Elli Weisbaum

Mindfulness for Life

When I decided to pursue a PhD I was told over and over again that it would be overwhelming, isolating and painful. My response? No thanks! First of all, there isn't anything I choose to do in my life that I would describe in those ways. Secondly, the topic of my thesis is mindfulness - so pursuing a PhD on this topic with this framing just didn't make sense to me. But the more I was told this, the more it made me wonder what a mindful PhD might look like. Mindfulness is not only the focus of my research, but an integral part of my life. The practice is woven into the fabric of everything I do. For me, integrating mindfulness into the meta approach of pursuing my PhD seemed not only natural, but also ethical and imperative for my mental health. The aspiration behind this blog is to bring awareness for myself to this journey and to share the experience of attempting to navigate a PhD on mindfulness with mindfulness. This isn't to claim that I will never suffer or experience being overwhelmed, isolated and in pain during this process - but it is to set an intention to meet these feelings with kindness and care and to transform them so that I can also experience joy and happiness as part of this 5 year adventure.

Running my PhD research trial!

How to reach major milestones without burning out...

Sitting with program facilitators after the final mindfulness session. From left: David Viafora, Elli Weisbaum, Dagmara Urbanowicz.

Sitting with program facilitators after the final mindfulness session. From left: David Viafora, Elli Weisbaum, Dagmara Urbanowicz.

Excited to share that a major milestone in my PhD journey has taken place! January-February 2019 the 5-week mindfulness program at the heart of my research study ran at SickKids Hospital in downtown Toronto. Forty eight physicians, from over fifteen different departments, took part in the study. I attended all the program sessions as a participant observer and conducted post-program interviews with participants. This will become the primary data for my dissertation, currently with the lay title “Applying Mindfulness to Physician Wellbeing". 

While there is much more to share about the study design and implementation, further details will need to wait as I complete my dissertation over the next two years. As I move through this process and begin publishing, I will continue to share updates through my blog and mailing list.

 
I am grateful for the opportunity and privilege to conduct this research.

In the meantime, I want to take a moment to reflect on this part of my journey. I am grateful for the opportunity and privilege to conduct this research. While it was an incredible amount of work to run the study: from recruitment, to room bookings, organizing facilitator training and implementing study administration, it was an incredibly rewarding experience, though not without its challenges… 

 
Running this study helped me understand more deeply why graduate students and researchers are experiencing high rates of burn out and stress.
 

Running this study helped me understand more deeply why graduate students and researchers are experiencing high rates of burn out and stress. Conducting research can be a highly pressurized situation. The internal and external pressure to achieve can easily lead to anxiety and stress. Reflecting on my own experience made me wonder how, as graduate students and researchers, can we be self-reflexive and critical (both necessary for the work we do), while also remaining kind, curious and caring towards ourselves? It is a challenging balance, but one that I feel is crucial for both the quality of our research and our own wellbeing. If we are able to find this balance, it will make us stronger researchers who are able to bring a critical lens to our own work, while maintaining our personal energy and motivation to see the work through.  

 
...can we be self-reflexive and critical (both necessary for the work we do), while also remaining kind, curious and caring towards ourselves?
 

How do we find a balance between reflexivity, critique and self-care? For each one of us the answer will be a little different, as I like to say, mindfulness is a choose your own adventure. What I can share in answer to this question is my own approach that greatly supported me throughout my research study. Before I share these tips, let me state for the record that I did not always stick to this plan perfectly and that I have experienced many challenges along the way. I have had self-doubt, I have been sleep deprived, I have felt overwhelmed. But throughout all of these experiences, I had my practice of mindfulness and my community to support me, which made it possible to do the work and to continue the work. It feels a little vulnerable to share these words, but also a crucial step towards addressing some of the stigmas around perfectionism that exist in many institutions. The notion that everyone else around you has it together, that you are alone in your suffering/challenges, is something I have heard over and over from my peers, and even the physicians in my study. I hope that by sharing both my successes and challenges I may begin to shift some of this stigma in a small way.

These are some key strategies I implemented before and during my research trial to care for myself:

  • Check-in with yourself before the research begins: before my study began, I took the time reflect and anticipate what practical support I might need in my day to day schedule while the study was running. Knowing that my time and energy would be used to a maximum during this time, I saw that it would be beneficial to put an evening schedule in place throughout the week to support my rest and sleep. For me, this meant setting an intension to put away my devices by a certain time each evening, to purposefully stop talking or thinking about my work at a certain time (when possible), and to set up a meal plan for the week each on Sunday so I could have healthy food options pre-planned. To help me slow down my internal narrative, and create a greater sense of stability and ease, I also planned to have a sitting meditation each night before brushing my teeth.

  • Communicate with your partner/family/friends: before the study began, I also made sure to take the time to communicate my reflections above to my partner, family and friends. Based on our relationship, I shared a different level of detail with each of them (e.g. it was important for my husband to know a lot of the details - and agree/adjust them together - but my friends/family only needed to know details like when I would be offline or intensively busy). Communicating this information ahead of time had many benefits, including motivating me to stick to my plan and allowing those close to me the opportunity to both be supportive and understand why I might be less available or more likely to be distracted or stressed. This understanding allowed for all of us to have more compassion and care for one another during this time.

These are just a few examples of some of the work I did before and during my research trial that allowed me to have a foundation of stability and support to create space for self reflection and care. This gave me a greater sense of personal wellbeing, which heightened my ability to focus and attend to my research. It might seem like extra work to do this kind of preparation, and remain diligent towards self-care, but my experience has been that this upfront investment of time and energy comes back fourfold. 

 
This gave me a greater sense of personal wellbeing, which heightened my ability to focus and attend to my research.

Finally, I want to take a moment to thank my two wonderful program facilitators: Dagmara Urbanowicz and David Viafora. Through their embodiment of the practice they created and held a welcoming space for the participants to explore mindfulness. Their skillful facilitation allowed me to be fully present as a participant observer and researcher. May everyone conducting research get to move through the process with others who are so present, kind, and passionate about the work. The picture for this blog post was taken at our final session, after all the participants had left. The three of us sat around an orchid (we had one at each session), ate cupcakes (which David had brought as a surprise), and celebrated the moment together.  

 
May everyone conducting research get to move through the process with others who are so present, kind, and passionate about the work.
 
 
 

Suggested Reflection Practice: Loving Kindness Meditation

Loving Kindness meditation, often referred to as a “Metta” practice (Metta being a Pali word that is translated as “Loving Kindness”), is an opportunity to cultivate understanding, love and compassion towards oneself and others. Building this type of relationship towards yourself and others provides a strong foundation from which skillful, kind and strong actions can be taken. There are many ways to practice Loving Kindness meditation, with different options for the order of the practice and the phrases used. Below is an outline for one of the ways I like to practice Loving Kindness.

Step 1: Find a comfortable sitting/standing/lying down position where you will not be disturbed. Once you are settled close your eyes. Begin with three sounds of the bell to support arriving in the present moment, using the sound of the bell and in-breath and out breath as your anchors.

Step 2:  Bring to mind someone that you love or care deeply about. This could be a family member, friend, or even a pet. Bring just one person to mind. Take a moment to notice how it feels to bring them to mind. 

Now, holding this person in your mind, silently repeat the following phrases: 

May you be peaceful and happy May you be healthy May you be free from worry and anxiety May you be able to look at yourself with the eyes of understanding and love 

Now, gently breath out the image of this person and return to the anchor of the in and out breath. 

Step 3: Repeat step 2 (first bringing someone to mind, then silently offering phrases) but bring a different focus to mind each time (outlined below). Between each focus you can return to the anchor of the breath to settle the mind.

1. Bring to mind…

  • Someone you feel neutral about: co-worker, barista, bus driver (you can imagine their face clearly)

  • Someone with whom you have had a challenge or difficulty (take a moment to be aware of your own capacity, you may like to bring to mind someone with whom you have had just a five out of ten difficulty, rather than a ten out of ten)

  • Yourself: take a moment to scan your own body, hold yourself in mind as you offer the phrases (you can replace “may you” with “may I”) when offering the phrases to yourself you might want to place your hand over your heart or belly

  • Optional: expand your attention outward and offer these phrases to other people in your life, to those in your city, to all human beings, to all living beings

2. Silently offer the following phrases…

May you be peaceful and happy May you be healthy May you be free from worry and anxiety May you be able to look at yourself with the eyes of understanding and love 

3. Return to the anchor of the breath before moving to your next focus…

Step 4: Gently return to the anchor of your in and out breath. Allowing any thoughts or emotions that have arisen to settle in the body. 

Step 5: Close with a three sounds of the bell to anchor your attention before proceeding with your day.

 
 
Elli Weisbaum