“We should value human factors more and stop being so wrapped up in materialism”
Having trained as both a general surgeon and a digestive system surgeon, Mario Alonso Puig (Madrid, 1955) specialized in the study of human intelligence and psychoneurobiology. An eminent speaker on topics relating to human development, he is a member of the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as author of several books, including ‘Tómate un respiro’ (Take a Break) and ‘Reinventarse: tu segunda oportunidad’ (Reinventing Yourself).
Q: How would you explain the concept of mindfulness to someone who has never experienced it?
A: Our mind is usually very active with many thoughts, which can often be negative. It’s like one of those glass balls with a whole landscape inside and snowflakes that fall when you shake it. Mindfulness helps to reduce the intensity of those thoughts. It is like keeping the ball still. The snow will fall gently and we will be able to see the landscape more clearly.
This kind of thought activity really hampers productivity; it interferes with the functioning of certain parts of the brain, and it also has an effect on a biological level, because it creates a lot of internal stress. The people who discovered mindfulness 3,500 years ago noticed that people can experience a level of tranquility, well-being and happiness when their minds are calm that it is impossible to achieve when the mind is restless.
Its rise in popularity over the last 30 years in the West stems from a number of medical centers and universities investigating the biological effects of lower thought intensity. And they have observed some truly extraordinary effects, including improvements in how the immune system works, improvements in cognitive ability, a greater problem solving abilities, increased creative capacity and improved social interaction. That is why it is used across a range of fields, including psychology, medicine, businesses, entrepreneurship centers…
Q: Can tools like mindfulness help us to manage the stress associated with our current situation?
A: Few other things will prove as useful. The ability of mindfulness to generate a state of inner calm is particularly valuable during periods when one feels a greater sense of unrest. The cover of my book, ‘Tómate un respiro,’ features a lady with a colorful umbrella in the middle of a storm. The storm brings darkness, of course, but there may also be a rainbow. Mindfulness helps you to find that rainbow even if you’re in the middle of a storm.
Q: What lessons can we learn from the challenge that we are currently facing as a society?
A: This is such a difficult, unique situation, and we can get many invaluable lessons from it. Firstly, it has painted a clear picture of where we can find magnanimity, and where we can find meanness.
We have seen truly magnanimous acts, but we have also seen quite the opposite, in terms of ignoring the common good for the sake of individual interests. This is not about judging, it is a question of developing your own criteria in order to see the kind of values that you want to represent. Our society’s values were seemingly not well-defined, but this situation has shone a much brighter light on the values that the individual finds important.
The second lesson is a greater appreciation of what is truly valuable. We have all lost a lot in terms of what we possess, fewer things, less security, less control, etc. And this presents an opportunity for personal growth, to be brave, generous, compassionate, enterprising… Our society was very polarized by possession. Power, fame and fortune was what it was all about. Nothing more than that. Now, we have realized how important and how fragile our health is; how much interpersonal relationships, freedom of movement and knowing what’s right and wrong matter… The boundaries are clearer now.
Lastly, I would say that we can evoke the phoenix, a creature that rises from its ashes. Our world wasn’t perfect before. Let’s not forget that the WHO said that this year, 2020, would see depression climb to epidemic levels. Even before the pandemic, a significant percentage of the population was receiving chronic treatment with anxiolytics and antidepressants. This situation should be taken as a platform for placing more value on human factors and stopping being so wrapped up in materialism. We have the opportunity to bounce back and make our world a better place, take better care of our planet, look after our fellow humans better, where greed, rivalry, and hidden agendas are less prominent, and mutual benefit is the goal.
Q: Do you think that will we return to “normality” or move toward something new?
A: A return to normality is not possible. If normality is the past, the world today is already different. I would describe it as getting back to a new reality, which may resemble the old world in some respects, but which is so different in others that it will be a new world when viewed as a whole. We shouldn’t cling to the past, or think that we would be making a mistake by not returning to it. This is an opportunity to create a better future. If we are unable to learn, another, even worse pandemic will come along.
Q: During the transition to the new reality, will there be things that we’ll have a chance to incorporate into our lives?
A: One of the biggest surprises to people is the impact of these months of stillness, when they will have had one of two types of experiences. One of them is very uncomfortable, the feeling of being trapped, especially if they live in a very small house. But there will be many people who will have realized that both their body and mind have calmed down. They may have had the chance to read more, think about things more… We can draw a very positive conclusion here about the value of silence. More utilitarian minded people will be very wary of contemplation because it might look like a waste of time. We know by studying the lives of great scientists and humanists that they managed to connect with a very profound dimension of the self during moments of silence, from which creative and novel ideas emerged, which cannot surface unless one pauses for a while.