with Jan Chozen Bays
During the month of November, we'll be reading Jan Chozen Bays's How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness at the Tricycle Book Club. Pick up a copy and join the discussion below.
People often say to me, “I’d love to practice mindfulness, but I’m so busy I can’t seem to find the time.”
Most people think of mindfulness as something they must squeeze into an already full schedule of working, raising children, caring for a home. Making mindfulness part of your life is more like a paint-by-numbers kit. You begin with one small area of your life, let’s say becoming aware of the earth beneath your feet. Several times a day, particularly while walking, you bring your attention to the earth that supports your steps. You do this for a week or so, until you’ve added the color of attention to that daily activity.
Then you add another mindful practice, such as eating mindfully. Once this way of being present is integrated into your life, you add another. Gradually you are present and aware for more and more moments of the day. The pleasing experience of an awakened life begins to emerge.
What we call peak moments are times when we are completely aware. Our life and our awareness are undivided, at one. At these times the gap between us and everything else closes and suffering disappears. We feel satisfied, actually, we are beyond satisfaction and dissatisfaction. We are present. We are presence. We get a tantalizing taste of what Buddhists call the enlightened life.
These moments inevitably fade, and there we are again, divided and grumpy about it. We can’t force peak moments or enlightenment to happen. The tools of mindfulness, however, can help us close the gaps that cause our unhappiness. Mindfulness unifies our body, heart and mind, bringing them to focused attention. When we are thus unified, the barrier between “me” and “everything else” becomes thinner and thinner, until, in a moment, it vanishes! For a while, often a brief moment or occasionally a lifetime, all is whole, all is holy, and at peace.
On tricycle.com we will be doing a new mindfulness exercise each week for the month of November. I’ve selected exercises that relate to the theme of gratitude. These are four of fifty three exercises that I included in the book How to Train a Wild Elephant, published recently by Shambhala Publications. We have been doing mindfulness tasks for twenty years at the monastery where I live. Once a week we pick an exercise, and at the end of the week we have fun discussing what we have discovered as we attempted the task. We’ll have a similar discussion here at the Tricycle Book Club. Please try this first exercise described below and write in during the week to tell us how it’s going! Also, keep an eye on the Tricycle blog for exercises throughout the month.
Jan Chozen Bays, MD, is a pediatrician and a longtime meditation teacher. She is the author of Mindful Eating and lives outside Portland, OR.
Mindfulness Exercise # 1: Gratitude at the End of the Day
At the end of the day, write a list of at least five things that happened during the day that you are grateful for. At the end of the week, read it out loud to a friend, partner or mindfulness companion.
Keep a notepad and pencil or pen beside your bed or on your pillow so you can write a list each night before you fall asleep.
When people first do this practice, they often think that they will have trouble making a list of at least five things they are grateful for. However, they are surprised to find that when they start, the list often grows longer. It is as if a long-neglected faucet is turned on, and the flow doesn’t shut off. This is a lovely transformation into the mind-state of ongoing gratitude.
Research shows that people who keep a “gratitude journal” or express gratitude verbally show a significant increase in happiness and decrease in depression.
We may know people who are naturally grateful. To be around them lifts our spirits and brightens the day. The Buddha spoke of “cultivating” our mind, letting unwholesome emotions and thoughts wither away while strengthening wholesome ones. How is this possible? It is an energetic phenomenon. Anything that is fed energy will grow. It may seem artificial at first, but when we deliberately cultivate gratitude, we will gradually become naturally grateful people. (Conversely, if we cultivate negative mind states, jealousy or criticism, they will become who we are.)