• Honey Williams

The What and How Skills in Order to Increase Mindfulness

Last week mindfulness was introduced broadly as a state of awareness in which one intentionally pays attention to the present moment without judgment. This week we will cover the DBT mindfulness skills: the WHAT and HOW skills that we can practice in order to increase mindfulness within our lives.

The purpose of the WHAT skills is to help focus your attention on the present moment. The HOW skills reflect the core qualities of that present moment attention, or how to do the WHAT skills. If we stick with the metaphor from last week of mindfulness being a muscle of the mind, the WHAT skills are different exercises to build this strength and the HOW skills provide the correct form to perform those exercises. *hint: we want to avoid deadlifting with a rounded back (judging) or squatting with our knees caved inward (multitasking).

The purpose of the WHAT skills is to help focus your attention on the present moment. The HOW skills reflect the core qualities of that present moment attention, or how to do the WHAT skills. If we stick with the metaphor from last week of mindfulness being a muscle of the mind, the WHAT skills are different exercises to build this strength and the HOW skills provide the correct form to perform those exercises. *hint: we want to avoid deadlifting with a rounded back (judging) or squatting with our knees caved inward (multitasking).

WHAT Skills (i.e. our strength building exercises)

  • OBSERVE: Observing is about noticing what is going on both internally and externally in the present moment. You can observe your external environment with your 5 senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound), but perhaps more challenging is learning to observe oneself and inner experience (thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations). The key to both is to observe without trying to change what is observed, simply noticing and allowing whatever is arising moment to moment.

  • Self-observation. A good place to start your self-observation practice is by focusing attention on sensing your body (inside and out). The body is always and only in the present. The mind wanders out of the present, and although your body may react to where your mind wanders, it does so in the present moment. The body helps remind us that we are here now, in this place, in this moment. There is always sensation in the body, and with attention focused on sensation it is not captured and carried away from the present moment by thought and emotion (and when it is carried away, we simply bring it back to the body…again and again). This practice can be done informally throughout the day at any time and can also be done in a more formal practice, such as a body scan meditation.


  • DESCRIBE: Describing builds upon the skill of observing. It is about putting words to our experience (what is observed). The key to practice describing is to focus on the facts versus your interpretations or opinions about what is observed. In other words, stick to the “who, what, where, and when.” For self-observation in particular, describing what we notice helps us to separate from what is observed. With mindfulness, we come to know that we are not our thoughts, not our emotions, and not our behaviors --we are the awareness of those things, the witness (observer) and the narrator (describer).

  • To practice, try using the phrasing “I am noticing_____.” This can be especially helpful when we are stuck in negative or self-critical repetitive patterns of thinking. Noticing having a thought that “there is something wrong with me” (i.e. the fact) feels much different than “there is something wrong with me” (i.e. interpreting the thought as true).


  • PARTICIPATE: Participating is about engaging in the present moment. The key to participating mindfully is to enter fully into an activity without self-consciousness (no separation of self from one’s ongoing events and interactions). Essentially, the goal is to FORGET YOURSELF! I also think of participate similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow: “the process of total involvement with life.” There are likely parts of your life in which participation comes natural and parts in which it is easier to disengage. Mindfulness asks us to not pick and choose which moments of life we decide to engage with. Each moment is an opportunity to participate.

HOW Skills (i.e. our exercise form)

  • NON-JUDGEMENTALLY: Non-judgment is perhaps the most difficult quality of mindfulness to understand and apply to our attention. If your mind is anything like mine, it is a natural judge, constantly judging every person, event, and thing which occurs in life. The mind judges in order to file/store information, and it does so by establishing two large generalized categories into which it files all people, events, and things which occur in life: like/dislike (or good/bad). Mindfulness asks us to neither cling to nor push away any experience, to connect to our experience versus our thoughts about our experience. This is the practice of non-judgment.


  • Throughout the DBT skills, we will talk a lot about how pain x resistance = suffering. Resistance is essentially the process of judging the pain as “bad” or “wrong.” Thus, judging increases our suffering. Our judgment can be linked back to our animal survival instinct. We are programmed to avoid pain (= bad) and to approach pleasure (= good), in order to maximize our survival as a species. The problem is, our mammalian brains never learned to decipher between physical and emotional pain nor real or imagined danger. Often in our modern lives the pain we experience is not a threat to our survival and our instinctual aversion to pain can create more suffering in the long run. Approaching our pain and difficult emotions with non-judgment is the first step to reducing unnecessary suffering. What does this look like?

  • Feeling depressed without beating yourself up for feeling that way

  • Feeling stressed about kids not going back to school without adding guilt on top of that

  • Feeling lonely because of social distancing without interpreting it as no one cares about you

  • Noticing your white privilege and your role in individual and systemic racial injustices without getting stuck in shame (or if shame does arise, then nonjudgmentally noticing that)


  • ONE-MINDFULLY: One mindfully is the quality of focusing on one thing at a time. It is the opposite of multitasking. As a lot of us are working remotely and attending meetings via Zoom or other virtual platforms, I imagine there is a tendency to do other things during meetings (e.g. checking email, other work, etc.) The purpose of being one-mindful, is to fully engage in the task at hand. When attention is divided, it is less effective. Being one-mindful also means not “multitasking” with our minds (e.g. thinking about your to-do list while in yoga class). We can choose to cook, clean, Zoom, write an email, or anything else one-mindfully. I challenge you (and myself) to increase your one-mindful attention during the tasks you typically feel least present. You might first have to spend a couple days observing yourself (non-judgmentally) to identify when you are the least one-mindful.


  • EFFECTIVELY: To be effective means to do what works. The quality of effectiveness empowers us to employ our attention in a way that will help us to reach our goal. For example, if my goal is to finish my internship application essays next month, observing and describing my resistance to working on it is not going to be very effective. Perhaps the more effective, mindful choice is to participate in the writing process (UGH!). Or, if you are trying to build leg strength, I wouldn’t suggest bicep curls. The point is, identifying your goal will help you to know what is going to be effective. But maybe I should just change my goal? (kidding ☺)


Ok, that wraps up the WHAT and HOW skills. As mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, I want to end with a story about how the Buddha reached enlightenment that has been helpful for me in applying mindfulness to my life. The story goes that the Buddha was meditating under the Bodhi tree all night long trying to understand the roots of suffering. The shadow god, Mara (who represents the universal evil energies) tried everything he knew to make him fail—sending him violent storms, beautiful temptresses, raging demons, etc. The Buddha met them all with a non-judgmental attention (neither reacting to nor pushing away), and as morning came, he became the Buddha, a “fully realized being.” Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story that in the years that followed, Mara continued to appear and each time the Buddha would say “I see you Mara…come, let’s have tea.” Inviting our individual “Maras” to tea is what mindfulness asks us to do.


Whatever it is that you are struggling with right now, can you invite it to tea? The anxiety? Stress? Grief? Loneliness? Anger? I challenge you to:

  1. Observe it in your body.

  2. Describe it without judgement.


Next week we will begin the Distress Tolerance module, which I hope will have some skills that will be especially helpful in navigating all of the distress and uncertainty right now. In the meantime, may you participate in tea with Mara….and don’t forget your non-judgmental form when lifting your mindfulness weights!





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