Tag Archives: lizard brain

What mindfulness is, and is not.


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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