Book review: “How to Train a Wild Elephant (& Other Adventures in Mindfulness)” by Jan Chozen Bays

how to train a wild elephant

I have been a wannabe Buddhist for decades now. I love its core ideas, and I accept the Four Noble Truths, but I find it difficult to practice any of the devotions or the meditations. My mind is just too busy and clouded with samsara.

So I was pleasantly attracted by the title of this book.

The human mind – your mind, my mind – is the “wild elephant” of the title. It runs in all directions at once. How do we tame it? This book offers suggestions.

I’ve found some of them very useful.


Take three deep breaths. I close my eyes while doing this. Here’s the thing: don’t think. Slowly: inhale/exhale, inhale/exhale, inhale/exhale. Now open your eyes.

This is not just a calm-down exercise, or a “Serenity Now!” mantra. Just think about yourself, and your breathing, for a few seconds.

It works.

Whenever you see someone during the day, think: “This may be the last time I ever see him/her.” It reminds you of mortality. It keeps you from treating them slightingly or badly. And who knows? Once in a while it may be true.

Notice the color blue. This sounds stupid, but it’s very effective. Blue is the sky color, but it’s also everywhere. Take a moment and notice all the bits and pieces of blue around you. You’ll be astounded.

And the most difficult of all: When you’re eating, just eat. Take a bite, chew it, and swallow it. Do not take another bite until you’ve completely chewed and swallowed the first one. Make yourself aware of the taste of the food. Don’t read, or watch TV, or talk. Just eat, slowly and with appreciation.

Slowly, step by step, breath by breath, bite by bite, we may actually achieve nirvana.

The fragility of the Internet

fragility of the internet

I still have shelves and shelves of books: novels, poetry, history, biographies. Also reference books.



But do I really need reference books? Isn’t that what the Internet is all about? Twenty years ago, you had to know how to use a dictionary, and an encyclopedia, and an almanac, and a phone book, to look anything up. Now Google and Siri have everything wrapped up.



So long as you have 3G, or 4G, or WiFi, and provided your battery is all charged up.



The nice thing about those big lumpy reference books is that they’re not going anywhere. They will sit on my shelves, ugly and faithful, until they’re called upon for use. They do not require electricity, or an Internet connection.



What if an electromagnetic pulse (AKA EMP) happens? Or a huge angry sunspot? Or an attack by hackers from some unfriendly country?



And the Internet goes away. Electricity too, for a while.



What will we do then?



My books will still be useful. It’ll be just like the 1980s. I think I’ll be able to survive, for a while.



But for the young people who were born after the Net took over the world, it will be torture.



Poor things.



You can come borrow my dictionary.


Jinx Falkenburg

The Providence Public Library is full of old unhappy-looking books which haven’t seen the light of day in decades. I like to take them out into the sunshine, and wipe the dust off their covers, and sometimes even peek inside them, to see what people were reading during the Van Buren administration.

For example: I was strolling down the biography / autobiography aisle the other day when I saw the word JINX on the spine of an oldish-looking book.

I took it down, and sure enough: it was the autobiography of Jinx Falkenburg.

What? You’ve never heard of Jinx Falkenburg?

Jinx was a model in the 1930s. She was Miss Rheingold Beer, and a sort of actress, and a tennis star. She did a lot of USO work during World War II. She married a journalist, Tex McCrary, and after the war, they had a radio show which was broadcast from their very own home. Also they had a TV show for a while in the early 1950s.

She was very popular in her day. She was pretty in a Rita Hayworth way. She was a raconteur, and told endless stories at a breathless pace, one tumbling on top of the next. The book (whether she wrote it, or whether it was ghostwritten for her) tries to echo her chatty cheerfulness; now, after sixty years, it feels like cocktail conversation that wasn’t really very interesting at the time, and is definitely not very interesting nowadays.

Also, Jinx knew everyone: Rise Stevens, Bernard Baruch, Paulette Goddard, Pat O’Brien, the Ritz Brothers, the Paleys . . . .

Yes, I know. Who are these people?

It’s bad enough that Jinx was a name-dropper. It’s worse now, all these years later, when most of Jinx’s famous friends are just as forgotten as Jinx herself. This is my favorite passage along these lines: “Tex asked a whole group over to “21” for dinner – the Jack Strauses, Joanne Sayres and Tony Bliss, Carl Whimore, the Howard Twins.” I like to think I know who was who in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, and I have no idea who she’s talking about here.


(But this is a lesson in ephemerality. These were celebrities, not so long ago. And now they’re gone, and forgotten: Jinx, and Tex, and Paulette Goddard, and the Howard Twins.)

Everyone gets forgotten. Even Jinx and Tex. Even you and me.

It is a lesson to us all.


Learning to read again

I’ve written about rediscovering the Providence Public Library. I go at least once a week, sometimes twice. It’s quiet and lovely, especially the book stacks (most people go to use the computers, which are right in front; there’s also a nice first-floor children’s section, and the librarians are universally cheerful and funny).



I check out at least a book a week.



And, almost by accident, I have learned to read again.



Funny: I have a room full of books, literally lined with books. I am always pulling them down, looking up things, lending them to people. But I am not adding new books to the mix. (I do, of course; it’s a lifetime habit. But I buy books and put them on the shelf without reading. That’s terrible.)



But now I am checking out books I do not own from the library, and there is a date stamped in them, and if I do not return them by that date, I will be charged – I don’t know – five cents a day.



hate being late.



So I read. I read novels, and screenplays, and radio scripts, and short stories. I have put things aside because they’re not very good. I have reread things.



I’m beginning to fall into a routine: one weekend day (either Saturday or Sunday, whichever has the crappier weather), with a book and a glass of seltzer water. I lie down, and I read.



I’d forgotten how lovely this is.  I can turn pages as quickly or as slowly as I please. If a book bores me, I can throw it aside. I can speed through a chapter or a section if it’s not wonderful. I can linger over things. I can reread things a few days later!



And I can lie down while doing it!



I find that I now (more than recently) have ideas in my head. Now, where could those have come from?



I have been more relaxed lately, too. To be fair, it might be my medication. But books are medication too. I’d forgotten how consoling they can be.



As W. H. Auden said in “For The Time Being”: “You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.” 



It’s good to be back.


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