This week we are on to Participate from the Mindfulness section of the DBT skills.
Participate is the final “What” skill from Mindfulness in DBT. This skill is all about throwing ourselves into the present moment completely. So, the answer to the question, “What can I do to be mindful,” is to Observe, Describe, and Participate.
Almost all of us have examples of times we have lost ourselves in something we are doing. Growing up, I was into sports and could become one with shooting a basketball or playing a basketball game with friends. I’ve also lost myself in playing my guitar or playing music with other people. Sometimes I get totally focused on reading a book, having a conversation with someone, or simply sitting in nature and just completely giving myself to the experience.
So, hopefully, you have an example or two when you have unknowingly fully participated in something. I have many more examples of times I’ve split my mind between things or really wanted to leave somewhere, or tried to half-way participate in something. You probably have lots of those examples as well. If we go all the way back to the ‘why’s’ of mindfulness, like why would we even want to practice this stuff, it’s to let go of suffering and to experience the world as it is.
Here’s an example from my life of letting go of suffering. It may be a silly example and it’s one I’ve shared in skills classes a number of times, so if you’ve already heard it you can skip down a bit. I have been with my wife since we were in high school (collective, “Ah, how sweet.”) I did not take her to prom because I was so afraid of dancing in front of people. It was not my best decision.
It became clear that it was important to her to dance with me at an event like that and I took that away from her because I was too afraid. I don’t really understand it, and I don’t need to. So, I realized my error and then it was clear that I ‘had’ to dance with her at weddings, charity events, pretty much anything that had a dance floor.
To begin with, I’d dance and also just be waiting for it to get over. “Once this song is done, I can sit down.” It was kind of miserable. I tolerated it, but did not enjoy any of it. I also know now that it wasn’t quite what my wife wanted. See, she wanted us to be out there and just enjoy the moment.
Once I was introduced to DBT and the mindfulness skills, I started doing things a little differently. I’d walk out there on the dance floor hand in hand and attempt to focus only on her. To begin with, that would last a few seconds and then I would start thinking about what others were thinking about me. Were they thinking I did not know what I was doing? How many people were judging me?
I would then notice that and bring my attention back to my wife, and the process would happen again. We danced at every function we went to (sometimes multiple in a year, sometimes less) and my attention would get a little bit longer each time. Over the course of some years, the anxiety began to go down because I practiced throwing myself into the experience on purpose. We had years in which we went to multiple weddings and charity events, which gave me more practice. Yes, there was anxiety there that I had to face. Yes, I went ahead and pushed into it anyway, using a combination of focusing on why I was doing this and encouragement that I could do this and would feel better for having done so.
Sometimes, I’d be exhausted afterward because I had to put in so much effort. And I always felt a little bit of accomplishment.
That is, until one evening, at a charity event for Epworth Children and Family Services. The time came at the end of the evening when the band came back out and the dance floor opened up. I looked at my lovely wife and said, “You want to dance,” and she nodded yes and we walked out onto the dance floor. The band had started playing and I was totally present with her. I did not have any thoughts about how people might be judging me or anything else on my mind except for the dancing. I paid attention to the two of us and how we were moving. I paid attention to where we were so we did not run into anyone. I was focused simply on the two of us and moving my body to the music. And then the music ended and my wife said, “I think I’m done.”
I was totally prepared to stay out there and dance to the next song. The repeated practicing of the Participate skill meant that eventually I was able to just pay attention to what I was doing and enjoy the moments dancing. I never thought I’d get to that point, and I did.
So, Participate can be used for things we enjoy as well as things that we don’t enjoy yet. I was able to let go of the ‘suffering’ that I had done on the dance floor over the years and just be in those moments. In my opinion, that’s where the skill part of Participate really comes in. It can be a way to transform times we are not looking forward to into something that we can still enjoy, or at least not hate.
We’d love to hear any ways that you have used Participate if you are willing to share.