Back when I was just a visitor of Florida, I was content experiencing the ocean from the comfort of my beach blanket, or perhaps when feeling daring, I’d walk a few feet into the water until the ocean surface rested comfortably at my waist. Rarely, if ever, would I willingly dare to dive in fully. I believed that there was too much discomfort with going all the way, too much judgement, too many “what ifs,” so I’d often opt for excuses instead. “It’s too cold.” “I don’t want to get my hair wet.” “I’m afraid.” On one occasion of me reciting these excuses, my beloved and far more adventurous partner became excited by the moment and lifted me into the air, teasing to submerge us both. Equally excited and also quite afraid of what would happen if I went fully in, I shouted, “I’m NOT ready!” A second later, we both went under.
I surfaced in confusion, a mix between visual impairment, feeling self-conscious, and even a little angry that this plunge had not been on my terms. Then, I began to laugh. It occurred to me that if we don’t open ourselves to the opportunities life presen, life will do it for us. This reality can be shocking, disorienting, and even frustrating when it’s not our choice. But would I ever have gone under if life did not intervene? Would I ever have let go of my anxieties and deemed myself “ready” for the unknown? Who knows!
How often do you encounter an opportunity and automatically assume “I’m not ready?” How often does anxiety or vulnerability prevent you from jumping into a new venture, volunteering for an ambitious role, or deciding to engage in activities with your full presence? When we’re in auto-pilot, and consumed by emotions or judgement, we can often find ourselves on the sidelines (or the beach blanket!) of our own lives. The alternative is to throw ourselves into the present opportunity with mindfulness.
In DBT, practicing mindfulness requires the three “What” Skills: Observe, Describe, and Participate. When I’m at the beach and getting curious about going under the water, I can start practicing mindfulness by observing myself and the environment around me. I might notice the sensations in my body that are coming through my various senses. Without words or judgements, I bring my attention to the scene and to my place in it. Next, I can describe the experience by factually labeling what I’ve observed. I might describe the temperature, the depth, and the clarity of the water. I might also describe the physical and emotional sensations that arise as I stand waist-deep, including my feelings of apprehension. Then, the last skill is to make the choice to participate. In this moment, I intentionally choose to let go of the “what ifs”, drop into a spirit of openness, and dive in! Finally, having done what I set out to do mindfully and wholeheartedly, I can resurface with both joy and a sense of absolutely presence in my life. This is the payoff that we receive through our mindful participation.
So whether it be the daunting task of diving into the ocean, or a drier activity (like raising your hand in class, accepting a job promotion, or getting on the dance floor!), mindfulness can be an essential approach in managing the initial feelings of vulnerability that are often paired with putting ourselves out there. Mindfulness empowers us to accept the reality of the present moment, and to work with it to increase the quality of our experience. When we mindfully participate, we can transform ambivalence into spontaneity. So dive in, and transform your life!