Elisabeth Blaikie on Mindfulness and Meditation
“When we know that we are vessels of love, we treat our bodies with care, and respect.”
This week I’m excited to bring you an in depth interview with someone who I believe is one of the frontrunners in the mindfulness and meditation movement, Elisabeth Blaikie.
If you’ve been following Health Room for a while, you may remember a post I put up a few months ago on the Best Sites for Free Guided Meditations. The top website I featured in that post was FragrantHeart.com, which has more than 50 free guided meditations between 1-30 minutes in length, as well as a free five day course for beginners.
Along with her daughter and son in law, Elizabeth Blaikie is the mastermind behind the whole project. She’s the soothing voice you hear in the guided meditations; the person who helps you relax, destress, and gain that sense of calm and clarity to carry throughout your day.
I’ve used Fragrant Heart for many of my morning meditations over the past year or so, and Elizabeth is someone I really look up to. She’s created such a great resource for people to use, and it’s all available free of charge.
I reached out to Elisabeth with a few questions to see if she would like to share her story and her in depth experience of mindfulness and meditation with you guys, the Health Room readers. What I received back was a wealth of knowledge about the benefits of meditation, how to get started if you’re a beginner, ideas on healthy eating, and much much more.
So if you want to find out a little more about the lady behind Fragrant Heart, and what it really means to live mindfully, I encourage you to read on.
If you have any further questions for Elisabeth or myself, feel free to get in touch using the comments section below.
1. Hi Elisabeth, thank you for taking the time to do this interview! I wanted to start by asking you, when did you first become fascinated with mindfulness and meditation? Was it something that you experienced as a child?
Hi Luke. Thank you for asking me. I am happy to be doing this interview with you.
Yes, as a child I had a strong affinity with nature. One of my favourite pastimes was sitting in the big trees in my grandparents’ orchard. I felt a sense of oneness there, and stillness and silence pervaded everything in, and around me. I was a sensitive, curious child. My upbringing was very controlled, and the environment was not that supportive, or protective of my sensitivities. As a result I shut down.
As I grew into adulthood I carried the false belief that I was never good enough. I lived seeking love and approval outside of myself. By the time I was in my late thirties and my marriage was disintegrating, I realized that I was living a life far from any joy or happiness.
It was at that point I began the journey of self awareness. It’s so often a crisis that catapults us into making changes in ourselves, and our lives. And that’s when I became fascinated with meditation, because it seemed to me to be a path of liberating myself from my misery.
2. At what point did you begin to really pursue meditation as a lifelong practice, and when did you decide to start teaching others?
I began formal meditation practice in the early 90’s. Back then meditation was just beginning to impact mainstream consciousness in the West.
I did many courses in the Vipassana tradition. Vipassana is also known as Insight Meditation, or seeing what is in any moment. The courses are done in complete silence. I immersed myself in the practice here in New Zealand, and then went on to spend three months in India, in meditation retreats.
When I came back to New Zealand, I began teaching small groups. I taught what is called in the ancient Pali language, ‘Anapanasati’ which is mindfulness of breathing. When we observe the breath in sitting practice our minds become quieter. The one pointedness, which in this technique is the breath, helps to focus and concentrate the mind. It’s about letting thoughts come and go as they will. It’s about understanding that thoughts are arising all the time, being aware of the thoughts without judgment, and letting them drift by without holding onto them.
When we keep holding onto our thoughts we so often turn them into a story, which leads to a drama, which invariably leads to a melodrama. And then we invariably take our melodrama out into the world, and look about us for others to play it out with. And we’re doing that constantly without any awareness of how our thoughts are keeping us from being here now.
Watching the breath is a very common meditation technique. It will over time focus and concentrate the mind. When our minds quieten we feel a lot calmer, less stressed and not so conflicted by habitual thinking. We become mindful of our thoughts. We become aware of the emotions that get triggered by our thoughts. We notice the sensations in our body that give rise to the emotions.
This is a process of self- inquiry. And over time we notice we are not so distracted by habitual thoughts. We stop judging them as good or bad. They are simply thoughts, arising, falling, and passing away.
3. What gave you the inspiration to start Fragrant Heart and offer your huge collection free guided meditations to the masses?
My daughter Maggie, asked me if I would like to write and create audios for a meditation website. That was in 2008. Her invitation came at a time when I was looking at how I could offer meditation to more people in ways that were simple and easily accessible to anyone wanting to learn to meditate, or deepen their meditation practice.
Maggie, and her husband, Mike are the technical team behind Fragrant Heart. Without their graphic design and programming skills, this website could not continue to reach so many people. They give a lot of their time in keeping the website up to date.
4. Although group meditation certainly has its place, in essence meditation is quite a personal, individual experience. What does meditation mean to you personally?
Meditation for me is being aware in this moment. If I am aware in this moment, I am not unconsciously caught in the past and the future. I am then mindful of what is right now.
For example, if I have to make a decision about something I can do so with greater clarity and discernment. Maybe I can go a little deeper and give another example of what it means to be aware in this moment.
Imagine that you are at a café with a friend. You want to listen to what she has to say but after a while your thoughts wander off, and you’re maybe thinking about what phone messages you have, or what you have to do after you leave the café. You’ve checked out, and are no longer present. After a few seconds or longer, you return to listening to your friend, but you find that you have missed the thread of the conversation. You may even have to ask her to repeat what she just said.
Before this happens, before you even start to chat, you could do these simple mindful actions to help you stay present. You can come back to the present moment at anytime by paying attention to something as simple as just being mindful of how you are seated.
Are your feet flat on the floor, so that you are feeling grounded?
Can you feel your seat on the seat, so that you feel embraced by the solidness underneath you?
Can you feel your back against the back of the chair, so that you know you are supported?
Are you aware of the in breath and the out breath that anchors you in the present?
Can you breathe into your belly so that your breath is deep, and you are breathing fully and freely?
Just by doing those simple actions which only take a few seconds, you become centred, grounded, and in your body. Then you can be fully present in the moment. You can be present with your friend, so as you and your friend chat, you notice you are listening attentively, and when you talk, you notice too that your words flow easily. You haven’t been interrupting, or rushing ahead in your thoughts as to what you are going to say next.
But then you may ask, what if your friend says something to you that you don’t like? What if she says something that feels like an attack on you?
If that happens, you can remain anchored, and centred by breathing into your belly. If you can stay consciously aware of the breath, and breathe into any strong sensations that may arise in your body, you will stay present, here and now, and wait before you respond. You could then calmly ask your friend what she meant by that comment so that you are clear about her remark and intentions.
If however, you become destabilized by a perceived attack on you, what happens is that your breath immediately changes. It becomes shallow, or you may suspend it altogether. There will be accompanying sensations in your body that you find unpleasant. You may react by withdrawing, or become angry and aggressive. You will have lost the present moment because you are caught by something similar that may have happened to you in the past, or that you fear in the future that, you are bringing to the present.
A formal sitting meditation practice that is ongoing, gives us the opportunity to take what is happening in each moment into our everyday lives, so that we live mindfully, present in whatever is happening, so that we remain centred and balanced even if we are confronted by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, as Shakespeare once wrote.
5. There is an ever growing list of scientific studies that show the health benefits of regular mediation. What are some of the main benefits that you have noticed, in yourself and perhaps people you have worked with?
I see that science, especially research in the field of neuroscience, is showing what the ancients knew, what they taught, and what they have passed on for thousands of years, and that is, that meditation gives us the inner space to remain peaceful, calm and happy no matter what the external circumstances.
If we are peaceful, calm and happy our immune system will be strong, and we experience greater vitality, health and wellbeing. I have witnessed people who are facing life threatening diseases find that they are much calmer and accepting of their illness when they meditate.
People who come to meditation group practices also find that their stress levels drop dramatically. They feel happier and have better relationships with their friends, colleagues and family. What I notice in myself is deepening compassion for myself, and for others.
6. What general guidelines would you give to someone who is just starting out with meditation?
The first guideline I would give to anyone even before beginning a meditation practice is to ask themselves why they want to meditate. If a person is clear about their intentions for meditating they will stay with their practice. I have met so many people who began meditation practice and then gave up, feeling somehow that meditation didn’t work for them.
If you want to learn to meditate, give yourself the time and space to do that. Find a place in your home, even if it is only a corner in a room, and make that your space for sitting practice. If you do that, after a while you will find that as soon as you sit down your body/mind will relax. Your body/mind knows that this is where you experience stillness and silence in present moment awareness.
Other guidelines would be to be comfortable in your sitting practice whether on a chair, or a cushion. Sit with dignity in your chosen posture. Dignified sitting enables us to be with anything that is arising with greater kindness. Approach each sitting practice without expectation of anything other than what is in each moment.
On Fragrant Heart, there is an easy to follow Five Day Meditation Course, that guides you in learning to meditate. At the end of five days you will be meditating for ten minutes. This is a free course.
Then you may like to experience a longer Five Week Course that is offered by my daughter, Anna. It is also an in depth course. It can be found on her meditation website Quiet Lotus.
7. Many people would like to form a regular meditation practice, but struggle with consistency. Are there any tips you would like to share that may help someone build a sustainable meditation habit?
Again a person needs to be clear about why they want to meditate. If we understand that meditation is an act of loving kindness to ourselves, that it is s a way of taking care of ourselves, then we can remain consistent with our practice.
And yes, at times there will be challenges. At times there will be great resistance to meditate. At times we will feel restless and bored in meditation practice. And that’s okay too. That’s all part of it, and not to berate ourselves, or beat ourselves up that we are not wanting to meditate. Be curious about that, be with the sensations of those feelings, be kind to yourself when there is resistance.
8. Do you have a favourite writer or teacher with regards to mindfulness and meditation?
The teacher I come back to again and again is Rumi, the mystic and poet. What he conveys to me is the essence of living in joy, and the invitation to open to the divine love that dwells within us.
9. Morning and evening routines are something that I have really been fascinated with lately. I was curious as to whether you have any set routines or practices to start or end the day? If so, how do they affect your day to day life?
Morning and evening meditation practices certainly ground us well in meditation. But not everyone can fit a morning, or an evening practice into their lives. Some people I know use their lunch break at work to meditate. Others take time throughout the day even if it is only for a few minutes to meditate.
Because of my lifestyle my practices are morning, throughout the day, and evening. Any meditation practice or routine, and the time that that takes place must be a personal choice. I want to make that clear because over the years I’ve been teaching, people have told me how guilty they feel when they are not always meditating at the same time each day. Then meditation just becomes another struggle in their lives, and the purpose of meditating is lost in a perceived time frame rather than in the practice itself.
The following simple practices can make a difference to anyone’s day. As you transition from the unconscious sleeping state to waking up, connect to the breath, just watching for a few seconds, breathing in and breathing out. If you can get into the routine of doing this every morning, you will find that you enter the world again peacefully.
I used to wake up and immediately there would be a rush of thoughts as to everything I had to do that day. And this is happening to all of us, so that by the time we even get out of bed and set a foot on the floor, we’re already grappling with the pressures of the day before we have properly woken up. Then after a few breaths set an intention for the day. This is a very grounding practice, and reduces stressful and anxious thoughts throughout the day.
On Fragrant Heart website there is an audio, video, and transcript which encapsulates what I’ve just said in, A Prayer to Start the Day.
If evening is the time for you to sit in formal meditation, you could add a loving kindness prayer at the end of your practice. It can help to close the day by reading, listening, and reflecting on A Prayer to End the Day. This prayer brings attention again to the breath. It conveys gratitude for what we have experienced throughout the day. It conveys compassion and kindness for ourselves and others. It will help you to rest and sleep peacefully without taking your day to bed with you.
10. I believe that there are many links between mindfulness and healthy eating. How do you feel a meditation practice can influence the food choices we make?
What I witness with meditation is we become mentally a lot ‘lighter’ in letting go the negative ruminations from the past, and the future. It’s heavy baggage that we’ve often been carrying for a long time. As that unfolds, we move in an organic way to modifying, or changing what we eat.
Foods that are heavily processed, that have been grown in depleted soils and sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, and animals that have been mass farmed in conditions that can only be described as inhumane, are no longer in resonance with us. What I see when this happens to us is a strong urge to eat fresh, organic produce.
We will not want to be poisoning our bodies. We will not be adding to the harmful and cruel ways in which animals are treated. We will make wiser choices, because with increasing awareness we will be mindful of what we are putting into our bodies. And that just doesn’t apply to the foods we eat, but to everything else we ingest and take into our bodies.
When we know that we are vessels of love, we treat our bodies with care, and respect.
11. What‘s next for Elisabeth Blaikie and Fragrant Heart?
Well, together our family combined our skills to get a little book published, which has 90 of the most shared Daily Meditations on social media. This little book is a day to day guide for anyone meditating. It can be purchased through Fragrant Heart.
Next, I want to create a series of audios that will focus on women’s and men’s health issues.
12. Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers before we wrap things up?
Yes, be kind to yourself. When you are kind to yourself, you will be kind to others. Loving kindness spreads outwards, and ripples around the world. When we know we are whole and complete just as we are, our fears of abandonment, shame, and betrayal, fall away.
Then we are at peace with ourselves. Then we will be at peace with others and our world.
Thank you Luke.
Thanks again to Elisabeth for taking the time to share her story and knowldege with us. I know that I learnt a lot from this interview, and I hope you, the reader, took something from it too.
If you want to connect with Elisabeth or check out her guided meditation course, head on over to Fragrant Heart.