MiNDFOOD talks to psychiatrist and creator of the Mindful in May program, Dr Elise Bialylew, about the ins and outs of mindfulness.
When and why did you begin to practice mindfulness and meditation?
I grew up with a mother who was passionate about personal growth and development and who introduced me to meditation when I was very young. I read books by Thich Nat Han, Jack Kornfield and Sogyal Rinpoche and was always quite focused on the big existential questions, obsessed with living a life in the most authentic, meaningful way possible. I think one of my greatest fears was reaching the end of my life and feeling that I hadn’t lived it 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 high levels of stress and trauma on a daily basis in the wards. As someone who is very sensitive I found myself being very affected by the suffering of my patients. I realised I needed to find a way to more skillfully manage the high levels of work stress or I would inevitably get burnt out.
I signed up to various meditation courses and before long, much to my surprise, found myself going to regular extended silent meditation retreats over a number of years. Mindfulness meditation has been a fundamental education for me. Not only has it provided me with a powerful way to manage my stress levels, it has really supported me in becoming a more self-compassionate, resilient, courageous person. Mindfulness meditation has been an education in how to live with more wisdom, navigate the inevitable challenges that arise in life, and be more grateful and present to the beauty of our fleeting moments.
How can meditation reduce stress/anxiety and how long and often do you need to meditate for it to be effective?
The key to understanding how a mental practice such as meditation can impact the body and specifically reduce our stress, was discovered by Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained physician who famously described the phenomenon of the relaxation response which is triggered by meditation. In his book Relaxation Revolution, Benson defined the relaxation response as the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. It is characterised by decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing, a decrease or ‘calming’ in brain activity, but with an increase in attention and decision-making functions of the brain, and changes in gene activity that are the opposite to those associated with stress.
Following Benson’s research, his colleague Sara Lazar, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, investigated the impact of meditation on the brain. She found that after eight weeks of meditation, participants appeared to have reduced the size of their amygdala and increased the size of the hippocampus – which is the exact opposite of how stress affects our brains. Since Benson’s research many studies have shown a relationship between mindfulness meditation and a reduction in cortisol, the stress hormone.
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 investigate whether ten minutes of meditation a day over one month had any tangible benefits. Although the study was a pilot study, it included over two hundred people from the program, and suggested exactly what we’d suspected: ten minutes of mindfulness meditation a day over one month was enough to support significant benefits including more positive emotions, reduced feelings of stress, increase self-compassion and a strengthened focus in daily life. It also revealed that the more someone practised the more benefits they experienced.
Can mindfulness enhance happiness? How?
Many people in the West have been 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. 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 close 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. 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 this 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 flow of wanting.
What are some mindfulness techniques to help people slow down and stay grounded?
A mindful tea break:
- Tune in to your sense of sight and notice the colour of the tea.
- Tune in to the smell of the tea.
- Tune in to your sense of touch and feel the warmth of the cup on your skin and the temperature of the tea in your mouth.
- Tune in to taste as you sip your tea and notice the different flavours and where in your mouth you sense taste.
Doing the dishes mindfully:
- Tune in to sight and notice the dirty plates.
- Tune in to the sound of water owing from the tap.
- Tune in to touch as you feel the water on your hands and sense the movement of your hands as you wash the dishes.
- When you notice your mind wandering into thinking, activate your direct experience circuits by coming back to your senses.
- Tune in to the touch and feel of your hands on the steering wheel and your body in the seat. Notice your posture and release any tension in the body as you drive.
- Tune in to the sight of cars around you, notice the colour of the car in front of you.
- Tune in to sound and experiment with turning the radio off and simply driving in silence.
How can mindfulness help people break bad habits?
There is a part of our brain called the corpus striatum, which is a very deep and powerful part that functions as our habit centre. It’s the part of our brain that lets us develop automatic behaviours through repetition. There is a positive and a negative side to this. The good side is that if you wire good habits into the habit centre, then the habit centre will run your behaviour automatically without your awareness. It doesn’t require conscious awareness of any kind to do things when they’re in the habit centre. It’s like how we can drive a car without consciously thinking how to actually drive.
However, the habit centre can work against us. There is another part of the brain, the craving part of the brain, called the Nucleus Accumbens, that is situated right near the habit centre and which leads to a lot of these automatic habits forming. Craving related behaviours that you do repetitively, get programmed into the habit centre too. For example, if you crave chocolate when you’re feeling tired or sad and you repetitively eat it, the habit centre will take over and before you know it, you’ll be acting on your cravings for chocolate and eating it with no real conscious awareness.
Mindfulness can help us break habits because mindfulness training builds greater self-awareness, so we can start to become more aware of the automatic behaviours and we can break the cycle. So somewhere between having the urge for chocolate and reaching into the pantry you have an opportunity to pause, become aware of what is automatically happening, and ask yourself, “do I really want to be eating this now?”. As you repetitively bring this mindful awareness to these moments, you start to rewire the patterning of automatic behaviour that can drive bad habits.
What positive effects does practising mindfulness have?
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. This sharpened awareness and presence positively affects so many areas of our life. With this greater self-awareness and 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 relationships with others with less conflict
- Communicating more effectively as we are more aware of why we are feeling what we are feeling
- Staying focused 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
What is the number one reason people should practice mindfulness?
Our mind is our most precious resource. It’s the source of our deepest happiness or darkest depression, our creativity or self-destruction, our problem-solving or problem-making. In its most toxic form, it has the potential to be the most potent weapon of mass destruction in the world. In its most cultivated form, it can be a resource for our deepest happiness, and for the flourishing of not only our own lives, but the flourishing of our species and the planet. Knowing that so much potential is locked in your mind, why wouldn’t you take the time to train and nurture it?
To register for Mindful in May, the world’s largest online global fundraising campaign, visit mindfulinmay.org.