Dr Elise Bialylew is the doctor, mother and entrepreneur who started Mindful in May, the world’s largest online meditation initiative aimed to help people feel more at peace with their emotions, all the while saving lives through clean water projects in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda and Nepal. Interested? You can register to participate here.
Seeing as the one-month meditation program begins May 1, we asked a few questions of Dr Elise, about how she came across the practice, what changes mindfulness can cause within our bodies, and what inspired her to create a global fundraising campaign.
Burnout is a very real issue today. How can mindfulness help control it?
In this fast-paced, hyper-connected world where multi-tasking is the norm, many of us are at risk of burnout, which usually happens when we ignore the messages our body and mind are giving us. Mindfulness, as a practice, is all about developing more self awareness and present-moment awareness. This allows you to make wiser decisions, which can support you in recognising when you need to take a break, replenish, and pause.
For many of us purpose-driven, passionate entrepreneurs, the discipline isn’t about working harder, it’s actually about listening to when we need to take a break and restore ourselves. Mindfulness is a crucial tool in helping us learn to listen more deeply, and respond more wisely, to the everyday decisions we make that can be the difference between long-term, sustainable success versus burnout.
What’s your most beloved quote from Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh?
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
How long have you kept a meditative practice and how has it evolved?
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 Nhat Hanh, 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.
“Burnout usually happens when we ignore the messages our body and mind are giving us.”
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 realised I needed to find a way to more skillfully manage this 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.
Have you had experience with people using meditation to help with grief?
Yes, I most definitely have. During my years training as a psychiatrist, I taught mindfulness meditation to people who were experiencing very severe depression, anxiety, addictions and chronic pain syndromes. Mindfulness meditation is a training that builds greater self-awareness, self-compassion, emotional intelligence and resilience. It offers us a way to learn to be with the difficult times or emotions with greater skill and wisdom. It’s not that mindfulness will stop difficult emotions, such as grief, but it will bring you into a new relationship with your emotions, so that they are not as overwhelming.
Physiologically, what happens to our bodies during mindfulness meditation?
Before becoming a meditation teacher, I trained as a doctor and studied the brain in depth through training to be a psychiatrist. So when I discovered the science around mindfulness meditation, I was inspired to spread the teaching and connect it to a global cause and that was the start of the Mindful in May global campaign.
There is now compelling evidence supporting the fact that mindfulness meditation when practised regularly, can lead to: structural changes in the brain associated with enhanced mental performance; reduced stress and its negative impact on the body and mind; improved physical and mental wellbeing; reduced genetic ageing through its protective impact on gene expression and degeneration; and enhanced immune function.
As part of Mindful in May, I share interviews with some of the world’s best neuroscientists to directly explore these benefits. This year, Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar shares her findings that suggest mindfulness meditation can literally grow some of the highest functioning parts of your brain responsible for decision making, focused attention, emotional intelligence, and empathy. All key aspects of good leadership.
Can you describe a simple meditative practice someone might try for the first time? And entry-level meditation, if you will?
I’m sharing two simple free downloadable guided meditations from the Mindful in May program to give people a taste of what’s to come when they register for Mindful in May.
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. I imagined that there were many other people out there who felt the same way and I felt inspired to create a global community that could learn and practice together doing something deeply worthwhile for ourselves and at the same time contribute to a greater cause through fundraising.
“It’s not that mindfulness will stop difficult emotions, such as grief, but it will bring you into a new relationship with your emotions so that they are not as overwhelming.”
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 10 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.
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.
Get Mindful in May – register at mindfulinmay.org now to commit to 10 minutes of mindfulness a day and help bring clean water to the world. Clear mind for you, clean water for others.