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)

If you’re interested in mindfulness, check out my new website, www.life-resourceful.com


Filed under Uncategorized

7 Responses to What mindfulness is, and is not.

  1. Yvonne Leonard

    First, I always enjoy your posts and lesson plans so thanks again. I’m now wondering if I missed something the other day because when I read your post the other day I didn’t take it as being necessarily related to disciplinary issues. I read it as being alert to possibilities within the lesson, to what the students are actually saying and how that can bring a lesson alive and make it relevant/more relevant, and to keeping an eye on what’s going on instead of tuning out (as is not unlikely at times with a full schedule, admin duties and a life). Such interesting thiings are said by students if you think about ways to bring them into their present – one told the class the other day that the scariest thing that had ever happened to her in her job as a journalist was driving in a car following the former prime minister when the driver received a call and took both hands off the wheel whist driving at 200km per hour to answer it. Priceless and to think we were only covering syllable stress on politician.

  2. Hi Yvonne,
    Thanks for commenting, and glad you enjoy the blog.
    I think mindfulness is definitely about being alert to possibilities, being alert in general, in fact (internally and externally), and I love your story about the journalist. The post certainly wasn’t just about discipline, though that is one application. Really it’s about how we do everything in life, so you can of course apply it to every aspect of teaching.

  3. Love this. Thanks Rachael. I particularly empathize with the paragraph about not leaving enough time for things! That could equally be about me, to the letter!

    It is sometimes difficult to weed out from the noise what exactly mindfulness is. Generally I agree with your suggestions here – it’s for tuning in, not tuning out.

    • Thank you, Richard. I love your new FB group too. 🙂 I have been interested in this area for a number of years now, and am excited to see it becoming more mainstream and accepted, even if occasionally that means it might be misappropriated.

      • It is a useful group, though I can’t take credit! It was Simon Pearlman of Active Language in Cádiz who started it. It’s good to have a space to share and discuss. More sharing than discussion, really, but it’s a start!

  4. Hi Rachel, just to let you know Katherine Bilsborough (from the new ELT Footprint FB group) mentioned you to me the other day and I’ve been meaning to contact you ever since. I see this page you’ve created is amazing – congratulations! I’ll share it on my page, Mindful ELT, as well as with my work colleagues here in Mexico. I spoke at the Global Issues SIG at IATEFL in 2017 in Glasgow about mindfulness in ELT, my presentation (taken from the title of the book) was “Happy Teachers Change the World”. Since then, I’ve been continuing the practice and sharing it with teachers, staff and students at British Council here in Mexico, where I’ve been a teacher (now freelance) for over 8 years, and I’ve created some online practice workshops for ELT. They’re designed for organisations, institutions, teaching centres, schools and universities to offer training opportunities to their staff, as well as for individuals keen to learn more about mindfulness and practise within an ELT-related community. I’d love for you to take a look and if you like what you see, perhaps we could speak further and even meet up on zoom and share our experience.
    Thanks very much and I hope to hear from you!

    • Hi Tanya, I’d spotted your site but not got around to saying hello, so thanks for making contact. This post is actually seven years old now, you can see more up to date stuff about mindfulness on my new site, Life- Resourceful.com Great to see the work you’re doing and that mindfulness is finally gaining some traction!

Leave a Reply