DBT Mindfulness What Skill Participate

Module Part 2: Core Mindfulness Skills – “What” Skill | Participate

Mindfulness “What” Skill

Dear Client first name​,

Please remember when reading through the lessons that have been adapted from Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Some of the practice exercises in the lessons are oriented toward DBT skills training (group therapy) settings. I have adapted them to individual use as much as possible and I just wanted to make you aware that not all the practice exercises are applicable to everyone.

A. Participating: What Is It?

Participating is entering wholly and with awareness into life itself, nonjudgmentally, in the present moment. Participating is the ultimate goal of mindfulness. Note to Leaders: Do not feel you have to go over all these points each time. Remember that you will be reviewing this skill multiple times and can review new points at later times.

B. Why Participate?

1. The Experience of “Flow” Is Associated with Participating

The state of “flow” is widely considered an optimal experience—incompatible with boredom, and associated with intense enjoyment and a sense of control. It is a critical characteristic of “peak experience.”

Example: Being fully immersed in an activity like skiing or running can give one a sense of maximum well-being or a sense of ecstasy.

2. Participating Is Incompatible with Self-Consciousness

When we “become what we are doing,” there is a merging of action and awareness, so that we are no longer aware of ourselves as separate from what we are doing.

3. Participating Is Incompatible with a Sense of Exclusion

When we become what we are doing, we are no longer aware of ourselves as separate from what we are doing or from our environment. We lose awareness of the separation of ourselves and everything else. We forget ourselves, and thus forget ourselves as outside or inside.

4. In Participating, Effort Seems Effortless

In a state of flow, there is an effortlessness of action. We are absorbed in what we are doing, in what is happening. We are aware of a sense of movement, speed, and ease. Life and what we are doing become like a dance. Even great effort seems effortless.

5. In Participating, We Are Present to Our Own Lives and the Lives of Loved Ones

When we become what we are doing, we do not miss our own lives. We also do not miss being part of the lives of others. Compassion and love, toward ourselves or others, requires our presence.

6. Participating Is a Fundamental Characteristic of Skillful Behavior

To be experts in any task, we must practice and “overlearn” that task. Expertise in any activity requires mindful awareness of the task without the distractions of thinking about ourselves, others, or even the task. A person who thinks about running while running loses the race. In great acting, an actor becomes the role. A great dancer becomes the dance. In the Olympics, gymnasts let their bodies do the work.

C. Participating: What to Do

Here are some suggestions for you:

  • Enter into present experiences. Immerse yourself in the present.
  • Throw yourself completely into activities.
  • Don’t separate yourself from ongoing events and interactions. Engage completely; immerse yourself in the moment; become involved; join with; opt in.
  • Become one with what you are doing.
  • Let go of self-consciousness by acting opposite to it. Abandon yourself to the moment. Concentrate in the moment such that you and what you are doing become “merged” as if there is only now, only what you are doing.
  • Act intuitively from wise mind, doing just what is needed in each situation.
  • Go with the flow; respond with spontaneity.


Observing and describing are like “stop, look, and listen.” Participating is like walking across the street.


If it is raining, just play in the puddles like a kid would; enjoy the rain.

D. Choosing When to Observe, When to Describe, and When to Participate

1. Observing and Describing When Something Is New or Difficult

Step back from participating in an activity when you are making errors or don’t know how to do something. When you are participating, you are very aware, but you are not actively focusing your attention on yourself and analyzing the details of what you are doing. At times you must step back, slow down, and pay attention to what you are doing. In particular, when you notice there’s a problem in your life, you need to step back and actively observe and describe both the problem situation and your responses to it. You can then figure out what’s wrong, learn the skills needed to solve the problem, and return to participating.


You can only play the piano really well if you participate in the act of piano playing—that is, if you play fully. But if you’ve learned an incorrect technique, you may want to learn the correct version. To do so, you have to step back and observe and describe what you’re doing wrong, then practice the correct way over and over until you’re skilled. You can then stop observing and participate again.


Sometimes we need to step back from participating to understand and improve things. One example of participating (e.g., driving a car): When you switch cars to one with a different way of driving, or if you go to England and have to drive on the left side of the road, you suddenly need to stop, observe, and describe. Can you share other examples of stepping back to participate?

2. Doing the Most Practice of the Most Difficult Skill

Think about the mindfulness skill you find the most difficult to do and do that one more often. Different people have trouble with different skills.” Give these illustrations:


Some people participate all the time, and that’s their problem. They don’t notice that they’re participating in a way that’s driving others crazy. Other people have a lot of trouble with participating, especially people who are shy, socially anxious, or afraid of failing. All they do is stay on the sidelines and observe. Still others have busy, analytical minds. They also stay back from living in the moment, but instead of just observing, they are analyzing, thinking, and ruminating about each event as it occurs. Life is like a running commentary on

the universe. Describing is in overdrive.


I need to stress how important it is to practice the skill that’s hardest or most needed for you and your life. Which “what” skill (observing, describing, participating) is your strength and which is your weakness. The one you find most needed is the one you should practice the most.


All three skills are vital. There is a strong interconnected relationship among the three mindfulness skills. When you are observing, observe; when you’re describing, describe; and when you’re participating, participate.

E. Participating Practice Exercises

My own personal practices for participation

  • Yoga (restorative and meditative)
  • Swimming Pool maintenance
  • Gardening (flowering and aromatic plants)
  • Reading and Writing
  • Cleaning and Organizing
  • Laughter

Laughing can have very positive effects on health and happiness. Take a moment right now and start laughing and continue for 2 minutes. (Do not worry if you feel resistance; it can be very difficult to laugh when others are not laughing or when you aren’t watching or listening to something funny.)

  • Walking

Walk outside for some minutes at a steady pace. Pay attention to the feeling of your feet hitting the ground, your leg muscles activating, your breathing and heart beat, and the feeling of movement through the space around you.

  • Backward Writing

Hold a pen or pencil in your nondominant hand, and then write the alphabet backward from Z to A. A variation is writing with your dominant hand. Think about your favorite positive memory by writing it down, using the hand they do not normally write with. Discuss what you observed about this experience with your therapist.

  • Origami

Get a simple set of origami instructions (the instructions for making a box are easy enough to follow). Get some flat pieces of paper, and follow the instructions through the steps. When the origami creations are complete, you can discuss a couple of things with your therapist. First, you can discuss your ability to stay mindful, noticing of being judgmental or nonjudgmental, and so on. Second, you can discuss how the piece of paper that started as a square or rectangle has now changed form (different function, shape, etc.).

  • Balance an Egg

This is an exercise adapted from a Chinese psychiatrist who visited Linehan’s clinic. Use a raw egg at room temperature. Clear a space on a table (don’t use a tablecloth). Hold the egg lightly with your fingers with the large end on the table, and then try to balance the egg in such a way that when you take your fingers away, the egg stays balanced on its end. Continue until you get the egg balanced.


This practice exercise for participation takes much more concentration and mindfulness than you might be expecting.

  • Calligraphy

Calligraphy is an expressive and harmonious form of writing. I encourage you to watch YouTube videos or find an instructor who would be willing to teach you. You can also purchase instructional books with examples. Practicing calligraphy can be a wonderful mindfulness practice, as it requires mindful concentration on the moment.

  • Ikebana

Ikebana is a disciplined form of Japanese flower arranging. As with calligraphy, doing it well requires mindful concentration and presence to the moment. If you have an ikebana teacher who can teach you, a class you can sign up for, (or ikebana books to work from), this is for many a mindfulness practice. You will also need a few flowers and leaves or branches.

  • Becoming the Count

Become the count (integer) of your breath. Picture it (visualization) in your mind’s eye. Become only ‘one’ when you count 1, become only ‘two’ when you count 2, and so on.

  • Tai Chi, Qigong, Hatha Yoga, Spiritual Dance

There are very many forms of mindful movement, including martial arts, yoga, and dance. Practiced with concentration and awareness of present movement of the body, each is a long-standing form of mindfulness practice.

  • Last Letter, First Letter

Begin the exercise by saying any random word that arises in your mind. Then you must say a word that starts with the last letter of the last word. (Sample sequence: “bus,” “steak,” “key,” “yellow,” etc.) As you continue, let go of any distractions. Notice any judgments you may have regarding your ability to think of a word quickly. Discuss your observations with your therapist.

  • Acceptance by the Chair

The focus of participating is to experience one’s unity with the universe. 

Close your eyes and listen: 

Focus your attention on your body touching the chair you sit in. . . . 

Consider how the chair accepts you totally. . . 

holds you up, supports your back, and keeps you from falling down on the floor. . . . 

Notice how the chair does not throw you off, saying you are too fat or too thin or not just right. . . . 

Notice how accepting the chair is of you. . . . 

Focus your attention on your floor holding up the chair. . . . 

Consider the kindness of the floor . . .

holding you up, keeping your feet out of the dirt, providing a path for you to get to other things. . . . 

Notice the walls enclosing you in a room, so everyone going by does not hear everything you say. . . . 

Consider the kindness of the walls. . . . 

Notice the ceiling keeping the rain and winter cold and hot summer sun from beating down on you. . . . 

Consider the kindness of the ceiling. . . . 

Allow yourself to be held by the chair, held by the floor, and held by the walls and ceiling. . . . 

Notice the kindness.

  • The Patience of Ordinary Things

This poem by Pat Schneider highlights the idea that love and acceptance are all around us. The point here is to let go of rigid ideas about where we can find love, acceptance, respect, and generosity.

It is a kind of love, is it not?

How the cup holds the tea,

How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,

How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes

Or toes. How soles of feet know

Where they’re supposed to be.

I’ve been thinking about the patience

Of ordinary things, how clothes

Wait respectfully in closets

And soap dries quietly in the dish,

And towels drink the wet

From the skin of the back.

And the lovely repetition of stairs.

And what is more generous than a window?

F. Review of Between-Session

Practice Exercises for Participating

Mindfulness Handout 4c lists a number of ideas for practicing participating. It is important to go over some of these with your therapist.

Please describe how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and what you might be sensing at about the halfway point of the Mindfulness Module?