The everyday pressures for working parents can be stressful and overwhelming, which is why adding meditation to your parenting toolkit can be a game changer. But how do you fit it in when your schedule is already bursting at the seams? Trained psychiatrist, mum of two littles, and Mindful in May founder Dr Elise Bialylew is passionate to share how the benefits of mindfulness – greater compassion, focus and resilience, less stress and reactiveness – can be experienced by meditating for as little as 10 minutes a day. Be the best parent you can be with these practical, evidence-based mindfulness tips from Dr Elise.
Let’s kick things off by learning a little about your career journey…
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 soon 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. It was an idea that integrated three of my passions: mindfulness, social impact and community building through technology. I haven’t looked back.
You’ve said that mindfulness has been a crucial part of your survival toolkit as a working parent. How has your mindfulness practice impacted your family and work life, and can you give us an example?
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.
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.
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.
You’re passionate about supporting individuals and organisations to develop inner tools to flourish through mindfulness. What transformations do you see in the people you work with, particularly parents with a lot on their plate?
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 so much can change. People I’ve worked with describe the programs as helping them become better at:
- Being aware of their emotions and responding to emotions rather than reacting.
- Having better access to what they really want in their 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 their stress.
- Being in relationships with others with less conflict.
- Communicating more effectively with greater awareness of why they’re feeling what they’re feeling.
- Staying focused at work and less prone to multitasking.
- Falling asleep at night as they have a tool to help the mind settle.
- Making decisions that are aligned with what they truly value.
- Taking healthy risks in life as they have an inner resource that can help them through uncertain times.
What is the scientific evidence behind meditating?
Much of the research in the field of mindfulness explores the impact of 30 to 40 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.
What are some ways working parents can slow down and remember to be present?
Many working parents tell me they don’t have time to sit for long periods in meditation, but mindfulness is not just about sitting silently in meditation. There are many ways we can integrate mindfulness. It is simply the art of remembering to pause throughout the day and be present in the moment. I always like to include this practice because it’s simple and easy to do, but the hard part is remembering to do it.
The Mindful STOP is a practice that helps you remember to pause, get out of automatic pilot, and physically catch your breath throughout the day.
It’s a quick and simple way to remember to connect with yourself which creates greater potential for presence and wisdom in daily life.
It’s a perfect micro-mindfulness practice for busy parents.
Steps to practising the mindful STOP:
S – Stop.
T – Take three mindful breaths, feeling the sensation of the breath as it flows in and out.
O – Observe the body, notice any tension and actively let it go.
P – Proceed with your day.
Set an alarm on your phone to ring at four random times today with the word STOP. You could also write the word STOP on some sticky notes and leave them in places you regularly see, such as the shower, the toilet, on your laptop, or in your car.
When you see these reminders, pause for a few moments to practise the STOP exercise. The purpose of mindfulness is not to create a particular state of mind, but rather to be aware of whatever state is present.
Just like getting physically fit, you need to commit to the practice to experience the results of a mind that is functioning at its best.
How do you set work-life boundaries and make time for the things you love?
It’s a constant tightrope act. Mindfulness meditation ensures that I’m connected to myself and tuned in to that sense of overwhelm that can arise. With that awareness I’m able to re-adjust and get back on track. But I like to see the year as having seasons. For me there are times in the year that I’m very busy and times when I have extra time for leisure. I think it’s inevitable that when you step into parenthood, there is a lot less time for you. I prioritise friendship and community – I’m usually the one in my friendship circle who creates the monthly girls dinners and brings people together. I’ve found COVID has been a real challenge to creating some of the community events I love to organise, a few of them got cancelled earlier this year. But you work with what you’ve got!
You curated a recipe book to inspire mindful eating. Does your family have a mealtime ritual and favourite meal to nourish your body?
Yes, we do a gratitude practice on our Friday night family Shabbat dinners. My five-year-old daughter leads it by ringing the meditation bell. We all listen to the sound then go around the table and share what we are grateful for. There are too many meals we love! I’m a big foodie so it’s too hard to choose one.
I’m re-reading… Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor – a mind blowing book that anyone who breathes should read.
I’m inspired by… my closest friends. They are an incredible bunch of women that amaze me all the time.
If you want to take mindfulness further but are unsure where to start, register for our global campaign, Mindful in May, before May 1st, or get a copy of my one month mindfulness meditation guidebook, The Happiness Plan, which I wrote for exactly this kind of situation.