How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness

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 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

The Exercise
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.

Reminding yourself
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.)

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Jan Chozen Bays's picture

Hi Marlo,

One of the things I love about practice is just what you said -- that the Way keeps on opening up in front of us. It seems to be a never-ending journey of discovery.

Thanks for joining us.

worthmoremusic's picture

Just received the book yesterday and looking forward to diving in !

I am grateful for many things in my life but must say I am grateful for Tricycle for all the work they do...for all the online retreats they arrange ...and for all the teachers who share their wisdom and experience !

I have never kept a journal before but DO meditate each morning when I rise and before bed as well....perhaps a journal is what the doctor ordered ? _/\_

thank you

Jan Chozen Bays's picture

Hi More Music person,

The "journal" doesn't have to be fancy. Just a small notebook or piece of paper by your bed, so you remember to write a few things down before you go to sleep. OR you could keep the paper and pen next to you when you meditate. At the end of your meditation session, for a minute or so, you turn your mind to what you are grateful for, and then jot it down.

Do you play music? We have a marimba band at the monastery (see us on Youtube under Musical Monks of Zen Perform Fury 3). We play marimba here to help people get over the notion, "I can't play music" and also because playing music together is a joyous mindfulness practice. You have to play your part AND listen to everyone else. One young man who was concentrating very hard as he played for the first time said, It's the only time that I can remember that my mind has been quiet!"

worthmoremusic's picture

Hi Jan...

We met via Facebook...there my comments appear as "Judy Worth Friedsam". I was a professional musician for many many years back east (NYC) where I am originally from...drummer...but now I write music in my little apartment studio in Northern Calif.

I love the Zen Marimba group ! You guys are terrific...AND if the drummer ever gets tired of jammin' with you all OR an additional Marimba or another percussive instrument is called for....I might relocate
Indeed..playing in an orchestra requires that everyone play their part..unless it is written in unison like many of the old charts of the big band days... My Dad taught me about this as he used to play with many of those old big bands of the 30's & 40's (The Dorsey Bros, Abe Lieman, Vincent Lopez, Eddy Dutchin, etc..)

I have many little notebooks so I will dedicate one thoughts of gratitude and to that of gratefulness. I must admit, I have cheated to some degree in that I have peeked (actually read) 1/2 the book already and absolutely adore the lessons you offer....

A book is like a garden carried in the pocket. ~ Chinese Proverb
........and yours is definitely a perennial !

kathymajka's picture

I have kept a gratitude journal off and on for a number of years and am grateful for being directed to tricycle. The on line book club - I have wanted to be involved in a book club for a number of years, current book on mindfulness meditation - I have practiced mindfulness meditation but not for many years and have wanted to get back into it and the gratitude journal is familiar to me and just what I need to push me from the contemplation stage to the action stage of change. Thank you.

Jan Chozen Bays's picture

Hi Kathy,

You are an old hand at gratitude journal practice, so please share your experiences with us.

I've found that a "sabbatical" from meditation is helpful once in a while. (For me, it usually happens when I visit relatives over the holidays.) When we're doing something like meditation all the time, we forget what it does for us and begin to take it for granted. If you stop for a bit, and then start up again, you experience it with beginner's mind again.

Let us know if your experience is different this time.

pjonly's picture

Jan and other Book Club participants,

I am starting off by being grateful for meditation, a practice I enjoyed prior to 2004 when I returned to work. I have decided to get back to it, I am long overdue. I am number one in the county library queue for the book, but I have started a morning and evening sitting practice and have a Gratitude Journal started. I just subscribed to Tricycle again and was excited to see this internet-based opportunity.


Jan Chozen Bays's picture

Hi Paula,

When I was busy with a young family and full time work, I stopped meditating for a while. When I began again, it was such a relief. I thought, "Oh, now I remember why I used to do this!"

I found that the key was to meditate every day. On really busy days, it might be just five minutes in the morning before I headed out the door to work, and five minutes before I fell asleep. Even that much made the whole day go better. Five to thirty minutes a day worked better, I found, than waiting until I had 2 hours on the weekend.

Let us know how your re-entry into meditation goes.

katy.yelland's picture

I am going to do this, starting tonight. Thanks for the idea :-)

Jan Chozen Bays's picture

Welcome, Katy !
I am grateful for all the people in unknown places --- maybe around the globe --- who are supporting each other in practice for these four weeks.

cynhat's picture

How good of you to answer my rather inane comment. I think the positive mind state lingered past sleep and into waking because all day I found myself catching thoughts before they could turn angry or frustrated, and finding small humorous moments that usually I wouldn't notice. Oddly, for me, gratitude seems related to being able to laugh at myself. This is a skill I've been unable to cultivate - and now, here it pops up! Well, thank you. I look forward to the Amazon package in my mailbox.

cynhat's picture

ok - I remembered how to log on (!! it's the password thing)

went to Amazon and the book is on its way.

I found a journal.

It is next to my bed.

With a pencil.

and I am grateful for Tricycle.

Kjourney2's picture

Dear "cynhat",

Your "inane" comment [your words, below] reads like a lovely poem! It has the very simplicity of mindfulness pouring from it. It is rather like the tiny spring that begins the headwaters of a great river.

Thank you,

myacobucci's picture

I was thinking exactly the does read like a small poem! Well said, Kjourney2 and cynhat!!!

Jan Chozen Bays's picture


Thank you for undertaking this mindfulness exercise!
It's one of my favorites.
I find that it closes the day and sends you off to sleep in a positive mind state.

Jan Chozen Bays