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Elise Bialylew is a mindfulness warrior
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Elise Bialylew is a mindfulness warrior
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I'm reading
Elise Bialylew is a mindfulness warrior
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Pass it on
27 April 2020

Elise Bialylew is a mindfulness warrior

Interview by Jane Hone

Jane Hone speaks with Elise Bialylew

I met Elise on a cool afternoon in the first week of autumn, when both of us had a cold. It was at a peculiar moment just before the pandemic exploded across the world: early enough in the narrative for Australians to already be panic-buying toilet paper, but not yet at the stage where we were thinking twice about being in the same room as someone with a runny nose.

As Elise defined mindfulness in opposition to mindlessness, I thought of the way people were behaving in the community at that moment. Much of it could only be described as mindless. Yet in the weeks that have followed, I’ve observed humans being more mindful than mindless — both in the way we treat each other and in the way we notice the world around us. It’s also become more and more apparent to me that mindfulness is a kind of superpower that can help us stay in this current moment when our inclination is to try and leap ahead. Indeed, with a future so glaringly uncertain, it’s never been more important to stay with the present.

One of the surprising things about Elise is that she comes from a Western medical background. She was trained as a psychiatrist before becoming increasingly fascinated by the mind-body connection, and by the benefits of meditation (although, as she explains, she grew up in a household where the bookshelves were lined with the likes of Thích Nhất Hạnh, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield). Elise gracefully balances Western medical knowledge and Eastern wisdom, so no one could accuse her of spiritual bypassing. Like mindfulness itself, she is planted firmly in the ground.

The point that Elise emphasised during our conversation is that mindfulness, as trendy as it is now, is intended to help reduce collective suffering. This is also the intention behind Mindful in May — the one-month “boot camp” style mind training program she created seven years ago. As well as bringing together world experts to help participants learn about mindfulness from all angles, Mindful in May helps raise funds to deliver clean water to developing countries. To date, it’s brought water to over 16,000 people across Ethiopia, Nepal, Malawi and Uganda. Elise’s book, The Happiness Plan, is available through Affirm Press.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

JANE HONE: Did you want to start by giving us your definition of mindfulness? I know that Tara Brach talks about it as “coming home to being”. I’ve also heard it described as a “mind full of nowness”. And I know that Thích Nhất Hạnh calls it “the bell that reminds us to stop and silently listen”. What’s your definition?

ELISE BIALYLEW: For me, thinking about the opposite of mindfulness is really helpful. And I think it’s really simple to understand what mindfulness is by just thinking about mindlessness. And that’s the state that I think a lot of us are in a lot of the time, and so it requires training in order to constantly remember to come back to the here and now. So my definition is, really, the awareness of what’s going on inside and outside at any particular moment, with a kind of openness, curiosity and compassion. Because I think the attitudes that you bring to that awareness are really key as well.

Absolutely. I read a quote this week that I thought was really interesting and sort of dips into that a little bit — it’s attributed to Einstein, which a lot of quotes are — but it is: “Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind.” Which I thought really spoke to both this idea that it’s only being mindful that we can get in touch with our intuition, and I suppose our humanity and how we’re actually feeling, moment-to-moment. And also that being mindful does take a little bit of work, and meditation is work. I wondered if you wanted to speak to that idea.

Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I think culturally, it’s embedded in our understanding around physical wellbeing that we can’t just leave our bodies alone — we need to move them and do exercise in order to really optimise ourselves so that we have energy in our everyday life. And I think it’s very clear now, across the board, all the science really emphasises that the mind and the brain need training. You know, if we just leave them, across a lifetime, with no practice, no training… There are kind of design faults, you know? There are design faults around how the mind operates in terms of the incessant thinking that we do, which, from an evolutionary perspective was really useful, to be able to plan into the future and be strategic, from a survival perspective, but unfortunately it needs to be balanced out by something else. And I think because of the world we’re living in, which is putting greater and greater pressure on us to always be “on” and thinking about the future, the balance is off. And so, yeah, we really do need to train our attention to be more present, because the great force in our world at the moment is really pulling our attention all over the place, fragmenting our attention. And this is having effects on our brain. The science is really telling us that just like physical exercise, when we do this mental practice, we’re building the neural pathways in our brain. I think this is pretty known — it’s not new information. But brain scans show it. Mindfulness changes the brain in really helpful ways.

That’s incredible. I’d like to come back to the science, but I’d like to ask you first about your background. So, you’re from a psychiatric background. How is it, coming from a western medical background, that you started to walk this path?

I think I should say from the beginning that I was lucky enough to come from a family that’s very open-minded. I have a mum who’s a psychologist and a dad who’s a doctor. My mum is quite a spiritual person, and our bookshelves were lined by the Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Jack Kornfield. I kind of grew up amidst those people and my mum was really interested in meditation, so it was something I was exposed to. Having said that, it was a long time before I actually put my butt on the chair, rather than just reading about meditation from an intellectual perspective, which I found fascinating. I was very attracted to psychiatry because I wanted to know everything about the mind and human behaviour. When I was studying medicine, you know, without doubt my highlight was holding the human brain. I mean, just that moment and trying to get my head around that. And I just wanted to really dive deep. And psychiatry was an incredible education, you know, seeing all the different things that can happen to the human mind. It was a really worthwhile training.

But what I discovered was that it was all about the mind and the brain, but it was all about the mind and the brain when it had completely gone haywire, and so I wasn’t really studying, What’s the brain like for an Olympic athlete of meditation? What potential does the mind have when it’s thriving and flourishing?

And I got really curious about that. And I also felt that, probably because of my own temperament and leanings, it was going to be better for me to serve in that place as well — to really be jumping over to prevention and helping people to resource themselves internally, to manage increasing stress, and hopefully avert some of the statistics that we hear about with anxiety and depression and all the different things than can go wrong.

Yeah. And so what was the impetus for you to finally put your butt on your meditation cushion? What was it that brought you to actually sit down and start meditating yourself?

It’s a great question, and I think there’s a similarity for everyone in that. And that is, as Eckhart Tolle says, sometimes we just need a bit more suffering before we can wake up. So for me, it was a combination of a sense that I was on a particular path, in my career, and there was a lot of value there. I valued learning, and learning about the human body and brain and being of service, and it was sort of right. But there was something that was kind of missing. I think it was that internal searching. I knew there was something that I was supposed to be doing and that I wasn’t quite fully aligned, and that created an internal friction, and a dis-ease. Then I happened upon Richie Davidson, who is one of the leaders in the space of mindfulness in the brain, and I heard him at a conference. It was probably nearly 15 or 20 years ago. And his talk, it was one of those moments. You know, he had the brain scans. It was all the science that is much more commonly known now around how the brain changes and the very real, transformative capacity that meditation has on the mind and the body. And it was kind of a combination of those two things: the science that really lit me up, and a sense — just an intuition I had that I needed to turn my attention inwards to kind of listen and just be with myself and trust that that might help guide me. Which it turned out it did.

That’s beautiful. And when you started to delve more deeply into meditation, was there anything that you needed to unlearn from your background of psychiatry? Was there anything that conflicted, or was it mostly complementary?

I wouldn’t say that it conflicted. It was more that this whole education was just not a part of psychiatry. It was like this huge missing piece. I wouldn’t say that it was in contradiction, and I still don’t. I think that they can work really well together. And I think in fact what I’m noticing is that as mindfulness and meditation become more popular, there’s a problem that when you teach people to meditate, it’s a pretty safe practice, but you do need to have an understanding of psychology and trauma and stuff like that. So I think that that education has really supported my ability to teach and hold people in that space. Having said that, when I left psychiatry to pursue my interest in meditation, there was definitely not as much interest in mindfulness as there is now. Whereas now there are a lot more psychiatrists that are actually open to mindfulness and these kind of practices.


But I think one thing maybe that I had to unlearn, not necessarily from psychiatry, was just — I went on this retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn when he came to Australia many, many years ago — and it was something about unlearning my belief about how important thoughts are. It was about unlearning everything I’d ever known about thinking and thoughts, which was essentially that thoughts are correct and true and the authority on the matter. And I think mindfulness helped me discover a completely new way of understanding and relating to thoughts, which I think is very transformative.

Mm. And understanding yourself holistically, as an entire human, not just being dominated by your mind, but understanding this kind of broader intelligence, not just putting all of the importance on the mind. As you probably had had to do for a long time, through all your studies and everything. There would have been this huge weightedness on the mind.

A heavy head. [Laughs]

A heavy head! [Laughs]

A big head on the body. That’s right. You mentioned the word intuition and I think for me, that was a huge gift. I was living a lot from my shoulders up. And I think I really learnt about the importance of becoming embodied, which to me was a word that was a bit abstract or esoteric for a long time.

Yeah. And you were talking about how mindfulness and meditation have become a lot more popular in recent years. But it has been around, as a practice, for thousands and thousands of years. Why do you think these more ancient practices have started to become important in our lives?

I think it’s a combination of the greater need — we’re thirsty for this. You know, you just meet anyone these days and everyone’s just running around hectic, and I think there’s a really great need that there wasn’t in the past, with the hyper-connection, social media, greater global threats and climate change. All of it. We’re really struggling. And so we need something to help us stay centred and present with our families, in our workplaces. And then I think, the way that science has evolved, technology is increasing so it gives us greater ability to see what’s actually going on in the brain. If you put the word “mindfulness” into Google Trends or Google Scholar, it’s just exponential what’s going on in the research field. And I think as the research grows, it becomes more accessible to the mainstream. People who may not have listened before are paying attention. And then finally, we’re living in a world where ideas spread so fast. We’re in this moment of Coronavirus, and we can see what happens when a few people share a post about toilet paper. And so I think it’s a need, it’s the science that’s come out that’s pretty compelling, and it’s the connection and the speed at which ideas spread at the moment.

Yeah. And I read in your book, The Happiness Plan, that the word “mindful”, or “mindfulness”, in Pali is sati. And how when we translate that word literally, it means “to familiarise”, or “to remember”. Which I guess speaks to Thích Nhất Hạnh’s definition of remembering to come back to the present moment. But it also made me think of this idea that collectively there’s this longing to return to the way things were in the past. To ancient wisdoms, and picking up on those ancient ways of doing things — or even returning to our own childhood selves. I wondered if you had any thoughts on that concept. Maybe it’s about recovering something that we’ve lost, and I’m wondering what it is that we’ve lost as a society.

So on that definition that you just pulled up, I think it’s a really clear and pertinent one: “to remember”. And I think in its purest form, we spend so much of our lives just not connected to the miraculousness of everything. And I’ve got a young child now. I’ve got two children, but one is a baby, and she’s starting to play, and you know, everything captures her attention. So that’s my reminder to just notice. To connect with how beautiful a flower is when I’m walking her down the street, or just the simple things that we’re missing, that pass us by. And we end up disconnected. I think the coming back to the ancient practices is also a kind of reflection of this inner longing that we have to resist the force that’s taking us — all of us — which is technology, and speed, and losing touch with ourselves. And so some of these practices are helping us to slow down and reconnect.

Yeah. I love that you mentioned that. So, obviously there are things happening in the world that we don’t have control over, and those things are causing anxiety and a whole range of issues, which is why we need more mindfulness. But I also wonder if you think there are systemic changes that need to be made in the way we do things. For example, in our work lives. Do you think we need to make changes on that level, or do you think that if enough of us are practicing mindfulness, those changes are going to naturally start to unfold?

I think mindfulness is one ingredient that is very helpful in increasing awareness, which I think is what’s required. I would never say mindfulness is the thing that’s going to wake us all up. I think that would be naïve. I think it requires a lot more than mindfulness. Like, for example, there’s a great quote that I love from the book, Antifragile, which was written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, that says, “The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free”. The reason I bring this quote up is because I just think we really need to learn boundaries. Now more than ever we need to be consciously creating the boundaries in our lives around how we use technology. In terms of coming back to this idea of systemic change, I think it requires more than mindfulness because there are ways that we’re being in the world that are pulling us into bad habits. It’s much bigger than just mindfulness.

Yeah. I was reading an interview with Eckhart Tolle this week and he was talking about how this change has been coming for the last hundred years, how we’ve been sort of gearing up to have this big shift in consciousness. And he was saying that we have an opportunity now to make this quantum leap in consciousness. And I suppose the sense is that if we’re going to make these changes that we need to make as a community and as a society, some of that is going to start with our own inner work, and being mindful of our own inner environments. How does that land with you — the idea that we need to do the work in the microcosm to affect the macrocosm?

Yeah. I mean, it’s a hundred percent what I believe, and what’s driven my shift in career path, from psychiatry to running a global mindfulness campaign. I believe that we need to do the inner work to understand our own motivations, what drives us. And also see our reactivity and develop skills for managing our reactivity. Otherwise we’ve got no hope.

And, gosh, you look at the leaders in the world at the moment, it’s like… [laughs] if they could just come and do a Vipassana retreat!

[Laughs] It should be mandatory for all world leaders.

Yeah. But it’s kind of shocking, the level of greed and delusion and all these things that the Buddha spoke about 2500 years ago. And people think, Oh you’ve got to go on these long meditation retreats. But actually, starting small can have a huge impact on people. So, during Mindful in May, we invite people to do ten minutes of meditation a day, for a month, to make it really doable. And at the end of that, people have had really significant shifts. People have left their jobs. I’m talking about a lot of emails that I get every year. So they have really big shifts from not a huge commitment. And then that’s the seed of something bigger. And I’m all about connecting mindfulness to social activism, because I think that’s what it’s about.

It’s really about evolving ourselves, trying to help ourselves see the barriers and the blind spots that we all have that get in our way, and letting them go and working with them more skilfully. And then that translates into the work we do in the world.

It almost feels like a personal responsibility, to me, that all of us should know ourselves in that way. You know, where we’re not moving through the world being reactive, and even more so if you’re in any leadership position. Let’s talk a little bit about Mindful in May.

So, I started Mindful in May about seven years ago. I was working in psychiatry and I was teaching mindfulness in that context and I was really seeing what an impact it was having. I was pretty blown away by the science. You know, studies that showed that an eight-week mindfulness course was as effective as maintenance anti-depressants for people who were depressed. It was very rigorous, hardcore, and relevant. And I felt like I wanted to be able to offer mindfulness on a larger scale in a really accessible way, and then also connect it to something that was about something bigger than ourselves. It’s essentially a one-month online program where I gather the world’s best teachers and scientists to really inspire people, and they get this kind of boot camp for the mind. They get all the resources that they need, so guided meditations every day, and then they dedicate their commitment of ten minutes a day to a higher cause, which is fundraising for clean water in developing countries. And it’s been a wonderful project. We’ve done research on it, because one of the big questions that often comes up is, “How long do you need to meditate each day?” So we did a pilot study and found that ten minutes of meditation a day for a month definitely had statistical significance. It had people reporting measurable improvements in their lives around focus, around self-compassion, around the balance of being in the positive emotions and a sense of greater appreciation.

Could you talk a little more about the physical benefits of mindfulness — for example on the immune system?

Yeah. That was a study by Richie Davidson. He’s done a lot of very interesting studies. That one put people through an eight-week program of mindfulness, and then there was a control group that wasn’t doing meditation. And then they gave them a flu shot and took blood tests and measured their immune response to the vaccination, and they found that the people who had been meditating had a stronger immune response. But another one of the studies, which I think is probably one of the most fascinating, was around looking at gene expression. And I think that many people don’t understand that genes are not your destiny. I mean, there are some genes that very significantly determine a pathway to disease, but there are a whole lot of genes that we can change in terms of the lifestyle that we’re living. And so this study was looking at a day of mindfulness practice, and he found that the gene expression that was coding for inflammatory proteins in the body had been turned down, so there was less inflammation being expressed by these genes. And we know that inflammation in the body is not good — it’s a risk factor for a lot of chronic illnesses. And that was only one day of practice, and admittedly that is a lot of practice for someone that’s just beginning, but I think the interesting thing is looking at the different things that can happen in the body just through this mind practice, which from the outside could look like you’re not really doing that much.

And I think that is one of the hardest things for people, feelings like they’re doing nothing. And feeling like nothing is going to come of it. So it’s really interesting and powerful, I think, to hear the research behind it.

And there’s so much research. That’s why I wrote the book. I wanted to bring all the best research together and make it very accessible to people. I really love the science, and for me that’s been a really helpful motivator to keep going. And then you experience the benefits and that kind of keeps your practice going. I think the other research that is really wonderful is all around the emotional regulation side of things because, you know, so much of what causes suffering in our lives is our emotions and the way we manage or don’t manage them in various relationships. And so I think the piece of research from Sara Lazar, who’s also with Mindful in May — she’s a neuroscientist from Harvard — she looked at the way that mindfulness can affect the brain and found that the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps us modulate and inhibit reactions in relation to our emotions, grows and thickens and the amygdala, which is the fear centre, actually shrinks in volume. It’s pretty amazing that we have that potential to sculpt our own brains with an intentional practice.

Yes. So, often when we read about Buddhist meditation or Buddhist mindfulness practices, the concept of self-compassion, or metta, or maitri, comes up a lot. I was wondering where exactly for you does self-compassion fit in to the mindfulness picture.

I think it’s a crucial part of it. I don’t think that you can do mindfulness without it. I mean, as you said, it’s really embedded in the texts, in the ancient teachings. And I think that the problem with mindfulness now is that it gets kind of picked out and slapped around and, “Let’s bring it to corporate and make people more productive”, and it’s sort of lost its greater context, which also has that element of being of service in the world and reducing suffering in the world. Which is why I like linking it up to actually making a difference, rather than just awareness. So I think that self-compassion is crucial. For me personally, it’s been one of the most useful things that has grown for me in the practice. And I think that it’s really important because it’s a challenging practice. And without patience and self-compassion, it’s really easy to just give it up. And I think that applies to life in general. Whatever it is — work, family, parenting — self-compassion is everything.

And I suppose once you learn to respond to yourself and your own thoughts with compassion, that’s really the seed for responding to everyone else with that same attitude, right? Could you also talk to the difference between meditation or mindfulness meditation and just mindfulness in general as a concept? Because I’ve heard some people say, “Oh, I don’t meditate. I just practice mindfulness in my every day life.” And then I’ve heard other people say that it’s great to be mindful in daily life but really it’s the combination of those two things that’s most potent. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s really funny because I actually asked this exact question to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who I interviewed last week for Mindful in May. And his answer, which I’m going to steal, was that it’s all meditation. So this idea of, I’m meditating now, and now I’m living my life, is not so helpful. It’s like, when you finish your meditation, can you bring your meditation into everything you’re doing? You know, into the moment when someone at work has written you an email that’s gotten you hot with a bit of anger or frustration and you’re about to hit reply on an email that’s not going to be skilful, can you be in meditation in those moments? I’ve got a four-year-old! (Laughs) Can you be in meditation with the closest people in your life — your family? Can you be in meditation in those moments when you have a choice point of how you’re going to respond? I think this idea that there’s meditation and then there’s not-meditation isn’t helpful. But on the flipside, I really do believe that this awareness is something that we need to train and practice. And so I think that we need the intentional meditation where everything else is being moved away so that we can really focus on the task at hand, which is to notice and see what’s going on in the mind, and as we repeat and repeat this we’re actually developing greater skills and changing the way our brain functions in helpful ways. So I think it’s the two. And for me, you do need to do the actual meditation as well.

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I think you’re right — I think it’s easy sometimes to say, “Okay, I’m setting aside my ten minutes to sit down and meditate,” and then you sort of compartmentalise it and say, “Tick, that’s done!” And then you go off into the rest of your life and you don’t bring any of that learning with you. I’ve got a sticker in my car that says THIS IS YOGA and it’s like this reminder to me of, “No, this is the real practice” — when you’re in the car and you’re in traffic, or someone’s cut you off, that’s when you’ve really got to reconnect to those skills and bring the practice with you.

I wanted to add there as well, and you would relate to this having been on Vipassana retreat, I think when you dive into an intense meditation practice where you go off on a retreat and everything’s moved to the side and there’s no talking… I mean, you discover something that you couldn’t have discovered any other way. So, I think that if you are going to be mindful in eating and talking but not meditate, you’re just going to miss something. It might be beneficial but there’s so much to discover. I just feel like every human that has a brain and a mind should go on a meditation retreat. Just as an experiment.

Well, yeah, it’s like we’re walking around with these machines or these instruments in our heads, we should know how they work, and how to work them, right? It seems ludicrous to not have that.

It’s completely ludicrous. And a lot of people go to therapy. You know, I was working in psychotherapy, that was my area of interest. And I think that serves an incredible purpose, you know, insight, and having someone to tell your story to and who can ask questions and give you new perspectives on your story, but meditation is something different to that.

Yeah, it’s almost like you’re connecting with your inner therapist through meditation [laughs].


I feel as if there is this real resistance to sitting down and meditating. I see this in the yoga classes that I teach — and the yoga that I teach is Yin yoga, so it’s the yoga of stillness — and people come because otherwise they would never self-sanction that stillness. So I wonder what it is that we’re afraid of in that stillness?

I think about it in terms of the nervous system. We’ve all got overactive fight-or-flight responses going on, because the way that we were designed is for that response to go off when there’s a genuine, life-threatening predator, and now, all of the modern things — the deadlines, the negative interactions with people — are setting off that. And so I see it as rather than what are we scared of, I see it as this chronic agitated state that our nervous system is in, and it’s really hard when your nervous system is agitated to relax and to settle. Yeah, there’s a lot of resistance to that. Because you’re in fight-or-flight — you need to move and you need to expend energy, you know? So I think that phrase, “If you don’t think you’ve got time to meditate, you should do it more”, is really true. Because it takes longer if you’re in a hyper-aroused state for your body and your nervous system to settle. I know myself that if I’m just really chaotic and busy, I notice when I sit down to meditate, it can take half an hour before there’s a sense of ease. I’m sure there are multiple reasons but for me, our nervous systems are completely over-activated at the moment and we can’t help ourselves at the moment, so that’s why we need someone else to help guide us.

Yeah, I think it’s too much of a dramatic gearshift sometimes.

Too much of a gearshift. When I went on my first meditation retreat, I was working in psychiatry. I told my boss and he said, “Oh, I wouldn’t go on one of those. You could lose your mind.” And he wasn’t someone who practiced meditation but he tapped into a fear that I had of what was going to happen. I mean, what happens when you don’t speak to anyone for ten days and you’re alone with your own mind? It’s very confronting. So that’s kind of the more extreme, but maybe that happens to people on a mini scale when they come to be still and be with themselves. You know, we all hold things very deep inside us that are not okay with us, that we kind of push down because life’s too busy and we’re just not going to give that attention right now, because it’s kind of too hard. So maybe it’s like the stillness is threatening because as soon as you make space then these things come up.

I had the same fear, I think, before I went on my silent retreat. I thought, Oh, man, there are going to be some dark corners of my mind that I don’t want to go to. But, to be honest, I didn’t delve as deeply into those things as I thought I would, because there was this constant reminder, “Just come back. You’re just sitting on the floor. Just be here.” And that was just so incredibly valuable to me.

And just to be able to be present without an overlay of hectic chatter.

The neverending commentary. You talk in your book about creativity and play as not just central to our happiness as humans but also to the survival of our species. Did you want to talk a little bit about that?

It’s funny to think about that question now because I wrote the book before I had the second baby and at the moment I’m spending a lot of the time on the mat just observing and being with her in play, and it’s really quite fascinating to see how play is completely connected to problem-solving. So, I’m watching her learn just through play and I think that’s how it’s related to the survival of our species. So, she’s literally learning to survive, in some ways. She pulls something, and it bonks her on the head, and she learns. I think that’s how it’s related. And I think, just to connect it to meditation or mindfulness,

I think that mindfulness can be really helpful in supporting creativity. Because we come to everything one step ahead. Even in a conversation you’re already thinking ahead, and it’s like, if you can just be in the moment and trust and be playful with how things are going to unfold, then new possibilities arise. I think mindfulness gives us that trust and that confidence in just riding the moment.

And I think that opens up creativity. I know also for myself with writing my book, I had to write it in a short space of time and I had specific days that I had to write. And there were days where I just couldn’t, and I’d just sit down and meditate and sit in presence and it was really helpful.

And I suppose what mindfulness can do as well is open us up to spontaneity, which is really what play is. And that’s where creativity comes from, right?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a hundred percent right. That word spontaneity is about meeting the moment with openness.

Yes. And also when you talk about play it makes me think a little bit about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state. Is that something that you’ve researched or thought about much?

I think mindfulness is really related to that. Because it is about finding something that is just the right challenge and about enabling a kind of entrance into this presence. Where you’re just really engaged. And there’s a sense of wellbeing that comes from that. But I also think the other way ‘round, if you’re training in greater presence then whatever you’re doing, you’re going to be more engaged with.

Yes, because it’s very hard to slip into a flow state if you’re sitting there trying to do something and you’ve got emails coming in that you’re checking and your phone’s going off.

Exactly. And I think with flow state, there is something inherent — and there’s research to back this up — about the way that being present affects mood. It actually makes us happier when we’re more present. There was a study by Daniel Gilbert from Harvard, where he looked at thousands of people and he looked at mind-wandering. He gave people buzzers and he asked them three questions: “What are you doing right now?”; “Where is your attention?”; and, “How is your mood?” And what he discovered was, not surprisingly, that about fifty percent of the time we’re mind-wandering, but that there was a very strong correlation between mind-wandering and unhappiness. So again, coming back to the flow state, the more we can be present, no matter what we’re doing, the happier we become. Because the reality is that when you start to pay attention to your thinking, most of it is psychic garbage. If you had to designate a percentage to how much of it is actually fresh, creative thought, there’s not a lot. So there’s excess thinking and unfortunately a lot of the time it’s future-orientated, worrying, planning. Or just getting caught up in things that have already happened that you can’t change.

Yeah. Which is why I guess they talk about mindfulness as a purification of the mind. Was there anything you wanted to add before we finish?

For anyone who is an irregular meditator or who has downloaded the apps but can’t quite make it a habit, I really do encourage them to check out Mindful in May, because it’s like a big mindful hug (laughs). You know, it really embraces it all: the science, the spirituality, the meditations and doing good for the world.

It’s very holistic and very robust, what you’ve created. So congratulations.

Thank you.

Jane Hone

Jane Hone is a writer and yoga teacher based on the Mornington Peninsula. She’s passionate about helping people to slow down and realise the magic of the every day. 

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