Mindfulness: The First Stage of Healing and Self Understanding

Woman practicing mindfulness and finding peace in a cafe.

If you live in the Western world, then you’ve probably heard the term “mindfulness” from talk shows, health news articles, or business gurus.

Despite the liberal use of the word, mindfulness is still one of the most useful skills you can learn if you’re trying to regulate your emotions, have stronger relationships, and let go of your anxieties. It is also one of the core tenants of Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

This article will explain mindfulness in the most practical way possible so that you can learn how to apply it in your own life.

Defining Mindful and Learning How to Put It Into Practice

We all have habitual feelings and thought patterns. These patterns can drive our behaviors and determine how we treat ourselves and others.

When we aren’t paying pay attention to them, they take the wheel. We might even come to the conclusion that our mental habits are just “our nature.”

But the difference between a person who gets overwhelmed by their feelings and one who learns to work with them is awareness. Being mindful is learning to not be on autopilot with your emotions and decisions.

You become aware of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and urges, as they are being felt, no matter how intense they might feel or how loud they might sound in your head.

Eventually, they won’t have to determine how you approach life. And deeper than that, you can discover that your feelings have things to teach you about yourself.

DBT Mindfulness can be categorized into three “What” skills and three “How” Skills.

The three “What” Skills of mindful behavior are Observing, Describing, and Participating.

  • Observe: Look at what you’re feeling. Look at how your feelings are driving your behavior. Don’t try to change your feelings, just understand exactly what you’re feeling in this moment. You can even say it out loud: Angry, furious, alone, in pain.
  • Describe: Describe your emotional state as vividly as you can. You do this so that you can generate empathy, understanding, and self-control around what you’re currently feeling.

*It’s important to note here that your emotions do NOT always show you the truth. As in, if you feel unworthy, that does not mean you ARE unworthy. It’s just how you’re feeling at the time, and you determine that by describing what you’re feeling.

  • Participate: Do what you’re doing, and only what you’re doing. This means being fully immersed in what’s happening in the present, without being conscious of the future or the past. This is the ideal place to arrive through mindfulness, and this just so happens to be where life occurs. Right now, right in front of you.

You can learn to participate more fully in what’s happening inside you and around you by accepting it. This means accepting what you’re feeling exactly as it is. The most simple way to practice this is to just say yes to whatever is happening.

Yes, I’m feeling pain right now. Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I’m confused and anxious. Negative emotions perpetuate themselves when we deny their existence. 

By saying yes, we begin to soften ourselves to our feelings, and this gives them a chance to change, or at the very least, it gives us valuable data that we can use to improve our situations.

Saying yes does not mean that we should act out what our emotions are compelling us to do. It just means that that is how we’re feeling right now. We can be constructive with feelings when we don’t reject or ignore them.

Practicing Mindfulness: The How After the What

Here are the three How Skills for mindfulness: Nonjudgement, One-Mind, and Effectiveness.

  • Non Judgement: You can accept your feelings, your actions, and the actions of those around you if you can learn to not judge them. Instead of judging events as either good or bad, you consider the consequences of events above all else.
  • One- Mind: In approaching a task, you only want to focus on that task and not let yourself be deterred by worry or distraction. From a place of single-minded focus, you can learn to not be affected by what’s going on inside.
  • Effectiveness: This is acting in accordance with a goal, as opposed to what we think is fair. For example, if our goal is to not let ourselves be overwhelmed by anger, then we can recognize that reacting aggressively is not the most effective way to act when we feel we’re being slighted.

Let’s look at a few examples of being mindful and how it can benefit you:

  1. You’re Feeling Intense Anxiety

First, you become aware that your anxiety is becoming overwhelming. You feel your mind racing and you’re having all kinds of scary thoughts.

But you’ve learned to become aware, and you can now say, “Yes, this is how I’m feeling right now, and I’m going to work with this.” You describe what you’re feeling as a firestorm of fear, and you observe it for a while without judging yourself as bad or weak for feeling anxious.

You see your fear rise high and then begin to fall back down. You let the fear pass without doing anything that would jeopardize your health. Once the fear has subsided to a manageable level, you can now address the sources of your anxiety with a more level head.

  1. You’re Swamped With Work

You have papers to write for your classes, seminars to attend, and a job to get to on time. It’s the beginning of your day and you decide to write.

You decide to only focus on what is in front of you and not the day as a whole. You understand that the present is all you have and that you will cross each bridge as you come to it.

You’re able to focus 100% on your paper, and you forget the rest of the day. You finish a paper you’re proud of, and realize that you can take on any challenge the day throws at you.

  1. Someone Cuts You Off in Traffic

Someone nearly hits you on the road, and you feel slighted and angry. You feel compelled to follow this person and beep your horn at them.

But instead, you accept that you’re feeling angry, and you sit with it. You think, “Yes, I’m angry about what they did, but chasing after them and putting myself in danger will not solve anything.” The consequences of that action could be far worse than just being cut off.

You remember that it’s ok to be angry, but it’s not ok to lose control.

Being Mindful Is a Life Enhancer

Mindfulness is not mystical, it’s practical. 

It does not separate you from the vividness of life. It only allows you to understand life more deeply so that your actions can come from a place of wisdom and not impulsiveness.

It is a way of finding out what the most vulnerable parts of yourself need in any given moment. With this power, you can show yourself compassion and act in effective ways.

Once you attain the self-awareness afforded to you by mindfulness, healing follows suit.