In mindfulness, there are three “what” skills and three “how” skills. I’m going to talk about the what skills first, and then the how ones.
As you read through the skills, there will probably be one or two where you go “I TOTALLY have a handle on that one, I am the BEST at it”, and one or two where you’re like “what, how can people even do that?”. That is perfectly normal.
Observe. Observing is just the trick of paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment. You can observe things inside yourself or outside yourself: you can observe what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch; the internal experiences of your body like where your limbs are or whether you’re hungry; and your thoughts and emotions. Observing is wordless: just seeing what’s going on. Do not attempt to control what you experience; don’t push things away or cling to them, just notice.
How to practice observing: You can use any of the senses– looking at every detail of a pebble, trying to hear all the little sounds around you, eating a raisin with complete attention to the taste, smelling a perfume, walking and seeing what it feels like when your feet hit the ground, focusing on the sensations in your chest. Of course, the classic thing to practice observing is the breath. People with impulsiveness issues might find that practicing observing their urges without acting on them helps. You can practice stepping away from and observing your thoughts: some people imagine it as a movie screen with their thoughts projected on it, other people as a river with a leaf floating on it. Personally, I prefer Space Invaders and when I observe my thoughts I’m shooting them. Whatever works.
Describe. Describing is putting words on the experience. For instance, you might say “I feel very happy” or “my heart is racing” or “the thought ‘I am a bad person’ has entered my mind”. It is noticing “hmm, I think this emotion I feel is called ‘sad'”, as well as saying to yourself “ah! That is just a thought and it is not necessarily true just because I am thinking it!” Describing involves just the facts– not your interpretations or opinions. When describing, it is best to stick to things that you can observe. So, for instance, you can observe that you are looking at a painting, and that you are experiencing disgust, and that you are having the thought ‘this is a terribly ugly painting’; you cannot observe that the painting is a hideous blight upon creation and the painter ought to be strung up in the public square as a lesson to the others.
How to practice describing: Describe things you interact with– for instance, try to describe (to yourself, or on a piece of paper) everything you can observe about a piece of jewelry, a leaf, or your toothbrush. Describe what other people are doing– without putting in intentions or outcomes you didn’t observe– and check with them to see if you got it right. Do the stepping-away-from-and-observing-your-thoughts thing, except this time when you step away from your thoughts, try classifying them into whatever system you like– “this is a thought about meditation, this is an emotion, this is a thought about that person I’m angry at…” Describe your breathing: “I am exhaling, I am inhaling”.
Participate. Participating is throwing yourself into the current experience. Both observing and describing are just tools to help you participate. Think about learning a new dance: when you’re just starting, you spend a lot of time noticing where your feet are and saying to yourself “left right TURN, left right TURN”, but when it’s clicked, you just dance. Similarly, we often have to drop into observing and describing when something isn’t working quite right, but eventually the goal is to get to participating.
How to practice participating: For some reason, a lot of people are really good at participating when music is involved, and for that reason two of the best ways to practice participating are by dancing and singing. You can also try exercising and focusing on exercising, taking an improv class and focusing on improv, or having a conversation with a friend and focusing on the conversation. If you prefer a more meditative way of doing things, you can try to “become” the breath, a mantra, the numbers when you’re counting your breath, etc.
Nonjudgmentally. This is the skill I have had the hardest goddamn time understanding and it literally clicked, like, two weeks ago. So I am going to do my best to explain it.
“Nonjudgmentally” does not mean not recognizing that some things are helpful and some things are harmful, some things are safe and some things are dangerous. It means that you recognize that all those things are facts about you, your value system, and your preferences, not facts about the thing. “This painting is ugly” is not a fact; “this painting is puce, and I am very unhappy about having to look at this painting” is a fact.
This is a fairly trivial distinction when applied to paintings, but much more important when applied to people. “I am bad” is not a fact; “I do not have a job, which means I cannot donate to charity, which is incompatible with my effective altruist values” is a fact. And the latter is– generally– much more empowering than the former. That’s a thing you can fix! It suggests action steps! “Bad” is not solvable. Similarly, “this person is good” is not a fact; “this person makes me happy to spend time with” is a fact, which allows one to acknowledge negative aspects of that person’s company if they happen to exist.
When you find yourself judging, it is very important not to judge your judging. Do not go “oh no! I am judging! That is terrible and wrongbadevil!” I know some of you scrupulous people are going to do that, and that is literally the exact opposite of the point and gets you nowhere.
How to practice nonjudgmentalness: Observe and describe your judgments, both in terms of thoughts (“I think this painting is ugly”) and in terms of postures, expressions, and voice tones (“I am being sarcastic about this painting”). It can help to make a game of trying to count as many of them as you can (which also helps with the “judging judging” issue, because your emotional reaction shifts to “yay! Found another one!”). You can write out a just-the-facts description of what you did today, something which triggered a strong emotion, or something important that happened to you, leaving out why something happened and whether it was bad or not. Try replacing judgmental statements with nonjudgmental statements of the facts of the situation, the consequences of the events, and your feelings about the whole business. If you are angry at someone, try to imagine their own point of view: their history, their wishes, their emotions, their fears, their thoughts.
One-mindfully. Be present in the moment. Do one thing at a time. When you’re walking, walk; when you’re talking, talk; when you’re worrying, worry; when you’re remembering, remember; when you’re planning, plan. If you are distracted by other actions or other thoughts or strong feelings, go back to what you are doing, again and again and again. Single-task.
Doing more than one thing at a time makes you more inefficient and less capable of learning. Don’t do it. One thing at a time, please. (Please note that I am writing this blog post while drinking tea, eating cheese, and half-listening to a conversation about Supergirl.)
How to practice one-mindfulness: Select some everyday task and attempt to focus only on that task– cleaning house, making coffee, washing the dishes, showering, brushing your teeth. A mindfulness meditation practice is also practice in one-mindfulness. In my experience, after a while of regular mindfulness practice, occasionally you’ll snap into one-mindfulness without even trying. It’s pretty nifty.
Effectively. Now, in some ways, this is a pretty difficult thing. How do we know what ‘effectiveness’ is? On the other hand, you can make tremendous gains in effectiveness just by not doing stupid shit for no reason. Keep track of what your goals are in the situation, and do what is necessary to achieve them. Focus on what works, not on what your emotional urges are telling you to do. Do what is needed for the situation you’re in, not the one you’d like to be in, the one that you would be in if the world were fair, the one that you would be in if so-and-so would just behave like a reasonable human being, or the one that would be much more comfortable. Don’t be willful.
How to practice effectiveness: Make a list of emotions that consistently cause you to be ineffective. Very common ones include anger, hatred, shame, and the desire to be “right”. When you notice those emotions, ask yourself “is this effective?” For me, I’ve noticed that “wilfullness” is actually a particular emotion that I can notice– when I see my inner two-year-old throwing a “I DON’T WANNA” tantrum, I know it is time to do what is effective.