Student spotlight on Elli Weisbaum: A Beautiful Mind-ful Me to We
BY: Rehnuma Islam
Photo provided by: Elli Weisbaum
A PhD student’s mindful journey takes her around the world, through the Toronto film industry, a venture into Buddhist philosophy and, many years later, on a path towards helping others to be compassionate and kind.
Elli Weisbaum was born to a physician and a theatre director, who as parents sought to understand how mindfulness could impact their family. At the age of 10, Elli attended her first mindfulness retreat with her parents, led by Zen Master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh. Motivated by the turmoil he experienced during the Vietnam war, he worked to translate mindfulness teachings into everyday settings and create peace within individuals and societies.
“Mindfulness is the awareness of what is happening inside and around you in the present moment” – Thich Nhat Hanh.
As a physician and school teacher respectively, Elli’s parents aimed to use mindfulness in their daily lives. Inspired by her parents, Elli’s interest in the application of mindfulness flourished. Continuing in the footsteps of her mother, Elli did her Bachelor of Fine Arts in film production at York University. She worked as a film producer in Toronto where she experienced first-hand the impact of a highly pressurized work environment on mental health. To further explore this, her Masters research focused on how mindfulness impacted communication in classrooms, which is described to be a “highly stressful environment”. Seeing the beneficial impact of mindfulness within education persuaded her to consider its application in other systems, such as healthcare. To do so, she continued her training at the Search Inside Yourself program developed at Google and the University of Toronto (UofT). Designed by experts in neuroscience, business, and psychology, the program teaches mindfulness tools to reduce stress, increase focus, and improve interpersonal relationships. Elli’s ongoing goal is to integrate research, practice, and teaching to develop evidence to support bringing mindfulness into key sectors of society.
An interest in both research and knowledge translation drew her to the Institute of Medical Science at UofT. For her PhD research, she is exploring how mindfulness impacts physician well-being in the context of their daily lives. Elli collects field notes as a participant observer during a five-week mindfulness training program at SickKids. She also conducts post-program qualitative semi-structured interviews with participants, using qualitative scales such as the Maslach burnout inventory and the five facets of mindfulness questionnaire; evaluating behaviours such as observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judging of inner experience, and non-reactivity to inner experience. By bringing together the physicians’ perspective and her own mindfulness understanding, she seeks to help inform how mindfulness can be integrated to support physician’s individual mental health, and the potential broader systemic impact of mindfulness within healthcare. Elli recognizes that,
“Mental health and well-being is a call in our society right now, across many sectors. We can use mindfulness to build supportive communities, because how often are we surrounded by people, yet still feel isolated?”
The constant need to focus, produce results, deal with masses of emails, and participate in challenging conversations are a daily part of a graduate student’s life, Elli’s included. Even with all these known stressors, burn-out is viewed as a serious faux pas. Yet, how many of us feel it? In her graduate work, Elli not only conducts research on mindfulness, but tries to apply it to take care of herself. While stress and anxiety are inevitable in grad school, it is important to realize you are not alone in it. The key is foreach of us as graduate students is to find a path towards well-being by having compassion and kindness towards ourselves and others. As Elli puts it, “when we take care of ourselves, we take care of others; and when we take care of others, we take care of ourselves”. She recommends students acknowledge the need to slow down our pace of life throughout the day and give ourselves a proper break from work.
Finding others that are also kind and compassionate can help build a community of support, such as the community within the Mindful Moments drop-in program at UofT. Mindfulness practice is a lot like physical fitness, we need to discover what works best for us as individuals, whether that be mindful walking, eating or sitting. What is gained in exchange, is a beautiful mind-ful me to we.
Just a mindful minute!
What is mindfulness?
An All-Parlimentary report1 put out by the UK government in 2015 defines mindfulness as the ability to “pay attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness”. This skillset can bring about a greater sense of personal well-being and can be developed by practicing bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. The ability to focus on the thoughts and sensations in the present (rather than replaying the past or worrying about the future) is the foundation of many mindfulness-based therapies. Let’s try a simple breathing exercise that takes only a few minutes.
Focused Attention Practice: Finding your Anchor
- Set the intention to take a break from your thoughts/worries about the future or past for the next 5-10 breaths while sitting, standing or walking.
- To help focus your attention select an anchor, like your breath or a bird if you are sitting outside. One way to do this, is to think ‘in’ when you breath in and ‘out’ when you breath out.
- Have an attitude to be kind and curious towards yourself. Your mind will naturally wander when you try this, so the mindful moment is simply to notice when the mind wanders and then the skill building is to bring it back to the anchor of the breath (or whatever anchor you have chosen). Continue to bring the mind back as often as you can, being kind to yourself each time.
Even a short mindfulness moment is an opportunity to collect some important data about our internal states. This data can help inform how we interact with ourselves and others throughout our day. Important tip: remember there is no “right” or “wrong” answer to any of these questions, just an opportunity to collect some data to have greater understanding of yourself
- During your mindful moment was your mind busy or calm?
- Did you notice when your mind wandered or did it just run away?
- If you noticed your mind wandering, were you able to bring it back to your anchor?
- Did you notice yourself judging how “well” you practiced mindfulness? Or were you able to be kind and curious towards yourself? How might these different attitudes towards yourself impact you outside of a mindfulness practice?
- Hyland T. Mindful nation UK–report by the mindfulness all-party parliamentary group (MAPPG).