Dbt stories: mindfulness practice


Mindfulness is the art of putting your attention where you want it, when you want it there.

Mindfulness is a practice, like swimming. You build your muscles for mindfulness by intentionally and repeatedly focusing your attention on the present moment. Mediation is an option for doing this, as its simply focusing your attention on your breath–and every time your mind wanders, bringing it back to the breath.

You can apply that same attention to any task you are doing. Focus on the task at hand and when you attention wanders, catch yourself and bring it back. This practice is how you develop that mindfulness ability.

Mindfulness is also expanded awareness of your own experience (sensations, thoughts, emotions) and the environment around you.  Mindfulness awareness gives you the ability to release from urges, clinging and the suffering that comes from acting on our conditioned impulses.  

Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment without judgment. 

In DBT, mindfulness is the foundation of all the other skills. 

We have to be aware of our emotions and our thoughts to engage with skills.  We have to be mindful of our behavior, our reactions, our environment. 

Mindfulness frees us from being dragged around by our emotions and tortured by rumination. 

Instead, we become the observer of our own experiences, which gives us choices.

For all of us, thoughts will arise.  There is no way to control the clatter of thoughts that your mind will cough up.  But Mindfulness practice teaches how to move our awareness where we want to so that we can dramatically reduce our experience of suffering.

By being aware, you can make conscious decisions about where you want your mind to be and how you want to behave. To do that, you have to develop your mindfulness muscles.  The only way to develop Mindfulness skills (or any other DBT skill), is to practice. 

In weight training, you have to lift weights. 

Learning to play an instrument, you have to pick up the instrument and play it.

Swimming, you have to get in the pool and kick and stroke and breath–or you aren’t swimming. 

You won’t learn Mindfulness or other skills just by reading about them or listening to a podcast about them. 

You have to practice.  

At the end of this chapter you will find a variety of ideas for training your mind to be in the present moment.  

I hope the following story will give you a sense of how amazing mindfulness can be when you have practiced. Mindfulness can literally save your life!


by Diana Partington

“Anklets are for putas and barracudas!” Kelly’s grandmother would snicker knowingly, watching tourists head for the beach in cheap jewelry they purchased from peddlers. “Dos’ barracudas gonna take a bite out of dos breasts!”

Barracudas are known for being drawn to the glint of jewelry, mistaking it for a fish, then swiftly biting off the shiny object.  For swimmers, that could mean the loss of a foot, or a finger—or sometimes a breast.  In the same way that American kids exposed to Jaws grew up petrified of sharks, growing up in Jamaica, Kelly and her sister dreaded the silver fish with big teeth known for biting off human appendages. Yet she loved the water.

Kelly struggled to manage the stress of Medical School.  The 12-hour hospital rotations made it impossible to maintain a regular sleep schedule.  Sleep had always been her best defense against surging bouts of anxiety.  Grabbing junk food on the go from a vending machine in the break room wrecked her efforts at balanced eating.  Not to mention making terrifying decisions about how to take care of patients.  The humility of having to ask her attending physicians for help made her feel like an idiot.  And there was nothing she hated more than feeling incompetent.

She needed the buoyancy and release of moving through water.  All summer and into the fall, she developed her mindfulness muscle with ‘Mindful Swimming’.  Instead of letting her mind wander into planning or worrying, once she slid into the swimming pool, she would focus all of her attention and awareness on both the experience of swimming, as well as repeating the Mantra, “Present Moment, Only moment.” 

“Present Moment, Only Moment” means simply there is no other moment than this moment.  There is no need to fall into the future, or dwell on the past.  It’s a reminder to be here now with what is actually happening in this moment.

When intrusive thoughts came (as they do for everyone), she caught hold of her mind and gently brought it back to the phrase “Present Moment, Only moment”.  Each time she would catch her mind wandering, and gently bring it back to the mantra, she was developing her synaptic pathways for placing her awareness where she wanted it to be, rather than on the ghosts of the past or the specters of the future.  Stroke after stroke, lap after lap, day after day.

Little did she know that this practice might save her life.

Then in November, Kelly and her sister took a trip to the British Virgin Islands.  The sisters liked to vacation on islands in the Caribbean.  It felt like home without all the pressures and expectations of visiting the extended family.  

They made friends with a couple that had a little dingy with an outboard motor. So convenient for visiting remote beaches!  One day the four decided to take the dingy to a sand bar about two miles from the shore where the swift currents had pushed up the sand to create a tiny island.   

The girls had bought anklets and cute bathing suits at the bazaar the day before. Kelly and her sister teased each other, imitating their grandmother’s beach trip warnings in her strong island accent.

Kelly and her friends sipped Red Stripe beer and munched on fresh mango, as the dingy zipped through the water.   The breeze played with their hair and the Rasta beads that dangled from the cleavage of their new suits.  “Dat’s barracuda bait, hangin’ from your breast der girl!”   Kelly teased wickedly. 

“Maybe these suits weren’t such a great idea, Grandmama did have a point, you know?” Her sister replied with a look of concern, gazing down through the clear water in search of threatening marine life. 

Just then the engine began to sputter. Spit, spit, clonk, clonk.  And silence. Followed by the water lapping against the boat and the sound of their friend pulling the ignition again and again to no avail.   The motor did not cooperate.  The vast expanse of the ocean became suddenly much more imposing.

Kelly estimated that they were about a mile and a half from shore, but the current was pushing them further out to sea by the minute.  “We better row for shore.”

The oars struggled against that current.  As hard as they rowed, the shore continued to recede. It was very possible that they would be pulled far enough out to be lost at sea.

Kelly gauged the increasing distance to the beach.  She turned to her sister “cut off my anklet and these beads.  I am going to swim to shore and find a boat to pull you back.” 

Kelly was a strong swimmer who had grown up beating the current.  Her companions thought this was a fool-hardy mission.  No life guard would have approved. But the dread that plagued her wasn’t the current. It was of the forty-foot depth and whatever might be swimming there.  With a knife from the picnic basket, they made quick work of her ‘barracuda bait’.   She put her goggles on and slipped into the water, pushing off from the dingy and swimming hard for the coast.

As she swam, she watched in all directions.  She could see all the way to the ocean floor.  The water was that clear.  And she could scan to her left, right and straight ahead.  Occasionally, she stopped swimming to look behind her.  The dingy drifted further and further away, until there really was no going back.  Suddenly, the distance between her and anyway to get out of the water became overwhelming.

“Is that a barracuda?  What is that?  Was that a flash of silver?”

Each time she saw a shiver of light, her mind leaped to the worst possible scenerios.  She could imagine a school of barracuda’s swimming towards her from the distance, then surrounding and attacking her vulnerable body.  She would have no way of defending herself. 

The pull of the current was tiring her muscles.  The cold water, the intense exercise was helping keep the panic at bay.  But as she grew more fatigued, she felt increasingly helpless.

Then she thought she saw some silver fish in the distance and the back of her neck began to prickle with terror.  And she felt a paralysis creeping over her muscles.  The onset of a panic attack.

Therapists are fond of telling clients that you can’t die from a panic attack.  However, the exception to that is in the water. 

In the water, a panic attack is called drowning.   

She took off her goggles, so that her vision wouldn’t be quite so clear. ‘I don’t want to see it coming,’ she thought, ‘whatever is out there it isn’t happening in this moment. The greatest danger is not an actual barracuda, it’s the imaginary barracuda. It’s my own thoughts that make me panic.’ 

She resolved to swim mindfully.

With each stroke, she thought “Present moment, Only moment”.  Over and over again. “Present moment, only moment.” Her thoughts pushed back:  thoughts of what could happen to her, all the terrible dangers and misfortunes that might be awaiting her from the depths, whatever might emerge to attack her…all of it.

But as each thought rose to the surface of her mind, she pushed it away and focused on the movement of her legs, the slicing of the water by her hands, breath in, breath out, pull forward, “Present moment, Only moment. Present moment, only moment.”

Then just 500 yards from shore, she encountered a boat.  She hailed the crew from the water and directed them toward her friends.  No longer afraid, she completed the swim to the shore where she rested on the sand awaiting her friends.  Her practice had saved her.  She waited on the shore feeling incredible– all that mindfulness practice had paid off!

As so often happens in life, the thing she feared most, never actually happened. The greatest threat was her own fear.  In the end, there was no Barracuda at all, at any point in her swim. Only her fear of the barracuda.


Pick an activity to do mindfully each day this week.

Eat Mindfully

Put aside the internet, the tv, even conversation for 5 minutes and focus all of your attention on the taste, temperature, texture of your food.  When distractions come, bring your attention back to your eating.

Drive mindfully

Turn off the radio, put away your phone.  Focus entirely on driving.  Try using “Beginner’s mind”.  Remember when you were first learning to drive?  How mindful you were about checking your mirrors, placing your hands correctly on the steering wheel?  Maintaining appropriate distance from the cars around you?  Bring your mind into that frame, and gently keep it there for five minutes while driving.

 Shower mindfully

While in the shower, instead of planning your day or mindlessly going through the motions, pay attention to the sensations of the water, its temperature and where it makes contact with your body.  Smell your soap and other bath products.  Pay attention to the sensations of cleansing your skin and hair.

Mindfulness with Everything

All that is required is giving your absolute attention to the activity of the moment.  Whatever that activity is.  Dish washing, house cleaning. Dancing.  Exercising.  Or engaging in a conversation (use mindful listening.)


Another alternative is going to the mind gym:  Meditation.  One of the best ways to develop your mindfulness muscle is developing a formal meditation practice.  You can start with 5 minutes a day and build to 20 minutes a day, of simply sitting while focusing on your breath, or focusing on a mantra like “Present moment, only moment.” Gently bringing your mind back to the point of focus over and over again.

A wonderful app for this is the Insight Timer (available for Android and iphone).  This timer can simply be used to time meditation.  Or you can use it to access over 7000 guided meditations to help get you started.   You can also visit my website at www.DBTForLife.com to access several guided meditations.

Walking Meditation

For people who struggle with sitting, you can try walking meditation.  This simply involves bringing your entire focus onto the placement, the lifting and lowering of the feet as you walk, pacing back and forth a distance of about 10 yards.

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Diana is a licensed professional counselor based in Nashville. She has been teaching DBT skills for the last ten years after writing her master's thesis about making DBT skills training interesting and engaging. She loves using story telling to help illustrate how skills can be used.

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