Mindfulness Skills Introduction

Please read the introduction and program instructions below the table of contents. After each video, using the drop down menu to the left, please use any of the journal or log options, to write about your experience, and share any thoughts you have about the video.

Mindfulness DBT Extras

DBT Advanced Skills

Greg Dorter, Self Help Toons – Mindfulness

Self Help Toons – Meditation

Thinking About Mindfulness

Many people are confused by mindfulness and rarely think about it in the context of therapy or health and wellness life coaching. Instead, they often consider mindfulness and meditation to be practiced by people who are religious, cloistered in a monastery, or sitting in a cave on a high mountain chanting “Om”. 

From the DBT perspective, mindfulness is considered a skill, one that can be acquired and practiced. Dr. Marsha Linehan, the psychologist who developed DBT, incorporated mindfulness into behavior therapy because she recognized that it was the most effective and enduring way to alleviate the suffering that many emotionally sensitive people experience.

If you take on the practice of mindfulness, it will be unlike anything you’ve ever done in therapy, and as with anything that is new, the unfamiliarity can make it difficult to practice at first. It’s important to keep an open mind. Many people who struggle with intense emotions have found mindfulness to be the way out of the suffering caused not only by their emotions but also by their thoughts, behaviors, and relationships.

Exploring Your Own Mind

Before we can talk about exploring the mind in the following sections, it’s important to consider what we mean by the mind. From a psychological perspective, the mind is the way that the brain perceives and experiences events, and that includes emotions, thoughts, sensations, urges, motives, and memories. It includes everything in a person’s immediate awareness and also the stuff that isn’t in their awareness. The thing to remember is that different brains do different things with information.

For example, look at a table. What do you see? “I see a table,” you say. However, the table you think is there is not exactly the same as the table that is actually there. It is only a perspective. Here’s what happens:

1. Information about the table enters your brain via your visual system.

2. Your brain creates a model of the thing you call the table. All brains do this, by the way. If you were a fly with compound eyes, you would see many tables. Each visual system has its own way of encoding information.

3. Your pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with thought and labeling information, receives the model of the table that your brain has created.

4. You talk about the table. This seems very straightforward. Imagine that you were an indigenous person from the depths of the Amazon jungle and had never seen a table before. Certainly, you would receive the information from your visual system, but the rest of your brain would not know what to make of it.

The truth is that the brain does this with everything, including its own experience. And in almost all cases, the brain’s quick-and-dirty model of its own experience is a simplification rather than a perfect representation of the experience. For example, say you have the thought, without any facts, that someone doesn’t like you. If you’re like many people who come to DBT, you claim that the thought is true. You think the thought is true because it resonates with things that your brain has created. And what the brain has created made you come to the conclusion that the person doesn’t like you. No one can convince you otherwise. You’re certain that it’s true. But unless the person said, “I do not like you,” whatever your brain is picking up on is not perfectly accurate, even if it feels that way. That information is almost certainly not perfectly accurate. Whatever awareness you think you have is different from the awareness you actually have, and it’s in the practice of mindfulness that you get to have a more accurate picture as to the functioning of your mind.

Discovering Mindfulness

At its most essential, developing the skill of mindfulness is the purposeful practice of seeing the reality of the present moment and everything in it without judging it. This is actually much more difficult than it seems, and if you get too caught up in the definition, you realize that the present moment contains a huge amount of stuff, including everything that is going on within you and everything that is happening around you, as well as everything going on in the country and the planet and the universe.

The essential task of mindfulness is to begin paying attention to all the ways in which you do things automatically, and in particular to the things that make life difficult. Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean that the content of your thought is true. Just because you have an urge doesn’t mean that you’re compelled to act on it. Just because you have an emotion doesn’t mean that it will last forever. When you realize all of this, you realize that you have the freedom to choose what you’re going to do. By not acting on the thoughts, urges, and emotions that lead to painful outcomes, you suffer less.

This type of exploration of the mind isn’t usually how we spend our time. For most of us, even if we try to see our mind at work, we get easily distracted by other thoughts or events in the environment, and our attention begins to wander. Mindfulness practice is the way to tame this interference.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

Realizing the benefits of Mindfulness

Improving your ability to practice mindfulness increases many life qualities that contribute to a life of satisfaction and contentment. A more mindful way of living allows for the ability to fully savor life’s pleasures as they occur. It helps you become fully engaged in activities and relationships, and it improves your capacity to deal with adversity as it arises.

Enjoying greater focus

One benefit of mindfulness practice is the ability to focus the mind. This ability to stabilize and direct the focus of the mind is particularly important in moments when you feel distracted or overwhelmed. One specific mindfulness practice that can help you is focused attention training. 

Here’s how to do this practice:

1. Sit on a chair in a comfortable posture. For this practice you can close your eyes. Notice your body on the chair seat, your feet on the floor, and your arms at rest on your lap. Just keep your focus on your seated position. Note that the more you practice focusing, the better your mind will become at focusing.

2. Switch your focus of attention. With your eyes still closed, after a few minutes switch your focus of attention to sounds in the environment. Some may persist, like an air conditioner, and some may be brief like a passing car. Keep your focus on the sounds.

3. If you’re like most people, your mind will wander. The brain has evolved to pay attention to more than just one thing, so it isn’t surprising if the mind wanders. However, because you’re practicing increasing your ability to focus, you should notice that your mind has wandered to something else and bring it back to focus on your seated posture, to sounds, or to your breath.

Easing into relaxation

Mindfulness can help you relax in various ways; however, it’s important to note that mindfulness and relaxation are two different things. There are instances when mindfulness isn’t relaxing, such as if you’re reflecting on a hurtful moment. Nevertheless, many people do experience relaxation with regular practice. One practice in mindfulness meditation is a body scan. This is a practice in mindfulness where you focus your attention on various parts of your body. One way to do this is to start with your feet and then work your way up. As you focus on each body part, observe how each part feels without labeling the sensations as either “good” or “bad.” 

Here is a step-by-step approach:

1. Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, with your arms relaxed by your sides. Start by slowing your breathing, and then focus on your breath for a few minutes until you start to feel relaxed.

2. Turn your focus to the toes of one of your feet. Notice any sensations you feel in your foot. Keep your attention on your foot while breathing slowly.

3. Move your focus to the sole of your foot, and again notice any sensations while breathing slowly. Move slowly up your body and repeat focusing on the sensations in that part of the body while maintaining a slow breath.

4. After you’ve scanned your entire body, bring your sole attention to your breath and continue to lie on the floor and relax for a while in silence.

If for some reason, such as body pain, this practice doesn’t bring relaxation, don’t force it. This might not be the practice for you.

Creating healthy space in your psyche

We like to divide our body into many different parts, and in some ways, this makes a lot of sense. If you have a heart problem, you don’t want to go to a skin doctor. On the other hand, the body is completely interconnected. We can’t live without a heart or without our skin, and taking care of one component means taking care of all of your body. A healthy mind and a healthy body are interconnected. The other issue is this: Although technology has done wonders, it has also caused us to use less of our mind and body. Having a car means that you don’t have to ride a horse or walk to work. Having an app means that you don’t have to get out a physical map to figure out where you’re going.

Mindfully and intentionally participating in the following are key to a healthy mind and body:

Exercise daily. Set the mindful intention to exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days a week.

Do something different. Set the intention to do something different every day. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, wear something unusual, take a different route home.

Do something creative. Set the intention to be creative. Get out your camera and go take some photos. Buy some drawing materials and challenge yourself to draw. Make a meal you’ve never tried making before, with unusual spices.

Stay connected. Set the mindful intention to stay connected to the important people in your life, particularly the ones that you might not have been in touch with recently. Give someone you care about a call.

Connect to your faith. If you have a faith practice but are just going through the motions of attending services, make the intention of connecting to your faith’s core truths.

Calming your emotions

Everyone has emotions. Some people have stronger emotions than others, and that is just a part of diversity, in the same way that some people are taller than others, more athletic than others, or more creative than others. Strong emotions aren’t a problem unless you’re unable to manage them very well, and many people who come to therapy do so because they have a hard time managing their emotions. When a person can’t control their emotional reactivity, things can spin out of control and lead to potentially destructive behavior.

Here is a practice in calming your emotions:

1. Sit comfortably on a cushion or a chair. As you can see, many mindfulness practices include sitting! Now bring your mind to focus on something that you’re struggling with. Try not to start with the most difficult situation you’re facing. Once you have mastered calming your emotions with less agitating things, you’ll move to the more difficult ones. Focus on your urge to push away difficult thoughts or any urge to make the situation easier (drugs, your phone, a piece of chocolate). Don’t access any of these.

2. Turn toward the difficult situation and face it. Breathe in deeply through your nose to the count of five seconds (just like sitting, breathing features frequently in mindfulness), and breathe out even more slowly through pursed lips. Do this a few times.

3. Focus on compassion to yourself, and create in your mind a blanket of compassion and strength that surrounds you. Imagine a person who cares deeply about you, standing or sitting by your side.

4. Face the difficult situation full on. In this moment you don’t need to be scared. If you feel fear, let the emotion of fear arise and fall. Observe and label the situation that is bringing up the strong emotion. For instance, “I am noticing fear that someone does not like me.” This may take a while, but the emotion will fall. Be kind to yourself and validate that this is difficult for you. Focus on facing the emotion while you breathe slowly, and have an attitude of compassion toward yourself.

5. If you notice yourself reaching for avoidance or some external object that makes you feel safe, turn away from avoidance or the object and turn back toward the thought that causes strong emotions. The more you train the mind to observe and name whatever the difficult emotional situation is, the more you’ll be training the emotional centers in the brain to handle these situations. As an added benefit, you’ll be sending a message to the rest of your body that it can start to relax.

What will taking this course do for me?

Through this mindfulness course, you can learn skills that may increase your ability to:

  • Cope with stress, pain, and the challenges of everyday life
  • Deal with disturbing events with grace and composure
  • Be fully present and alive in this moment
  • Develop an effective, non-judgmental, wise mind, with qualities of your best self.

While mindfulness based interventions are not a “cure” for serious medical conditions and should not be used as a substitute for medical treatment, research indicates that mindfulness training can have a significant therapeutic effect for those experiencing stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, chronic pain, migraines, heart conditions, diabetes and other ailments. In addition, participants typically report feeling more alive, more “in-tune” with themselves and others.

The Importance of Practice

This course is highly experiential and the daily practice is perhaps the most important component.  You wouldn’t expect to learn to surf by reading a book about surfboards and waves, and learning a mindfulness practice is no different than any other skill that involves both mind and body. You know from your own experience in learning to play an instrument, or a sport, or any complex skill whatsoever, that practice is important. Your body/mind is the most complex instrument in the universe. It takes time and practice to use it effectively and harmoniously.

For this reason, we recommend that you set aside time every day for practice. This may be the most difficult hurdle you face in getting started because one of the very issues you are facing may be not having enough time for all that needs to get done in a day – how are you going to find extra time? Previous participants have said that after a few weeks of practice, although their time to “do things” is technically less, there can be a feeling of having more space and time, even in the middle of a very busy day.