The first skills learned in DBT skills training those of mindfulness. In DBT we actually refer to them as skills to “learn to take hold of our minds”. The skills taught in the modules that follow are based upon or require some facility with mindfulness, with being able to take hold or our minds, to be used effectively. To that end, we would like to offer a small primer on some short, simple and sweet mindfulness practices.
The essential goal of mindfulness is to increase one’s ability to take hold of the mind when it is ruminating on the past, worrying about the future or simply wandering, and intentionally re-focus it into the present moment. Mindfulness to the moment can be practiced in innumerable ways, by following the breath, listening to music, noticing the physical sensations of our feet touching the ground with each step, using any one or all of our five physical senses, and so on. The practice is to bring our minds back from list making, future projecting and past ruminating in concrete and observable ways. There is no goal other than this. We are not trying to get anywhere, analyze others and ourselves or figure anything out. We are simply practicing noticing what our minds are doing and learning to be in charge of our minds rather than allowing our minds to be in charge of us.
Mindfulness While Breathing: Let’s start with a very foundational practice, conscious breathing. Clearly we breathe every day without needing to be conscious of our breath. When using our breathing to practice focusing our mind we need, quite simply, to pay attention to all aspects of breathing. There is no “right” way to do this other than to bring our minds back to our breathing each time we notice it has wandered off to think about something else. Meditation often uses the breath to focus the mind.
You might begin with three deep, conscious breaths. Sitting quietly, in any way you like, or even lying down, just bring your mind to observing your breath. Inhale deeply and fully. Notice the feeling of the air moving through your nose. As the air descends into your lungs, follow it with your attention and notice how your chest rises and then your belly. As you exhale, as fully as possible, once again notice the sensation of air moving outward through your nasal passages. Notice as well how your belly flattens and your chest drops. Repeat this exercise for three full, deep breath cycles. As you gain greater control over your mind with this practice you may sometimes choose to change it to noticing all of the above while breathing normally or for longer periods of time.
Mindfulness While Listening to Music: Choose some music that is calming and soothing. I suggest it not have strong associations for you and probably not lyrics either. Your choice might include classical, new age or some other type of instrumental music. Once again, sit or lie down comfortably. Bring your mind to observing the music. Allow yourself to notice the small details, trying not to worry about whether or not you are right about a that particular note is being played by an oboe or a flute. Just notice the sounds, how they vibrate in the air and in your body.
When your mind begins to wander toward other thoughts such as whether you are right or wrong about certain “facts”, what you should be doing instead, what you should have said to your boss this morning when she snapped at you, and so on, gently bring your focus back to the music and accompanying sensations. Spend as much or as little time as you like on this. Three to five minutes, particularly at first, is just fine.
Mindfulness While Walking: This mindfulness exercise can be practiced any time at all for as short or as long a period of time as you like. You can do this while on a hike in the woods, while walking around the block, across the living room at home, or down the hall at work. Observe each step you take. Notice how your heel feels, then your arch, followed by your toes, as your foot touches the ground. Focus your mind on your hips and your legs as you move to the next step in your stride. Just notice your body as you move. As with the other mindfulness practices already discussed, when your mind wanders, and it inevitably will, gently bring it back to focus on each step you are taking.
This exercise might be most effective if it can be done with no interference from any others in your environment or, after your co-worker greets you in the hallway or your child asks you a question, for example, you can simply bring your mind back to each step.
Mindfulness While Observing Your Thoughts: This might sound like a contradiction in terms but it is not. The skill here is to observe your thoughts without getting attached to them. You might set a timer for the period of time you want to spend in this exercise, say five minutes to start. Once again, sit or lie quietly. Focus your mind on your thoughts. Simply observe them from as detached a perspective as you can manage.
When you notice that you have begun to worry, analyze, justify or in any way tell yourself a story or have a particular thought, step back from the mental activity and once again simply observe that the thought is present, allow it to be. Then notice how it will move off and make room for the next thought. One thought simply follows the other and no meaning is made, like clouds drifting across the sky.
Mindfulness While Using the Five Senses: This practice involves using any or all of your five physical senses (hearing, sight, taste, smell and touch) as points of focus while engaging in an experience. You can choose a very simple experience like peeling and eating an orange or a somewhat more complex one like taking a walk in the woods.
Just bring your mind into focus on the experience itself and, using words, either quietly in your mind or out loud if you prefer, describe the experience via the lens of you physical senses. You can choose to focus on one sense or any combination of the five senses. As with the other common mindfulness practices, when your mind wanders, just bring it back into focus on the sense or senses you have chosen.