All posts by Elise Bialylew

Building resilience with Mindfulness

 

In a world that is becoming increasingly complex and demanding resilience is becoming an essential life skill.

Resilience is the capacity to cope well with life’s inevitable challenges and disasters, to meet the stressors and storms of life with adaptive and skillful responses.

Research reveals that mindfulness can help us develop greater resilience – but how?

Richie Davidson, one of the world’s leading mindfulness researchers (who many of you are familiar with) articulated this relationship so beautifully in a conversation we had a few years ago. He explained:

“One of the ways that we think about resilience is being able to recover quickly following adversity.  Being able to let go of our negative emotions once they arise, to experience them but not ruminate on them. One of the ways in which meditation seems to be helpful, is to enable us to be less sticky in our negative emotions and there are certain changes in the brain that we have found to be associated with decreased stickiness.  By stickiness, we’re referring to the tendency to ruminate on or to stew in our negative emotions. When adversity happens it’s appropriate and adaptive to experience whatever negative emotions may arise, but then to let them go when they’re no longer useful. Meditation can help to facilitate that.”

It’s  helpful to remember that mindfulness isn’t about stopping difficult emotions in the face of life’s challenges, but rather helping us relate more wisely to them.

Just as we can physically train before a physical challenge like a marathon, we need to mentally train in order to build up our resilience muscles that can support us through difficult times.

Resilience is something we can grow through practice and Linda Graham the author of Bouncing Back and expert in resilience, has a very helpful list that we can turn to and find strength from  at difficult times.

It’s the 6 C’s of resilience:

  • Calm
  • Compassion
  • Clarity
  • Connection
  • Competence
  • Courage

How do we actually activate all of these C’s at challenging times?

Calm

We need to help our brain feel calm and safe so we can see clearly and problem solve more effectively when faced with challenges.

The idea here is to help regulate our fight flight freeze response and calm down the amygdala. It’s about shifting ourselves from an overactive limbic system to a more emotionally balanced prefrontal cortex activation during stressful events.

The amygdala and Pre frontal cortex are on a type of see-saw – when the amygdala is active the PFC gets suppressed…when the PFC is activated it suppresses the amygdala response.

One way of activating our PFC and calming our amygdala is the “Name it to tame it” practice – connect with friends and family and activate the PFC by actually verbalising and communicating how you are feeling to get the PFC working.

Having a calm brain helps u manage stressful situations and builds your resilience!

Compassion

Actively noticing and recognising that you’re in a difficult time and bringing self-compassion to this moment of uncertainty and suffering.

Perhaps coming up with some kind of self compassion mantra:

May I be kind to myself.

May I find peace and healing.

I am doing the best that I can in this moment.

May I accept and find ease with things just as they are.

Whatever resonates for you… but offering yourself extra kindness during this period.

Clarity

When we face uncertainty or challenges our amygdalas get activated leading to a proliferation of worry thoughts, the what ifs or even thoughts that can convince you that “things are not going to be ok” and that “you won’t cope”. It’s fascinating how compelling and truthful these thoughts can seem..

At these times we need to remember that thoughts are just thoughts.. Even though sometimes they can feel so real and convince us so strongly of negative outcomes.

One technique that can be helpful amidst this kind of amygdala hijack is actually visualising a STOP sign when you notice thoughts like these that are triggering more anxiety – having the mental discipline to actually thought stop and redirect (which is developed through meditation)

When we are in the midst of uncertainty, anxious thoughts try to answer the question “what’s going to happen”…and anxiety only offers us up the worst case scenarios. So an important step to keeping calm is trying to stay present.

A friend of mine has a mantra that I’ve found very helpful at challenging times which is:

“All good in the centre”

This means… if we stay right here within ourselves, in this moment, and not allow our minds to race ahead then everything is ok. It’s when we race ahead that we get overwhelmed by all the what ifs…

Aside from getting clear on the fact that thoughts are just thoughts we can also get clear on what feeds our fear and anxiety.

Simply asking yourself “what is feeding my fear right now?”

You might discover it’s:

  • being alone
  • googling for answers on your phone (which always leads to more anxiety not less)
  • being around certain people or in certain environments

See what is within your control and change your behaviours. Stop feeding the fear…

Connection

We are wired to connect.

Tap into the resources around you.
Connect to the people or places around you that make you feel safe

Connect with the good in your life (even amidst challenges) through an active gratitude practice as a way of building on your inner resources.

Competence

This is about having trust in yourself that you can meet whatever situation’s going to come.

Notice any stories you tell yourself about your own competence and ability to cope and check whether they are accurate or not.

Reflect on times that you were able to manage challenges and tune into the part of you that believes “I can!”

Perhaps bring to mind role models, people you know who have shown great resilience and competence in the face of real challenges and imagine drawing in their strength.

Courage:

Helen Keller put it well when she said:

“All the world is full of suffering; it is also full of overcoming”

At times of uncertainty we need to actively tap into our own courage.

Courage means that you act and face your challenges despite the fear.

One famous proverb aptly states, “Fear and courage are brothers.” Courage exists because fear exists. Courage is about recognising our fear, yet finding the strength to face it.

What do you do or where do you find the inner strength to manage during difficult times of uncertainty to support your coping and resilience?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Lessons for my daughter…

I recently celebrated my 40th birthday and in the week leading up to my birthday I spent a lot of time writing and reflecting on what felt like a significant milestone. 

I was mining for some wisdom from the past 40 years and it came out as some advice that I’d love to give my daughter, when she’s old enough to receive it. 

Some lessons learned for my daughter…

1. Trust your feelings whether in love or at work. They really are the only thing you can rely on to guide you – even if you don’t fully understand them. Don’t disregard them or deny them – ever.

2. No one is perfect including you. So with this knowledge you can be more forgiving and compassionate to yourself and to those in your life.

3. Happiness is an attitude, not an arrival. You need to actively practise noticing the good in your life and build inner resources to manage the inevitable challenges that come with being human.

4. Learn to delay gratification but also learn the art of discernment, recognising when to persevere and when to let go. It could be one of the most critical skills you learn.

5. Learn an instrument. It will open you to the gift of music in a way that you can’t access if you’ve never learned and it will deeply enrich your life (it’s never too late to start!). Make sure you do it with an playful and fun attitude.

6. Learn about money early. Your relationship with this mysterious force will have a profound impact on your life and your decisions and it’s much better if these decisions are made consciously. It sounds superficial but it’s not.

7. Choose your friends carefully. Life is too short to spend time in friendships that you don’t truly cherish. These chosen friends will have a powerful influence on your life.

8. The only thing you can’t get back is time. So be intentional about how you spend it.

9. Your emotions are one of the most powerful driving forces in your life. Learn how to manage them.

10. Love is more about how much you can give, rather than what you’ll receive. It’s cliched, but so true! Once you realise and practice this, you’ll be a whole lot more satisfied in every aspect of your life.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your time in this world? I’d love to hear. Share in the comments below.

Discovering your core values

Knowing our values, what matters most to us, is a crucial ingredient to creating a fulfilling life.

Our values are what guide us and help us stay connected to what really matters.

Circle four of the values below that are most important to you.

Here’s a list of personal values to help you clarify your four most important values:

Acceptance
Accomplishment
Accountability
Accuracy
Achievement
Adaptability
Alertness
Altruism
Ambition
Amusement
Assertiveness
Attentive
Awareness
Balance
Boldness
Bravery
Brilliance
Calm
Candor
Capable
Careful
Certainty
Challenge
Charity
Cleanliness
Clear
Clever
Comfort
Commitment
Common sense
Communication
Community
Compassion
Competence
Concentration
Confidence
Connection
Consciousness
Consistency
Contentment
Contribution
Control
Conviction
Cooperation
Courage
Courtesy
Creation
Creativity
Credibility
Curiosity
Decisive
Decisiveness
Dedication
Dependability
Determination
Development
Devotion
Dignity
Discipline
Discovery
Drive
Effectiveness
Efficiency
Empathy
Empower
Endurance
Energy
Enjoyment
Enthusiasm
Equality
Ethical
Excellence
Experience
Giving

Exploration
Expressive
Fairness
Family
Famous
Fearless
Feelings
Ferocious
Fidelity
Focus
Foresight
Fortitude
Freedom
Friendship
Fun
Generosity
Genius
Goodness
Grace
Gratitude
Greatness
Growth
Happiness
Hard work
Harmony
Health
Honesty
Honor
Hope
Humility
Imagination
Improvement
Independence
Individuality
Innovation
Inquisitive
Insightful
Inspiring
Integrity
Intelligence
Intensity
Intuitive
Irreverent
Joy
Justice
Kindness
Knowledge
Lawful
Leadership
Learning
Liberty
Logic
Love
Loyalty
Mastery
Maturity
Meaning
Moderation
Motivation
Openness
Optimism
Order
Organization
Originality
Passion
Patience
Peace
Performance
Persistence
Persistence
Playfulness
Poise
Potential
Power

Present
Productivity
Professionalism
Prosperity
Purpose
Quality
Realistic
Reason
Recognition
Recreation
Reflective
Respect
Responsibility
Restraint
Results-oriented
Reverence
Rigor
Risk
Satisfaction
Security
Self-reliance
Selfless
Sensitivity
Serenity
Service
Sharing
Significance
Silence
Simplicity
Sincerity
Skill
Skillfulness
Smart
Solitude
Spirit
Spirituality
Spontaneous
Stability
Status
Stewardship
Strength
Structure
Success
Support
Surprise
Sustainability
Talent
Teamwork
Temperance
Thankful
Thorough
Thoughtful
Timeliness
Tolerance
Toughness
Traditional
Tranquility
Transparency
Trust
Trustworthy
Truth
Understanding
Uniqueness
Unity
Valor
Victory
Vigor
Vision
Vitality
Wealth
Welcoming
Winning
Wisdom
Wonder

Mindful Eating and waking up to greater freedom

Many of us tend to eat in a rush, or while focused on other things – often we don’t even taste our food, and so we end up eating more than we need. Because of this, mindful eating has recently become a popular weight loss practice: rather than the severe restraints of traditional dieting, mindful eating makes you more aware of what you are putting in your mouth and when you feel full.

Mindful eating not only helps to build neural pathways that support focused attention and presence, but it will also make eating more enjoyable. As someone with a sweet tooth, I’ve found it helps me savour sweets more slowly and leaves me feeling more satisfied with one piece of chocolate, rather than eating an entire block!

You can do this with any piece of food, but try it with a piece of chocolate, preferably dark chocolate, as it’s healthier than milk chocolate and has more depth of avour (some people prefer to use a sultana).

  1. Put the piece of chocolate in your palm and imagine you have never eaten this food before.
  2. Move through each of your senses, tuning in completely to all the information you can take in through each sense.
    • Sight: notice all the colours, shapes, shadows and light.
    • Touch: holding the chocolate in your hand, notice its weight, firmness, edges, dryness or moisture.
    • Taste: place the chocolate in your mouth and don’t chew. Instead, move it around your mouth and sense the flavour. Start eating the chocolate very slowly while staying completely attentive to your sense of taste. Notice where you sense the flavours – is it at the back of the tongue or the front? Notice what side of your mouth you habitually chew on.

As you move through the practice, notice any thoughts that arise, and when you notice you’ve been caught in thinking, just let go of the thoughts and come back to whatever sense you are exploring.

I once witnessed a powerful breakthrough in one of my mindfulness workshops while guiding a mindful eating exercise. In this group we used a sultana instead of chocolate. After the exercise, a participant confessed that she’d had a phobia of sultanas for most of her life, and that she’d initially felt resistant, wanting to leave the workshop. Sharing this she laughed, as did everyone else (admittedly, I hadn’t come across many sultana phobias during my career in psychiatry). Despite her fear, she tried it out, knowing she could stop if it got too unpleasant. She was surprised and delighted to discover that the sultana wasn’t as bad as she’d anticipated.

The exercise demonstrated to her how she had been caught up in a habitual belief, based on past experience, that was determining her current reality. It made her wonder what other assumptions and fears she might be holding onto as facts – thoughts that were closing off opportunities in other parts of her life.

Mindfulness asks us to step into what’s referred to as ‘the beginner’s mind’, a mind that meets experience with openness and curiosity. As we bring this fresh perspective to life, we become more aware of when our automatic responses are being triggered. This awareness gives us an opportunity to live beyond the limitations of our automatic responses.

Learn powerful mindfulness practices and read more about the science of mindfulness in my new book, The Happiness Plan. For a short time you can get one of my downloadable guided 30-min meditations to help you feel greater calm, ease and focus in daily life.

Mindfulness: the perfect antidote to our stressful lives

Few experiences can compare to holding a human brain.

It was my first year of medical training. I was nineteen years old, and as I stood in the cold, sterile dissection room with a brain in my hands, I wondered how a lifetime of memory, feelings and thoughts could arise from this one-kilogram tofu-like substance.

This fascination with the brain, coupled with my desire to help people live happy and meaningful lives, led me to a career in psychiatry. But 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 health professionals. I realised that this was the part of the journey I was most passionate about. I wanted to support people in thriving, not just surviving.

Truth be told, throughout my training, as I worked twenty-four-hour shifts on the wards, my own health and happiness were being affected. As a highly sensitive person who deeply cared about her fellow human beings, the work I was doing was taking its toll, at times leaving me stressed and overwhelmed.

I wasn’t alone. As I spoke with my colleagues, I discovered a silent epidemic of doctors experiencing vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and existential crises of their own. One day I turned up to work to find that one colleague had admitted himself to a psychiatric clinic. The pressure had sent him spiralling into a severe depression.

Alarmingly, the World Health Organization now considers depression as the leading cause of ill-health and disability worldwide. And for a great number of the people suffering there are simple, free and non-pharmaceutical ways of managing their mental health.

Much of the research in the field of mindfulness explores the impact of thirty to forty-five minutes of meditation a day on physical and psychological wellbeing. Excitingly, in my own scientific research I discovered that just ten minutes a day of mindfulness meditation over one month was enough to support more positive emotions, reduce stress, increase self-compassion and strengthen focus in daily life.

There’s plenty of examples in the scientific literature that explain why mindfulness is not just a fad, but will continue to be further integrated into our home and work life.

Research shows 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.

One study by Richie Davidson, demonstrated that with regular mindfulness practices, the electrical brain activity shifted from right to “left-sided anterior activation,” indicating a transition to more positive emotional states. Simply put, meditation leads to greater happiness.

And a groundbreaking study found increased amounts of an enzyme that protects DNA from age and stress-related damage among regular meditators, suggesting that meditation can protect the cells from age-related damage.

Although genetics undeniably has an influence on our mental health, the new science offers a more empowering perspective, where we can, to some extent, become sculptors of our own brains by practising mindfulness.

When we practise worrying, the worrying circuits of the brain are reinforced. When we practise gratitude, the brain becomes more capable of noticing the good in our lives. When we practise mindfulness meditation, it forms new neural pathways that support focus, calm and emotional balance.

I wanted to share a few easy methods you can implement to deal with stress in your life through mindfulness practices. 

Use your breath to calm yourself down 

You breath is intimately connected to your nervous system. Use it to your advantage when you’re feeling stressed to calm yourself down by slowing your breath and extending your exhalation. This will quiet your entire nervous system, keeping you calm rather than reactive, and helping you make better decisions about what is needed.

Name it to tame it 

Neuroscientific research demonstrates that when we’re stressed, talking or writing about how we’re feeling helps us to calm down. As we become more mindful of difficult emotions, we reinforce neural pathways that help us remember to pause when we’re in the heat of an emotion, and use the most evolved part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, to calm ourselves down.

Take a ten minute holiday for your mind 

Although when we’re stressed the last thing we want to do is stop and meditate, research shows that meditating for just ten minutes can help you be more focussed and effective. Give your mind a ten minute holiday and it will reward you with a powerful return on investment of greater focus, clarity and effectiveness.

 

Learn powerful mindfulness practices and read more about the science of mindfulness in my new book, The Happiness Plan. For a short time you can get one of my downloadable guided 30-min meditations to help you feel greater calm, ease and focus in daily life.

Mindful Technology

 

‘The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.’

~ Nassim Nicholas Taleb

With invisible umbilical cords connecting us to our devices 24/7, staying focused is becoming increasingly difficult. Our attention buzzes around with the restlessness of a mosquito, fluttering between emails, Facebook, Twitter and text messages. Many of us are suffering from what Dr Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist specialising in ADHD, calls ‘Attention Deficit Trait’. He describes it as ‘a condition induced by modern life, in which you’ve become so busy attending to so many inputs and outputs that you become increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving’.

We need to reflect on our relationships with technology, not just for the sake of improving our productivity, but also in relation to our health. Linda Stone, a technology thought leader and ex-Microsoft researcher discovered a condition she described as ‘email apnoea’, a pattern of breath-holding that occurs while emailing. It’s a condition similar to sleep apnoea, which causes disturbed breathing during sleep. The problem with holding your breath is that it activates your stress response, leading to increased cortisol levels that can have a negative effect on your health. So becoming more mindful of our relationship with technology is going to improve our general wellbeing as well as our focus.

As a society, the constant distraction of technology is also affecting the health and safety of children under our care. In 2007 the iPhone was released, and according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over the following three years nonfatal injuries to children under five increased by twelve per cent. Craig Palsson, professor of economics at Yale University, investigated whether there was a link between the two. In 2014 he published an alarming paper entitled ‘That Smarts! Smartphones and Child Injuries’, which revealed a connection: technology was increasingly distracting parents, and by extension impacting on the wellbeing of their children.

If we wish to remain healthy, happy and clear-minded, we need to upgrade our ‘inner technology’ to meet the demands of our increasingly complex, hyperconnected world. Mindfulness can significantly help with addictions ranging from smoking to social media, and it can help us manage the distractions and urges that constantly threaten our capacity to focus.

Take a moment to reflect on these questions to assess your level of addiction to social media. These are the same questions I used to ask many of my patients to determine whether they had addiction disorders, taken from a list of criteria in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM).

  • Are you are spending increasing amounts of time on social media and often longer than you intend to be using it?
  • Have you wanted to stop using social media but found you 
were unable to?
  • Do you spend a lot of time on social media?
  • Do you have strong urges or cravings to use social media that are hard to resist?
  • Do you repeatedly find that some of your major tasks or responsibilities are being interrupted by your social media
use (i.e. getting distracted when you should be working)?
  • Do you continue to use social media despite it having a negative impact on areas of your life (i.e. staying up late at night and not getting enough sleep, having a child or partner point out your use of social media, using social media while driving)?
  • Have you stopped or reduced doing things that you previously did (work, recreation or social) because of your social media use?
  • Do you use social media repeatedly even when it puts you or those around you in danger (i.e. while driving or in the playground with your child)?
  • Have you continued use of social media despite knowing
that it’s causing problems in your life (either physical or psychological)?
  • Do you need to use social media more often to get a sense
of satisfaction?
  • Do you feel withdrawal symptoms after being disconnected 
from social media that can be relieved by using it? 
If you answered yes to two or three questions it is likely that you’re mildly addicted, four to five indicates a moderate addiction, and six to seven indicates a severe addiction.

If you suspect that you may be addicted to technology, try to bring more mindfulness to your relationship with it through these four steps which will help you start breaking the automatic habits that maintain the addiction.

Set an intention

Set an intention around changing your behaviour in relation to technology and think about practical steps
you can take to make it more difficult to access. Consider taking the social media apps off your phone, or commit to sleeping without your mobile in the bedroom (even for just a few nights to see what effect it has).

Recognise

The next time you feel the urge to check social media, take a pause. Recognise that you are caught in craving. Count to ten before continuing to use it, as a way of interrupting the urge for long enough to allow it to naturally pass.

Investigate

When we crave something, there’s often an uncomfortable emotion or feeling that’s present which we are trying
to avoid. Take a moment to bring the attention to your body. Sense any emotions or feelings that are present (agitation, stress, loneliness, boredom). Once you identify the emotion, silently label it to yourself. This brings more mindful awareness to your current state and may lead you closer to the underlying issue that might be driving the urges.

Unhook

Mindfulness allows you to consciously notice what is happening as it is happening – and pause before you act on your urges. In this way it helps disrupt automatic habits and addiction loops, and allows new habit pathways to form.

As technology develops exponentially, being mindful of our relationship with it is going to be the difference between being its slave or its master.

 

Discover how to bring more mindfulness into your life in just ten minutes a day with my new book The Happiness Plan. Order it here or download the first 20 pages for free to get a sneak peak.

Find out more about Mindful in May,  the world’s largest online mindfulness fundraising campaign and learn mindfulness for the world’s best teachers. Join the waitlist here to be updated when the campaign opens for registration.

 

The MINDFUL ABC’s of managing tantrums

Parenting.

On a good day, it’s an exhilarating spiritual journey of epic proportions, where we have the privilege of witnessing our most creative project flourish. On a bad day, it’s an exhausting, frustrating ride where we are tested beyond our limits through sleep deprivation, tantrums, mastitis, stress, relationship tension or self-doubt.

Mindfulness has certainly been a crucial part of my parenting survival tool kit, not only in managing the challenges, but also in helping me remember to be present and appreciate the daily magic amidst the domestic monotony.

As a mother with a gorgeous two year old girl, I’ve found mindfulness particularly helpful for managing tantrums, so here are a few tips on how to deal with tantrums mindfulness using what I call the emotional ABC’s.

Acknowledge

When tantrums strike, it’s easy to lose your calm. Your child’s cry is designed to set off your inner emotional alarm bell, to get your immediate attention and avoid potential threats. However, tantrums are a developmentally normal phenomenon that most often only reflect a child’s attempt to assert themselves and develop agency. To help ground yourself and move from stressed to calm when your child is having a tantrum, first consciously recognise what’s happening and silently label it ‘tantrum’. This is the first step to avoid getting lost in the emotional storm. By actively labelling ‘tantrum’ you’ll be activating the higher regions of your brain that allow you to think more clearly, problem- solve and stay calm rather than panic. Then acknowledge the feelings your child is having and label them. For example, ‘I understand you really want to have a biscuit but we need to eat a healthy dinner first’, followed by, ‘I can see you’re really upset.’ This helps your child learn about their emotional world.

Be open and breathe

Once you’ve recognised and labelled what’s happening, bring your attention to your breath. You may notice that your breath is becoming restricted or fast as your emotions are triggered. Slow your breath down and extend your exhalation. This will quiet your entire nervous system, keeping you calm rather than reactive, and helping you make better decisions about what is needed. Turn to your breath as a way of staying grounded and not losing your cool.

 

Curiously explore

Once you’ve connected with your breath and calmed your own nervous system down, activate your curiosity and ask yourself, ‘What is needed in this moment?’ If you’re in public, it may be picking your child up and leaving the situation. If you’re at home, it might simply be anchoring to your own breathing while the tantrum passes, making an empathetic statement to your child, or diverting their attention with distraction. When we are emotionally triggered into a stress response, we lose our capacity to make wise decisions. Mindfulness helps us regain this wisdom and make better decisions, especially when under pressure.

Don’t be hard on yourself

When dealing with the many challenges of parenting, self-compassion is a powerful antidote to any feelings of inadequacy that can arise. When tantrums happen, it’s easy to get frustrated at your child and at yourself. So when the tantrum has passed, take a moment to remind yourself that this a very normal part of a child’s development. Think of all the other parents who may be dealing with a tantrum in this very moment, and connect to this sense of shared humanity. You’re not in this alone. Practise active self-compassion by putting your hand on your heart and offering yourself some phrases of warmth, love and reassurance. Silently wish yourself well by repeating, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’

 

Discover how to bring more mindfulness into your life in just ten minutes a day with my new book The Happiness Plan. Order it here or download the first 20 pages for free to get a sneak peak.

 

Find out more about Mindful in May, the world’s largest online mindfulness fundraising campaign and learn mindfulness for the world’s best teachers. Join the waitlist here to be updated when the campaign opens for registration.

Mindfulness: the path to deeper happiness

Few experiences can compare to holding a human brain.
It was my first year of medical training.

I was nineteen years old, and as I stood in the cold, sterile dissection room with a brain in my hands, I wondered how a lifetime of memory, feelings and thoughts could arise from this one-kilogram tofu-like substance. This fascination with the brain, coupled with my desire to help people live happy and meaningful lives, led me to a career in psychiatry.
 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 health 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.

I knew I wanted to be of service, to help others flourish and make a positive difference in the world, but I sensed I wasn’t moving in the right direction. I valued the rigour of science and the solid foundation of knowledge my training gave me, but I was feeling unfulfilled and confused. I knew I wasn’t on the right path, but I wasn’t sure how to course correct.

It was during my own search for clarity, happiness and resilience that I discovered mindfulness meditation.

It was the early 2000s, and mindfulness had not yet hit the mainstream medical world. I attended a conference and heard leading neuroscientists Dr Richard Davidson and Dr Michael Merzenich 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 into old age. But by the time of the conference, Davidson and a few other 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.

Davidson shared research demonstrating that mental training such as meditation actually changed meditators’ brains – both functionally and structurally – in ways that supported greater happiness and wellbeing. The changes were even seen in relatively short periods of meditation practice: one of Davidson’s studies revealed that just seven hours of compassion meditation over a two-week period resulted in measurable changes in the brain, and also had a positive impact on behaviour, leading to increased altruism. Meanwhile, in a study of rats, Merzenich and his team demonstrated that regular brain training not only allowed their brains to continue growing and maintain function into old age, but could actually reverse age-related functional decline. His later studies found the same outcomes for humans who participated in intense brain training. The lifelong potential of neuroplasticity was emerging as a crucial element of our collective scientific understanding, empowering us to reach optimal levels of wellbeing.

These scientists were suggesting that just as practising an instrument improves one’s musical abilities, implementing regular mind and brain practices could improve our psychological and physical wellbeing. I realised this perspective on wellbeing could offer hope to my patients, many of whom believed that their potential for happiness was limited by their genetics. Many saw themselves destined to a fate of familial anxiety or depression, with no capacity to influence this trajectory. Although genetics undeniably has an influence on our mental health, the new science offered a more empowering perspective, where we could, to some extent, become sculptors of our own brains.

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. Scientific research was supporting what Buddhist monks had known for well over two thousand years: that meditation was a powerful tool for enhancing wellbeing, clarity and happiness.
As I continued to explore this robust science, I was inspired to do my own investigation into mindfulness and the brain, so I dived head-first into meditation by signing up for a seven-day silent meditation retreat.

My psychiatry boss at the time warned me against it. ‘I had a patient who lost their mind on one of those things. I couldn’t think of anything worse,’ he casually remarked.

To be honest, I was a little scared too. Spending a week in silence with only my mind as company terrified me. As a high-energy person who likes to be productive and creative, I didn’t consider myself the ideal candidate for meditation. However, despite my reservations, a few weeks later I found myself on a meditation cushion in a retreat centre in the Byron Bay Hinterland.
During the first few days I struggled. I was falling asleep from boredom and exhaustion in some moments, then experiencing the most profound levels of agitation at others. It felt like an army of ants was crawling under my skin.

Then, after three days of obsessively questioning what I was doing there and contemplating escape plans, an unfamiliar sense of calm emerged. It was as though I’d been living my whole life with a background of mental static, and suddenly it cleared. I felt strangely content being right where I was, even though what I was doing was objectively pretty boring.

On the afternoon of the fourth day I strolled around the retreat grounds, strangely captivated by the details of trees and plants. Colourful flowers seemed more vibrant, leaf patterns and shapes were as fascinating as works of art, the melodic bird song as thrilling as a live music concert. I was completely present, absorbed in the moment. The narrating, planning, judging, worrying voice in my head had disappeared. There was stillness, ease and a feeling of deep connection to everything.

I laughed at my clichéd transformation. I’d quickly gone from being a driven, ambitious, latte-sipping, list-making city dweller, to a bird-watching, contemplative, calm, nature-admiring meditator. After only a few days of silent practice I had indeed ‘lost my mind’, but in the most positive way.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this turning inwards was the beginning of a profound shift in the direction of my life. It was only a few years later that I made the decision to leave my career as a psychiatrist to follow a deeper calling to create a global meditation campaign, six years later, the largest online global fundraising meditation campaign for global poverty, called Mindful in May.

Many of us are drawn to meditation or mindfulness with the hope of finding better ways to manage their stress. However, although these practices can be a powerful antidote to the stress in our lives, they have a much deeper capacity to transform us.
There are so many books that boast magical, quick fixes to life’s challenges, and judging by the number that are hitting the bestseller lists, it seems that many of us are searching for that ‘secret’ to achieving lasting happiness. We are obsessed with trying to avoid the suffering that comes with being human.

In our relentless pursuit of happiness, we can easily get caught running on ‘the hedonic treadmill’, constantly seeking external sources of pleasure. Whether it’s earning more money, finding the ‘perfect’ relationship, or seeking approval, power, or success, we look for happiness in areas that are often transient and outside of our control. Our desires just keep bubbling up as we struggle to fill the gap between our current reality and some imagined better reality ‘over there’.

But there is another form of wellbeing and happiness, called eudaimonic happiness, first explored by Aristotle several thousand years ago. Eudaimonia comes from two Greek words: eu, meaning ‘good’, and Daimon, which is translated as ‘soul’ or ‘self’. This type of flourishing is not dependent on external circumstances, but rather emerges from an inner sense of wellbeing; it’s created by what we bring to life rather than what we get out of it, and it is completely within our control. Mindfulness training connects us to our inner reservoir of wellbeing, and helps us see the causes of our happiness and suffering. With this growing wisdom and clarity, we make better decisions and start to experience a happiness that transcends our never-ending ow of wanting.
When I started learning mindfulness meditation I had no idea how deeply it would transform my life. This ancient practice, offers a completely new way of understanding our thoughts and mind that, as far as I’ve found, is the real ‘secret’ to supporting our greatest happiness.

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Discover how to bring more mindfulness into your life in just ten minutes a day with my new book The Happiness Plan. Order it here or download the first 20 pages for free to get a sneak peak.

 

Find out more about Mindful in May,  the world’s largest online mindfulness fundraising campaign and learn mindfulness for the world’s best teachers. Join the waitlist here to be updated when the campaign opens for registration.

The Happiness Plan – Relax the body and be mindful in everyday life

 

‘The body is your only home in the universe. It is your house of belonging here in the world. It is a very sacred temple. To spend time in silence before the mystery of your body brings you toward wisdom.’

John O’Donohue

Studying medicine expanded my awareness of the exquisite complexity and miracle of the human body. We are born into a body, yet most of us spend our lives not knowing much about its intricacies. We are fascinated by the latest iPhone and quickly learn how to use its new features, but few of us ever learn about the way our eyes help transform light particles and waves into meaningful images in the brain, or how the ears translate wave patterns into the magnificence of a symphony. The more sophisticated a technology, the more invisible it becomes, and the inner workings of the body are a stunning example of this. It’s often only when something happens to disrupt one of our senses that we become more conscious of them, and of the complex process that allows us to experience the world.

Our senses are our doorway into the world as we perceive it. They guide us, inform us and enrich our lives. When we wake up in the morning we hear the birds, we see the light and we immediately know it’s morning. We feel the cold air and sense our bodies in space, knowing how to get from the bed to the wardrobe to put on warm clothes without needing to consciously think about how to do this. These are simple things we usually don’t even notice. However, our bodies are constantly collecting data from the outside world to inform us and drive our behaviours and decisions.

Bringing a more mindful attention to our five physical senses enriches our lives, helping us become more present and embodied. Rather than constantly being lost in our inner world of thoughts, which can pull us out of experience and catapult us into past or future thinking, our senses keep us grounded to what is actually happening from moment to moment.

In a society where many of us are becoming increasingly sedentary and disconnected from our bodies and the environment, it’s easy to think that our brains and thoughts are the sole location of our intelligence. But intelligence is distributed throughout the body, and we can enhance this by consciously bringing attention to our physical selves and tuning in to the data that is being captured in every moment. In this way we can harness our entire intelligence to make better decisions and experience life in a richer, more full- bodied way.

During my medical training, learning about the behind-the-scenes complexity of our senses brought me into a more embodied experience of being human. Learning about the intricacies of the eye and the physiology of vision brought my attention to the miraculous technology of sight. I learned about the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye and translates light into electrical nerve signals. This small area of the body contains about 120 million rods, the light receptors that allow us to see in the dark, and 6 million cones, which require more light and are designed to help us perceive colour. This explained why I couldn’t see colours in the dark. Prior to studying the body, I’d taken all of my senses for granted, but as I learned about the inner technology of seeing, hearing, tasting and touch, I became more connected to the complete miracle of what previously felt quite ordinary.

There have been many situations where I’ve found the capacity to stay with my senses particularly valuable. Throughout my career I’ve given many public talks, and initially I used to get quite nervous. My mind would fill with anxious thoughts that would amplify my fear: ‘What if the audience is bored?’ or ‘What if I don’t remember what comes next?’ Through practising mindfulness of the senses – feeling my feet on the ground, sensing the movement of my breath, tuning in to the sounds around me – I could shift my attention away from thinking and come back to my body and to the reality of the present moment. In this way, rather than my thoughts amplifying my stress and making my mind distracted, I could stay embodied and speak from a place of calmer presence.

Another situation where this embodied presence has been particularly valuable in my own life is in the context of relationships and communication. When we communicate with others there is a constant stream of data, and we need to make sense of it in order to relate and respond to others wisely. Through developing our ability to tune in to our senses we can more effectively interpret the real meaning of someone’s words, and stay connected to what we feel from moment to moment, giving us a better ability to respond. We can also do this while maintaining awareness of the other person’s emotional state. This enables more effective communication, and is the basis upon which we can build emotional intelligence, the foundation of wisdom and happiness in our lives.

Bringing mindfulness, this present-moment awareness, to the body and the senses, allows us to stay calm and grounded when the mind is spinning out of control. However, this capacity is a skill, and just like any skill it takes practice to experience its bene ts. Just as you wouldn’t show up to a marathon without any training, if you want to experience calm and wellbeing in your life, you need to train in the skill of mindfulness when you’re not under pressure.

Unlike the mind, which can kidnap our attention and take our thoughts time travelling, the body is a reliable anchor to the present moment.

By Elise Bialylew

 

Discover how to bring more mindfulness into your life in just ten minutes a day with my new book The Happiness Plan. Order it here or download the first 20 pages for free to get a sneak peak.

 

Find out more about Mindful in May,  the world’s largest online mindfulness fundraising campaign and learn mindfulness for the world’s best teachers. Join the waitlist here to be updated when the campaign opens for registration.

The Happiness Plan – Connect with what makes you feel alive

‘The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.’
Mary Oliver

Over the past few years I’ve been on a mission of unlearning self-protective habits and relearning how to be comfortable with taking more risks and developing my creativity.

Going to medical school taught me a lot of worthwhile things, but it also seemed to gradually extinguish my creative and entrepreneurial tendencies. We were learning to accurately diagnose so that we could precisely treat and save lives. Mistakes could be devastating, so there wasn’t a lot of room for creativity.

As I travelled deeper down the path of specialisation into psychiatry, I felt myself becoming more and more constricted by the rules, both spoken and unspoken, and less able to take risks and innovate within the system. There was a sense of having my creativity stifled by some invisible force.

I wasn’t alone. Many of my doctor friends were talented musicians, artists and writers who were living double lives, barely managing to keep their creativity alive in between the demanding hours of medical work. Writer and social researcher Brené Brown warns about the toxicity of stifled creativity:

‘Unexpressed creativity is not benign, it turns to grief and judgment.’

The grief that came from ‘unexpressed creativity’ was something I was familiar with.

I loved art at school. I remember walking down the corridors on my way to physics and peering into the art room, looking at the canvases in progress. I wished I could spend my school days painting and exploring the world of imaginative expression. However, based on the well-meaning advice of those around me, I internalised the idea that I wasn’t creative enough to pursue an artistic vocation. It took a while to see that my ‘I love art, but I’m not creative’ story was a psychological prison sti ing my creativity.

Creativity is a fundamental life force, and as the world becomes a more complex and challenging place, creativity is going to be an essential skill for our survival as a species.

Whether it’s a desire to play music, paint, nd creative solutions at work, or be a more creative parent or partner, meditation is a powerful practice that can help us overcome the barriers to our highest creative potential.

One common barrier to creativity is a lack of space and time for just ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. In an era of information and technology overload, meditation creates an oasis of quiet, giving the mind space to decompress. Although meditation is not about actively trying to make something happen, ripples of thought and emotion can creatively collide and result in innovative ideas and solutions to dif cult problems we face. As Einstein famously stated, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ Mindfulness meditation cultivates an open state of mind, which is a prerequisite to bringing about an alternative perspective.

Another obstacle to our creativity is the inner critic, which stops us from taking creative risks for fear of humiliation. Our internal voice tries to protect us from perceived danger, but in the process inhibits us from trying new things for fear that we’ll fail. Mindfulness helps us recognise these inner dialogues for what they are: an obstacle between us and our deepest hopes and longings. Once we see this inner chatter, we can allow it to be there, label it as fear, and move forward despite its threats and provocations.

TODAY’S PRACTICE: A Mindful Reflection

Take a moment after your meditation today to reflect on these questions and journal your responses.

  • Where in your life is your creativity being expressed?
  • Where in your life is your creativity not being expressed?
  • What creative longings do you have that you may not have acted upon because of fear?
  • What are the inner and outer obstacles that prevent you from experiencing your creativity?
  • What is one thing you could do this week at work or at home to nurture and encourage your creativity?

A powerful aspect of mindfulness practice is that it invites you to regularly take notice of how you are feeling. This opens up an opportunity to consider which aspects of your life need attention. It’s through offering ourselves space that we can hear the whisper of what our soul needs to feel nourished and happy.

Parker Palmer likens the soul to a wild animal that we have to approach with gentleness. He writes:

The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.

When we’re feeling rushed and stressed out, we lose touch with those things that nourish us at a soul level. Taking time to be still and listen to what we need helps us sense what is missing in our lives, and allows us to make small adjustments that can often have a big impact on how we feel.

Whether you call it a soul or spirit, or simply a deep-set part of the psyche, we all have an internal aspect of ourselves that feels essential and vital. It’s that part of ourselves that feels most alive as we watch a sunset or nd ourselves surrounded by the vast beauty of nature. The loss of connection to our soul is a key contributor to so many of our psychological ailments.

Although medication can at times be lifesaving in helping people overcome episodes of depression or anxiety, in my training I’ve discovered that helping people reconnect with what makes them feel most alive can be a crucial ingredient in the healing process. Gabrielle Roth, dancer, musician and founder of 5rhythms global dance movement, highlights the powerful healing capacity that creativity and play can have in our lives in her book Maps to Ecstasy. She writes:

In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop nding comfort in the sweet territory of silence? Where we have stopped dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, or nding comfort in silence is where we have experienced the loss of soul.

Write a list of the types of activities you engage in on a regular day and note down whether the activities are nourishing or depleting. Of course there are things we need to do each day that may feel depleting but which we can’t change, such as driving to work in peak hour. However, look at the depleting activities and see if you can bring a sprinkle of creativity to them and work out how to make them more nourishing. For example, you might start listening to podcasts or audio books while you drive to work.

Take a look at the rest of your weekly schedule and factor in an extra-nourishing activity for each day.

  • Turn the monotony of daily cooking into something novel by choosing a challenging or interesting new recipe.
  • Read a poem each morning before you get out of bed to tap into creativity.
  • Subscribe to a free music platform and explore new music by making your own playlist. Play the music at home to set a new atmosphere in the house.
  • Bring your friends together over a pot-luck dinner and tap into greater connection in your life.
  • Schedule a trip somewhere novel that you’ve been meaning to visit. By Elise Bialylew

Discover how to bring more mindfulness into your life in just ten minutes a day with my new book The Happiness Plan. Order it here or download the first 20 pages for free to get a sneak peak.

Find out more about Mindful in May,  the world’s largest online mindfulness fundraising campaign and learn mindfulness for the world’s best teachers.