the 3 types of mindfulness: are you practicing them all?

wise-mind-dbt Earlier today, I listened to the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Insights at the Edge, hosted by Sounds True publisher and founder, Tami Simon. The interview guest for this episode is Dr. Erin Olivo, a clinical psychologist and author of the recently published book, Wise Mind Living. Before digging into the Mindfulness topic, let's unpack that title a bit.

The "Wise Mind" concept, borrowed from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), is one that often resonates in a big way with almost all my clients. Here's the quick version: on one side of the spectrum, there's Rational/Logic Mind, which (as it sounds) uses purely logic and reason to guide choices. (Wouldn't we be a super-functional and cold robot world if we all only operated from this state of mind?) One the other side is Emotion Mind, which is when our thoughts and actions are guided by our emotions. That's certainly not always "bad" (since most of us don't, in fact, want to live in said robot world), but I'm sure you can think of more than a few times that Emotion Mind gave you bad advice about what to do, and you had to live with the consequences later. Wise Mind, on the other hand, is the synthesis of both logic and emotion -- so we can assess the facts of the situation, cause-and-effect, and also validate and tend to (rather than negate or suppress) our emotional experiences. Win-win. The tough part is the process of getting to Wise Mind in the first place,  so we can make choices from this wisest part of ourselves.

And that's where mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness is one of the four core modules of DBT -- the others being Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. Many of the skills in all four modules are all about helping us access our Wise Mind. Mindfulness is also one of my favorite topics, because it is so foundational to healthy living. I'm glad that it's finally getting so much time in the spotlight (including tons of research proving the gajillions of benefits of mindfulness practice), but that can sometimes mean that the word is just thrown around without much context. I liked how Erin simply explained the three main types of mindfulness (covered in both her book and on the podcast), so I'll break those down for you below.

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose to whatever is happening in the present moment (internally and externally) from a stance of curiosity and non-judgment. 

Formal Mindfulness Practice

The most common type of formal mindfulness practice is mindfulness meditation -- and there are many varieties of it. For many people just starting a formal mindfulness practice, it helps to work with a smaller chunk of time (perhaps 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening) and to have something to focus on, whether it's a guided meditation track, your breath, or simply noticing all the individual sounds in the room. Most of the research done on the benefits of mindfulness is based on some sort of formal meditation practice. While some may find that sitting for 45 minutes to an hour a day is incredibly life-enriching, I am oh-so-not at that point in my own practice and don't know if that will ever be my cup of tea. My main goal right now is consistency, which many argue is way more important than duration.

Informal Mindfulness Practice

Informal mindfulness practice is basically the process of setting the intention to bring a quality of mindful awareness into a some sort of activity or task, such as taking a shower, washing the dishes, or exercising. In the example of taking a shower, you'd say to yourself, "I'm going to take this shower mindfully," and then you'd pay attention to all the experiences of your five senses and any internal (thoughts or feelings) experiences that show up while you're in the shower -- rather than making your to-do list for the day. I find that making the conscious choice to be mindful during daily tasks is part of what helps me wake up to the wonders of the world that I so often take for granted. Of course, I could do it far more often -- but hey, progress not perfection, right?

Mindful Living

Dr. Olivo calls the third type of mindfulness "Mindful Living," and it's essentially the overall goal of developing your mindfulness muscles via the other practices. When you're living mindfully, you can get distance from your thoughts and feelings, and be truly present in this moment, rather than ruminate on the past or worry about the future. Every human being will go on autopilot at times (it's part of what helps us survive!), but the more that we can bring this quality of gentle, curious awareness of the present moment in our day-to-day, the more "awake" we really are to the experience of being fully alive. Having a consistent formal practice and sporadically adding in informal practices will ultimately help you more readily access this third type of mindfulness.

What is your favorite way to practice mindfulness? What helps you get from Emotion Mind to Wise Mind? 


Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.