“There is a wisdom of the head, and… a wisdom of the heart.” – Charles Dickens
There is a natural human tendency to operate from a place of pure reason and pure emotion. When we are viewing the world through either lens, we miss out on the big picture. It can feel cold and lifeless to view events and relationships with nothing but logic and rational thought. Conversely, it can feel chaotic and disorganized to view our lives from the perspective of pure emotion. In order to live the most effective and balanced lives possible, it is advantageous to learn how to integrate reason with emotion. This integration is “wise mind.”
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), presents three basic states of mind: reasonable mind, emotion mind, and wise mind. When operating from reasonable mind, we view the world rationally and pay attention to observable facts and phenomenon. You may notice that you are in reasonable mind if you feel somewhat detached from the situation and find yourself noticing the facts and planning future behavior based solely on observable knowledge.
When you are in emotion mind, you may experience an intense subjective state wherein logical thinking becomes difficult or cloudy. You may notice the facts, but find yourself distorting them or amplifying them based on your current emotional state. In emotion mind, it is difficult to remain objective and you may engage in behaviors that are solely driven by your subjective perceptions and internal emotional state.
Wise mind is the balance between reasonable mind and emotion mind… it is the “middle way.” The core sense of wise mind involves a deep sense of intuitive knowing. In this sense, intuition goes beyond reason and what is perceived by the senses (Deikman, 1982). This deep-seated intuition comes from an integration of “direct experience, immediate cognition, and the grasping of the meaning, significance, or truth of an event without relying on intellectual analysis” (Linehan, 1993, p. 214).
People experience wise mind in different ways. For some, it is that still, small voice within that knows what is best. You may not always listen to that voice, but it quietly persists in its truth and wisdom. For others, wise mind is experienced as a “gut feeling” of what is the best course of action to take. We all have the capacity to access wise mind and harness its pure and loving wisdom. When acting with wise mind, you are taking effective action and doing what is in your best interest. You may not always want to do what wise mind knows is best, but listening to wise mind is part of making the choice to lead a life of meaning and contentment.
As with any new skill, getting into a state of wise mind requires practice. The idea of learning how to act from wise mind is that with enough practice, it will become natural. DBT does not suggest that one needs to live a life of struggle and lifelong painful practicing of skills. Once you practice new skills consistently and persistently, they become second nature. Recall that there was once a time when you didn’t know how to drive a car. At this stage in your life, when you get into your car you are no longer thinking of each individual movement to make… it comes naturally. So it is with learning to act from wise mind.
Wise Mind Exercises
This week I attended a DBT mindfulness training, led by the founder of DBT, Dr. Marsha Linehan. She discussed multiple strategies that she uses with her own clients to help them act from wise mind. Consider which of the following wise mind practices you are willing to integrate into your own routine.
(1) Focus on Your Breath
Take a moment to settle yourself into a comfortable meditative position. Breathe in and out, drawing your conscious attention to your breath as it fills and leaves your lungs. Allow your attention to shift towards your center, settling yourself into the bottom of each breath. Now focus your mindful awareness towards the center of your forehead (your third eye) as you settle into the top of each breath. Notice how you can consciously control your attention as you focus on the top and bottom of each breath.
(2) Drop Into the Pauses
As you engage in mindful breathing, allowing yourself to notice the “pause” after each inhalation and each exhalation. This pause is much like the still space that exists when leaping between trapeze bars. Notice the stillness within each pause. Allow yourself to find awareness in the pauses at the top and bottom of each breath. Settle in to each pause and find stillness within.
(3) Stone Flake on a Lake
To engage in this visualization exercise, imagine that you are seated next to a crystal clear lake on a beautiful sunny day. Imagine that you are a small flake of stone, chipped from a much larger rock, that someone has gently thrown out into the center of the lake. You are gently floating there on the placid surface of the still water. Now you begin to gently and slowly float downward in the cool water toward the smooth, sandy bottom of the lake. Notice the look and feel of the water as you gently float to the bottom. Notice the feel of the smooth sand as you lightly rest upon it. Become aware of the peace and serenity at the bottom of the lake. This deep stillness and serenity is the calm center of yourself. Allow your attention to settle into this calm centered place within.
(4) Breathe “Wise” In, Breathe “Mind” Out
This exercise is particularly helpful if you feel stuck in emotion mind and are feeling overwhelmed. In these moments, it may be difficult to focus your attention on a longer visualization exercise. At times like this, simply notice that you are feeling intense emotions and begin to direct your focus toward your breath. As you pull the air into your lungs, say the word “wise” in your mind. As the air leaves your lungs, say the word “mind” to yourself. The idea is to focus your attention entirely on these words as you breathe in and out to begin to settle yourself back into a place of calmness and wisdom.
(5) Is this “Wise Mind?”
Many of us often know that we are doing or saying something that is not in our best interest, but for some reason we do it anyway. This can happen for a wide variety of reasons, such as directing passive aggression toward the self or choosing self-sabotaging behavior. If you find yourself experiencing even the slightest sense that you are about to do or are doing something that you will later regret, notice this and pause. As you pause, take a slow breath in and ask yourself, “Is this (action, thought, etc.) wise mind?” Listen for the answer… don’t tell yourself the answer. Allow it to arise naturally within. Pause, breathe, and notice what answer presents itself to you. Now, it is up to you whether or not to do what wise mind knows is best.
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Linehan, M.M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Linehan, M. (October 17-18, 2011). Mindfulness, willingness, and radical acceptance in psychotherapy. Denver, CO: Behavior Tech, LLC.
Featured image: Big Bubble by hkoppdelaney / CC BY-ND 2.0