of mindfulness.”

There were times that I thought she failed to suggest noticing experiences that it would be natural to pay attention to while driving. For example, she suggests that in our mindfulness of hearing we can pay attention to the sounds of birds (which I don’t think I ever notice), but doesn’t suggest being aware of the sound of the engine, or the swoosh of passing vehicles. When being aware of the body she doesn’t mention being aware of the movements in the arms. But these are minor points, and the mindful driver will no doubt notice these sounds without having them pointed out.

This CD set is, as I indicated, designed to be used while driving rather than listened to at home as a rehearsal for driving. I confess I listened to the program in my office, because I wanted to be able to take notes, and because I don’t do enough driving (I rarely drive for more than 10 minutes) to be able to listen to the whole program in a reasonable length of time. The exercises are, I think, more likely to be useful on longer, unbroken drives, rather than in stop-start driving in a city. When the traffic is heavy, or when I’m having to pay attention to navigating, I tend not even to listen to music. I don’t think that under those circumstances I would even attempt to listen to instructional guidance of this sort. I’d advise potential listeners to think carefully about which drives are the most suitable for listening to a program of this nature, taking into account driving conditions and the amount of time available.

There was perhaps only one thing I thought could have been usefully added to the mindfulness instructions, and that would be a brief track to be listened to while stuck in a traffic jam or while at traffic lights. The impatience and frustration that can arise in those situations is one of the most difficult things that drivers have to contend with.

Overall, however, this is a valuable contribution to the “oral literature” on mindfulness, and one for which there is a great need. I hope that the “mindfulness” label doesn’t put anyone off, because all drivers would benefit from listening to Michele McDonald’s skilled coaching.

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