A chat about Mindful in May, meditation and mums who meditate.
Tell us your background.
I decided I was going to be a Psychiatrist when I was 16 years old (I know, it’s pretty funny in retrospect). I don’t think I really understood what Psychiatry entailed back then, but I was always deeply curious about the human condition and the ingredients that are required to live a thriving life. At medical school, I remember being completely blown away as I held a human brain in my hands and wondered how a one kilogram mass could house a lifetime of memories, thoughts and desires. Studying medicine, although at times so difficult, gave me a deep appreciation for the miracle of the body and the preciousness of life.
As I moved deeper into my career I discovered that while psychiatry helped save people’s lives, it often left the flourishing part of the equation to other professionals. I also realised that this was the part of the journey I was most passionate about. I wanted to support people in thriving, not just surviving.
It was during my own search for greater clarity, meaning and a way to manage the stress of my everyday life in the psych wards, that I truly committed to meditation.
It was the early 2000s, and mindfulness had not yet hit the mainstream medical world. I attended a conference and heard leading neuroscientists talk about the impact of mindfulness on the brain, and the new science of neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to adapt and change throughout our lifetime in response to our experiences. I was intrigued.
Only a few years earlier, the accepted view in science was that the brain rapidly developed until about our mid-twenties, at which point brain-cell growth stopped and our capacity to create new neural pathways significantly reduced. It was a depressing picture of our brain’s capacity, peaking early and then declining both structurally and functionally into old age. But leaders in the field of neuroscience were correcting this misconception. A new understanding of the brain was emerging, and it provided much more exciting possibilities.
I realised that I was witnessing a paradigm shift in the world of wellbeing. Old models were being shattered as new models emerged, revealing the undiscovered potential of our brains.
When I started learning mindfulness meditation I had no idea how deeply it would transform my life.
One morning, when I had been meditating for several years and was almost at the end of my psychiatry training, I was sitting in meditation when a phrase appeared in my mind, flashing like a neon light: ‘Mindful in May’. The phrase grew into an idea to create an online global month of mindfulness each year during May, where people could be taught about mindfulness by leading experts from around the world and dedicate the month to making a positive difference by raising funds for global poverty.
This was the beginning of a new path that would answer the call of my longing to make a positive difference in a more far-reaching way than prescribing medication and facilitating small group meetings. It was an idea that integrated three of my passions: mindfulness, social impact and community building through technology. I haven’t looked back.
When did you first start meditating?
My mum is a psychologist and meditator, so fortunately for me, I grew up with bookshelves filled with all of the meditation books. I read a lot about meditation and my mum took me on conferences and retreats when I was really young.
I remember one of my earliest guided meditations was with a group of Tibetan monks who were leading a meditation on death and dying! (I think I was about 12-13 at the time). Although it sounds pretty morbid and potentially scary for a young person, it was actually a really profound experience.
However, I spent many years reading a lot about meditation but not actually doing it. I am an energetic doer by nature and so I think i had a lot of unconscious resistance to being still and turning inwards. I didn’t regularly start meditating until I had more of a pressing need. I was studying medicine and realised I really needed a way to manage stress and deal with the daily traumas I was facing as a doctor. I also started to feel like I was somehow out of alignment with my purpose and so that inner discomfort of feeling somehow stuck in my life, was also a strong motivator to the meditation cushion.
How did it help you personally?
Mindfulness meditation has been the most important education of my life. It has taught me how to use my mind to its fullest potential and find greater emotional balance in life.
Not only has it provided me a powerful way to manage my stress levels, it has really supported me in becoming a more self-compassionate, resilient, courageous person. It’s been an education in how to live with greater wisdom, navigate the inevitable challenges that arise in life and be more grateful and present to the beauty of each precious, fleeting moment.
Mindfulness offers us a way to see more clearly and be more aware of what’s happening within us and around us in the world. With this greater self-awareness and present moment attention we become better at:
- Being aware of our emotions and responding to them rather than reacting
- Having better access to what we really want in our lives and then taking action to make that happen
- Recognising thoughts and letting them go rather than getting stuck in obsessive planning or worrying
- Managing our stress
- Being in relationship with others with less conflict
- Communicating more effectively as we are more aware of why we are feeling what we are feeling
- Staying focussed at work and less prone to multitasking
- Falling asleep at night as we have a tool to help us settle the mind
- Making decisions that are aligned with what we truly value
- Taking healthy risks in life as we have an inner resource that can help us stay
How did it help your family?
Mindfulness is a vehicle to greater emotional intelligence. Having greater emotional intelligence makes us more self-aware and better able to manage our emotions. As we get better at these skills we get much better at relationships. This changes everything within the family context.
I’ll never forget the response from my partner after coming home from my first silent meditation retreat where you sit for days on end, in silence and meditate for up to 10 hours a day. He said to me “I don’t know what happened over there but I’m very happy for you to go every year on one of these birthday retreats!”
Of course the benefits you get from going on a silent meditation retreat do wear off pretty quickly, but there is also cumulative wisdom and understanding you maintain and build upon with each retreat you attend.
Retreats are not for everyone, in fact for people who have experienced significant trauma and who have not worked through it, silent meditation retreats may be unhelpful and potentially contraindicated. However, aside from that context, I truly believe everyone should sign themselves up for this kind of experience. It just amazes me that we spend our whole lives being driven and governed by a mind that we don’t really understand. Meditation help us get familiar with the workings of our own mind and our inner emotional landscape and this understanding brings us so much more freedom, wisdom and intimacy.
How did you start to meditate?
I took short meditation courses initially and then dived into silent meditation retreats. I eventually found a teacher, an ex-monk and translator to the Dalai Lama, who would visit Australia and run silent meditation retreats which I would attend regularly. Going on silent meditation retreat really amplified the effect of the teachings and practice and it was the retreats that I think catalysed my leap from training as a psychiatrist to teaching meditation full time.
How have you deepened your learning around meditation?
Prior to having my daughter three years ago, I was attending regular silent meditation retreats with my teacher from America. I also study and teach the practice throughout the year. Life also offers constant opportunities to deepen your understanding as meditation and mindfulness isn’t just about sitting in silence and concentrating on your breath, it’s actually a way of being in the world that you can bring to every moment. Life offers us constant moments to put what we learn on the cushion into practice. There is a famous quote by the spiritual teacher Ram Dass who says “If you think you’re enlightened, go and spend a week with your family!”.
I once had an interesting conversation with a monk who entered back into the modern world and he said to me, that he did more learning once he came out of the cave and moved into a relationship than his many years in the cave. Of course he was joking in some ways, and of course spending prolonged time in retreat is it’s own learning, but ultimately we live life in relationship with others, and that’s the best place to deepen your understanding.
As a life long learner myself that’s what I love about studying and teaching meditation, the learning literally never ends. But you do need good teachers or mentors who can support you along the path, as we all have our own blindspots.
Another large part of continuing to deepen your learning is having a spiritual community, or spiritual friends or buddies, which I’m fortunate enough to have. These day it’s my daughter who offers me so many opportunities to deepen my practice alongside the mentors and teachers in my life who I turn to whether that’s through listening to Dharma talks online, attending retreats or having one on one conversations with wise teachers.
What is the scientific evidence behind meditating?
Much of the research in the field of mindfulness explores the impact of thirty to forty minutes of meditation a day on physical and psychological wellbeing. However, since the inception of the Mindful in May program which challenges time poor, busy people to meditate for just ten minutes a day, I noticed that the participants were reporting the benefits of this smaller “dose” of daily practice. This led me to conduct a research study exploring whether ten minutes of meditation a day over one month had any tangible benefits.
The study was a pilot study, and included over two hundred people from the Mindful in May program, and suggested that ten minutes of mindfulness meditation a day over one month was enough to support significant benefits including:
- An increase in positive emotions
- Reduction in perceived stress
- An increase in self-compassion
- Greater focus in daily life
It also revealed that the more someone practised, the more benefits they experienced.
Meditating can be challenging – why do you think it is so challenging?
I’ve found over the years of teaching that there are many misconceptions about what meditation is and this means people to come to the practice with expectations that set them up for failure. One of the biggest misconceptions is that meditation is about stopping your thoughts.
Meditation isn’t about stopping your thoughts but rather recognising and becoming more aware of thoughts so that you are less caught in the impact they can have on you. Although as you practice for longer periods the mind certainly does settle, you can never stop the mind from thinking. Just like the heart beats, the lungs breath, the eyes see – the mind thinks. So when you sit to meditate and notice the constant stream of thoughts, you realise that this is part of meditation and so it becomes less of a challenge as you stop battling with your own mind.
There are other challenges to meditating whether that’s boredom, sleepiness or restlessness and these are all predictable obstacles that have been described for thousands of years in the ancient texts. Thankfully, meditators from centuries before us have faced these challenges and have come up with ways of working with these challenges, which support you to go deeper into the practice and experience the benefits that lie beyond these obstacles.
What programs are you running this year?
- The global online one month Mindful in May fundraising campaign that features the world’s best meditation teachers and raises funds to bring clean water to those in need in developing countries.
- The Power of Presence, a 6 week online mindfulness program featuring world leaders in the field of mindfulness and the brain.
- Mind Life Project Membership – an ongoing online membership and community where you can ;earn to meditate and be supported on a monthly basis by me through monthly live guided meditation sessions and teaching from world leaders in the field.
- The Happiness Plan group experience – a free one month online mindfulness experience that offers you support as you work through my book The Happiness Plan.
How can meditating help with parenting?
Parenting requires bucketloads of patience, self-awareness, self compassion, forgiveness, creativity, courage, resilience, and presence. Meditation builds all of these qualities. It’s a perfect companion and vehicle to becoming the best parent you can be.
Dr. Elise Bialylew, is author of the #1 bestselling mindfulness guidebook, The Happiness Plan and founder of Mindful in May, the world’s largest online global mindfulness campaign that teaches thousands of people to meditate, while raising funds to build clean water projects in the developing world.