A note on Mindfulness

When I saw that the most recent ELTchat topic was ‘mindfulness’ I was a bit worried because I’d never heard of it before. Being someone who likes to keep abreast of EFL developments, I thought I should check it out and so to Google went I.

My heart sank a little when I came across the world ‘therapy‘ in  relation to this (the bizarre neuro-linguistic programming also comes from therapy/psychology) and sank further when I spied the word ‘Buddhism‘. I recalled Scott thornbury’s article The Unbearable Lightness of EFL in which he notes:


An alternative to TEFL’s lack of respectability is to construe it as a form of therapy.  Professional self-esteem is achieved by co-opting both the discourse and the procedures of certain new age practices, and by investing the teacher with an almost shamanistic function.(393:2001)

But what is “mindfulness”? Well if you drive to work then you probably have days where you get in your car and then you just seem to arrive at work, almost like you were on auto-pilot. This is known as ‘automaticity’, a feature of your amazing brain, and seemingly the opposite of ‘mindfulness’.  Processing information is hard work for your brain.  Think about how you feel after marking a lot of badly written essays (as oppose to well collocated ones) or if you’ve recently met a lot of new people (social interactions are very tough on the brain). Switching your brain to auto-pilot for task you do regularly is a great way to save processing power. In fact most of what you do is done automatically by your brain.  
Take picking up a glass for example.  You brain has to work out the distance of the glass from you, the weight, the position of your thumb and fingers. It has to move the muscles in your arm, exert the exact amount of pressure so the glass doesn’t drop from your fingers or get smashed to pieces in your grip.  This might seem pretty straight forward, but it’s something you learn and something that becomes automatic.  If you had to focus and think about things like speaking, walking and moving then you wouldn’t be able to do them. 

 Another good example is reading.  You are so good at reading that if you see a text in your native language you won’t be able to stop yourself from starting to process it. The famous Stroop test is a good indicator of this. Try saying the colours of these two sets of words.  The second set will be harder than the first.
set 1
RedGreen, BlueYellow, Pink, Black, Gold

set 2
Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Pink, Black, Gold

Two different parts of your brain are competing here, the one automatically reading the word “red” and the one seeing the colour blue. 
For those promoting ‘mindfulness’, automaticity is painted as something of a bad thing.  This is a bit ironic as fluent speech, like fluent reading, requires automaticity, but let’s put that to one side. Mindfulness teaches that we should pay attention “in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally” and pay attention to the here and now on a “moment-to-moment basis” (Ruth Baer)
The idea of paying attention to the presents needs unpicking. With what we know about the brain, what does it actually mean to pay attention to the present? Is it to focus more on what you’re seeing and hearing? If so, isn’t that just concentrating?  And which here and now does it refer to? The here and now just a second ago when you started this sentence or this one, now….or now….or now?  Also aren’t students supposed to remember new language?  Probably unlikely if they are constantly trying to focus on everything that’s happening in the here and now.  Leon Wieseltier  writes “‘Pay[ing] attention moment-to-moment’ is a renunciation of the critical temper. The pure present is for infants and mystics”

Some people in ELTchat linked mindfulness to ‘reflection’, but reflection is a process of reviewing past events whereas mindfulness is a focus on the  now. I was also not clear as to whether mindfulness was for the teacher or the student, or both?  And what would you actually have the students do in class?  From this video it seems a lot like meditation.


In the video the teachers were saying that “it works”. I’d like to deal with this idea in a separate post but briefly, students and teachers saying something “works” is not the same as something working. As with BrainGym, exercises may help student, with or without the posh name. Likewise, stopping, focusing and having students concentrate may be good things, but does that require a special term complete with an ancient philosophy?

In its defence, mindful teaching, as far as I’m aware doesn’t have any expensive courses or materials nor can you become a ‘master mind-filler’ for only $2,000, (not yet anyway). In this sense, mindful teaching is not doing anyone any harm and the activities it promotes may even be helping some teachers and students. I don’t really know enough about mindfulness to criticise it here and there is very little on the web about mindfulness & EFL so for the time being I’ll have to suspend my judgement. 


Thornbury, S. 2001. ‘The unbearable lightnessof EFL.’ ELT Journal 55/4: 391-402