Taming the elephant: Stop & Focus

Meditation has become a big part of my life. I thought I’d share some thoughts on what that means…

I think it mostly started from when I was a teenager. Teenage rebelliousness against the environment I lived in in Mexico City led me towards the esoteric. Somewhere towards the end of High School I discovered that a few of my friends’ mothers were really into yoga and Indian mysticism. I ended up going to an ashram in Mexico and learning how to meditate. I only vaguely remember the building but it was a pink conference room with rows of black metal chairs with pink fabric. I was taught to use a mantra, focus on my breath and I was sent on my way back home.

For years afterwards I kept following my curiosity across various forms of mysticism. This led me to various ashrams in college, communal living, various Buddhism courses at Stanford, a trip to Tibet, visiting Indian meditation retreats and various trips to Japan where wandering the temples of Kyoto became one of my favorite things in the world.

Amidst all this, one day stood out - while reading a book on Tibetan Buddhism at a coffee shop in San Francisco I somehow had a moment of samadhi - everything was crystal clear and I was hyper aware. It was an incredible moment I can still recall to this day. I’ve only had this feeling once or twice since… Over time these feelings faded and I struggled to get them back.

Decades passed and I kept meditating, albeit irregularly - 30 minutes here and there. Setting goals to meditate every day but rarely sticking to them.

This year was the first where this all started to change for me. The main breakthrough came from the work of Thich Nhat Hanh (“You are Here”). He can describes it all better than I ever could, and I recommend you read his books if any of this sounds interesting to you, but I thought I’d explain what some of the main insights for me where that really clicked.

The main notion I’ve started to understand is that one should be mindful at all times. He calls it de-compartamentalization - there is not “time to meditate” where you are mindful and “time to not meditate” where you’re not - mindfulness is a thing that can happen at every moment.

I’d read things like this in the past, nodded agreeably and moved on. But I now understand what I missing. Christian mystics called it “a life of continuous prayer” and it turns out that you can find similar references to it in mystics from every religion for thousands of years. It’s achievable for everyone and there are specific techniques handed down for thousands of year to help one do so…

The main insight is that mindfulness and being present are about anchoring the mind. Sitting meditation focused on the breath is one of many techniques that can help do this but there are many others that are equally powerful.

To quote Jan Chozen Bays in “How to Train an Elephant”:

“The Buddha spoke of taming the mind. He said it was like taming a wild forest elephant. Just as an untamed elephant can do damage, trampling crops and injuring people, so the untamed, capricious mind can cause harm to us and those around us… Mindfulness is a potent tool for training the mind, allowing us to access and use the mind’s true potential for insight, kindness, and creativity.

“The Buddha pointed out that when a wild elephant is first captured and led out of the jungle, it has to be tethered to a stake.** In the case of our mind, that stake takes the form of whatever we attend to in our mindfulness practice - for example, the breath, a mouthful of food, or our posture. We anchored the mind by returning it over and over to one thing. This calms the mind and rids it of distractions.”

It’s this insight that I didn’t really understand. I was so focused on “meditation” as this thing which I did and did not do, that I missed the key insight. Mindfulness is a practice that can be done always. The breath is the main tools (it’s with you always, is connected to your body, and more) but it’s just one of many - “dharma gates are boundless.” Putting away dishes, washing your hands, eating, talking, walking, making coffee… these are all opportunities for being present and truly seeing life.

Not doing this creates forgetfulness. To quote Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Forgetfulness is the opposite [of mindfulness]. We drink a cup of tea, but we not know we are drinking a cup of tea. We sit with the person we love, but we don’t know that she is there. We walk, but we are not really walking. We are someplace else, thinking about the past or the future. _The horse of our habit energy is carrying us along, and we are its captive. We need to stop our horse and reclaim our liberty. We need to shine the light of mindfulness on everything we do, so the darkness of forgetfulness will disappear. The first function of meditation - shamatha - is to stop.”

So stop.

Take a breath and try to be here with whatever it is you are doing right now. And when you forget, anchor again… and again.

If you’re looking for some place to start, I’d recommend either Jan Chozen Bays in “How to Train an Elephant” or Thich Nhat Hanh’s “You are Here.”