TENANT was born of an interest in documenting Melburnians and the way their choices are shaping the city, from the inside out.
This month I profile a person who impressed me, long before I had the opportunity to meet her in person.
Dr. Elise Bialylew is a Melbourne based doctor, turned social entrepreneur, coach and founder of Mindful in May (MIM) – a global movement that encourages people around the world to meditate daily, while raising funds to build clean water wells in the developing world.
When a friend recommended MIM to me last year, it was at a time I needed to make a difficult career decision, and needed some perspective.
Having meditated on and off for years, in combination with yoga practice, I had confidence in the recommended benefits and it seemed like the right time to take the challenge. I signed up in the hope I would find mental clarity, or perhaps even a career epiphany.
To join the global challenge, participants pay a fee (this year it is $30.00, or $1.00 a day) and throughout May have access to weekly meditation files, and interviews with global experts in the fields of wellness, meditation and brain training – to inspire and stay connected to the cause and personal goals.
Daily emails from Elise include words of encouragement, user stories and updates on fundraising successes from national and international teams who have joined the movement.
The idea is that while you learn to meditate and mindfully care for yourself, your efforts will ripple across the world to help improve the lives of the one in nine people on the planet who live without access to clean, safe drinking water.
This concept is a fabulous kind of yin and yang, where those in the developed world practice stillness and community, something that does not always come easily in a suburban or oversubscribed life, and those in the developing world, who on a simplistic level experience a counter issue, benefit from this mindful application to self and beyond self – working for a common greater cause.
Elise’s bio describes her as an ‘out-of-the-box’ thinker, a doctor trained in psychiatry, and mindfulness meditation teacher…
Elise, thank you for agreeing to be profiled this month on TENANT.
Firstly, please tell us about your personal and professional pathway.
I grew up in inner suburban Melbourne with a mother who was passionate about personal growth and development. She 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 was always quite focused on the big existential questions and determined to live my life in the most authentic, meaningful way possible.
So while I had a connection to meditation, my regular meditation practice only really started in my twenties at a time of high stress for me.
I was training in psychiatry and facing high levels of stress and trauma on a daily basis in the psych wards. As someone who is very sensitive to her environment 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 and not be able to assist anyone, which was my strong intention.
So to manage my own health 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.
It proved to be a fundamental wellbeing management tool. Not only did it provide me with a powerful way to manage my stress levels, it really transformed me into a more self-compassionate, resilient, courageous person.
It became an anchor for me while I continued to work in the high-stress environment of the public mental health system.
It helped me so much I began to introduce it to my patients and witnessed the power of the practice.
Mindfulness meditation has been an education in how to live with more wisdom, navigate the inevitable challenges that arise and be more grateful and present to the beauty of life in each precious, fleeting moment.
How did you come up with the concept of Mindful in May?
The idea actually came to me one day whilst I was in meditation. I’ve found that it’s not uncommon for creative ideas to arise whilst I’m meditating.
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, which is when we actually need it the most.
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 practise together, doing something deeply worthwhile for ourselves and at the same time contribute to a greater cause through fundraising.
I had travelled in West Africa in my early twenties and during that time I was deeply impacted by the extreme levels of poverty. I saw people dying of treatable diseases often caused by water-related illnesses, and often struggling each day to meet their most basic survival needs – food, water, health.
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. I was truly amazed by this spirit of generosity amidst absolute poverty.
In the developed world we have so much, yet so many of us are unsatisfied, isolated and depressed. In parts of the developing world people are living in communities, connected, but struggling day-to-day with profound levels of poverty.
It made me contemplate the way these two issues could be connectively addressed – to bring more contentment, meaning and connection to those in the developed world, and support those in the developing world.
MIM emerged as an answer. Apart from breath, water is one of our most basic needs and for one in nine people on the planet it remains a daily struggle to access.
There are so many matters that need addressing in the world but I wanted to connect to a global issue that could unite people all around the world. I wanted to focus on something that was not too political, that would help all genders and ages and something fundamental and basic that we can all understand.
It’s clear to me that Mindful in May resonates with many people, including corporations. I noticed that Google Australia was a leading fundraising group last year?
The response has been truly inspiring. It really has developed into a global community of people who share a similar desire to bring more consciousness and wellbeing into their lives and take part in having a positive impact in the world.
Thousands of participants across 25 countries sign-up and learn to meditate each May. And yes, it has attracted the attention of corporates, including NAB and Google Australia – who were the top fundraiser last year.
The cause has attracted also some fantastic celebrity ambassadors including the nutritionist Lola Berry and actor, comedian Magda Szubanski. Magda has been an ambassador for MIM every year since it began, and has said that it was because of MIM that she is still practising meditation every day.
Where do you hope to see the Mindful in May event going in the future – what do you hope it will achieve?
I started MIM 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 MIM 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 clean, safe, drinking water.
I think one of my greatest fears is reaching the end of my life and feeling that I hadn’t lived as courageously and meaningfully as I could have. 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.
You live in Prahran (3181), what is it that you like about the area?
I love the community I feel there, the Victorian architecture, the Prahran Markets; that it is close to the city and close to lots of my friends and my family.
Can you name some other things you love about Melbourne?
There are so many. I love The Night Cat on a Sunday night, Babkhas Bakery, the diversity of the people, and sitting at Point Ormond at sunset, hearing the buzz of peak hour traffic behind me – and the rolling waves in front of me.
How does Melbourne, the city, help you to do (and achieve) what you do?
I think there is a really rich culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in Melbourne. I have met some incredible people in this city who are doing such inspiring things and who are so generous with sharing their knowledge. That’s been a real support for me in creating something like MIM.
Please name a Melburnian (who you know and admire) that you would like to introduce to TENANT readers?
Thank you, Elise. Best wishes for the month of meditation and fundraising ahead – MIM 2015.
To join as an individual or creat a fundraising team, head to mindfulinmay.org and click on the orange Register button.