Mindfulness is hyped up as a powerful way to make your life better. But many people try mindfulness exercises and get nothing out of them. You may be one of those people. For years, I meditated and did mindfulness exercises and noticed little to no benefit in my life. Meditation made me feel calm, but only if I remembered to do it every day. The calming effect would fade within hours.
One of the best things I did for myself in 2021 was undergoing a therapy program called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). This therapy program unlocked the benefits of mindfulness that were inaccessible to me for years. DBT teaches a powerful framework for mindfulness that anyone can use, even if meditating and mindfulness never worked for you before.
The best part is, the mindfulness skills DBT teaches are dead simple. Anyone can learn them and they are easy to explain… but they have the power to transform your entire life. They certainly transformed mine.
I’ve always been a highly emotional person. I didn’t mean to be, but it was out of my control. I read tons of self-help books and practiced what they taught, but nothing seemed to work. Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Attached, How to Win Friends and Influence People, you name it, I’ve read it. Even several therapists tried to help me with my out-of-control emotions and failed. At some points, I wondered if I should just give up on trying to change.
I’m glad I didn’t. These mindfulness skills are what finally did the trick. After mastering these mindfulness skills, everything clicked. All the stuff I’d read in books for years finally started working, all at once. I’ve become so much more mentally healthy in such a short amount of time that I sometimes have trouble recognizing myself.
Why am I working so hard to sell you on these skills instead of jumping right into explaining them?
Ordinarily, writers try to put the most impactful part of the article right in the front. That way people get value out of the article immediately and don’t need to read every word for the payoff. But these mindfulness skills only make sense in order, and they are ordered from least important to most important. You need to read the entire article to get the powerful payoff I’m promising. If you do so (and you practice what you’ve learned), you will see an immediate difference in your quality of life.
Ready? Let’s get started.
The “What” Skills
The first three skills are called the “what” skills. They are the three types of mindful states of mind. When we are being mindful, we are using one of these three types of mindfulness skills (but never more than one at the same time).
Observing is the skill most people practice when they meditate. You know the drill. Sit with your back straight. Notice any thoughts and sensations that arise. Allow them to come and go.
Luckily, you don’t have to meditate to practice this foundational mindfulness skill. You can practice it right now. If you’re sitting in your computer chair while reading this article, notice the sensation of pressure where your bottom meets the seat. If you’re laying in bed, notice the texture of the sheets you’re in contact with. Notice how your body feels.
This skill can be incredibly calming. If you’re upset, pausing to practice observing distances you from any overwhelming feelings you’re having.
I practice observing a lot when I’m having waves of intense emotion. Observing gives me some distance from painful negative emotions and brings me closer to positive joyful ones.
One unusual way I’ve found observing to be helpful is during conversations with bosses, clients, and with my partner. I observe what the other person is saying (with my ears) for several long moments before replying. This gives me a chance to process any embarrassment or frustration I may feel before speaking. Conversations go much more smoothly when you respond rather than react.
The describing skill is one people find easy to start practicing immediately. Observing can feel a bit directionless, but describing is concrete.
To describe is to put labels on your experiences. “This bed is soft.” “The sunlight is bright.” “This sandwich is cold and mushy.” Think of yourself as a reporter. You’re narrating a journalistic report on your experiences.
An easy way to practice describing is to journal about something. You can write down all your descriptive thoughts in your journal and see hard evidence that you’re practicing this skill.
Describing can also be a powerful aid in creating some distance from negative emotions. You can describe how your grief feels without getting lost in it. Describe can also help bring you closer to positive experiences. You can describe how elated you feel about your recent promotion.
As you will learn later in the article, describing is properly done in a nonjudgmental, or non-opinionated, way. Describing a person by calling them annoying is not a proper use of the describing skill. “That person is causing a feeling of annoyance in me” is a proper use of the describing skill. Read on to learn more.
The participation skill is about living life! Stop observing and describing and throw yourself into what you’re doing. If you’re eating, don’t observe the sensations of eating or describe your food to yourself. Enjoy your food! If you’re having sex, have sex! Take part in the flow of your life.
Observing and describing are useful skills, but we don’t want to spend our entire lives observing and describing. Unless you want to be an ascetic monk, you want to take part in life. The participation skill is the act of doing so.
Participating is best done one-mindfully, which you are about to learn.
The “How” Skills
The “how” skills are how you practice the “what” skills. While you are observing, describing, and participating, you do so in these three ways.
The how skills are where the real power of mindfulness comes into play. If you practice the “what” skills without the “how” skills, you won’t learn anything and you won’t get anywhere. Master these “how” skills and watch your life transform.
To be one-mindful is to give your entire focus to the task at hand. If we’re playing with the kids, play with the kids. If we’re writing a report for work, write the report for work.
One-mindfulness doesn’t mean you can’t take your mind off something. If you choose to play Fortnite to distract yourself from the pain of a recent breakup, one-mindfully play Fortnite. What you do with yourself doesn’t matter, as long as you are fully doing it one-mindfully.
One-mindfulness is not something I’ve ever struggled with. But many people struggle with one-mindfulness. You are probably one of them. You check your phone you’re they’re driving and you try to make plans with your spouse while playing with your kids.
The costs of distraction are steep. You end up doing nothing well and reaping no emotional rewards. You don’t send a thoughtful reply to the text message and you turn into a dangerous driver. You don’t notice your children’s beautiful smiles and your spouse gets irritated when you don’t understand their questions. Life is best enjoyed fully.
This is my favorite skill of all. It’s the one skill that’s made the biggest difference in my life. It’s also the hardest to master.
To think and speak nonjudgmentally is to refrain from making judgments of any kind. So you would avoid thinking “Sally is a bitch for hanging up on me…” but you would also avoid thinking “Hanging up on me was a bitchy thing for Sally to do!” You would even avoid thinking things like “This sandwich is disappointing” and “That driver who just cut me off is an asshole.”
Another way of thinking about this is non-opinionated. Opinionated thoughts are often judgments. But not always! The thought “I like ice cream” is an opinion but not a judgment. “Ice cream is awesome” is an opinion and a judgment.
The reason we avoid thoughts like these is they increase suffering. They increase our level of unhappiness and cause us to say and do things that are more likely to cause conflict and suffering.
Instead, we can learn to see the world in an objective, nonjudgmental way.
- “Sally hung up on me and it hurt my feelings.”
- “This sandwich is cold and mushy and I was really hoping for a hot sandwich. I’m disappointed.”
- “That driver who just cut me off could have caused an accident! That scared me! I really don’t like it when people don’t drive safely.”
Many people offer the relationship advice “Don’t judge the person, judge their actions.” An example: “Don’t call your partner selfish, but tell them their actions are selfish.” But these are both the same thing: a judgment. Judging a person’s actions are very close to judging the person themselves — and as you may already know, the person you’re speaking to will get offended either way!
The best thing to do is phrase your complaint in a nonjudgmental way: “When you refused to drive me to my soccer game, I felt unsupported and unloved. I want you to support me when I’m trying to accomplish something challenging for me.”
People also find this skill difficult to practice when it comes to opinions about morality. “The 45th President of the US was a terrible person” is a judgmental thought — even if it’s true — because the phrase “terrible person” renders a judgment. You can switch this around to the phrase “The 45th President of the US caused a lot of suffering.” This is an objective statement about a true fact, not an opinion or a judgment.
This skill is what ties the previous five skills together. Acting effectively is the skill of choosing to act in a way that is most likely to get you what you want.
First, you decide what your goal is for a situation, and then you take effective action to make that goal a reality. You decide when and how to use the previous five skills based on what is most effective at this moment.
Effectively is another skill many people have challenges understanding and accepting. But if you master this skill, you become the master of your life.
This example is a bit personal, but they say the best examples are real and vulnerable ones, right?
I’m learning lessons about effectiveness in my relationship. My partner has a lower tolerance for conversations about our relationship than I do. We both have the goal of resolving the conflict, but his patience for these conversations runs out more quickly than mine does. He can only have these kinds of conversations with me for fifteen minutes before he wants a break.
Before I learned effective action, I would protest when he said he was done. “But I’m not done! That isn’t enough time! This isn’t resolved for me!” He was already at his limit, though, so my protests would only cause big and ugly fights. Since my goal is to resolve conflict, not cause it, my protests were not effective.
Now that I understand effective action, I stop the conversation when he is done (mostly… I still have a lot to learn 😬). Am I happy about this? No. Do I still have more I want to say? Yes. But continuing past his boundary would only cause another ugly fight. It would be ineffective.
The reason the previous five skills are so important is that they are effective. It is effective to stop and observe your experiences when you’re highly emotional because it achieves your goal of reducing your suffering. It’s effective to one-mindfully participate in shared experiences with loved ones because it increases your joy. It’s effective to speak nonjudgmentally because it reduces suffering. You get the picture.
Life is more peaceful when you accept reality as it is.
These mindfulness skills are easy to explain and incredibly hard to put into practice. It took me eight months of rigorous practice with these skills before I started to see any reward. But when the rewards started coming, they started coming all at once!
I highly encourage you to start journaling every day and practicing these skills. It may take a couple of weeks or months, but sooner or later, you will get a huge payoff.
In review, the skills are:
- Observing your experiences from a neutral frame of mind
- Describing them using simple impersonal adjectives
- Participating fully, throwing yourself into life
- Doing so in a one-mindful fully focused way
- Keeping your thoughts and actions nonjudgmental and non-opinionated
- Choosing which skill to use based on what is most effective at that moment
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