The What & How of Mindfulness
Mindfulness has become one of the most common buzzwords when it comes to mental wellness. You’ve probably seen the word pop in dozens of contexts, from meditation practices to mindful breathing and eating to phone apps promising relaxation. Maybe you’re someone that already practices mindfulness regularly - if so, recognizing the “what” and “how” of being mindful might be more geared towards assessing the ways you currently practice. For those less familiar with what it actually means to practice mindfulness can benefit from the “what” and “how” skills as instructions on how to actually be mindful.
When we discuss the “what” and “how” of mindfulness, we’re referring specifically to skills developed by Marsha Linehan, the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Traditional DBT training consists of four modules: emotion regulation, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and mindfulness. “What” and “how” skills, of course, are drawn primarily from mindfulness. In DBT, mindfulness is the practice of being fully and non-judgmentally aware of your own thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. Some may describe it as a type of living with “eyes fully open” or “being fully present in the moment”. Many core concepts of mindfulness date back thousands of years, drawing from valuable skills and traditions found in various religious traditions. While mindfulness may look like what we typically of think of when it comes to meditation (i.e. sitting crossed legged in the grass with eyes and mouth shut), mindfulness can occur in any moment of our lives. Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and mindfulness expert, talks often in his novel The Miracle of Mindfulness about his practice of mindfully washing the dishes!
To start to comprehend how to turn our everyday into mindful experiences, let’s dive right into the “what” and “how” of the situation:
“What” is mindfulness?
“What” skills are used to describe the actual actions you should take while practicing mindfulness. They are divided into three steps: observe, describe, and practice.
Focus on the world around you. A great way to observe is to start with each of your five senses: What do you see? Are there any smells around you that you notice? Can you feel a breeze or a texture on your hands? Do you taste anything on your tongue? What sounds do you hear, even if you only hear the sound of your own breath? Don’t try to evaluate what you are observing. Only keep yourself keyed into identifying what is happening in the moment around you. Difficult thoughts may come up for you, whether they are painful or just distracting. Acknowledge those thoughts and let them pass by you. Imagine your thoughts and feelings like leaves on a stream – you can see where they are, where they came from, and you can allow them to gently flow past you.
Once you are observing what’s around you, you can start to place words to your experience. Again, don’t try to evaluate or make judgments about what’s happening around you. Simply take time to describe what you are observing as if talking from an objective perspective. You may choose to imagine yourself as the author of your own story: go into great detail on what you see and experience around you. Don’t just think to yourself that you see grass – What color exactly is the grass? Is the grass still or is it moving in the breeze? Do you see any small critters crawling through it? Describing is also a step where you may choose to label your reactions and emotions, without criticizing yourself or others. This may sound like: “I notice that I’m getting frustrated”, “I feel sad at this moment”, “Being in this place reminds me of happy memories”. This is not about negatively evaluating yourself – simply stating what is factual.
Place yourself entirely in the moment by fully involving yourself with what you are doing. Think back to the example of washing dishes – put your entire focus into washing dishes. Don’t plan out what you’re going to eat for dinner or what errands you need to run tomorrow. Don’t allow yourself to go onto autopilot and let the time you’re doing the dishes slip past you. Notice each movement of your hands. Key into your five senses as you do the dishes. Look for what feels different over time. Remind yourself that you are here and alive in this moment. This can be especially important in times of distress where we can get swept up in catastrophizing thoughts of the future. Let the current moment be your grounding point.
“How” do I practice it?
The “how” skills speak to the ways in which you should be practicing mindfulness. They are skills that are relevant across the board, no matter which “what” skill you may be engaging with. They include practicing one-mindfully, non-judgmentally, and effectively.
Emphasis on the word “one”. Only take on one task at a time. In a go-go-go world, we have put a lot of value in multitasking and jumping quickly from one thing to the next. We are most successful when all our attention is focused on one thing. If you’re eating, eat. If you’re walking, just walk. You cannot be mindful if you are doing two or more things at once. You lose opportunities to be mindful when you are scrolling through your phone while taking the bus or waiting in line. If being one-minded becomes difficult, check back in with your “what” skills. Find strategies that keep you engaged, like running through each of your senses.
As mentioned above, evaluating our circumstances does not help us in being mindful. It is fully possible to observe, describe, and participate without any judgments towards ourselves, others, or our situations. It is normal and valid to feel a variety of emotions while being mindful; where the problem lies is when we place value onto those emotions. For example, mindful observation and description may sound like this: “I notice myself feeling lonely because no one else has arrived yet”. A judgmental version of this may sound like: “This situation is awful because I’m all alone. Feeling lonely is a bad emotion.” Notice in that last statement the evaluation of an emotion as “bad”. Non-judgment extends to both “positive” and “negative” emotions. No emotion is bad nor good – they are all normal signals of our needs that deserve to be named. By avoiding judgment, we encourage ourselves to look at a situation more objectively, which helps us make effective decisions.
It can be as simple as it sounds: do what works. Don’t try to wrestle with what is “right/wrong” or what is “fair/unfair” in a given situation. When we focus on rightness and fairness – especially when distressed, we are liable to get caught up in our own frustrations rather than move towards a solution. Take for example a scenario where you are circling through a mall parking lot looking for a spot. You see the perfect opportunity as someone is pulling out of a spot close to the entrance, so you wait behind them to take the spot. However, as soon as the previously parked car pulls out, someone swoops in from the other side to claim it. Now, you can certainly get upset and curse them out, but that’s not going to park your car for you. Effectiveness ties in well with the DBT skill of Radical Acceptance - you don’t have to approve of the situation, but you can accept that this is what happened. When you are practicing mindfulness, you may be faced with many thoughts that anger or frustrate you. Name those frustrations and seek out not what’s fair or right, but what is most effective for you in that moment.
Beyond these two sets of skills, a critical thing to remember when practicing mindfulness is that it’s a muscle you build up. It’s okay if you can’t sit down and be perfectly in the moment the first time you try to meditate. You may even benefit from starting off small – using shorter moments and briefer exercises to work up your mindfulness skills. Regardless of how you do it, mindfulness exercises are a great way to key in with ourselves and regulate our emotions.
More mindfulness resources
The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook by McKay, Wood, & Brantley
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
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