I often say to clients when teaching mindfulness that mindfulness is the runway of DBT. When an airport has no runway its aeroplanes can neither land nor take off. This will mean that the airport becomes a storage facility for passengers and planes leading to a lot of unhappiness, devastation, disappointment, frustration, anger, resentment and a host of other emotions. The runway further functions in the sense that air traffic controllers have better control over planes landing and/ or taking off.   

Mindfulness does the same. Mindfulness allows us to be in control of our thoughts, emotions, physical and bodily sensations and to exercise better control over these. It allows us to be present in the moment and brings us to an awareness of self. Since we are like air traffic controllers, we are able through Mindfulness to be in control of our emotions and thoughts. 

In DBT Marsha Linehan talks about three minds, i.e. Emotion Mind, Reason Mind and Wise Mind.

When angry, depressed, guilty, sad, resentful etc, we often act within this frame of reference. When in one of these mood states a person’s thoughts, opinions, feelings, behaviour is motivated by the specific mood he/ she finds himself/ herself in. A person experiencing road rage will feel the need to push other road users off the road, or show signs and curse, and so on. A person who is depressed will want to avoid others and stay in bed. This is referred to as being in the Emotion Mind where the emotions dictate one’s day-to-day living. It is sometimes referred to the hot mind as emotions flare up easily.

On the other side is what is known as the Reason Mind. The Reason Mind is totally devoid of emotions as well as values and norms. The Reason Mind is so involved in the logical and analytical side often finding justification for certain actions. Just like in the Emotion Mind the Reason Mind dictates to thoughts, emotions, opinions, etc. An example of this would be when a building is on fire and somebody is trapped. Being in the Reason Mind one is oblivious to others’ dilemmas or needs. There is a lack of empathy. One can be locked up in either one of these Minds.

However, being in any of these two minds is not problematic per se. It becomes problematic if thoughts, emotions, behaviours are dictated to. The Reason Mind is mostly needed when working, studying, planning, etc. One is often in the Emotion Mind when touched by things happening around one – such as watching movies, listening to music, acts of kindness, and passing an exam.   

Wise Mind is the synthesis of Emotion Mind and Reason Mind and much like a prison officer unlocks a prison door to set a person free, so too does Wise Mind. In Wise Mind a person has more clarity and is more capable of not allowing Emotion or Reason Mind to dictate thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Wise Mind allows one to manage unpleasant thoughts and emotions rather than engaging in self-destructive and impulsive behaviour. It further allows one to be in the present, rather than past or future. In other words, if I am experiencing painful emotions now, I deal with it now. I don’t push it away.

Through Mindfulness a person develops a lifestyle of participation with awareness. This means that one is aware of one’s emotions, thoughts, behaviours, etc and when learning a new skill one pays extra attention to the new skill. It is like learning to ride a bicycle. You are intently focussed on learning the skill but at the same time aware of what not to do in future. 

In DBT we understand that there are two ways or two skills to reach the Wise Mind state (other therapies may suggest yet more ways). These are called the “What” and “How” skills.

The “WHAT” skills focus on three areas:

  • Observing: this skill teaches one to attend to unpleasant and painful thoughts and emotions rather than pushing it away or trying to terminate it. The idea is to experience with awareness, in the moment, whatever is happening – without wanting to get rid of the painful thoughts and/ or emotions. By doing this, one has to step back from the event. Take cycling as an example – observing cycling is different to cycling. By observing cycling you are attending to sounds, visuals, sensations, smells and tastes. You observe your breath when cycling, the movement of muscles and the strain it undergoes, etc. Another example would be sadness. Sadness is different from observing sadness. By observing it you would be aware of where you would be experiencing the sad sensations in your body. Observing further means to be quiet and literally “feel” the sensations.
  • Describing: this skill teaches one to describe what one is observing, i.e describing events and responses in words. This is important for both communication and self-control. It further means that thoughts and emotions are not to be taken as accurate and exact reflections of events. The tricky part is not to label but rather describing the facts. To quote an example from the DBT manual, the following: physical components of fear (tight chest, tenseness in neck muscles, clenched jaw, sweatiness, trembling / shaking, etc – all bodily/ physical sensations of anxiety) may be confused with a certain event (exam at school) which produces a dysfunctional thought (I am going to fail the exam). This could lead to emotional distress. 
  • Participating is the third of the “WHAT” skills. Participating means to be fully present and entering with awareness into life itself. It is much like a focussed activity, such as dancing or cycling – you need to fully concentrate and be aware of the movements you make. 

In summary, Observing and Describing are like “stop, look & listen” while Participating is like “crossing the road”.

The “HOW” skills also focus on three areas:

  • Non-judgmental: being non-judgemental means that we engage only in the facts. We do not decide whether a thing is good or bad. We do not judge the emotion, thought or sensation as bad, good, horrible etc, i.e. “I hate being angry, it is awful!”. We also do not judge ourselves as being good or bad – as in “I am not a good enough person!” etc. The bottom line is to let go of all good and bad!
  • One-Mindfully: this means being fully present in the moment. It also means riding out the emotion, feeling, thought etc despite the fact that it is extremely painful. It requires being present in the moment. I often find that breathing – inhaling slowly through the nose and then slowly exhaling out through the nose again – to be extremely helpful. It requires one to focus on one’s breath and sensations of breathing whilst experiencing the emotion.
  • Effectively: using this skill means that you focus on what works rather than on what is “right” or “wrong”, or “fair” or “not fair”. If you do not act effectively, you will not be able to reduce suffering or reach certain goals. Often we confuse our emotions with what we want to achieve. Instead of communicating to my husband that it hurts me when he does not pay attention to my needs, I rant and rave, and hurl obscenities at him. Being effective also means having certain goals, i.e. communicating clearly my needs to my husband, etc.

The “What” and “How” skills do not come easy, but working on it and being more mindful leads to increased mastery of the skills.

Build a life worth living!