When a trained psychiatrist walks away from her career and years of medical training to build the world’s largest online meditation campaign, you know you need to dig a little deeper into exactly what meditation and mindfulness can do for our 21st-century brains. So with May just around the corner, this week we talk with Elise Bialylew, founder of Mindful in May.
Mindful in May is a worldwide campaign designed to not only help us reduce stress, find focus and create calm in our lives, but to also raise money for much-needed water projects in developing countries. To date, she’s already donated over $500k.
Elise started Mindful in May as a side gig while still completing her psychiatric training. The project grew so quickly it became a second full-time job, which ultimately became unsustainable. But rather than taking the more conventional professional therapist path, she followed a deep calling to build out her own unique contribution to the world. She dropped out of her medical career and threw herself wholeheartedly in digital entrepreneurship.
The Mindful in May challenge is to meditate for 10 minutes each day for the month of May. It’s supported by audio guided meditations, video interviews with global experts, SMS/text message reminders and simple exercises that can be achieved even in the busiest of lives.
SPECIAL OFFER: Outside the month of May, the program sells at $300. If you register before May 1st, you can access it for $49AUD, saving over $250, which seems like one heck of a fantastic personal development program to do before the end of the financial year! I’m in! Join here.
What did you want to be when you grew up and why?
I went through a lot of different ideas from becoming a jazz pianist and travelling the world, to being a motivational coach (I listened to Tony Robbins cassettes on the school bus when I was twelve), to running my own chocolate making business, to a graphic designer and then a psychiatrist. There were many different influences in my life and those who know me well would laugh as I am often teased for wanting to live many different lives in one. I think I’ve always had a strong desire to learn, create, connect and contribute, and that’s what has ultimately determined my direction.
What did/do you study?
I ended up studying medicine and training in psychiatry. But I took time off from that path along the way and also studied music in West Africa, documentary film in New York and spent a lot of time going to prolonged silent meditation retreats studying Buddhism and exploring the inner workings of the mind with a truly extraordinary meditation teacher.
What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?
I think the most courageous leap I took was leaving psychiatry with one year to go before finishing it, so I could continue running Mindful in May, the global online mindfulness campaign I created. I’d been juggling two lives in many ways that were both beyond full-time jobs, the life of a psychiatrist in training, working around the clock and frequently doing 24 hour on call shifts, and the life of a founder of an online startup.
What were you doing before you made your leap?
Before I made the leap I was working in hospitals around Melbourne, training in psychiatry and psychotherapy. I was also studying mindfulness meditation and spending all of my spare time going on extended silent meditation retreats to train with one of my teachers and deepen my meditation practice.
Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?
Without a doubt all of my meditation teachers have been the most influential people in my career and broader life.
As I became more serious about meditation I started to meet the most incredibly intelligent, wise and humble teachers, who to me were such powerful examples of everything I aspired to become. I am inspired by their commitment to wisdom and truth and their complete humility and integrity. They are such generous people who are truly devoid of ego and who dedicate their lives to reducing the suffering in the world.
Two other people who have really influenced my life in such a positive way are my parents. I count my blessings every day to have them in my life. They have taught me about spirituality, generosity, service and love in such a profound way and this has deeply influenced my path.
What did you have in place before you made the leap?
As I had been gradually building Mindful in May whilst also working as a doctor, I had some savings that helped buffer me in the first year of leaping. However, it was really scary for me to take that leap because Mindful in May was still not paying me a wage at that time. In some ways it was great because I felt that I really HAD to make Mindful in May financially viable because I had left the security of a salary.
What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that led you to the leap?
I remember the new year was approaching and I’d just been offered a really ideal job within psychiatry that I’d actually worked hard to create for myself. I had convinced the college to let me create my own position where I could start to bring mindfulness training into the system to train other doctors and work with patients in a more holistic way. It was a dream come true because there were really no positions in psychiatry like that. So I was excited to be taking that job and running Mindful in May at the same time. However, as the new year approached and my job was soon beginning, I started feeling this really uncomfortable tightness in my chest. My body was giving me strong signs and revealing the truth, which was, this double career manoeuvre was not a viable option. I wanted to be able to do both things as this would allow me to finish off my training, have the security of a salary, and also support me to continue Mindful in May, which at that time was not paying me a wage (despite having worked 80 hour weeks for years).
My body was clearly signalling that I had to make a choice. It was at that moment I leaped from the security and certainty of my career as a doctor, to the unknown path of following my deeper passion around mindfulness and making a difference in the world through developing the Mindful in May campaign.
How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?
I think I was actually resisting having to make a decision to leave my career as a psychiatrist. I think sometimes what looks like ‘choosing to make a courageous decision’ from the outside is actually not a decision at all, but rather more of a need or a calling that you simply can’t refuse.
How did you fund your leap?
I had savings from my career that supported my initial six months and then I started using my skills and training in other contexts in short, contained consultant work. I started teaching mindfulness workshops to the public, and began teaching mindfulness in corporate organisations too. By taking a leap and putting all of my energy into Mindful in May, the campaign tripled in growth that year and for the first time I was able to pay myself a wage (albeit a humble one)!
What other leaps have you made in the past?
Without a doubt, having a child was the biggest leap I’ve made in my life. I was so acutely aware of the immense responsibility in that decision and also as someone so driven and committed to making a difference in the world on a global level, I wondered whether having a child was really the right choice for me. I feared that I would not be able to do both motherhood and business.
What leaps haven’t work out? What did you do about it?
I have to say I’m still in the midst of leaping into the reality of juggling motherhood and a social enterprise. I’m yet to see if that leap is going to work out or not, but I feel less attached to outcomes these days. I think that’s what motherhood teaches you, the art of surrender.
What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?
Death and illness. I think it’s the occupational hazard of being a doctor. You know too much about all the things that can go wrong. Mindfulness training has helped me deal with that fear. It teaches you to be master of your mind and more anchored to the present moment. That’s a helpful skill to have when you’re prone to worrying about the future. The other thing I’ve realised is that because I know about all the things that can go wrong, I think it gives me a deeper appreciation of the miracle of simply being alive and well. I consciously bring gratitude to that fact every single morning.
How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.
Definitely a 10.
What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?
Feeling deeply empowered, creative and able to live much more in line with my values.
What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?
Running your own business feels like a never-ending journey of leaps. As things grow you are always being called to leap into discomfort. I didn’t realise that first leap would lead to a chain of leaps for years to come… I love being challenged and mastering new skills, but sometimes all this leaping gets a bit exhausting.
What might be your next leap?
My next leap is writing my first book on mindfulness, which is already in the pipeline with the publishers.
What are your favourite words to live by?
Creativity. Community. Courage. Contribution.
Who do you admire who also made the leap?
Three women come to mind who are also friends:
- Amy Crawford – The Holistic Ingredient
- Sheree Rubenstein – Founder of One Roof
- Penny Locaso – Founder of B.Kindred
I’ve found that once you become a leaper, somehow you start to find yourself surrounded by other leapers.
I feel lucky to have met the women above and the many other leapers in my friendship circle. There are certain challenges and emotions that come with leaping and I’ve found it’s crucial to have kindred souls around to laugh, cry and share the rollercoaster ride of creating your own path. It’s not for the faint-hearted!
A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?
Be kind to yourself. Although you are itching to make the leap, know that when the time is right, you’ll just leap.
The hardest thing is finding the patience to sit in that uncomfortable transition space between your old life and the new life that is waiting.
As Maria Rilke so beautifully stated:
‘Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’
What question did I miss about your leap? And what’s your answer?
What was the best piece of advice you ever got which relates to your career leap? I’d answer with two pieces of advice:
- Most decisions are not irreversible – except for having a child! (but that’s worked out well for me – phew)
- Impostor syndrome is just a sign that you are living on your growth edge and pushing your boundaries – keep going.
Right now I’m:
Hearing: The hum of my overworked laptop as I work behind the scenes to launch the global Mindful in May campaign around the world.
Eating: A banana as my midmorning snack.
Drinking: Lemon tea alternated with Pukka tea (cinnamon flavour).
Reading: Transcripts from all the incredibly fascinating interviews that are featuring in this year’s online Mindful in May program starting May 1st including conversations with the likes of Mark Nepo, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Dan Harris and so many more.
Loving: My daughter’s giggles and squeals of delight at the most simple pleasures from moment to moment – she’s my best mindfulness teacher these days!
In a world where our attention is a commodity hard fought for by the media, our devices and our own expectations to ‘do more’, meditation is a sanctuary to come home to ourselves, and clear a path to a well-considered, well-lived life. I hope you’ll join me and be mindful this May.