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  • Jeff Brenneman

Just Notice, That's All

In DBT the Core skills are the Mindfulness skills. The Mindfulness skills are the pathways to Wise Mind. Didn't see the post about Wise Mind? Check out last week. We have 6 skills in the Mindfulness section to tackle next. Three are “What” we do to be mindful, and 3 are “How” we do skills.


The first of the “What” skills is Observe.


Many people who are first learning mindfulness, in my experience, have a very hard time with Observe. Our brain jumps super fast to put a label on something. In the room I am currently sitting in there are 2 chairs. They both perform the same function and look quite different from each other. “Chair” is a label I attach to the item and it helps us to be able to communicate about things. ‘Have a seat in the red chair,’ would alert you to the particular chair to sit in.


Observe is what happens before we attach any label to something. It’s the experience before that. It is the raw data and experience that happen as things come into our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Before I call that chair ‘red’ there’s an experience without words. When you read the word ‘red’ you probably had a color that popped up in your head and maybe you envisioned a red chair. There are sooooo many different types of red that our labels cannot capture the experience of seeing a particular red chair. As a matter of fact, the chair I’m referencing is somewhere between red and orange. I see red, and a lot of other people see more orange. The experience before that label is observe.


I’ve had several people over the years argue that 'observe' does not exist, that the labeling is automatic. Those folks did not end up believing that after they started practicing. Those people began practicing mindfulness and discovered that there is something before we put a label on something. Sometimes it takes practice to notice without words, and you can get there.


The handout in DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets also mentions, “wordless watching,” where we are simply letting things pass by like clouds in the sky. Not trying to order and label the world, rather simply letting it be. Not necessarily trying to figure out what that smell is or what that sound is. Yep, it takes practice to get there. And, in my experience, sometimes I can observe and sometimes I cannot. And sometimes I don’t want to. That's where that Wise Mind skill or Willingness (more on that later) come in.


We can observe both outside and inside ourselves. What is the sensation before you say, “I’m hungry?” What are the sensations you notice before you say, ‘I’m sad,” or any other of a myriad of possibilities.


When we practice Observe, we are simply letting experience come and go.

Sit and listen and simply notice sounds without trying to identify them. Look around and simply notice without labeling items you see. This probably won't be possible immediately. You may have to try again and again and again and get frustrated that you cannot do it, until you do.

It's also important to know that attempting is success. So, if you attempt to use Observe, give yourself credit for doing it, even if you don’t stay there very long. Then attempt to use it again, and again, and again.


Also remember that it is hard to try new things and you cannot be practiced at doing something until after you have practiced.


Thanks for reading. We would love to hear from you. jbrenneman@lifeworkstl.com, if you have any comments.


If you want some videos of LifeWork clinicians teaching skills, go here www.lifeworkstl.com/courses


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