Learning Mindfulness

woman with flowers on head

Earlier in November, I was reflecting on how a breathing exercise went with Sam, a clinical psychologist at MIT Medical and the person who suggested trying the exercise.

During what is likely my (and as I imagine, many others') most difficult semester so far, my conversations with Sam created a space that was crucial for identifying and managing my sometimes debilitating negative feelings-- a sense of destabilization in a still-fresh virtual reality; burnout from not taking a proper break between activities in months; and finally, an anxiousness that took the form of both a pointed worry about the uncertainty of the future and a vaguer, more pervasive fear that this tiredness and confusion I am feeling right now, I would continue to feel indefinitely.

The practice proposed by Sam was called Box Breathing and is meant to calm oneself by slowing their breaths. I was familiar enough with breathing exercises and their benefits in moments of high stress in high school, employing the technique mainly before music auditions, but I had never properly recognized their difficulty until I revisited the practice again with Sam.

Physically, the exercise is simple enough: it consists of continuously inhaling for four counts, holding for four, exhaling for four, and holding for four again. The real challenge, which I didn't properly address previously, was the mental component. For the duration of the exercise, one's thoughts should be completely directed towards the act of breathing-- namely, taking steady, equal-sized inhales and exhales through counting.

Apparently, I am very bad at this!


  1. Singing
  2. Speaking concisely
  3. Catching any flying object (like, any)
  4. Breathing, just breathing

-- to add to the list. It was incredible seeing how poorly I was able to focus solely on my breath, having every few counts interrupted by a stubborn incoming thought.

Sam and I discussed how the struggle to moderate these thoughts is the result of unpleasant emotions like fear and anxiousness bringing our attention inwards. Instead of focusing on taking in our immediate physical environment and the beings that inhabit it, we stay fixated on the narratives and scenarios inside of us.

This increases our suffering in a few ways. Firstly, we are taken out of the world we are in right now and placed in an abstract and often more pessimistic space. Rumination on our problems convinces us that we are making progress towards fixing them -- and sometimes, taking time to think through an issue certainly helps -- but it often more crucially prevents us from accepting these difficulties.

Dang it, Grace! How do I bring my attention outwards and not think too much, which I apparently am doing?

Great question, me! A unifying concept that helped guide me was mindfulness, which I interpret to be a moment-to-moment awareness of your present-- the colors, textures, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that comprise the now we experience. (With that being said, there are varying and sometimes conflicting interpretations of the word, perhaps due to being misused and misconstrued in its mainstream rise, according to this Times article.)

While there exists many practices for cultivating a more complete and non-judgmental awareness, I found that focusing on listening was especially helpful for me. Listening poorly wasn't necessarily the source of my problems, but listening better became a potential solution to many of them.

Most of the time, listening probably doesn't sit at the top of our things-to-improve-on list. We're pretty satisfied with our ability to understand what our friends and co-workers are saying, or discern cool sounds in the music we listen to, and we trust that when we need our ears to save our lives, perhaps in the case of a ringing fire alarm or incoming traffic, they can probably do so.

However, it truly surprised me (and it may surprise you as well!) not only how much I could improve at listening in certain cases, but also how many ways there are to do so. Wonderfully enough, in the process of learning to become a better listener, I also started feeling so much better overall: less inwardness, more acceptance and awareness that made daily pandemic life more enjoyable and that equipped me to become a better friend, student, and mentee.

With that said, I would like to share some of the different forms that listening can take which you may find helpful to incorporate into your own life! These categories were made primarily to sort my own experiences out and may be more or less arbitrary (and certainly not exhaustive nor exclusive): 

- Active listening

Like mindfulness, active listening may come as a familiar term in our personal and professional settings. Generally, it refers to listening beyond comprehension: there is an additional element of *intent* to dedicate your full attention to the speaker in order to respond in the best way possible. Sam is very good at this!

This short podcast episode provided some great points! The most important tip for me was to not generate a response to someone as they are speaking-- a habit I am guilty of either out of excitement at what the other person brought up, or an anxiousness to make sure that I say something interesting/compelling/not-socially-awkward back. Quieting your thoughts when listening and reserving the filtering and response generation for after they speak should create some pauses in the conversation. While uncomfortable initially, allowing for silence after someone speaks is okay and can be very good! I found that my responses were often more thoughtful and I was able to recall more of what the other person said later on, which I imagine when applied regularly leads to more constructive conversations, a better understanding of the people in your life, and more supportive relationships. Yay:)

- Listening to your body

Dealing with physical fatigue was something I constantly struggled with this semester. The difficulty lay not in the tiredness itself, but in the feeling that the tiredness was unwarranted given how much I had slept (at times, it was a LOT more than what I deemed my 'usual'), or how much work I had done that day. For the first few weeks, I would get angry at myself -- and admittedly, a bit scared -- fighting my aching muscles and droopy eyelids that seemed to come out of nowhere. 

Adopting this critical mentality that one's fatigue needs to be justified was not only largely ineffective in resisting my tiredness, but it also lowered my confidence due to the perception that I was unable to complete a 'normal' amount of tasks. 

Being forgiving and receptive of one's body turns out to be the best thing to do. I learned to just sleep -- no matter how much I had slept the previous night, no matter how early in the night it was, and no matter how much or little energy I felt like I had expended. The fatigue came in waves for me, and I learned to accept those days as days where my body would underperform, the same way we must learn to accept the rest of our reality.

- Sensing (read: listening exercises)

These are fun! Here are two simple ones!

  • Sound channels: I love doing this when I feel my thoughts racing and taking me out of the space around me. Closing your eyes, use your ears to scan for all the channels of sounds around you, and then go through each sound one by one and try to isolate them. For example, sitting in my room I hear:

- a constant, ocean-like whooshing of traffic

- my own breathing

- planks of wood being dropped at the construction site

- an underlying "buzz" (the underlying buzz??)

- birds!

I also really enjoyed exploring the sounds at the Caffè Nero near my apartment:

- rustle of bakery packaging

- German family conversing over a table

- ting of spoons against coffee cups

- 'Glamour Profession' by Steely Dan (a bop)

- hum of radiator behind the walls

  • Enjoying mundane sounds: What it sounds like. I usually find these everyday sounds when taking a mental pause in the middle of an action. Some favorites include the crackling of a candle, running water over a pile of dishes, the clicking of gears on a bike, and the construction out my window (jk).

Despite the simplicity of these concepts, it took me much of this semester to even begin internalizing and acting on them. Incredibly enough, they have made all the difference.