An Interview with Elise Bialylew about Mindful in May
1. How did the initiative come about?
I’d been meditating for many years and was discovering that meditation was supporting me to live a healthier, happier life.
Although I knew meditation was so valuable, like many people it was not uncommon for me to fall out of the routine especially at times of high stress, when I actually needed it the most. I imagined that there were many other people who could relate to that experience and I wanted to create a supportive community that could come together to learn something valuable for themselves and at the same time contribute to a greater cause through fundraising.
There are so many issues that need addressing in the world but I wanted to connect it to a global issue that could unite people all around the world, something that was not too political, that would help men, women and children, and something fundamental and basic. Apart from breath, water is one of our most basic needs and for one in ten people on the planet it remains a daily struggle to access.
I had travelled in West Africa many years ago and I was deeply impacted by the extreme levels of poverty, people dying of treatable diseases often caused by water related illnesses. At the same time, I was truly amazed by the spirit of generosity amidst absolute poverty. I lived in a shanty town with a family who had the bare minimum, yet who would always offer me food, and take care of my needs often before their own
Conversely, in the developed world we have so much yet so many of us are unsatisfied, isolated and depressed. It made me think about how these two issues could be addressed. How could I bring more contentment, meaning and connection to those in the developed world, and support those in the developing world to get better access to their most basic needs like clean, safe drinking water. Mindful in May emerged as an answer to these two global issues.
I got curious about the water issue and here’s what I learned so many years ago:
- Around 315,000 children under five die every year from diarrhea diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. That’s almost 900 children a day!
- Diseases from dirty water kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war.
- In Africa alone, women spend 40 billion hours a year walking for water.
- Women are responsible for 72% of the water collected in Sub-Saharan Africa. When a community gets water, women and girls get their lives back. They start businesses, improve their homes, and take charge of their own futures.
- 42% of healthcare facilities in Africa do not have access to safe water.
Together through previous campaigns, we’ve reduced the suffering of over 10,000 other people by raising over $500,000 to bring clean water to developing countries including Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Nepal.
2. When did you first come across the practice and how important it is to your own life?
I was fortunate to grow up with a mother who was passionate about personal growth and development and who introduced me to meditation when I was very young. I remember reading books by Thich Nat Han, Jack Kornfield and Sogyal Rinpoche and being curious about how to bring more presence and meaning to life. I think one of my greatest fears was reaching the end of my life and feeling that I hadn’t lived as courageously and meaningfully as I could have.
My regular meditation practice really started at a time of high stress for me. I was training in medicine and facing stress and trauma on a daily basis in the wards. I realized I needed to find a way to more skillfully manage the high levels of work stress or I would inevitably get burnt out.
Whilst I trained as a doctor I would use my annual leave to go on regular silent meditation retreats and trained with a few of the world’s leading mindfulness teachers over the years, including Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Since becoming a mother recently and balancing that with running a global mindfulness campaign, I’ve found that my practice has changed. Whereas before I did predominantly breath practice, I’m finding motherhood has naturally inspired more loving kindness and compassion practices, alongside my more fundamental breath practice. I love to practice the loving kindness meditation at night when I am giving my daughter a bottle of milk before sleep and I find mindfulness has also been really helpful for managing the general emotional roller-coaster ride that comes with motherhood. I wrote more about that here.
3. What do you want to achieve through this initiative?
I started Mindful in May because I was deeply interested in using my skills and passions to contribute to the world in some meaningful way. I truly believe that being connected to ourselves and to each other with more awareness and kindness, is the key to increasing our individual wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet.
The mission of Mindful in May is to teach 1 million people the skills of mindfulness and raise 20 million dollars by 2020 which will transform the lives of 600,000 people living without access to life’s most basic need – clean, safe, drinking water.
Meditation has taught me to be with life one breath at a time. So I’ll keep breathing and working and hopefully by 2020 we will have transformed lives and spread the mindfulness ripple far and wide.
4. How important is mindfulness to health and wellbeing?
I believe it is so important that in 5-10 years time it will be an integrated part of our daily lives. Just like brushing your teeth is something you wouldn’t think twice about doing to maintain good dental hygiene, mindfulness will be something that we all do regularly to ensure our mental hygiene.
Here are five compelling scientific reasons why we should be adding mindfulness to our daily routine.
1. Enhanced immune function.
Dr. Richie Davidson, from the Center For Investigating Healthy Minds concluded in a study in 2003 that a short term mindfulness training program resulted in participants developing a stronger immune response when challenged with the flu injection. And a healthy immune system often results in optimal physical health, overall.
2. Parts of the brain correlated to positive emotion are activated.
Research has demonstrated that people who suffer from depression and negative mood states have more electrical brain activity on the right side of the brain, compared with those who have more a positive, resilient attitude in life.
There was a study that demonstrated that with regular mindfulness practices, the electrical brain activity shifted from right to left, “left-sided anterior activation,” indicating a transition to more positive emotional states. Simply put, meditation leads to greater happiness.
3. Growth in higher-functioning regions of the brain.
A study by Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard University, revealed a correlation between regular mindfulness meditation and growth in the thickness of the pre-frontal cortex, a high-functioning area of the brain responsible for functions like focused attention and regulating the emotional responses. This research also suggested that meditation may impact reduce age related decline in brain structure.
4. Protection against age-related DNA damage.
A groundbreaking study by Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD explored the effects of mindfulness meditation on an enzyme in the body called telomerase, which functions to protect DNA from age and stress-related damage. Interestingly enough, telomerase was increased in the group of regular meditators, suggesting that meditation can protect the cells from age-related damage.
5. Overall mental health is improved.
A rigorous study by Teasdale and Segal revealed that mindfulness meditation could reduce the rate of relapse of depression by up to 44% in people who had suffered previous episodes. This effect was comparable with staying on a maintenance dose of anti-depressants.
5. What are your top tips for those starting out?
Start small and build the habit up gradually
Use guided meditations to help you learn what you’re actually supposed to do
Register for Mindful in May or if you missed it join my online 6 week mindfulness program The Power of Presence Know that mindfulness meditation is not about stopping your thoughts but rather noticising what’s happening with greater awareness so that you ultimately have more control over how you relate to your thoughts
How can we make mindfulness part of our daily routines?
Mindfulness can be practised through meditation but it can also be brought into everyday activities. Here are four ways you can bring mindfulness into your every day life.
Be mindful of your breath
The breath is a powerful indicator of our stress levels. When we are stressed the breath becomes short and shallow and is often located in our chest. When we pay attention to our breath we can help calm it down and bring our whole nervous system back into balance. Take time during the day to tune into your breath. Notice where you feel the breath. Is it in the chest or belly? Take three deep breaths and allow each inhalation and exhalation to be slower and longer than normal. Notice how this changes how you feel.
Be mindful when eating
We can often eat on the go and not only fail to taste the food but also overeat or not chew our food properly. To eat mindfully, decide you are going to make eating your sole focus. Notice the food on your plate, pay attention to colours, shapes and smells. Bring your awareness to the sensation of chewing and the flavours, textures and temperature in your mouth. Notice any urge to eat quickly or swallow your food without chewing it completely. Be aware of your attention getting hijacked from the experience of eating and gently bring it back to the flavour of the food.
Be mindful when drinking tea
Taking a mindful tea break is a powerful way to stop the racing mind and come to the present moment. Make a tea and as you drink it bring your attention fully to the experience by tuning into your senses. Feel the warmth of the cup in your hands, taste the tea with each sip, notice the sounds around you. When you feel your mind wandering, let go of thoughts and come back to the sensation of the warmth of the tea cup in your hands.
Be mindful in supermarket queues
Waiting in lines can often be a frustrating experience as we feel held up in our day. We can use these “waiting” experiences to practice mindfulness. Be mindful in the supermarket queue by tuning in to your body. Sense your feet on the ground and scan the body for any tension that might be present. Let that tension go. Check in with how you are feeling, notice any irritation or impatience in the body and us the breath, see if you can let it go.
6. Given the initiative is “Mindful in May”, how do you continue raising awareness throughout the year? And how can others continue to do so?
Mindful in May is the campaign I run to spread the benefits of mindfulness around the world, while also inspiring people to get on board and raise money for this important cause. At other times of the year I teach mindfulness through my 6 week online mindfulness program The Power of Presence and through in person workshops and corporate training.
For a limited time join the 4th Mindful in May campaign and learn from the world’s best mindfulness and well-being experts.