Wise Mind States of Mind

The scanned handout above is from the books: DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, by Marsha M. Linehan. Copyright 2015 by Marsha M. Linehan. Permission to photocopy the handouts is granted to purchasers of DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, and DBT Skills Training Manual, Second Edition, for personal use and use with my individual clients only.

Wise Mind

Wise mind is the inner wisdom that each person has. When we access our inner wisdom, we can say that we are in wise mind. Inner wisdom includes the ability to identify and use skillful means for attaining valued ends. It can also be defined as the ability to access and then apply knowledge, experience, and common sense to the situation at hand. For some people, accessing and applying their own inner wisdom are easy. For others, it is very hard. But everyone has the capacity for wisdom. Everyone has wise mind, even if they cannot access it at a particular point.

Reasonable Mind and Emotion Mind

Reasonable mind and emotion mind are states of mind that get in the way of wise mind. Often what interferes with accessing our own wisdom is our state of mind at the time. We can be in different states of mind at different times. In one state of mind, we can feel, think, and act very differently than we do in another state of mind. Example: A person might say, “I was out of my mind when I said that,” meaning “I was not thinking clearly when I said that.”

Emotion Mind

Emotion mind is your state of mind when your emotions are in control and are not balanced by reason. Emotions control your thinking and your behavior. When completely in emotion mind, you are ruled by your moods, feelings, and urges to do or say things. Facts, reason, and logic are not important. Which emotions usually get in the way of your acting wisely?

Vulnerability Factors
Factors that make us all vulnerable to emotion mind include (1) illness; (2) sleep deprivation/tiredness; (3) drugs or alcohol; (4) hunger, bloating, overeating, or poor nutrition; (5) environmental stress (too many demands); and (6) environmental threats. Example: “You can wake up in emotion mind and be immediately worrying about work.” What other vulnerability factors can you think of?

Benefits of Emotions
Emotions, even when intense, can be very beneficial. Intense love fills history books as the motivation for relationships. Intense love (or intense hate) has fueled wars that in turn have transformed cultures (e.g., fighting to stop oppression and murders as in the battle against the Nazis). Intense devotion or desire motivates staying with very hard tasks or sacrificing oneself for others (e.g., mothers running through fires for their children). A certain amount of intense emotion is desirable. Many people, particularly those with emotional problems, have more intense emotions than most. Some people are the “dramatic” ones of the world and will always be so. People with intense emotions are often passionate about people, causes, beliefs, and the like. There are times when emotion mind is the cause of great feats of courage or compassion—when if reason were there at all, a person would not overcome great danger or act on great love.

Problems with Emotions

Problems occur when emotions are ineffective and control us. Emotions are ineffective when the results are positive in the short term but highly negative in the long term, or when the emotional experience itself does not fit the facts of our lives and is very painful, or when it leads to other painful states and events (e.g., anxiety and depression can be painful in themselves).

Different Effects of Emotions

Sometimes people become so emotional that they shut down and act like automatons. They may dissociate and appear very, very calm. Or they may isolate themselves, staying very quiet. They appear cool, deliberate, and reasonable, but their behavior is really under the control of overwhelming emotions that they would experience if they let go and relaxed. This is emotion mind; emotions are in control. At other times, of course, emotion mind looks, thinks, talks, and acts in very extreme ways.

The Difference between Strong Emotion and Emotion Mind

We don’t want to confuse being highly emotional with emotion mind. Emotion mind is what occurs when emotions are in control at the expense of reason. People often have intense emotions without losing control. For example, holding one’s newborn baby, walking up to receive an award, or finding out a loved one has died can each elicit intense emotions of love (for the baby), pride (at getting the award), or grief (over the loved one’s dying). Each of these would be emotion mind only if the emotions crowded out reason and effectiveness.

Reasonable Mind

Reasonable mind is the extreme of reason. It is reason that is not balanced by emotions and values. It is the part of you that plans and evaluates things logically. When completely in reasonable mind, you are ruled by facts, reason, logic, and pragmatics. Emotions, such as love, guilt, or grief, are irrelevant.”

Benefits of Reason
Reason can be very beneficial. Without it, people could not build homes, roads, or cities; they could not follow instructions; they could not solve logical problems, do science, or run meetings. Reason is the part of you that plans and evaluates things logically. It is your cool, calm, and collected part. But, again, when you are completely in reasonable mind, you are ruled by facts, reason, logic, and pragmatics. Values and feelings are not important.

Problems with Reason
Reasonable mind is cold and dismissive of emotions, needs, desires, and passion. This can often create problems. Example: A task-focused person attending only to what must be done next, and ignoring
even loved ones who want at least a nod hello, is in reasonable mind. It is hard to make and keep friends if you are only in reasonable mind. Relationships require emotional responses and sensitivity to others’ emotions. When you ignore your own emotions and treat other people’s emotions as unimportant, it is hard to maintain relationships. This is true about relationships in multiple settings—in families, with friends, and in work environments.

When other people say that “If you could just think straight, you would be all right,” they mean “If you could be reasonable, you would do OK.” How many times have other people said or implied that if you would just not distort, exaggerate, or misperceive things, you would have far fewer problems and more friends? How many times have you said the same thing to yourself?

I now invite you to reflect and journal about the pros and cons of emotion and reason. Draw from your own personal and/or professional experiences and interactions and times when you were in reasonable mind and when you were in emotion mind.

Wise Mind as the Synthesis of Opposites

Wise mind is the integration of opposites: emotion mind and reasonable mind. You cannot overcome emotion mind with reasonable mind. Nor can you create emotions with reasonableness. You must go within and bring the two together. Take the time now to do one of the exercises described below before continuing to read more.

Everyone Has Wise Mind

Everyone has wise mind; some people simply have never experienced it. Also, no one is in wise mind all the time. You might be thinking, I don’t have wise mind. Allow me to be a cheering supporter for you. I believe in everyone’s innate ability to find wise mind. It takes practice to access and use wise mind. Wise mind is like having a heart; everyone has one, whether they experience it or not.

Wise Mind Is Sometimes Experienced as a Particular Place in the Body

People sometimes experience wise mind as a particular point in the body. This can be the center of the body (the belly), or in the center of the head, or between the eyes. Sometimes a person can find it by following the breath in and out. Where do you think (or suspect) wise mind is within your self.

It Is Not Always Easy to Find or Even Be Sure about Wise Mind

Story: Wise mind is like a deep well in the ground. The water at the bottom of the well, the entire underground ocean, is wise mind. But on the way down, there are often trap doors that impede progress. Sometimes the trap doors are so cleverly built that you actually believe there is no water at the bottom of the well. The trap door may look like the bottom of the well. Perhaps it is locked and you need a key. Perhaps it is nailed shut and you need a hammer, or it is glued shut and you need a chisel. When it rains emotion mind, it is easy to mistake the water on top of the trap door for wise mind.

Emotion mind and wise mind both have a quality of “feeling” something to be the case. The intensity of emotions can generate experiences of certainty that mimic the stable, cool certainty of wisdom. Continuing with the “well within” analogy: After a heavy rain, water can collect on a trap door within the well. You may then confuse the still water on the trap door with the deep ocean at the bottom of the well.

Extreme anger often masquerades as wise mind. When we get really angry, we justify our anger, and often think we are absolutely right in everything we think!

Please take a moment to reflect and journal your thoughts:

  • Can you think of any other ideas on how to tell the difference between wise mind and emotion mind. There is no simple solution here. If intense emotion is obvious, suspect emotion mind. Give it time; if certainty remains, especially when you are feeling calm and secure, suspect wise mind.

Wise Mind Is the Part of Each Person That Can Know and Experience Truth

It is where a person knows something to be true or valid. It is where the person knows something in a centered way.

Wise Mind Is Similar to Intuition

Wise mind is like intuition—or, perhaps, intuition is part of wise mind. It is a kind of knowing that is more than reasoning and more than what is observed directly. It has qualities of direct experience; immediate knowing; understanding the meaning, significance, or truth of an event without having to analyze it intellectually; and “feelings of deepening coherence.

Wise Mind Is Free of Conflict

In wise mind, you are free from conflict, making wise action almost effortless (even when it is difficult beyond words). Wise mind has a certain peace. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • You are determined to pass a difficult college course or get a good evaluation at work. You have an assignment that will take up a lot of your time, and you would really like to just sit home and relax. But you think about the consequences of failing and know you will work on it.
  • You are with your child in a boat on the river. You know how to swim, but your child does not, and they fall into the water. You immediately jump into the river to save them, even though the water is freezing.
  • You are deciding on a major for a program you’re taking. One choice involves taking only classes you’re likely to do well in without a lot of effort, but you don’t like the job options afterward; the other choice involves taking more challenging classes, but getting specialized training for jobs you really like. In wise mind, you make the decision to go with what you like, even if it’s harder.

The goal of mindfulness and wise mind is not to make life all effort and work, work, work. Most people do not have to work all the time at keeping themselves regulated, doing things to keep their life on track, and moving toward their goals. The idea is to practice skills enough so that life gets easier and better. Wise mind is the road to that: In wise mind, it is easier to act in our own best interests instead of being controlled by our moods and emotions.

Wise Mind Depends on Integrating Ways of Knowing

Wisdom, wise mind, or wise knowing depends upon integration of all ways of knowing: knowing by observing, knowing by analyzing logically, knowing by what we experience in our bodies (kinetic and sensory experience), knowing by what we do, and knowing by intuition.

Finding Wise Mind Consistently Can Take a Lot of Practice

Learning to find wise mind is like searching for a new channel on the radio. First you hear a lot of static, and you can’t make out the lyrics of the music—but over time, if you keep tuning in, the signal gets louder. You will learn to know right where the station is, and the lyrics become a part of you, so that you can access them automatically—just like you can finish the lyrics immediately if someone starts singing a song you know really, really well.

Please take this time to reflect and journal about your own experiences of wise mind.

  • Wise mind is getting to the heart of a matter. It is seeing or knowing something directly and clearly. It is grasping the whole picture when before only parts were understood. It is “feeling” the right choice in a dilemma, when the feeling comes from deep within rather than from a current emotional state. Reflect on similar experiences and other examples.
  • Wise mind may be the calm that follows the storm—an experience immediately following a crisis or enormous chaos. Sometimes a person may reach wisdom only when suddenly confronted by another person. Or someone else may say something insightful that unlocks an inner door. Please reflect on similar experiences and other examples.

Ideas for Practicing Wise Mind

Conduct at least one or two practice exercises for going into wise mind, and be sure to try several different methods of getting into wise mind at some point. [Practice Exercises] Participants ordinarily have no idea what I am talking about until we do some practice exercises together.

You can start with either “stone flake on the lake” or “walking down the spiral stairs” to give you a sense of going within, or “breathing wise in, mind out.” Then you can try one or two more that I have tried for myself, or that you think you would like or find useful.

General Steps for Mindfulness Exercises

I recommend that you keep your eyes open when practicing mindfulness. The idea is to learn to be mindful and in wise mind in everyday life. Most of each day is lived with your eyes open; I hope. Learning to be mindful with eyes closed may not generalize to everyday life with eyes wide open. That said, however, some teachers recommend closing eyes during many mindfulness and contemplative practices.

Although it can be a matter of preference, it can also be a practice of willingness (distress tolerance) and mindfulness itself to keep eyes open and simply notice the discomfort (usually not too long lasting). At the beginning of mindfulness practice, this is definitely not a point worth arguing about. If you are familiar with mindfulness or contemplative prayer with your eyes closed, I encourage you to try it for a while with eyes open. The first two exercises below (1 and 2) call for eyes closed.

Practice an exercise before you try to dismiss it or minimize it. Think about a problem or situation that hits a nerve for you, to associate the problem with the motivation and openness to mindfulness practice. Review the material in this course that discussed the importance of mindfulness skills being taught.

I was recently faced with a really big decision about whether to speak up publicly, point out, and correct someone’s implicit bias. The options were to stand up and say something, stay silent about it, and/or write an email to the individual’s supervisor. The choices all seemed appropriate but each would have had different consequences or outcomes. I needed to be clear about what was really most important to me. In making my decision, it was important for me to access wise mind. I chose to stay silent in that moment, but eventually would write an email to the company.

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In order to view the material in this section of the course, you must be a current or previous client of James Fitzgerald, MS. The content on this page has been adapted from DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, by Marsha M. Linehan. Copyright 2015 by Marsha M. Linehan. Permission to use the materials from the book and handouts is granted to purchasers of DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, and DBT Skills Training Manual, Second Edition, for personal use and use with individual clients only.