The next module of DBT is mindfulness. My skills trainer goes beyond DBT for this one and uses a lot of material from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, so this section will contain a lot of material that isn’t in DBT proper.

Mindfulness is like going on a walk with a small child: slowing down, seeing everything as if it were for the first time, experiencing all the richness of reality. Mindlessness is like walking on a familiar route, lost in thought, when you suddenly realize that you’re at your destination and you have no idea how you got there.

Most people are in mindlessness ninety percent of the time: it’s our default behavior. Mindlessness is being stuck in patterns and habits, trapped in behavior that doesn’t serve us, responding and reacting instead of acting with agency. It’s being bored or preoccupied, having our minds flit from thought to thought, multitasking, or moving through our day robotically without really engaging. When we’re mindless, we treat our interpretations of situations as if they’re facts, we avoid things that seem painful or upsetting, we judge situations or ourselves as “good” or “bad”, and we can wind up being overwhelmed by negative emotions.

Conversely, mindfulness is living with awareness in the present moment, without judging, suppressing, clinging to the past, or grabbing the future. Mindfulness is being present, experiencing reality as it is, paying attention, noticing. It’s doing one thing at a time. When you’re mindful, you’re willing to do what you need to to achieve your goals. Mindfulness involves accepting reality as it is, letting go of things you can’t control, approaching situations instead of avoiding them, and making wise and effective choices.

(You might, at this point, be saying: gosh, Ozy, this is awfully similar to radical acceptance! Yes, yes it is.)

There are lots of different ways to do mindfulness. The most obvious, of course, is what we think of as meditation: spending a few minutes either focusing on something (the breath, a mantra) or paying attention to whatever comes into our awareness. Most religious traditions have some form of mindfulness practice: from Christian centering prayer to Islamic Sufi practices to yoga. You can incorporate mindfulness into your exercise, whether you’re doing a martial art, walking, or (again) doing yoga. And you can practice mindfulness simply by paying attention to the present moment.

When you begin a mindfulness practice, you are probably going to be very very bad at it. This is true particularly if you have any sort of mental health issues, most of which make it very hard to concentrate on your present experience. It is important to be kind and gentle with yourself and not to beat yourself up. Every time you notice yourself slipping out of mindfulness and bring yourself back to present experience, you’re retraining your brain to be more mindful. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to do it, it just matters that you keep trying.

A lot of depressed people have two problems at the same time: on one hand, we ruminate and overanalyze some things; on the other hand, we avoid and suppress other things. That might sound paradoxical, but it’s actually not: for a lot of people, rumination can actually be a strategy to avoid feeling your sadness.

For me– and probably for a lot of other depressed people out there– depression involves a lot of trying to numb yourself: with food, television, video games, Tumblr, anything that doesn’t actually make you happy but just makes you not feel. But when you do that, your brain isn’t actually idle: it’s working in the background without your knowledge or consent, and it’s almost always rehearsing all the things you did in the past or ought to do in the future. Quite often, it’s worrying, ruminating, and thinking about all the demands you face– the exact behavior that leads you to spiral down into a worse depression. When left to its own devices, your brain naturally tries to solve problems; unfortunately, when your biggest problem is “I feel terrible all the time”, your brain will often wind up thinking about the fact that you feel terrible, which doesn’t make you feel better. This is why attempting to numb yourself out so you don’t feel sad anymore does not actually solve your depression. Even worse, when you’re numb, you’re not feeling any of the joy in life, which is bad both because joy is nice and pleasure is good for you, and because not having very much joy makes you more depressed.

By learning mindfulness, we learn three basic skills: to direct attention to where we want it to be, to keep the attention there instead of something else, and to shift attention when necessary. We can escape this numbness and autopilot by concentrating on our experiences in the moment. By changing the way we pay attention to unpleasant emotions, we can change the way we experience them. And by paying attention to our experiences, we can notice early warning signs of unpleasant emotions that we otherwise wouldn’t.

When we’re mindless, we’re usually thinking about something: planning, remembering, or daydreaming. Thoughts are good, but thinking becomes a problem when we’re lost in thought. We’re living in our heads, instead of in the world. We wind up missing our whole life.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably going “hey, wait a minute! When I think about things, I come up with all sorts of genius twists for my fanfic. All this stuff about paying attention to present-moment experience is great, but sometimes I want to get lost in thought.” However, when I actually started paying attention to myself getting lost in thought, I noticed that coming-up-with-genius-fanfic-twists was actually only a tiny percentage of what I thought about when I got lost in thought. Instead, what I thought about was mostly:

  • Planning my day.
  • Reviewing my plans for the day.
  • Embarrassing things I did when I was eleven.
  • Speculation about which of my friends secretly hate me.
  • Reviewing my plans for the day again.
  • “I hate myself I hate myself I am the worst person in the world and I ought to die”

So my modified proposal is that it is perfectly okay to be lost in thought as long as you are coming up with genius fanfic twists, but if you are instead reviewing for the seventh time that you’re supposed to go to the FedEx store after you get your STI test, then you should probably be paying attention to what’s actually going on in the world instead.

One way to switch from mindlessness into mindfulness is to switch from thinking about into experiencing. You can start by observing the sensations in your body: the direct knowing of what you’re feeling keeps you close to the present and less likely to be carried away by thought. When you’re in mindlessness, you’re knowing about your experiences through thought; when you’re mindful, you’re knowing your experiences. When you encounter something unpleasant, view it as an experience: feel and sense every aspect of it. In particular, pay attention to what happens in your body: heart racing, face flushing, sick feeling in your stomach.

Another very important aspect of mindfulness is to be aware that your thoughts are just thoughts; they’re mental events. Imagine that you get a bad grade on a test. One person may interpret it as the teacher being unfair, and get angry; another may interpret it as a sign that they didn’t study enough, and feel guilt; a third may see it as a bad thing that happened to them, and feel sadness. The exact same situation calls forth a variety of different interpretations, and these interpretations are what cause our emotions. Now, our interpretations may very well be correct, but they might also be false. And as long as we think of our interpretations as reality, then we won’t be able to figure out whether they’re right or wrong. So part of mindfulness is being able to step back from our thoughts and go “hey! That’s a thought! It might be right or wrong!”