How to Mindfully Observe - DBT Skill

Observing is one of the first steps in engaging in anything. It is also the first step in the mindfulness "WHAT" skills group. Or in mindfulness period. You can observe your breath just as you can observe the words in a conversation. Maybe you're observing the part of you resting on the seat to feel more grounded. Maybe you are observing the car's in the traffic before you or your journey on a walk. To do each mindfully, you'll have to be present to the sensations in the now. Any thoughts about the past, the future, any worries or fantasies are distractions.

Observing things mindfully takes practice but it is useful in bringing down our racing thoughts. It can also calm us in a moment of panic such as observing your breath only when you are in a dark spidery basement. I've had to do that multiple times when doing laundry at a house I rented.

When we are stuck somewhere and feeling uncomfortable, we may choose to observe the photos on a wall and all the spots of green we can notice. Create a little game or challenge. You can use observation as a distraction technique whenever you need. Or it can simply be to gain information or get the most out of an experience. To complete a task or activity more effectively. We may observe the thoughts in our brain and notice which are past, or future thoughts, judgemental thoughts, catastrophizing thoughts. Doing so we establish that we are not our thoughts and that we can direct them to healthier places.

How to Observe

Focusing the mind: We can use a sensory focus to observe, such as observing the rise and fall of our chest as we take deep breaths in and out. We may also feel our hands on the table, how the sun feels on our skin, or consider a mantra like “wise mind.” Tommy, for example, is feeling nervous at a BBQ. But instead of wondering what people are thinking of him, he decides to focus on the way the wind whooshes around him and the other guests, sounding almost wavelike. He decides to bring his attention to the soothing sound of the wind until he’s able to introduce himself to someone.

Opening the mind: Instead of focusing on specific qualities, objects, or activities, we focus our attention on observing or watching whatever comes into awareness as it comes in, and as it goes out. Without pursuing them, we may notice emotions, thoughts, and sensations that pop up as a result. Opening the mind is more challenging than focusing the mind.

It reminds me of working at a factory, and having to rearrange items on a conveyor belt. You only have a second to work on each individual piece before it flashes past. Then comes the other piece and then the other. The most skilled workers understood not to fuss over a piece you’ve messed up on. Trying to stretch over and fix it before it becomes out of reach only makes you miss the other portions zipping by.
Life is a bit like that. If you focus on what has just past you cannot fully observe the present and respond accordingly. The key is to expand awareness to moment-to-moment experiences. If you fully participate in this skill, you will notice it becomes like second nature. I was struggling at first at the conveyor belt, feeling all types of disoriented but my coworkers who were there for years were able to sing and have conversations. Rearranging the products on the line was a mere automation, such as blinking.

Practice Observing

1. Beginner’s mind: Each moment in the Universe is completely new. In a beginner's mind, we focus our minds on noticing the experience of each moment as new and unique. There is no judgment or expectations. We try to observe things with the eyes of a curious child who experiences everything for the first time.

2. Teflon or “Non-Stick” Mind: Allow emotions, thoughts, images, and sensations to come and go. The idea of a Teflon mind is to let all experiences flow out of the mind rather than holding onto them or pushing experiences away. This is helpful when dealing with distractions or intruding thoughts. Remember we don’t ever try to stop or shut out our thoughts, as this is the best way to keep having them. We simply observe the new moment fully, releasing our unwanted thoughts. With enough practice of fully engaging in the present, the unwanted thoughts will have no choice but to be non-sticking.

3. Keep returning the mind to the present observation: The mind will eventually veer off to think of something unnecessary or unhelpful in the moment, but the key is to catch it and bring it back to observe the present. You may be reading this right now, for instance, but thinking about a past event or what you have to do right after. Catch your wandering “untrained” thoughts like fishes in a net, and bring it back to the mindful observation of the words here. It’s through the catching and returning of the thoughts that you build your “mindfulness muscle.” This goes for simply breathing and training your mind to focus on your breath. Again, mindfulness “What Skills” are to be one at a time. This is a great skill to practice for people with ruminating thoughts, anxiety, or ADHD.

4. Practice Wordless Watching - Observe Without Describing. Adding descriptions are needed when we are trying to draw conclusions about something, but because not all descriptions are based on facts, it’s good to practice letting go of them. We may hear someone laugh for example and describe it as “mean” or “the person is laughing at me.” We might hear a dog bark and think, “that’s an aggressive bark.” As you can see, adding descriptions are making assumptions about our experience. Observing is noticing the sound of the laugh of the bark and that’s it. We no longer consider it.

Other ways to practice observing:

  • Watch the clouds in the sky or the movement of the cars while outside.

  • Notice the facial expressions of another person, refraining from labeling the person’s emotion, thoughts, or interests.

  • Pick up something and try to notice every detail without adding words.

  • Notice just one feature of someone or an animal.

  • Listen to the texture, pitch, or shape of a sound without assuming what it is.

  • When cooking, notice the aroma of the food and spices.

  • When showering, notice the scent of the soap and any steam that fills the air.

  • When eating something, pay attention to the taste, texture, and nothing else.

  • Sit for a few minutes and observe an urge without judging or acting on it.

  • Gently pinch a part of your body. Notice the sensations. Stop pinching yourself and notice how long it takes before the sensation wears.

  • Observe the movements of your chest or stomach while you breathe.

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