To begin exploring DBT Mindfulness skills, we start with the What Skills. Early in the process this may feel like, “What Skills?” – but with commitment to the practice, we can turn it into, “What Skills!” Taking a step back, let’s clarify that DBT Mindfulness Skills are broken into two categories, What Skills and How Skills. Dividing the whole into halves is very much in line with dialectical teachings – embracing two sides balancing each other out to achieve a middle ground practice. We can even view these two sides in terms of DBT’s central concepts of acceptance and change. From this perspective, we can see the What Skills (Observe, Describe, and Participate) as acceptance-based, and the How Skills (Non-judgmentally, One-Mindfully, and Effectively) as change-based.
Observe is an immensely important mindfulness skill. It is the skill that sets us up for success – granting us the power of being objective about our thoughts. When we observe our mind, from the perspective of an overseer, we are able to see that there is a difference between our thoughts and ourselves. In other words, we are not our thoughts, and we need not let our thoughts dictate our mindset. As an observer, we begin to understand that thoughts come and go. By doing this, we begin to have the power of choosing where to place our attention. Our thoughts become clouds that float by, waves that roll along the sea, or trains that enter and leave the station. Observation of mind in this way allows us to consider our mind between our thoughts – a quieter place in which we can acknowledge a newfound ability to be fully present in the moment, in the now! When we’re not observant, we tend to feel beholden to whatever thought pops up at any given moment. As an observer, we see the transient nature of thoughts and power of attention is rightfully ours once again. Observing thoughts without attachment teaches us powerful lessons about our ability to let go of that which does not serve us well. In addition to our thoughts, we can observe our physical presence, and by doing this we focus attention away from thoughts, toward the body. Mindfulness practice is anchored on observing our breathing – noticing the physical sensations of inhaling and exhaling. As we do this, we direct our minds away from unsolicited thoughts. Checking in with our breathing consciously connects mind and body, which is significantly different that merely relying on all that our body is programmed to do unconsciously.
Along with observing our thoughts and physical presence, it’s helpful to describe our mindful experiences – the second What Skill. If a recurring thought causes tension, stress, shortness of breath, or another sensation, we note it as such. Describing what we observe helps us to process and better understand the thoughts and feelings that are present. We have the ability to be mindful of how certain thoughts make us feel without clinging to those thoughts or giving them any particular value. Instead, we simply name the thoughts and our experiences – to know them better – as we watch them come and go. It’s akin to watching cars come and go on the highway versus watching black, red, and white Fords, Toyotas and Volkswagens passing. See the difference in level of attention and comprehension?
The third step in Mindful What Skills is to participate. Simply stated, participating is implementing the practice of these skills. It’s that act of choosing to observe your breathing and your thoughts, to name them and experience them fully, and to practice non-attachment. To participate in mindfulness is to engage in the act of refocusing the mind, gently, upon realizing that the mind has wandering off, clinging to thoughts or resisting. Participation includes granting oneself permission to give and receive the gifts of mindfulness – providing space (and time) for the practice in one’s life.
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