Mindfulness, Part 1: Am I Breathing?


In September I spent a very awesome few days in Toronto for NACAC, the National Association for College Admissions Counselors Conference (say that five times fast).

This is where college admissions reps, high school counselors and pretty much anyone else in the higher education field gathers for workshops, amazing speakers and really intense foos-hockey games.

The conference features, among other things, a TON of amazing sessions on every aspect of the college admissions process, and because I'm kind of a junkie for any sort of professional development experience I went to everything from Storytelling, College Application Essays and Self-Advocacy to The Value of a Gap Year (more on these in posts to come).

Intense Foos-Hockey Action at NACAC

Intense Foos-Hockey Action at NACAC

But the very best session I went to was called "Mindfulness and College Admissions." It was crazy good. Here’s the gist of it:

What is mindfulness?

It's being aware in the present moment, right here, right now. It's not about permanently clearing our mind of absolutely everything, which is impossible anyway, but about looking at all our experiences in a non-critical way.

How does it work?

The basic science of it goes something like this: on a brain scan, the amygdala is the part of our brain that lights up when we're stressed. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brains used to organize information. Get this: by practicing mindfulness we can build neural pathways between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex, so instead of freaking out when something happens we can respond consciously.

No, like, how does it actually work? Like, how do I do it?

Here’s a basic mindfulness exercise:

  1. Sit up straight in your chair.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Pay attention to your breath. See if you can notice the beginning, middle and end of each breath.
  4. Do this ten times.

For me, it boiled down to this: we get so wrapped up in doing in our lives. How much attention do we devote to just being?

What does this have to do with me?

There are two modes we operate in--both when doing work (like writing college essays) and in life. My question is: how can you bring a little more being (mindfulness) into your work?

Try this: next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious or overwhelmed, ask yourself, Am I breathing? If not, take a second to pause. Take a breath in, then breathe out slowly. Do it again if it feels good. Notice what you feel.

For those interested, here are some mindfulness resources courtesy of Frank Anderson, MD, who is not only a professor at the Univ. of Michigan, but a great friend:

  1. Dan Seigel is an MD who came to mindfulness by studying attachments in children. He has a great website and wrote The Mindful Brain.
  2. Shinzen Young has a great and cheap 12 CD set called The Science of Enlightenment.
  3. Adyashanti wrote a free ebook called The Way of Liberation (PDF download).
  4. The book Mindfulness in Plain English.
  5. The Insight Timer app and its social network of meditators and discussion groups.


Written by Ethan Sawyer – In addition to being the College Essay Guy, Ethan is a writer, teacher, speaker, and voice actor. He has worked at Elite since 2003 is also the coordinator for the Elite Community Scholars Program, a program very close to his heart. You can email him at ethan.sawyer@eliteprep.com. The views expressed in this blog post are Ethan's and don't necessarily reflect those of Elite Educational Institute.

Posted on November 12, 2013 and filed under Resources.