Mindfulness: observing what we experience

After a brief detour into the world of emotional intelligence, let’s get back to the foundation of all DBT skills, mindfulness. There are two skills that can help you achieve that middle-ground state of Wise Mind. As we discussed earlier, Wise Mind is that midway point between Emotion Mind and Rational Mind. It embraces qualities of both while producing a sense of peaceful calm. It is the ideal state of mind in which to make choices.

Remember also that it is not possible to remain in Wise Mind all the time. Some situations call for the exclusive use of either Rational or Emotion mind. Emergencies often require us to use 100% Rational Mind. Processing emotions in the middle of a house fire is probably not the best use of Emotion Mind. However, Emotion Mind is perfect for showing sympathy when a loved one is sick or has passed away. Can you think of other examples?

Achieving a state of mindfulness involves focusing our attention. It matters HOW we focus our attention and WHAT we focus on. This time we will be discussing on WHAT we focus our attention by learning to Observe our experiences.


Many times we wander through life, only vaguely aware of the world around us. We rarely take the time to focus our attention on anything, even our own experiences. Mindfulness involves paying attention to our own experiences. Observing our experiences without letting our emotions get in the way, especially the ones we don’t like, takes some practice. You’ve already been introduced to this concept in the first Mindfulness article. Now let’s explore some practical tips that will help you observe more mindfully.

Staying in the present

Pay attention your experiences by focusing on the sensations of each experience. Most of the time, we get distracted by the emotions and experience triggers. Those emotions pull us into the past or drag us into the future rather than allowing us to stay in the moment. In order to observe with our five senses, we need to create mental space within which to observe. When we use our mental energy to focus on the physical sensations of an experience, our mind doesn’t have room to distract us.

Teflon Mind

By observing our sensations, we avoid attachment to the experience.  It prevents us from getting overwhelmed by any emotions that appear. So in essence we begin to have a “Teflon mind”. The thoughts and emotions slide right off without becoming attached to us. It’s not that we don’t feel or think. It’s just that these thoughts and emotions have no power over us. We can think and feel about an experience without becoming paralyzed or controlled by them.

Standing guard

When we create this mental space for observing, we are now in control of our attention. This behavior is like setting up a mental guard. We now get to decide which emotions and thoughts we want to incorporate into our self-concept and which we want to toss out. Observing also gives us the ability to stay in the present. Thoughts and feelings can push us into the future with worry or drag us back into the past with regret and pain. Even if they are positive (anticipation, nostalgia, etc.), they still take us away from the here and now.

How does this apply to migraine?

This can really benefit us when we experience anticipation, fear, or anxiety about impending attacks. For those who get frequent attacks, thoughts of the next attack are nearly always present. Those thoughts can easily overwhelm us, especially when exposed to a trigger.

Here’s an example from my own life.

I was walking in to a store when I was exposed to cigarette smoke. An employee was standing next to the door and smoking. Technically, she was outside, so smoking was not prohibited. I was in a hurry and did not take the opportunity to hold my breath. This is a protective measure I normally take when entering or exiting a building. Unfortunately I got a generous whiff of the smoke and instantly began to feel the beginning of a cluster attack, which I knew from experience, would trigger a migraine, too.

Emotions in charge

My initial reaction was anger. I was mad at the employee and also at the company for allowing such behavior. This employee was also the one at the register when I checked out. I saw that her nametag identified her as the Manager. My anger increased and my inhibitions disappeared. That’s when my smart mouth got the better of me.

“You should really think about how smoking right outside the door affects your customers. I get terrible migraines from cigarette smoke. Your insensitivity just cost me at least four hours of pain and a $20 dose of medicine all for a $5 purchase here. I don’t think I will be returning.”

She stood still, shocked by my comment, and mumbled, “I’m sorry.”

I stormed out the door, grumbling, “Sorry isn’t good enough. Change your behavior.”

Attachment to the past

It could have been worse. I’ve said uglier things to people in the past.  It’s still an example of emotions in charge of an experience. Had I been observing the event mindfully, it might have ended differently. I allowed anger to drag me back to all the experiences in which others had been insensitive to my health needs. While I didn’t take all those feelings out on the store manager, they did stick with me for at least a few hours. They robbed me of the opportunity to fully experience anything else for a few hours. Strong emotions also eliminated the option to gently educate the woman and possibly gain an ally who would share that new knowledge with others. Feeling anger wasn’t the problem. Anger in control limited my options.


I could have acknowledged my anger and my fear while still observing everything with my five senses.  Putting my observing skills into practice that day would have given me a chance to decide how to respond. Instead, I allowed anger to make that choice for me. Looking back, I would have preferred to go home satisfied that one more person knew the truth about migraine.

Practice with the easy stuff

This isn’t easy to do when you a caught off guard by an experience, like I was. Despite all my DBT training, this experience surprised me and I got caught in an emotional hijacking. That’s why it’s best to practice these skills on minor annoyances. When you practice using simple challenges, you build your skills through repeated successes. Greater success equals more confidence. Even still, adjust your expectations. Few people can observe mindfully 100% of the time.

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