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Facing the full catastrophe with Mindfulness by Constança Casquinho

Posted by The Lisbon MBA on 24 Mar, 2020 11:04 am

The Full Catastrophe that Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn (the “father” of Mindfulness in the West) had in mind when he chose the name for his book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (Delta, 1991), was not COVID-19. It was instead the normality of our daily lives as humans: birth, growing up, relationships, work, more work, have I mentioned work, survival, disease and the inescapable passing away.


Let’s face it. Life on this planet can seem like a Full Catastrophe. And yet, amidst the pain of human existence lie hidden jewels of well-being: Moments of pure bliss. The eyes of a child laughing. The sound of our beloved’s voice. The smell of our mother’s cooking. The softness of a baby’s skin. And yes, there are the fakes of these pure bliss Moments. There is the rush of the “feel-good chemicals” our body produces that we take for pleasure when we receive a compliment, buy those “oh-so-stylish-and-on-sale-shoes” or get one more “like” on our photo-shopped post. The difference between the “real thing” and the fake ones? The first leads to freedom. The latter leads to addiction and emotional slavery.
And then there is COVID-19. It appeared smoothly as a robber in the night. Mostly unannounced. Shaking our “normality” to the core. Forcing tens of thousands to confinement in their homes, and leading millions to fear of becoming infected, verging on panic. Talk about The Full Catastrophe!


Can Mindfulness help us face these troubling times? 
You tell me please, after reading this article (thank you for bearing with me through some mostly nerdy analysis for a while).


What is Mindfulness after all?
Mindfulness is most frequently defined (as per Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn) as “the awareness that arises by deliberately paying attention to the present situation, without judgment”. The concept has its origins in Vipassana, a meditation technique first taught by Buddha that emphasizes Awareness and Equanimity as a means to develop Wisdom (through the understanding of the law of impermanence) and thus eliminate suffering. Most spiritual traditions emphasize similar concepts: from the contemplative early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers to the mindful Sufi dancing, to the disciplined rituals in the Coran. The resulting mindset is one of finding bliss in moments untainted by our cravings and aversions. Gratitude follows swiftly. And even in cases of great pain, the mental suffering usually compounding that pain is greatly lessened or even totally dissipated.


What has been proven on the benefits of Mindfulness?
Scientific research on the impact of Mindfulness has been sadly lacking rigor. From poorly designed studies (lacking control groups or with hastily arranged practices such as a one-shot 15 minutes sitting meditation for example) to well-intentioned researchers who do not practice themselves, it has meant that less than 1% of the published research meets the gold standard of medical research. Nevertheless, several conclusions can now be safely formulated. The regular practice of Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to produce benefits at several levels, namely:
* Stronger focus;
* Better memory;
* Staying calmer under stress and Meta-consciousness;
* “Good corporate citizenship”;


How is this related to COVID-19 at all?
The author humbly suggests that facing the COVID-19 implications on our daily lives can be enhanced with the best proven Problem-Solving methodology to date: that of Strategy Consulting (you know what they say “once a Consultant always a Consultant” LOL). So if you (like the author) are confined to your home, uncertain of the length of the quarantine and wondering how to continue adding value to your employer institution and society while surviving your kid’s loud playing and preserving the remaining sanity of your marriage… here is a Problem-Solving methodology in three stages that you may find helpful:


Stage (i) “Framing and Issue Analysis”: this is flashy sounding for what we usually call “what on earth is going on here?”. With COVID-19, there is a lot of benefit in us focusing our mind (aka “convergent thinking”) in understanding what are the real problems we are facing, asking powerful MECE (Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive, nerdy for: be organized in your thinking) questions, such as:
a) Are we infected already? If so, how can we best heal while not contaminating anyone else? If not, how can we reduce the probability of getting infected, while simultaneously caring for those who live with us?
b) What type of remote work can we do? What would be the best conditions for this? What adjustments can we make as of now?
c) How can we make the most of our “forced retreat” for the relationships with those we live with? And for the relationship with ourselves?


Stage ii) “Ideation/Hypothesis generation for solutions”: this is where creativity kicks in to come up with those ideas that may not be so obvious but have a great impact. With COVID-19 creativity for finding solutions within four walls is paramount, for instance (for each of the above-mentioned questions a), b) and c):
a) Strengthening the immune system with a creative healthy balanced diet, regular gentle exercise and an overall trustful outlook (the relation between fear and a weakened immune system has now been strongly scientifically showed) is key;
b) Finding creative solutions to the challenges of “forced” remote work is essential: the author finds herself swimming in a sea of remote learning platforms, wondering how her mostly interactive classes can take place without seeing her students and already feeling nostalgic about those Friday evenings in the company of “her” 60 plus Gen Zs. Even their multitasking and permanent glancing at their phones are now missed with nostalgia;
c) One of the author’s friends started filming a series of “dance shows” with her husband and two grown-up daughters. She shares “it has been an unexpected blessing to share so much “nothing to do” time with my family; we are rediscovering how to have fun together”.


Stage iii) “Buy-in and implementation of solutions”: this is where the going gets tough and the tough gets going! Make it happen. Go from ideas to action. With COVID-19 this may mean:
a) Cooking those healthy meals and scheduling a set time for a daily (that means everyday) gentle yoga practice;
b) Calling in the telecoms company to increase the Wi-Fi speed to ensure greater video quality (and calling them again when they don’t show up);
c) Having courageous conversations with those we live with. Starting with thanking them for their presence in our lives. And moving on requesting their assistance in making this a fruitful time together.


And how can Mindfulness support this Problem-Solving process?
The scientific research on the impact of Mindfulness in Problem-Solving is incipient yet promising. Beth Rieken et al. (HBR, 2019) prove how baseline Mindfulness (particularly the quality of the mindful attention: open, curious and kind) is a strong predictor of one’s ability to be innovative in problem-solving. The author’s own research (Ph.D. Proposal, Buckingham University, 2020) is testing the hypothesis that the benefits of regular Mindfulness practice (over a 13-week period), improve the components of Problem-Solving, namely:


Stage (i) “Framing and Issue Analysis”: requires attention, focus, and memory;
Stage (ii) “Ideation/Hypothesis generation for solutions”: requires creativity which is enhanced by staying calmer under stress and Meta-consciousness;
Stage (iii) “Buy-in and implementation of solutions”: require empathy and compassion (the traits visible in “good corporate citizenship”).


So… you tell me. Can Mindfulness help us face these troubling times? The author’s unequivocal answer is: Yes It Can. We can then ask “Why” and “How” the additional questions that this brief article answers. If you are convinced that yes it can, I invite you to start practicing 10 minutes every day. I hope you enjoy and find helpful the treat of the 10-minute daily meditation practice audio I recorded and that you can find in this link.


Remote mindfulness session with Nova SBE students


Author’s note:
This brief article answers the questions raised by the author based on secondary data (the existing most valid scientific research to date) and primary data (the author’s own experience with Mindfulness for the past 20 years – estimated total of 10,100 hours of formal sitting meditation) and in formal Strategy Consulting Problem-Solving (for the past 25 years). Additionally, the author points to further needed research.


Constança Casquinho is the Friday Forum coordinator at The Lisbon MBA