|A Review of
How To Train a Wild Elephant
and Other Adventures In Mindfulness:
Simple Daily Mindfulness Practices
for Living Life More Fully and Joyfully.
Jan Chozen Bays, MD.
Paperback: Shambhala Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by J. Brent Bill.
While “mindfulness” may be a fairly new word in the Christian lexicon, the concept itself is a deep and rich as our ancient faith. Chozen Bays, in How To Train a Wild Elephant, defines mindfulness as “deliberately paying full attention to what is happening around you and within you.” In Christian circles, mindfulness is similar to a principle articulated by theologian Belden Lane that he calls “paying attention in love.” Lane explains “paying attention in love” as being a state where:
One begins to suspect that the contemplation of any ordinary thing, made extraordinary by attention and love, can become an occasion for glimpsing the profound. Lewis Thomas finds hope for the human species in the accumulative intelligence of termites, the thrush in his backyard, and a protozoan named Myxotricha paradoxa. He simply attends with the eye of a biologist to what passes beneath our senses every day. G. K. Chesterton once suggested that ‘‘it is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the bookcase, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship onto the solitary island’’ (Orthodoxy [Fontana. 1961]. p. 63). Such an exercise can be no small aid in attaching true value to the most commonplace of things around us.
Where can I not encounter the holy, has been the question of spiritual writers in every tradition and every age. “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” asked the psalmist (139:7). Once our attention is brought to focus on the masked extraordinariness of things, we are hard put in to discern the allegedly profane
Seen through Lane’s lens, Chozen Bays’s book, even with its avowedly Buddhist orientation, can be very helpful in learning to practice paying attention in love and thereby glimpsing God sightings all around us, especially in the stuff of everyday life. As Chozen Bays rightly observes in the opening chapter, “Right here where we are is the only place, and right now is the only time where we are actually alive.” So right here and right now are where we experience God in real time. She also notes that we spend far too much of our lives on automatic pilot as we move through some of the standard rituals of our day – driving to work, walking the dog, sitting in worship. Our bodies work on the ordinary tasks while our minds (and spirits) are off somewhere else. Mindfulness draws us back into real life that is going on all around us.
While she enumerates a number of reasons that mindfulness is a worthy practice, two especially stood out to me – mindfulness creates intimacy and mindfulness supports our spiritual lives. We crave intimacy with others and with God. Mindfulness helps us achieve that sought after intimacy because it moves us towards the people and life actions all around us. It moves us toward life – which comes from God. Mindfulness supports our lives by helping us pay attention to the small graces all around us – the places where God is present but often unrecognized. St. Paul gave us the injunction to pray without ceasing – something which many of us find difficult. Chozen Bays says that “When we are able to give full attention to the living truth of each moment, we enter the gate to a life of continuous prayer.” All by paying attention in love to God at work in the life we’ve been given.
The above is all in the first chapter. And it’s the sole explanatory chapter. The rest of the book, as its title implies, is a series of mindfulness activities. These activities encompass all sorts of daily activities – from using our non-dominant hand, leaving no trace of our presence in a room, noticing our speech patterns, just eating, and many more. These exercises each have an explanation of the exercise, a section called “reminding yourself” with tips for keeping this practice throughout the day, “discoveries” about the basics of learning from the exercises, “deeper lesson” which draw deeply from the spiritual well, and a summary called “final words.”
I found this book and its exercises helpful, especially as I embarked on a journey of intentionally paying attention in love to life. It helped enrich my prayer life and feeling of communion with God. It brought my faith out of my head and back into my body and soul. While some folks may find its many references to Buddhism and Zen teachers off-putting, I found myself mentally replacing these quotes with ones from my tradition (Quaker), the Bible, Church fathers and mothers, and other Christians. Many readers will also find it helpful to have a journal or notebook or blog handy to record their spiritual experiences.
While I didn’t end up training any wild elephants, Chozen Bays’s book did help me train my unruly mind by teaching me new ways to focus on the life I’m living. Which was something I often missed.
J. Brent Bill is a writer, photographer, and Quaker minister. He works at the Indianapolis Center for Congregations and is the author of Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com