Observing, Describing, and Participating

Navigating the Currents of Consciousness

The Three “What” Skills of Mindfulness

There are three mindfulness “what” skills. “What” skills are what we do when practicing mindfulness. Each “what” skill is a distinct activity. Like walking, riding a bike, or swimming, the “what” skills are three separate activities. Thus “what” skills are practiced one at a time: We are either observing, or describing what has been observed, or participating in the moment. This is in contrast to the “how” skills (nonjudgmentally, one-mindfully, and effectively), which can be applied all at once.

The journey through mindfulness is like exploring a vast ocean of internal experience, where the “what” skills act as fundamental navigation tools, allowing us to sail through the waters of our consciousness with grace and precision. Mindfulness, a cornerstone of mental tranquility and clarity, is not a singular monolithic practice but a multifaceted gem, each facet representing a distinct skill that enriches our journey. These three “what” skills – observing, describing, and participating – are the core activities we engage in when we anchor ourselves in the present moment. Like the discrete yet harmonious movements in a symphony, each “what” skill contributes to the overall experience of mindfulness, allowing us to tune into our lives with heightened awareness and understanding.

Observing: The Art of Awareness

Observing is the first of the “what” skills and involves paying attention to the experiences unfolding in the present. It’s about noticing the details of our environment, the sensations in our bodies, and the flow of our thoughts and emotions. When we observe, we do so with a gentle curiosity, as if we are sitting by a river, watching the waters of our consciousness flow by. This act of observation is without attachment, as we’re not trying to change what we see, merely acknowledging its presence.

Observing in Practice:

Imagine sitting in a serene park, the canvas of nature alive with hues and sounds. As you settle into this space, you begin to observe. You notice the rustling of leaves, the warmth of the sunlight on your skin, and the distant chatter of people. Internally, you become aware of your breath, the rhythm of your heartbeat, and the current of your thoughts. This mindful observation is the foundation of self-awareness and presence.

Describing: The Language of Experience

Describing involves putting words to our observations, narrating our internal and external experiences with care. This “what” skill helps us articulate what we’re sensing in the moment. By labeling our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, we give shape to our experiences, which can often make them more manageable and understandable. Describing is a bridge between perceiving and understanding, and while it involves engagement with language, it’s crucial to do so without judgment.

Describing in Practice:

As you continue to sit in the park, you now engage with describing. The cool breeze becomes “refreshing,” the feeling of grass under your fingertips is “soft,” and the state of your mind is perhaps “calm” or “wandering.” This narrative isn’t critical or evaluative; it simply communicates your experiences, providing clarity and sometimes even solace in the complexity of human experience.

Participating: The Dance of Engagement

Participating is fully immersing oneself in the activities of the moment. Unlike observing and describing, which maintain a certain degree of detachment, participating requires us to dive into the experience with our whole being. It’s a state of active engagement, where we are fully involved in the task at hand, whether it’s a mundane activity like washing dishes or a more complex task like solving a problem.

Participating in Practice:

In the park, to participate means to walk among the trees, feeling the uneven ground beneath your feet, taking in the scents, the air, and the entire atmosphere with an open heart. It’s when you’re no longer an observer but a part of the landscape, fully engaged and connected to the life around you.


The “what” skills of mindfulness – observing, describing, and participating – are separate yet interconnected activities that enhance our ability to live with awareness and intention. They allow us to engage with our present experience, understand our mental landscape, and live life to the fullest. Unlike the “how” skills, which we apply concurrently to cultivate a certain quality of mind, the “what” skills are practiced sequentially, offering us a structured approach to mindfulness. By mastering these skills, we can navigate the ever-changing currents of our consciousness with dexterity, approaching each moment with a fresh perspective and a wise heart.