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Section 3 - Mindfulness Observe, Describe and Participate

Learning Center - DBT Therapy Training

Mindfulness Skills Observe, Describe and Participate

Mindfulness seems to be a simple concept, but actually practicing it takes a lot of work. It's hard to stop what we've been doing since we were children. Take your time, do the exercises and practice the skills we describe in this section, and before long you'll find yourself better able to separate facts from your thoughts about them.

There are three components of Mindfulness: Observe, Describe and Participate.  Observe is the ability to experience life without allowing your judgments to cloud the experience.  Describe are the skills necessary to consciously put words to the experience.  Participate is the ultimate goal, that is to actively and consciously participate in whatever is happening in life, not just see or understand it.  This article describes these three What skills of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is key to our success with DBT, and with recovery.  At the same time it's a very hard skill to master; one that takes a great deal of practice and patience.  When we were kids, learning to tie our shoes was difficult, challenging and hard to remember.  Personally, I can recall saying a little poem to remember what I was supposed to do.   Now, decades later, I don't even look.  I grab the laces and just tie.  In fact, I can't remember that little poem.  When I teach my son how to tie his laces, I'll have to really stop and think just how I do it.  It's that automatic.  Learning mindfulness is similar, though even more challenging.  It's trickier for two reasons:

  • I'm older -- so it's that much harder to learn anything.
  • I have to UNLEARN first -- Over many years, I've developed my own thinking style.  I have to consciously stop that thinking, and replace it with mindfulness.

So what are these What skills?

There are three of them:

  • Observe — Here we work on seeing things as they are, without placing our judgments on them.  Look at things as they are, and experience them, free from our own thoughts and feelings about them.  They just are.  It's not a sad girl, it's a girl with tears streaming from her eyes, looking toward the ground.  Forget that it's about to rain, feel the cold wind blowing past your head, watch the dark gray clouds slowing moving in, see people taking out their umbrellas.  Smell the air.  What do you smell?  Use each of your five senses to experience the moment.
  • Describe — Put the experience in words.  Make a conscious effort to articulate what you're experiencing.  Think, "I'm feeling uncomfortable", "I bet she's mad at me", "My stomach is tense", "It's cold", "I started wondering if I left the iron on", "I feel my shoes on my feet".  Describe what you're experiencing with each your senses.  Also describe the thoughts & judgments running through your head.
  • Participate — This means to consciously participate.  As drinkers, gamblers, shoppers, over-eaters, drug abusers, we know at times we are just on autopilot.  We allow our unconscious mind to take over and do whatever it feels like doing.  The first step in taking control back is to keep ourselves aware of what we're doing.  Focus on each and every thing that you do.  When you are having dinner, eat!  Focus on the flavors, the texture, the scents, the process of eating and clear your mind of everything else.  When you are taking a bath or shower, concentrate on what you're doing - hear the water, feel the warmth of the water trickling down the side of your face, smell the shampoo and soaps.  Throw yourself entirely into that experience.  When thoughts about other things, past or future, worries, concerns, acknowledge them, then let them go.  Do everything you do with your complete focus and attention, the moment you're doing them.

That's it.  It may seem intuitive, or even overly simplistic.  But, trust me, it's isn't really that easy to master.  Try it right now.


Are you seated behind a computer?  What do you feel, right now, with each of your senses?  What do you see?  Not these words, but in the periphery.  Are you in an airport with busy travelers rushing bye, in your living room with the TV in the background?  What colors do you see, patterns?  What do you smell?  Stale cigarette smoke?  Is there a cup of coffee next to your keyboard?  Can you smell anything else?  What do you feel?  Your hand on the mouse or the keyboard, your butt and back against the chair?  Can you feel your shoes, your shirt, jewelry?  Listen to the sounds around you.  Are there birds?  Traffic?  Water rushing through pipes?  Children playing in the background?  Can you hear music?  What do you taste?  Are you snacking or drinking now?  Is there a pleasant taste in your mouth or do you have the sudden urge to drink some water?  What are you physically sensing?  Are you hungry, hot, cold, cozy?

Practice Assignments

Over the next few days, practice these skills.  Try this - keep a pencil and small notepad handy and set an alarm on your watch.  Whenever the alarm goes off, briefly stop what you're doing and take out the notepad.  Go through your five senses and jot down exactly what you're experiencing.  Then write down each thought that comes into your mind.  When you're finished, go back through and cross out any judgments you may have made (good, bad, right wrong, positive, negative).

If you feel the urge to indulge in your addiction, take out that notepad and jot down what you sense about yourself and your surroundings. Is your heart racing or calm? Are you warm or cold? Is it quiet or noisy? Feel your skin, is it clammy or dry? What has just happened that may have triggered your urge?  What thoughts are running through your head? Are you making judgments or experiencing things just as they are?

Try to catch yourself mindlessly doing something, and focus your attention on it; allow yourself to completely experience the moment.  For example, if you're reading a book and someone close to your (your spouse, child, partner, parent) says something to you, put down the book and look at them. Focus completely on the conversation at hand.  When you are done, go back to the book and focus completely on that. While you're reading, if your mind starts to drift and you remember about that bill you needed to pay or start worrying about another issue, acknowledge it and let it pass... get back to the book and put your entire attention into that book.

Another useful tool, if you're having difficulty ruminating over issues; you can't get those thoughts out of your mind.  Whenever you catch yourself thinking about something else, take out the notepad and jot it down.  Schedule an hour, perhaps half hour for yourself at a convenient time.  During that time, find a private place.  It could be in a park, your office, a quiet room, perhaps even a public library.  Go to your private place, set a timer to make sure you don't stick with it too long, take out the notebook and flip through all those ruminating thoughts you had the previous week and just ruminate over them.  Go into it completely, think about those worries, fears, concerns.  When your timer goes off, rip out those pages and toss them in the nearest trash can.  Then do your best to clear your mind and mindfully go about the rest of your day.

Try to practice at least one of these exercises each day during the coming week. It's hard for most people to do on a regular basis, and it's a valuable skill to have. Don't get frustrated with yourself if you're finding it challenging, just keep working on it. It will get easier over time.

As a useful reference, you may wish to check out the Mindfulness Cheat Sheet.

When you're ready to move on go to: Section 4 - Mindfulness 'How' Skills.


+3 #1 Dylan Timpson 2011-01-04 17:39
I have done a couple of these practices and I must say they work.

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