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How to Train a Wild Elephant #AtoZChallenge

by Vidya Sury April 10, 2017 26 comments
Book review How to Train a Wild Elephant-And Other Adventures in Mindfulness

You hardly need me to tell you that busy lifestyles and increasing stress levels can only endure up to a limit. Soon enough, we reach that point when we become desperate to find ways to bring back that balance in life, and yearn to slow down.  Here’s where mindfulness comes in, as a solution for those that aim to lead a meaningful life. Of course there’s research for the skeptic, proving that mindfulness brings significant benefits—both for mental and physical health.

Not the first time I am saying this, but mindfulness is the act of consciously paying attention to everything happening around us and within us, without criticism, without judgment.  It is about not living on autopilot.

I have a book review for you today.

How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness: Simple Daily Mindfulness Practices For living life more fully and joyfully By Jan Chozen Bays, M.D. Author of Mindful Eating, Published by Shambala Publications, Inc., 224 Pages | ISBN 978-1-59030-817-2

Book review How to Train a Wild Elephant-And Other Adventures in Mindfulness

Book blurb

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

My book review

Why the title “How to train a wild elephant?” According to the Buddha, taming the mind is like taming a wild forest elephant. You know what havoc a wild elephant can create; in the same way, the untamed mind can harm us and those around us. We know that our mental capacity is far more than we realize, and mindfulness is a potent tool to train the mind, helping us realize the true potential for insight, kindness and creativity. Once we tame our minds, we become calm and stable as we face tough times in life. Rather than run away from problems, we see them as a way to test and strengthen our physical and mental stability.

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

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

I particularly enjoyed the layout of the book.

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

The 53 exercises in the book are fun and easy. For example,

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

A great suggestion offered in the book is buddying up with others to take action on the 53 interesting exercises described as individual chapters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me share one of the exercises in the book:

Parents, try this on your kids. Make it a game. It’ll be fun. And who knows, a welcome habit may be formed.

Leave No Trace

How to do it:

Pick a room in your house. For one week, try leaving no trace that you’ve used that space.  I tried with the bathroom and kitchen, since these are busy areas and could do with the clear up. If you picked the bathroom, after you use it, clean it in such a way that there are no signs of your having been there. Kitchen? Clear up everything except the aroma of the cooking.

How to remind yourself

Put up a sign “Leave no trace” in the room you picked.

Did you know that in Zen paintings turtles symbolize this practice of leaving no traces, because they sweep the sand with their tails as they creep along, wiping out their footprints? You can also use small pictures of turtles instead of a written reminder


The usual tendency is to leave rooms a bit messier than when we entered. We think, “I’ll clean it up later.” Later never comes, until the mess is unbearable, and it is a chore to do it. And yes, we also get mad at someone else for not doing their share of the housework. What if we take care of things right away and eliminate the annoyance that comes with accumulating the mess? Think of all the things that you could, but postpone.  Practising leaving no trace may actually help you grow the habit of extending it to all other areas. Initially tough, but easier as you go along.

Deeper lesson

This exercise makes us aware of our penchant to be lazy. No, no, not as criticism, but a description. When we live less wholeheartedly, we leave messes. Also, so much easier to be lazy.  What if we became aware of all the little things that support our life and work all day—spoons forks that feed us, clothes that keep us warm, rooms that shelter us? When we wash, dry, fold, clean…we express gratitude to these things.

Practising “leaving no traces” leads to practising leaving things better than you found them. Ideally, the only traces we will leave will be the ways we have loved, inspired, taught, or served others. This is what will have the most positive effect on people in the future.

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

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

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

I’d share another interesting exercise, but I am going to save that up for another alphabet/post.

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

You can buy the book on Amazon, if you like.

How do you practice mindfulness?

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Sreesha April 10, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Whenever I’ve travelled solo (which isn’t a lot, but still), I follow the Leave no Trace rule. If I didn’t suffer from so much hairfall, then I wouldn’t even have to make an effort to clean up I think. But thanks to the hairfall, I get some exercise! 😛

Don’t think I can manage much with my non-dominant hand though.

I need to look up Zen painting turtles; they sound fascinating!

Vidya Sury April 10, 2017 at 2:03 pm

Ah, hairfall! Although yours looks like a fabulous mane! Me, I don’t think I’ve much left to lose, but I invariably do the hair thing in the bathroom. I love the idea of putting pics of turtles as reminders. And you’d be surprised what you can do with the non-dominant hand. I consciously use it and can write with it, too. Hugs, Sreesha! (I didn’t get your address on whatsapp)

Sreesha April 10, 2017 at 7:39 pm

Hehe 🙂 Will send :*

Vinodini April 10, 2017 at 2:33 pm

The book sounds interesting but your review seems to be much more interesting. 🙂 I love the idea of doing the ‘leave no traces’ exercise. I shall start with my terrace (trying to pick the safest choice first!). On a serious note, I have challenges being mindful. I often have to remind myself to focus and have also started meditating regularly to correct it. I really should give this book a try. Thanks for sharing the blurb, Vidya.

Shilpa Garg April 10, 2017 at 3:02 pm

Aha! That’s a lovely book with a large doses of wisdom. I like the idea of ‘leaving no trace that you used that space’. Very interesting concept. 53 exercises for improving one’s mindfulness have piqued my interest. Seems like a book that can truly can change your perspective about life. Thanks for sharing, Vidya.

Sanch @ Sanch Writes April 10, 2017 at 3:59 pm

I love the title of the book! It looks interesting and might be useful for me professionally and personally. Will have to look into it!

Harrisham Rhyme – Over

Shilpa Gupte April 10, 2017 at 4:19 pm

I follow the “‘Leave no trace’ rule almost always. At times, I feel too tired to bend to pick up my fallen strands of hair, but realise how I have to waste time later on in looking for that hair all over the place. I also give compliments whole-heartedly. Now, I need to work on using my left hand at doing some daily tasks and leaving out filter words that don’t enhance my sentences in any way!
Loved the games in the book. I hope I get to read it sometime, will be really helpful.
Being mindful is really quite tough, you know! 🙂

Suzy April 10, 2017 at 4:20 pm

The title of the book piqued my interest Thanks for the reminder tht we should live mindfully.

Suzy April 10, 2017 at 4:28 pm

obviously I wasn’t typing mindfully – that not tht.

Darla M Sands April 10, 2017 at 6:14 pm


shubhangi srikanth April 10, 2017 at 5:34 pm

Supremely interesting. I’m putting this book in my TBR, I’d love to read this one. I wanted to know how does ‘leaving no trace that you used that space’ help in mindfulness.

Darla M Sands April 10, 2017 at 6:14 pm

Sounds like a really good book. I liked it from the title. ~grin~ It’s neat learning the source.

I needed this reminder, as minutes ago I sat hunched over my keyboard struggling with HTML code in Blogger. It’s a mystery why the font sizes and styles won’t stay consistent. ~breathes deep~ Thanks for this!


Menaka Bharathi April 10, 2017 at 6:20 pm

Mindfulness isn’t just about sitting around in silence to clear the mind. No, it is about how you live your everyday life. Your book review has made the book sound interesting. Definitely on my list to read soon

Chicky April 10, 2017 at 7:49 pm

A wild elephant? Hmmm. My mind seems more like a frog to me at times.
I already follow the Leave No Trace rule. My Dad and sister are sick of it! Maybe I should tell them to read this book.

Bellybytes April 10, 2017 at 8:36 pm

Must try your exercise… and then perhaps by the book

Soumya April 10, 2017 at 9:08 pm

The exercises sound so nice. Okay I shall be trying the non-dominant hand thingie tomorrow.

Thanks for this, you hotness! <3

Shailaja Vishwanath April 10, 2017 at 9:30 pm

Sounds like a book I’d really enjoy. Mindfulness and Zen have been my mantra this year so far and it’s helped tremendously.

Vaidehi April 10, 2017 at 9:39 pm

Wow interesting post.. I will try to follow leaving no trace from tomorrow. Lets see how it goes.

Debbie D. April 10, 2017 at 10:38 pm

There’s certainly an advantage to cleaning up right away, to avoid a bigger mess later on. That could even be a metaphor for life in general, yes? 🙂 BC (before computer) I was much better at this. Now, I tend to embrace the “Boring women have clean houses” mantra (even got the fridge magnet). If I follow the advice, then the chore won’t be so tedious and therefore I’ll be happier with a more orderly place. Thank you, Vidya! You always share such wonderful advice. I am ambidextrous however and can perform most tasks equally well with either hand (except writing). Compliments are given freely and easily, as well.

Wendy April 10, 2017 at 11:27 pm

What I REALLY need is for my husband and daughter to give this practise a try!

Vidya Sury April 10, 2017 at 11:30 pm

I hear you, Wendy! 🙂

Eva April 10, 2017 at 11:54 pm

I usually don’t read this kind of books (although this one seems interesting!). I arrived attracted by the title of the post!

EvaMail Adventures

Love Affair with Food April 11, 2017 at 12:49 am

Wow! This sounds an amazing book. And training our mind is like training a wild elephant!

Asha April 14, 2017 at 10:06 pm

This sounds like lovely book ! Thanks for sharing Vidya !

Tina Basu April 17, 2017 at 12:52 pm

The book sounds very interesting and you review made it even more interesting. I have to look for it.

rohini April 20, 2017 at 4:03 pm

i m not much into book reading… but the description is nice and interesting.
i liked the points you stated. moreover regarding hands i can say. their governing body is one, ie, head.. but alas two humans have two different brains.


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