Understanding the Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation in DBT

February 12, 2024
# min read

As a therapist, I know that mindfulness is essential for improving our mental health. 

Students I work with often equate mindfulness with meditation. While the two concepts are related, they’re not the same thing. In this article, I’ll help you understand the difference between mindfulness and meditation, why mindfulness matters so much, and how you can use various DBT skills to live more mindfully every day. 

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Why Mindfulness is Necessary for Mental Health  

In today's age of social media and mobile phone notifications, our attention is being constantly attracted and disrupted. Over time, this reality atrophies our ability to sustain our attention and focus on what matters most. One way to understand mindfulness is that it helps us rebuild the muscles that help us focus and sustain focus. This capability helps us be more effective and productive, especially when it comes to improving our mental health.

Mindfulness is a practice that fosters a deep connection with our current experiences, allowing us to encounter life with a sense of clarity and equanimity. This heightened awareness not only enhances our ability to cope with daily stresses but also empowers us to respond to challenges in a more thoughtful and balanced way. Mindfulness gives us the non-judgemental clarity we need to observe our thoughts and feelings without being overwhelmed by them and empowers us to take steps to improve our mental health based on an honest assessment of where we are.

Meditation: A Gateway to Mindfulness

Meditation is a discipline where we train our minds to concentrate on a single point of reference – it could be our breathing, a particular object, or even a thought. This practice of meditation serves as a pathway to achieving a state of mindfulness. However, it is important to recognize that while meditation is a valuable tool, it is not synonymous with mindfulness itself.

Mindfulness in DBT is far more expansive than meditation. It is a way of being, a conscious effort to engage with the present moment in a non-judgmental and accepting manner. This practice is not confined to structured meditation sessions; rather, it permeates every aspect of our daily lives. This approach to mindfulness transcends the act of meditation, embedding itself into the very fabric of our being, enabling us to live more fully, effectively, and authentically.

Achieving Mindfulness Through DBT Skills

So if meditation is not the only pathway to mindfulness, what other options exist to help us live more mindfully? Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has a ready-made tool kit that we can look at in two categories, What and How:

The What Skills: Observe, Describe, Participate

In DBT, we focus on the "what" skills of mindfulness: observing, describing, and participating. These skills form the bedrock of mindfulness practice.

  • Observing: This involves noticing the internal and external experiences without getting engulfed in them. It’s about being aware of your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the environment around you without reacting automatically.
  • Describing: This skill is about putting words to the experiences you observe. It’s not just labeling, but articulating your observations in a factual, non-judgmental way.
  • Participating: This is about engaging fully in the current activity. When you participate, you immerse yourself completely, letting go of self-consciousness and judgment.

The How Skills: Non-Judgmental Stance, One-Mindfully, Effectiveness

The "how" skills of mindfulness in DBT – being non-judgmental, one-mindfully, and focusing on effectiveness – are essential in how we approach our experiences.

  • Non-Judgmental Stance: This skill teaches us to approach our experiences without labeling them as good or bad. It’s about accepting each moment as it is, without criticism or bias.
  • One-Mindfully: In this practice, we do one thing at a time. It’s about giving your whole attention to the task at hand, avoiding multitasking, and being fully present.
  • Effectiveness: This is about focusing on what works. It’s about doing what is needed in the moment, in a way that is mindful and respects your own values and goals.

Everyday Mindfulness: Integrating DBT Skills into Daily Life

Our programs at TheraHive emphasize the importance of integrating mindfulness into everyday activities. Whether you are eating, conversing, working, or engaging in leisure activities, there is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. This integration allows us to experience life more deeply and meaningfully.

For instance, when you are cooking, you can practice mindfulness by fully engaging in the process – noticing the colors of the vegetables, the aroma of the spices, and the sizzle of the food. This not only enhances the experience but also fosters a deeper connection with the present moment.

Meditation and Mindfulness: Complementary Practices

While meditation is a specific practice, it complements the broader practice of mindfulness. Regular meditation can enhance our ability to be mindful in our daily lives. It trains our minds to return to the present moment and helps us develop the skills to observe, describe, and participate more effectively.

It’s Not Just About Feeling “Relaxed”

One of the misconceptions we often face is that mindfulness is solely about relaxation or stress reduction. While these are beneficial byproducts, the true essence of mindfulness in DBT is about experiencing reality as it is. It's about cultivating an awareness that allows us to respond to our environment and our inner experiences in a more balanced and effective way.

Incorporating mindfulness into our lives can profoundly impact our emotional well-being. In DBT, we aim to extend the practice of mindfulness beyond meditation, integrating it into the fabric of our daily lives. Through this integration, we not only enhance our emotional balance and mental wellness but also move closer to achieving our life worth living goals.

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