Mindfulness Skills and Techniques

In a previous article we explored how mindfulness interventions have been shown to be beneficial for a wide range of psychological and physical conditions such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, personality disorders, and addictions. It would be hard not to want the many benefits of mindfulness practice – yet while the concept is simple; the practice is not always easy.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) divides mindfulness into four psychological skills. In this article, we look at these and some of the techniques which utilise them to bring therapists into a more fully present, aware, mindful state.

The skills

  1. Defusion. This is defined as distancing from and letting go of unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, memories and other cognitions.
  2. Acceptance. Mindfulness practitioners realise that attempting to suppress or control thoughts only ever works in the short term. The principle of acceptance means that thoughts are to be allowed to come and go without a struggle. The practitioner makes room for painful or unpleasant feelings, urges, and sensations: not engaging with them unless it is helpful, but not controlling them either.
  3. Contact with the present moment. This principle is enacted by engaging fully with our here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity. What might happen if we tune into current experience – the “now” – rather than thoughts (which are at least one step removed from experience)? The possibilities are manifold.
  4. Spacious awareness. By creating the Observer Self or Witness, a practitioner accesses a more spacious sense of self: a transcendent aspect that is conscious of thoughts and feelings as passing experiences, but is not identified with them (Harris, 2009).

The techniques

Simple enough conceptually, we might ask how we can ground these skills in the daily life of a would-be practitioner. Harris (2009) notes that there are over 100 techniques merely for defusion! This section explains some typical ones, but once you get the hang of the skills, you can invent many more techniques to suit your particular clients.

1. Defusion exercises

Direct your client to write down three or four negative, self-judgmental thoughts, such as “I am fat”, “I’m incompetent at my job”, or “I’m a lousy conversationalist”. If you prefer to do this for yourself as a therapist, you may wish to try the exercise with sentences you might tell yourself after you have had a session with a client where everything went wrong. Pick, or direct the client to pick, the thought that bothers the most and use it to work through the following exercises. In each exercise, the point is to first fuse (identify) with the thought and then defuse (disidentify) from it. Follow, or direct your client to follow, these instructions.

I’m having the thought that…

Make sure that your negative self-judgment is in very short form: i.e.: “I am X”. Fuse with this thought for 10 seconds. During this time you are to give the thought your full attention, getting really caught up with it. Believe it as much as you possibly can.

Now replay the thought with this phrase added onto the front of it: “I’m having the thought that…” For instance in our example, you might say, “I’m having the thought that I’m incompetent”.

Have a third go, this time adding “I notice I’m having the thought that…” in front of the original, for example: “I notice I’m having the thought that I am incompetent”.

Now, tune into yourself. Did you notice a sense of separation or distance from the thought? If you didn’t, run through this exercise again with a different negative thought.

Singing and silly voices

For this exercise, you can use the same negative thought that you used above if it hasn’t lost its impact. If it has, choose another negative thought, making sure that it has the same short form of “I am X”. Fuse with this thought for 10 seconds, as above.

Now, sing the thought to the tune of Happy Birthday. You can do it out loud if you are alone, but may prefer to sing it silently in your head if you are where people would be able to hear you sing.

For the third round, defuse by hearing the sentence spoken (inside your head) in the voice of a cartoon character (try Donald Duck), movie character (what about Darth Vader, Gollum, or your favourite action hero?), or sports commentator.

Now, tune into yourself again. What happened after this round of hearing the negative thought? Did you get any sense of separation or distance from the thought? If you didn’t, run through the exercise again with a different thought. You can vary the exercise by saying the thoughts out loud in a silly voice, repeating them in a highly exaggerated manner (say, slow motion), or by putting on your best imitation accent (say, cowboy, French, cockney, or Russian).

Important note: As a therapist using these techniques, you will come to see how powerful they are. It is consummately important, therefore, to lead the exercises with sensitivity. If, for example, your client has just been diagnosed with, say, cancer, and their negative thoughts are about dying from it, singing this out loud to the tune of Happy Birthday would not be a validating experience for them (Harris, 2009).

2. Acceptance (expansion) exercise

Mindfulness involves accepting thoughts and feelings, even (especially) unpleasant ones, as opposed to struggling with them.

Peace is the only way

Imagine for a moment that you are a country living side by side with a very hostile, neighbouring country: ones whose values, religion, style of government, and language are very different from yours. What are your options for dealing with this country? Going to war means the loss of vast resources, and the neighbour seems to have limitless troops, equipment, and ammunition at its disposal.

Agreeing to a ceasefire is better, but if the hostility continues, you are still using many resources warily watching your borders, unable to truly move your country forward in a meaningful way, because war could break out at any moment and halt all development. In consultation with your closest advisors, you realise that peace is the only way, and you work steadily to achieve it. Signing a peace treaty does not mean you suddenly like the neighbour. What it means is that you agree to tolerate it.

The scenario of war is like the mindfulness practitioner’s struggle to get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings; the battle can never be won and it uses up a huge amount of time and energy. The ceasefire is definitely better, in that there seems to be a grudging tolerance of the threatening neighbour. So, too, a grudging tolerance of negative thoughts and feelings is better than total struggle with them, but there is a sense of resignation, of feeling trapped and hopeless in dealing with them rather than moving forward.

True peace – that is, the genuine acceptance of strong emotions – is the most workable solution. It doesn’t mean that one likes the dense feelings; it simply means that the person accepts that they will be around and decides to let them be. his is the only option that frees up life energy to focus on something which is truly valued.

Acceptance equals expansion

In signing up for acceptance, mindfulness practitioners (especially those involved with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) take a further step. They agree to equate “acceptance” with “expansion”. What is that all about, you ask? Consider for a moment the way that we talk about the experience of strong feelings in English. We say that we feel “tension”, which is a state of being stressed or strained. We say that we feel “stressed”; to stress something is to subject it to pressure. We acknowledge being “under pressure”.

Thus, the impact of our emotional reaction to events in either our inner or outer life is for us to feel cramped, reduced, or squashed: a logical result when we are struggling with feelings writ large. We say that life is so demanding that we “cannot breathe” or that we need “room” or “breathing space”.

Thus, to counterbalance this experience, we can mindfully expand. That is, we can make room for our feelings: the opposite of the tensing up (i.e., straining or constricting ourselves, as if to force the emotions out) that we typically do. Expansion means opening up and making room for the feelings, much as you would sense the openness in a vast “expanse” of sky. Making room for feelings eases the pressure, lightens the tension, and frees the feelings to move. Energy then is freed to pursue a meaningful life rather than a struggle.

The practice of expansion

In practicing acceptance/expansion, the aim is to experience emotions: by observing them, not thinking about them. The Thinking Self will try to have the Observing Self believe that the feelings are all big, scary monsters, which should be fought and vanquished.

The Observing Self will need to stay present with the feelings so it can experience them as the relatively small and harmless creations they are. In the following exercise, the client is urged to let thoughts come and go in the background and keep attention focused on the emotions. In this context, we define an emotion as a set of physical changes in the body; we notice the physical changes as physical sensations. Expansion has three steps: (1) to observe one’s feelings; (2) to breathe into them; (3) to let them come and go. In order to deal with an unpleasant emotion, follow these instructions:

Step 1: Observe: “Observe” here means notice the sensations in your body. Scanning yourself from head to toe, observe what you are feeling, and where. There may be several uncomfortable sensations; notice the one that bothers you the most. It could be a knot in your stomach, tears in your eyes, or a lump in your throat. Your neck and back could feel tense or stiff. Pick the most uncomfortable sensation and focus on it, regarding it with curiosity, like a scientist would a new lab specimen.

Observe it carefully: is it inside your body, outside, or both? Where, exactly, is it, and if you had to draw a line around it, what shape would that line be? Is the sensation intense throughout, or possibly more different in the centre than at the edges? Do you sense any pulsing or vibration in it? Does it feel light or heavy, warm or cool? What else do you notice about the sensation?

Step 2: Breathe: “Breathe” means that you breathe into and around the sensation, as if making extra room for it. Take several deep breaths, the slower the better, because they lower the tension level and calm you, creating an anchor. Anchors don’t make storms (including emotional storms) go away, but they steady the boat until the storm passes. Imagine that you are breathing directly into the sensation. Feel your breath flowing in and around it, as if you are creating extra space for it in your body. Loosen up around this sensation, giving it room to “move”.

Step 3: Allow: “Allow” in this exercise means that you allow the sensation to be there, even though you don’t like it or want it. You just let it be. If your mind begins to comment on what is happening, your job is to say, “Thanks, Mind”, and go back to observing. Upon feeling the urge to fight this feeling – or the process of allowing it – you can acknowledge the urge. It is like nodding to it, as if to say, “I see you there”, and then you go back to the task: observing the sensation. Your job is not to alter or get rid of the sensation in any way, only to accept it.

The sensation may change after some time, or perhaps it will not change. Either way is ok. Your goal is to accept the sensation, not to control or change it. You may need to focus on this sensation from several seconds to several minutes in order to make peace with it. Once you have accepted this sensation, you can re-scan your body for others and repeat the exercise. Be patient; acceptance is a valuable skill to learn (adapted from Harris, 2007).

3. Contact with present moment

The core mindfulness goal of staying in the present moment is at the forefront of those “It’s simple but it isn’t easy” skills. The following exercises give some practice with grounding mindfulness techniques in the crucible of everyday life.

Mindful eating

Sit down at the table with your food and not much else: no television, radio, book, computer, music, or conversation. Eat your meal paying full attention to each piece of food as you select it to eat: how it looks, how it smells, and what is happening with your various muscles as you cut it and raise it to your mouth. Notice what the texture and taste of it is as you slowly and thoroughly chew it.

Compare any differences you notice between how the food tastes (and how it goes down through your system) when eaten this way as opposed to “multi-task eating”. Meals eaten mindfully are more filling than others and also very good for digestion.

Mindful walking

The same principle applies to mindful walking as to mindful eating. While walking, you focus on everything in and around you: the feel of the ground under your feet, your breathing, the sky, the view, the flowers, trees, or other foliage along the route, the other walkers, the feel of the wind on your face and in your hair, the sun on your skin… If you lapse into thinking, just thank your mind for its contribution and go back to experiencing the walk. Enjoy the outing!

One minute of breath

In this exercise, your task is to devote a whole minute – measured by a clock or watch in front of you – to your breath: nothing more, nothing less. What do you observe about yourself at the end of the minute? (Exercises adapted from Elliston, 2001).

Focusing awareness of an aspect of a physical habit

Most people have many habits and life routines that they do on “automatic pilot”. To bring mindfulness more into daily life, perform one of these actions or routines while noticing everything you can about it. For example, you could try:

  • Noticing your posture or how you hold the steering wheel while driving in rush-hour traffic.
  • Observing what happens to your voice and breath when you are arguing.
  • Tuning into what your bodily sensations are as you stand under the shower.
  • Feeling what it is like – the sounds, the kinaesthetic feel, the visual appeal of the glasses and crockery — as you place each clean dish or cup from the dishwasher back into the cupboard.

Focusing awareness on breath when a specified environmental cue occurs

We can also make the decision to focus on our breath when any one of a series of environmental cues occurs. For example, we could say that we will focus on our breath for a period every time:

  • The phone rings.
  • We are waiting for the traffic light to turn green.
  • We get dressed.
  • The church bells ring in the town square.
  • Music comes on at a restaurant.
  • We see someone with a black dog while out walking (adapted from Walsh, 2006).

4. Spacious awareness

To experience our Witness or Observer Self, this Psychosynthesis exercise in disidentification can help. In this one, you literally create space in a room where you will agree to sit momentarily with a difficult thought, image, or feeling.

Instructions: Go to a room where you have some floor space available: that is, there is no furniture on that part of the floor. Select a chair which is adjacent to the floor space and take a seat.

Now connect with a thought, image, or feeling which has been coming to you recurrently and which you experience as unhelpful or “stuckness-making”. For example, let’s say you are facing imminent surgery. You could be having a worry thought such as, “The operation will not go well; something will go wrong and I will be permanently maimed or incapacitated.” You could have an image of yourself on crutches or suddenly walking around blinded. You could be feeling profound anxiety, dread, or fear.

As with the defusion exercises, take about 10-20 seconds and really fuse with the thought, image, or feeling (or all three). Really believe that your operation went badly and “feel” yourself suddenly in a wheel chair, or blind, or on crutches (according to your thought about what might go wrong). Feel intensely the fear, anxiety, or dread when you hear that things went awry.

Note the cramped, “no way out” sense of this situation. You have been forced into this miserable, grim situation by life circumstances, and your whole being is tied up with these thoughts and emotions in this one tiny point in space (symbolised by your chair).

When you have had enough of that consciousness, get up from the seat that you have been sitting in (the chair of your Thinking or Worry Self) and walk across the room, across the available floor space, to the other side of the room or space. Stand at a point there and look back at your Thinking Self. Mentally “watch” your Thinking Self as if you were still sitting in the original seat consumed with worry, fear, and dread. Carefully “observe” all you can about this self. You can say, “I’m (mentally) watching my (Thinking) Self wail and look sad. I’m observing how I seem to be all crunched in and bent over. I’m noticing how I look defeated” (or whatever).

The next part is crucial. Notice that your Thinking/Worry Self is over there, and you happen to be here where you are standing. Reflect that you can identify with the self that is over there with the worry, or the Observer Self that is here, merely watching the other – or anywhere in between. Thus, you have proved through experience a geometry maxim that your maths teachers might have tried to inculcate many years ago. A single point in space is tiny (that is: you with your entire consciousness tied up with worry), but two points (your Thinking Self in conjunction with your Observer Self) determines a line; it is infinite. So when you create an Observer Self, you gain a much more spacious psyche (adapted from Carbonatto, 2009, and Young Brown, 1983).

Have a play, if you wish, with going back and forth between being identified with the dread situation and attendant thoughts, being disidentified from them (the Observer position), and being somewhere in between – with, say, partial fusion (identification). Many are the clients who have charted their progress along the “line” as they moved from, say, total fusion with grief over the loss of a loved one, through periods of some fusion/some defusion (representing positions along the line), to a subsequent position of relatively great capacity for defusion (disidentification), where the Observer Self can be fully active, and the pain is not experienced with anywhere near the same intensity as when that Self is missing in action. Notice that doing this does not make the grief go away. What it does is change our relationship with grief (or whatever negative emotion or experience).

Important note: Fusion-defusion and identification-disidentification (the same process, depending which naming you use) is a two-step process. One cannot defuse from something that one has not fused with. Thus, in all of the exercises, it is important to have the client first fuse/identify with whatever thought/image/feeling they have been avoiding or feeling overwhelmed by.

To overcome the tiger that is pursuing us, we must turn and face the tiger. That dis-empowers it, and likewise empowers us. Often, upon being stared down, the tiger (our unpleasant thoughts) will just skulk off into the bushes (recede from prominence in our psyche). Mindfulness is neither about riding nor killing the tiger. It is about continuing to exist in the same jungle as the tiger, but – in effect – de-clawing it through acceptant observation.

With an Observer Self, clients can choose where they wish to put their consciousness, so individuals may find occasions on which they wish to be fused/identified with formerly difficult thoughts. This may happen naturally, say, on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing, as people go to place flowers on the grave, knowing that they will be re-fusing for a little while with the grief they originally felt, but choosing to do it as a way of releasing further grief and remembering and honouring the person that died.

This article was adapted from the Mental Health Academy CPD course “Mindfulness in Therapeutic Practice”. The purpose of this course is to acquaint you with mindfulness as it is conceptualised and practiced in Western contexts, and to identify the chief therapeutic uses that it has so far been put to.

Related article: What is mindfulness, and what is it not?


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  • Harris, R. (2009). Mindfulness without meditation. In HCPJ (Healthcare Counselling and Psychology Journal), October, 2009, pp 21 – 24.
  • Young Brown, M. (1983). The unfolding self: Psychosynthesis and counselling. Los Angeles: Psychosynthesis Press.
  • Walsh, C. (2006). Some of the benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness.org.au. Retrieved on 8 May, 2013, from: hyperlink.