Category Archives: mindfulness

What mindfulness is, and is not.

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My recent post about Mindfulness and Classroom Management perhaps made too many assumptions about the concept of Mindfulness. So, while it isn’t precisely ELT related, I wanted to clarify a little what I think Mindfulness is (and what it isn’t).

The video that sparked my last post, has also inspired others to blog about it. One post I read, Mindfulness?, suggests that mindfulness is being used to quieten students rather than deal with the causes of their disruptive behaviour, and that it is being used to control workers and make them less likely to complain about poor conditions. I think it is a common misperception that mindfulness is about drifting away from life in some way but, in fact, being mindful is about being super aware and awake.  This is both being aware of what is happening around you, and aware of what is happening inside you. So it’s the very opposite of shutting down and shutting up.

There is part of all of us that actively almost ‘enjoys’ getting stressed, upset, angry, fearful etc. It’s that inner voice that tells us that we aren’t good enough, or that other people will reject us and so on. The psychologist, Ronald Fairbairn called it the ‘internal saboteur’, and it’s also sometimes referred to as the ‘lizard brain’- that ancient part of the brain that is still reacting in very primitive ways to any sense of threat. It’s the lizard brain that takes over when we experience road rage, for example.

Many people do not realise that while we can’t control our negative feelings (and shouldn’t try) we do have a choice about how we respond to them. We can’t help feeling angry, but we can choose not to identify with that feeling, and instead just be fully aware of it. We don’t have to let the lizard brain take over.

This doesn’t mean that we put up with injustice, but that we don’t act from the place of fear, anger etc. On a practical level, we are likely to be much more effective if we can step back from the emotions before we decide how to act or respond. So the kids who meditate rather than have detention (mentioned in my post Mindfulness and Classroom Management) are less likely to let their anger or frustration spiral out of control. And, in the workplace, more mindful employees are probably less likely to put up with poor conditions because instead of simply feeling like angry victims, they will become more aware of their feelings and realise that they need to make changes to feel at peace. (Though it is entirely possible that the big companies encouraging mindfulness don’t anticipate this outcome!)

As well as having a choice about how we respond, we also have a choice about whether we set ourselves up in situations that we know will trigger negative feelings. For example, I have a bad habit of not leaving myself enough time to go places. If I am not mindful, I end up rushing around stressed out of my head, gathering up my stuff and running for the train. And my internal saboteur LOVES that because it provides all sorts of opportunities to confirm deeply held beliefs about how useless and disorganised I am. If I am mindful, I can choose not to put myself in this situation. And the same thing goes for planning ahead for classes.

Mindfulness is a cline. Some people are completely sleepwalking through life. They have no idea that there is any other choice than to be buffeted about by their emotions. Their lizard brain controls them completely and they don’t even realise that there is another way of being.

At the other end of the cline are those who are completely awake at all times. They are conscious of their reactions and any negative emotions that arise, but they identify themselves with the part of the mind that is observing the reaction. Often this is a result of years of meditation and mindfulness practice, though sometimes people just spontaneously ‘wake up’, often as a result of great trauma.

And the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. And that’s fine. Every single time that we manage to be mindful, rather than being led by the nose by our lizard brain, we move along the cline. The more we do it, the easier it becomes.

So, in fact, something as simple as reading a book or article, or going on a day’s workshop can make a massive difference to our lives (and by extension our teaching). It can wake us up to the possibility that we don’t have to be a slave to our negative emotions, if we’ve never even considered that, and it can help us to remember to be mindful more often if we are aware but frequently forget.

And so, while the corporate world may well be trying to take advantage of the mindfulness movement, encouraging more mindfulness can, I think, only ever be a good thing overall.

Related posts:

Mindfulness for Teachers

Mindfulness for Students (with no tibetan bells or yoga)

 

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Mindfulness and Classroom Management

A link has been doing the rounds on Facebook, entitled ‘This school replaced detention with meditation- the results are stunning’. According to the article, there have been zero suspensions since they started the programme. There’s no hard proof the two things are connected of course, but I strongly suspect they are.

Meditation is a form of mindfulness, and being mindful makes it pretty much impossible for situations to escalate and get out of hand. This video does a very good job, I think, of explaining exactly what mindfulness is.(Also see my post here https://wordpress.com/post/elt-resourceful.com/1361)

Mindfulness is not about not feeling emotions, but about being aware of what we’re feeling, and noticing it, rather than being dragged along by our emotions. I’d suggest that the students described in the article above became more aware of their emotions and thus less likely to get into situations which would ultimately lead to suspensions. And it’s just as important for teachers to develop mindfulness if they want to avoid problems and confrontations in the classroom.

Don’t sleepwalk into trouble.

The opposite of mindfulness is a kind of sleepwalking. We’re not really awake to what is happening, pre-occupied with other concerns. Sometimes we set ourselves up for classroom management problems by sleepwalking our way through the planning process. (This is understandable when many of us are planning at 9pm the night before!). But it is important to be mindful about certain key aspects of planning:

1 How are you going to group the students? Are there students that you think would work better (not) in particular groups? Think about how to re-arrange them quickly and easily.

2 What are you going to do to grab the students’ attention right from the start?

3 What will you do about early finishers? Will you stop everyone once the first few have finished, or do you have some extra activities up your sleeve? (These can usually be simple variations on the task, rather than having to plan lots of extra things to do)

4 If you have any complicated, multi-step activities, think about how you are going to set them up in advance.

Once you are teaching the lesson, you also need to stay ‘awake’. Good teachers (or at least teachers that don’t have chaotic stressful classes) are fully conscious and aware of what is going on in all corners of the classroom. As soon as you sense that some students are starting to lose concentration (perhaps the noise level is starting to rise), you need to change something. You might, for example, move onto the next activity if appropriate, or change partners, or get students to compare their answers.

Mindfulness traditions sometimes talk about the ‘monkey mind’. This is the part of our mind which chatters away non-stop. Try to notice and catch yourself when you start thinking about what to cook for dinner, or what the head teacher said to you before the lesson, or how worried you are that the students aren’t learning anything/are finding it boring etc. You don’t need to try and get the monkey to shut up (it won’t), but just notice it and detach from it so that you can focus on what is happening in your class right now.

This is particularly important when a student does or says something that upsets you, and you start to feel angry or panicked.  Just as in the video above, our first instinct is probably to go with the emotion, and start shouting, or throw the student out of class. But if a student makes us angry, it has to be because what they are saying or doing is hooking into something deep down inside ourselves. For example, that we aren’t good enough.

Some incidents of misbehaviour will just make us roll our eyes, or even laugh (inwardly), while others will really upset us. And even quite serious misbehaviour won’t necessarily make us angry, though we might well respond with a punishment.  But when our emotions are triggered, that’s a clear sign that this is setting off something negative that we believe about ourselves. Once you’ve recognised that, it’s easier to let the emotion go, and deal with the situation rationally and mindfully. You don’t have a choice about what emotions you feel, they just happen, like sneezing or blushing, but you do have a choice about what you do or say when you feel an emotion.

Reams have been written about classroom management, and good tips are always useful, but the very best overall advice we can all take, I think, is to ‘wake up’ and be more mindful.

 

Other posts about mindfulness:

Mindfulness for students (with no tibetan bells or yoga)

Mindfulness for teachers

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Filed under classroom ideas, mindfulness, motivation, Working with groups