a boat in a stormy sea
Coping Skills

Mindfulness 101 – Observe, Describe, and Participate

Possibly the most helpful, life transforming skill I’ve ever learned in Mindfulness. Mindfulness is very deep in practice, but getting started can be simple. First, I observe; then I describe; then, much more follows.

When I was first taught Mindfulness, I was given a set of concepts. There were three “What” concepts, and then three “How” concepts. The “What” concepts are “Observe”, “Describe”, and “Participate”. Let’s start with Observe.

To observe a situation, one separates himself from it and just looks. He doesn’t judge it, or form opinions, or even use it to discover or learn. He just looks at it and sees it for what it is. The idea is to fill the mind with exactly one thing so that it can push out the worries and other distracting and harmful thoughts. Immediately following that is “Describe”. In this, one simply says, either out loud or even in his head, what he sees.

Allow me to give an example. In a previous post, I talked about observing and describing, although I did not use that terminology. Check out that post if you’d like to see that in practice. I’ll give another brief example for this post, however. One time, I was at work, and many things went wrong over and over. As my day seemed to get worse and worse, I knew that I had the rapport with my boss to be able to say how I was feeling. I don’t generally advise saying this out loud, but I said “I am feeling such intense rage that I want to yell and smash things.” I actually said those words very calmly. I just stated it as fact rather than getting caught up in it. This way, I dragged myself into thinking rationally when I had a lot of emotion going on. My boss expressed surprise that I felt such strong emotions because from the outside, I didn’t even seem distressed. I was able to do that by stepping outside of things, swapping to Observing and Describing rather than getting tossed about by my emotions. Sometimes when I think about powerful emotions, I think of myself in terms of a phrase in the Bible about being “the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind”. (Not actually the context of that verse, but the imagery is still helpful.)

Now what good does it do to avoid emotion forever? In the long term, none. That is why we move to the next step, Participate. Now that I have separated myself from being driven and tossed about in a sea of emotions, I have control. But I can’t bury my emotions forever. And so I take a look at them. I look at the rage, or fear, or whatever else I’m feeling. And now I picture myself wading into the sea. I feel it, but I am steady. I use a lot of mental imagery and here, I use the imagery of me treading water in the middle of the ocean during a storm. But I am the only thing to remain in place. The sea moves chaotically, the rain pelts the waves, but I remain steady. In this way, I feel the powerful emotions that push and pull and make a scene in my mind, but I can feel it while retaining my control. In that context, the waves of emotion and distress pass over time. They calm, and I remain well.

This may be a bit odd to read, as it is a very personal experience of the “What” skills. I hope it makes sense to some, but my Gentle Readers, please do adapt it to your needs. Everyone will approach this differently. I would love to hear how others do it. As a way of retelling the idea, I will post the “Litany against fear” as written by Frank Herbert in his book, Dune. It is repeated several times in the book because of its great importance, and I found it helpful as a child. I hope it can encourage someone here, too.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Frank Herbert – Dune

This is one of the most important things I ever learned. Amazingly, it is only the beginning of Mindfulness, and so I look forward to exploring further. Thank you for learning with me.

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

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March 24, 2020