Core Mindfulness – Part two (‘What’ skills)

So moving on from the states of mind discussed in Part one, I will now move on to the skills taught in the core mindfulness module. All these skills, when used, can be used to attain Wise mind and to help with anxiety, depression, stress, poor sleep, destructive behaviours – the list goes on. They also directly combat the symptom of BPD that we have no ‘self of sense’ or we have ‘confusion of self’. They can also help to fight dissociation.

Mindfulness can be broken down into six distinct skills, and in this post I am going to discuss the first three, known as ‘What’ skills; (Note: Each skill must be done separately – they cannot be done all at once)

1. Observing – this skill involves seeing, sensing or feeling without actually labeling, describing or judging things. The eventual goal is to be have a ‘quiet mind’ when you can experience things without thinking about them. You need to notice an experience, but not react to it.

Some tips on how to observe successfully;

  • Try to let thoughts and feelings come in to your mind, and slip out again
  • Imagine yourself like a guard at a gate: noticing every thought and feeling that comes through that gate (The gate is your mind)
  • Try to step away inside yourself and watch the thoughts coming and going, like clouds in the sky. *Note – if you step outside yourself you are then dissociating – that is not what we are aiming for
  • Observe feelings: smell, pressure, temperature, sound, light – but be careful not to label or judge them (Judging is basically labeling them good or bad)
  • Avoid getting caught in the experience; let feelings and emotions go
  • Experience the moment, do not push feelings away or cling to them
  • Imagine your mind is made of Teflon – it is non stick and thoughts slip away (This is known as ‘Teflon Mind’)
  • Realise that your attention can go where you direct it – so you do not have to give attention to traumatic or destructive thoughts if you do not want to
  • Identify thoughts as thoughts, feelings as feelings, emotions as emotions, desires and desires and conflicts as conflicts.
  • Feelings rise and fall like waves in the ocean
  • To observe successfully you need to be both slightly detached (separating within yourself) and still attached (avoiding dissociation)
  • You must not use words to describe what you are experiencing; you need to just experience it without labeling it

Some exercises to practice;

  • Observe other peoples facial expressions without judging them
  • Observe your hand touching something – a cool surface, a warm surface, a wet surface
  • ‘Watch’ your mind and observe the first thought that comes into it (If it helps, imagine a conveyor belt and you are waiting for your luggage to arrive at the airport)
  • Imagine your mind as the sky, and your thoughts are clouds, drifting by. Observe them but do not try to cling to them
  • It is inevitable that you will become distracted (I do!), don’t worry, just observe the fact that you became distracted, then re-focus
  • Stroke your arm, and feel the sensation. Stop stroking and notice how long it takes to stop being able to feel your fingers touching your skin.
  • Listen to music, and instead of allowing yourself to enjoy the music as a whole, try to pick out single instruments or voices. Be careful not to ‘judge’ the music (like it/dislike it).

Interesting note: Being able to ‘step back’ from a situation provides a space for you to be able to think, and deal with a situation rather than reacting to it immediately. To me, this would indicate being is Wise Mind.

2. Describing – Where observing is simply noticing without judging, describing goes one step further and labels the experience using descriptive words. Describing is stating the facts – not judging (evaluating something to be good or bad). Describing could be saying “This water is hot”, “This towel is wet”, “My foot is painful”.

The following is an example of a dysfunctional thought pattern in an exam situation:

‘Stomach muscles tightening – the exam is starting – I am going to fail the exam – I am stupid’

The following is an example of how I think describing could be used in this situation:

‘Stomach muscles tightening – the exam is starting – describe the sensation of stomach muscles tightening – gain wise mind – understand that the stomach muscles tightening is a physical reaction to anxiety and is not related to your intelligence or whether or not you will fail the exam

Some tips of how to describe successfully;

  • Being able to describe effectively will make you self-aware – you will be able to recognise an emotion, and label it
  • Describing allows thoughts to be distinguished from facts, by describing thoughts as thoughts and facts as facts (Don’t get tied up describing the content of things, just concentrate on what they are)
  • As above, realise thoughts are not fact; Feeling afraid does not necessarily mean the situation is dangerous
  • Describing can be used later when doing skills homework (I will discuss this when I get to it)
  • Being able to describe your feelings and observe your environment will allow you to understand the relationship between the two and the direct effect the environment has on your emotions
  • Being able to describe emotions will allow you to seek the correct type of support, for example, describing the fact you are suicidal (emergency support), upset (friend), injured (hospital)
  • Describing helps to keep us in the present and can fight dissociation
  • Describing helps us to communicate effectively with people; “I feel hurt”, “I feel scared”, “I feel worried”
  • Don’t interpret feelings – just describe them as they are

Some exercises to practice;

  • Imagine a conveyor belt inside your mind, and picking off each emotion or thought and putting them into their separate boxes (label them as thought, emotion, fact, feeling, sensation)
  • Whilst listening to music, describe it (do not judge it). What does it sound like? How loud is it? Is it soothing, exciting, fast, slow?
  • Have a massage. Describe how it feels. Is it painful? Is it relaxing? Does it tickle. (Do not judge it)

3. Participating – Participating is the third ‘what’ skill and describes totally entering into an experience, and completely forgetting yourself. Actions are intuitive (so come from Wise Mind). Examples include ballroom dancing, riding a bike, or driving a car. Participating can only be achieved through practicing skills so often that they become second nature, and they do not need conscious thought and attention to be carried out. Participation is the ultimate goal of mindfulness and can only be achieved through practice, practice, practice!

Some tips of how to describe successfully;

  • Participating is being totally present and aware during an experience
  • Let go of self consciousness (The way I think about being self conscious is having part of yourself being separated during an experience and worrying about what people think of you)
  • Completely forget yourself
  • Learning to participate is a little like learning to play the piano; At the beginning you really have to focus on where the notes are and in which order to play them. After practice, your fingers find the notes intuitively.
  • Being ‘in the moment’ can allow us to leave bad emotions, problems and distressing thoughts behind (can be useful in destructive or distressing situations
  • Participating fully can feel peaceful, calm and controlled. It can feel like relief, it can make you feel alive.

A little story that might help to understand (I had to think about it a little before it really sank in!);

‘One day the Buddha was speaking to a prince. The prince asked him, “What do you and your monks do in your monastery?”
The Buddha said, “We sit and we walk and we eat.”
The prince said, “How are you different, then, from my people, for we do those things as well?”
The Buddha responded, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”’

This is very true, for me at least. How many times do you find yourself eating whilst watching the TV, and not really tasting what you are eating? The temperature of the food? The texture? The taste?

Some exercises to practice;

  • Eat a fruit, and be aware of everything; the texture, the taste, the temperature.
  • Drive your car, but try to observe everything possible (Do you ever drive a regular journey, get home and not remember any of the journey? Notice how when you are lost and looking for directions you will notice a lot more)
  • Playing sport (tennis, squash)

A little last note, I am now trying to practice observing, describing and participating on a regular basis. However a lot of the time, when I try to ‘watch’ thoughts come in to my mind, nothing arrives. It’s almost as though my mind knows the game I’m playing and doesn’t want to play ball. Hence – I don’t have the opportunity to label and describe thoughts and emotions. Perhaps I am unable to step away inside myself – to separate away and hence be able to view my thoughts and emotions from a separate place. If anyone has any tips or advice for me, I would really appreciate it.

Some Useful Links;
Mindfulness Activities


Dr Kathleen Young – treating trauma –

DBT Self Help –

DBT Self Help –


  1. […] I have pretty much covered all the parts of the Core Mindfulness Module, in Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four & finally Part five. Core mindfulness, I am beginning to realise, is at […]

  2. […] reality, events as they happen, but this does not mean you approve of them. It is very important to observe the difference between acceptance and approval. Acceptance is an example of using non-judgmental […]

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