Mindfulness ‘What’ Skills

We talked yesterday in DBT skills group about the Mindfulness ‘What’ skills – Observe, Describe and Partipate.

Describing and Participating are somewhat easier to practice because they are more ‘practical’ in ways, I find.

When you describe something, you are being the opposite to judgemental. You are using objective descriptions to explain your experience, sticking to the facts. Though not easy in practice, the concept makes sense.

An example would be being mindful of and describing an object using the senses. We used satsumas in group – “It is orange. The skin is slightly speckled and textured. It has brown dots on it. It fits into my palm. It feels cold. The pith is white and makes patterns. It smells tangy. I notice my mouth starts to salivate” 

When you participate, you throw yourself fully into an experience. You become one with the experience and allow it to be the single focus of a moment. An example could be playing an instrument or doing a sport, or mindfully doing some colouring – intentionally paying attention to that one single activity or experience.

Observing on the other hand may sound easy; surely you just take notice of something, simple!? But actually, if you give it a go, it’s a lot harder than it may seem.

If you’re walking down a street and you hear a bird, automatically your brain registers it and thinks “That’s a bird tweeting“. The point of simply observing is that we are able to move away from this inner commentary. It is not the cognitive experience we are after but the sensory one.

Because the brain is constantly trying to make sense of experiences and sensory stimuli, thoughts and interpretations often start to get in the way of simply observing. Our brains want to label our sensory experiences and package them into boxes or analyse them to better understand them. This function is evolutionary; it has helped us to survive.

Practicing Mindfulness, however, is not an innate ability, and it requires practice. Mindfulness requires intentional awareness, and this is unique to us as humans.

We were asked to place our hand on the table and notice the sensations for a minute. We all found it incredibly challenging! In the moments I did manage to become one with the sensations of my hand on the table, my hand started no longer feeling like it was mine, and the thoughts came rushing back in. The more I tried not to do think, label and interpret, the harder it was to stay with the task. I kept slipping into describing. Or having judgements towards myself.

The thing to remember if that Mindfulness isn’t about the removal or blocking of thoughts. It’s okay if your mind takes you off on a tangent – that is the nature of how the mind works – but when it does, try and notice the fact that your attention has been captured by something unrelated to the task, and gently bring your focus back to simply observing. That is where the skill of mindfulness lies.

I’ve found that when I listen to music in this way, it completely revolutionises my experience of it. It’s not easy, but for me it’s the most powerful of the three What skills.


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