Understanding the five core skills of mindfulness

Written by Terry Fralich, LCPC

After practicing mindfulness for 40 years and teaching it for 20, I can say with certainty that I have found my mission: to help clients bring real, transformative change into their lives through a clear understanding of mindfulness practice.

The words “mindful” and “mindfulness” have spread pervasively through our culture; but in themselves, they don’t necessarily lead to meaningful change. The challenge is to understand how fundamental mindfulness skills weave together into a cohesive mindfulness practice that directly changes the brain—and how that can transform old habits, patterns, and reactions that undermine our happiness and well-being.

How to change your brain and build a solid foundation for transformative growth

In all the programs and trainings I lead, I teach what I call the five core skills of mindfulness. They aren’t the only skills, of course, but they are fundamental to building a cohesive transformational practice. If clients are not practicing the five core skills, it is unlikely that they are building a solid foundation for growth.

For the most part, the five core skills are not intellectually challenging. But our clients are unlikely to come across them on their own or figure out how they fit together in supporting change in their lives.

The five core skills—and how you can practice them—are briefly outlined here:

  1. Clarifying, setting, and reaffirming intentions: Ask yourself, “What am I seeking to transform? What am I trying to cultivate?” This is an important self-reflection practice you can engage in before attending an event, entering or evaluating a relationship, or working on a personal quality or trait.
  2. Cultivating a witnessing awareness: Work on developing “metacognition,” an awareness of the state of your body, emotions, and mind—and an awareness of your awareness. Avoid autopilot reactions by first paying attention to your inner landscape.
  3. Strengthening self-regulation: Try to settle negative energies intentionally by shortening the time that difficult emotions keep you stuck. Make it a priority to avoid or recover from emotional hijackings and bring your whole brain back online.
  4. Stabilizing attention: Strengthen your ability to hold focus. Regularly ask yourself, “What is it that I want to have as the focus of my attention right now?”
  5. Practicing lovingkindness: Calm the inner critic and self-judgement. Practice non-judgmental awareness that leads to kindness and compassion for yourself and others.

These five core skills weave together in a way that enables clients to interrupt the disruptive emotions that undermine their lives: stress, anxiety, depressive thoughts, worry, and anger, to name just a few. By interrupting these energies when they are active, and instead choosing to invest in new insights, speech, and behavior, clients are beginning to change their brains.

With practice over time, they will become less vulnerable to all the old, disruptive energies and can experience more confidence, creativity, and well-being in their lives.

Fully describing this cohesive mindfulness practice—and the neuroscience that supports it—lives in the heart of the programs I teach for PESI. I hope I will have an opportunity to share these mindfulness skills and practices with you.

Terry Fralich, LCPC, is cofounder of the Mindfulness Retreat Center of Maine and a former adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine graduate school. His expertise includes mindfulness, neuroscience, CBT brain change, emotional intelligence, stress reduction, meditation, and the treatment of anxiety and depression. He studied extensively with His Holiness the Dalai Lama for 25 years and with some of the American pioneers of mindfulness. He is the author of “Cultivating Lasting Happiness: A 7-Step Guide to Mindfulness” and “The Five Core Skills of Mindfulness: A Direct Path to More Confidence, Joy and Love.”

Learn more about Terry Fralich’s educational products, including live seminars.


For over 40 years, PESI Inc., a non-profit organization, has provided cutting edge continuing education to professionals across the nation. Working alongside the world’s leading experts, PESI's mission is to educate and instruct the general public, public organizations, private industry, students and professionals to assist them in acquiring, developing, and enhancing their knowledge and skills.

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