Mindfulness & Daily Life
Michael Nolden, Ed.D
Mindfulness in daily life is captured by many facets. Daily sitting practice is only one avenue to deepen a commitment to mindfulness. For mindfulness to penetrate the experience of personal awareness, common daily tasks support deepening one’s understanding of mindfully being with what occurs from moment to moment. How to Train a Wild Elephant, (2011) by Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., offers multiple suggestions on how to access common daily routines intended to deepen one’s experience with mindfulness. As I interacted with Dr. Bays’ text for a period of time, I found several of the activities a bit challenging, and others that fit naturally with what I already accommodate in my daily and weekly routines. The following describes some of my interactions with the strategies presented in How to Train a Wild Elephant.
To begin, a brief comment on the title of Dr. Bays’ book. The description of our experience as that akin to a wild elephant is succinct and accurate. Science is catching up to the realization that human emotions underlay cognitive activity. Some theorists in moral philosophy suggest that the emotional aspect of our lives is similar to that of an untamed elephant, whereas the rational aspect of cognition is like that of a rider that attempts to direct the behavior of an elephant (Haidt, 2012). This is a useful analogy.
Mindfulness or natural awareness practices (Winston, 2019) is like a ‘rider’ on an elephant. Even well-trained riders of tamed elephants will experience difficulty in task management, such as rolling large boulders or logs, if the elephant is unwilling to cooperate. Our minds are like this, easily distracted and difficult to focus. But once we inhabit the awareness of our mental activity and become aware of mindfulness as it naturally unfolds in our daily life, it becomes easier to recognize the difference when we are distracted, and pulled away from the present moment. Elephants never forget, lest they become mindless in their social bonds, structure and environments.
Several practices in How to Train a Wild Elephant resonated with me the most. First, the practice of gratitude at the end of the day is something I’ve embraced for several years. At the end of the day, my spouse and I reflect on three positives experiences for that day. This easily turns into a gratitude practice, in which gratitude is expressed for witnessing the positives described by each other’s story.
The next practice I adopted is listening to sounds. The other morning during a long sit, the sound was amazing … the construction on the neighbor’s house; lawn mower and leaf blower; automobile traffic; the generator two houses down; the sounds of pedestrians talking and the sounds of birds in the trees and fountain .... a cornucopia of delightful sound! I am increasingly aware of sound as a meaningful anchor in my personal sitting practice. Noticing sound throughout the day is a simple reminder of mindful awareness.
A third practice from How to Train a Wild Elephant that I really enjoyed was a digital media-fast. Supported through a Spirit Rock Meditation Center event, I abstained from all electronic and social media for 5 days. (I did read mindfulness related documents in book form only). Experiencing similar digital fasting rules, I wonder why I am so pulled to electronic media, and its overload? It must be the sense of FOMO (fear of missing out). I hope I can maintain reasonable distance from email, TV and the cell phone. But it is difficult.
An enduring practice from Dr. Bays’ text, one that I employ throughout the day is the strategy of taking three deep breaths. The depth of one’s breath is not as important as the intention to actually notice that you are breathing. This is easily the most accessible exercise we have at our disposal at any moment. Many people struggle to recognize rising anger or fear, and by not paying attention to their rising emotional states some of us (including me) overreact, over personalize and minimize the worth of others. The breath is a gateway that assuages physiological responses that easily gets hijacked by runaway emotions. The acronym STOP is useful: stop what you’re doing; take three deep breaths; observe what occurs, and proceed as skillfully as possible. In the context of time, a periodic 30 second practice of mindful awareness could prove essential for the next 30 years of one’s existence.
All of the exercises and practices in How to Train a Wild Elephant speak to the individual uniqueness of our experience. But, ‘just like me,’ everyone experiences a range of emotions related to sorrows, joys and trauma.
The last practice I describe pertains to the unsettled social environment existing today. It is a practice called “notice dislike” (Bays, 2011). In many ways this is a fundamental quality of mindfulness, accepting the present moment for what it is, not what we wish it to be. Noticing dislike requires an investigative spirit. What are the features of dislike? Typically, our mind is shrouded in a range of dislike mental states, such as aversion, clinging, ignoring, pushing away difficult emotions, and feeling unsafe (Bays, 2011). Becoming naturally aware and leaning into personal fragility, while investigating emotional mental activity, may create a personal path that keeps us from default coping strategies such as othering, over-identification and excessive self-criticism.
Paying attention to and investigating our inner mental states is difficult and at times unsettling. Mindful awareness, gently held in loving compassion for self and others, provides a framework to interact with the world and ourselves.
Bays, J. C. (2011). How to train a wild elephant and other adventures in mindfulness. Shambala Publications. Boulder, CO.
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind. Why are good people divided by politics and religion. Vintage Books. NY.
Winston, D. (2019). The little book of being. Practices and guidance for uncovering your natural awareness. Sounds True. Boulder, CO.