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What is mindfulness, and how do I practice it?

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

Great questions! Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), describes mindfulness as two sets of three skills, The What Skills and The How Skills.

The What Skills

The What skills are broken up into 3 categories;: Observe, Describe and Participate. You do not need to do all three to practice mindfulness, but it is worth learning about all of them to figure out what works best for you! Try them each out, and see what happens!


This skill is exactly what it sounds like! When we are practicing Observe, we want to take a moment without interacting with the environment. We are observing what is around us and what is inside of just noticing with our 5 senses and taking note of our physical sensations, emotions and thoughts. This is one of the hardest skills to practice, because it is asking you to observe without words; it is asking you to focus your attention without pushing anything away or clinging onto anything. Remember that it is not an observation if you cannot sense it with your 5 senses. (For expample, you cannot observe anger.. You can observe the facial expression change, the words you hear, the change in their body language. But saying they are angry is a judgment , not an observation.


This is similar to Observe in the sense that you are not interacting with your environment, or judging anything. You are taking a moment and noticing what is inside and outside of you. The difference is that you label every experience. Name emotions as emotions and thoughts as thoughts. Just like you did in the Observe skill, be aware of the difference between facts and opinions or judgments. For example, if you are in the car and someone cuts you off, the fact is that they cut you off, the opinion is that they are an *insert expletive here*. Describe means to intentionally look at just the facts of your experience.


This is where you have a chance to interact with your environment! You are not just going to join in, you are going to throw your whole self into whatever you are doing! If you are hanging out with friends and enjoying yourself, allow yourself to stay in the moment!! Push away thoughts like, "this isn't going to last", and just be in the moment for however long it does last! People are dancing and you want to dance, but have fear others might judge your dance moves? This is a perfect time to practice the Participate skill of mindfulness. Become one with the activity and bring all of your attention to that! Try going with the Flow! Yes, going with the flow is extremely hard and will take practice. Keep refocusing into the moment whenever you notice yourself slipping out of it.


The How Skills

The How skills of mindfulnessgiveguidance on how to approach the activities in the what skills. The 3 how skills are nonjudgmental, One-minded, and Effective. They are difficult, but when practiced, they can be extremely helpful in learning how to be present in your life!


One of the hardest tasks of the How skills is to not judge. Judging is human nature, we need to make judgments all day long. Sometimes, the brain goes into overdrive and just starts to judge before looking at the facts of the situation. This is why we need to slow down a little, and take a look at the facts before evaluating them as good or bad. We can still acknowledge if something is safe or unsafe, harmful or helpful, just without the added judgment. (ex. “That person has a knife, that could be dangerous”, rather than "I can't believe that person would bring a knife in here! How stupid could they be?!" "I am going to die!") This is true for our observations of the environment and of other people, as well as our own thoughts and emotions. If we judge ourselves too quickly, we aren't allowing ourselves to figure out why we are having that reaction. Acknowledge thoughts, emotions, wishes and values. While doing this hard work, it is important to remember to not judge the judging. We can get stuck in a loop of judgment and shame. When you notice that, try and get back to not judging, just observing.


Being focused on one thing and one thing only is harder than it sounds. Today, we tend to have multiple things going on at once. We are on the phone while eating, watching T.V. while talking to our partner, talking to someone while playing with our child. Even those of us who pride ourselves on being good multitaskers are not actually fully present; we are splitting our attention between activities. Being fully present in the moment requires us to drop everything and just focus on one task. Use the how skills here! Observe, Describe and Participate in the activity you choose. Play with your kids without checking your phone, listening to music or having the T.V. on in the background. When you go to eat a meal, just eat! Put away your phone and taste your food, observe your emotions, take in the environment around you. If you start to notice that you are not being one-minded, THAT IS NORMAL! All you do is acknowledge that you were distracted and refocus into the activity. You may have to redirect your attention a million times; that is okay too!


Everyone is different, and therefore, not everything works in the same way for everyone. If it is hard for you to be present when you are in a meeting... maybe don't try being present there yet! Start with things that are easier for you, maybe something that you find interesting or enjoyable. Even starting off with putting your phone away while watching T.V., or turning the T.V. off when you are on your phone. While trying this out, do what works rather than trying to do it the "right way" or the way "it should be done" or "the fair way". This can be difficult when you are in a situation you believe you "should not be in" because judgment is present. Rather than doing something the way it should be done, try meeting the needs of the moment, not the moment that should be happening.

I know, kind of confusing... here is an example. You and your partner argue all of the time! You are having a hard time regulating your emotions, or vice versa, in the conversation and think "we should be able to have conversations like this without getting emotional." This doesn't give room to work on the problem, but it does fuel frustration and might make the situation worse. On the other hand, if you say, "we are not able to have this conversation without getting upset." Then you will be more likely to meet the needs in that moment. Pausing the conversation, setting timers for how long you get to speak, having a worksheet out in front of you to remind you of the rules of fighting.

Keep practicing! Again, these skills are simple, but very difficult to put into practice. We are retraining our brains to slow down and take in the moment before reacting. Give yourself grace and compassion. These are skills and will take time to implement in real time!


If you need some help sorting through these thoughts or want to know the next step in working with your thoughts; reach out!! You can find my contact information here!


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Hi, I’m Kristina Anzell, I am a Clinical Social Worker dedicated to providing compassionate and tailored mental health support for moms at all stages of motherhood. My mission is to empower you to thrive in your role as a mother while nurturing your own well-being. If you enjoyed this blog post, check out my blog here! If you want more information or are seeking treatment, feel free to reach out!

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