Ruby Wax talks about how mindfulness changed her outlook on life and why it inspired her new book, A Guide to Mindfulness for the Frazzled
It is fair to say that the whole concept of mindfulness, in all its controversy, popularity and idealism, has become something of a zeitgeist in the past year. From colouring books for adults to help engage with mental wellbeing, to the topic being taught in schools, everybody is talking about it. And one woman who is championing the positive effects of the practice is none other than Notting Hill’s Ruby Wax.
She found it so helpful, in fact, that she’s written a guide to mindfulness for the frazzled amongst us. For many, the concept of mindfulness is something difficult to understand, but not Wax, who has a Masters from Oxford in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. ‘It is all about the science for me,’ says Wax, as opposed to the fact it is very en vogue at the moment.
Wax has never hidden her own battles with depression and there’s no buttering it up here either. Her definition of mindfulness ‘isn’t about sitting erect on a hillock, legs in a knot, humming a mantra that’s probably the phonebook sung backwards’. It’s something that can help us all. The book is a how-to. ‘Every cell in your body cares about your survival and it doesn’t give a damn about your happiness,’ laughs Wax. ‘If we want to get those contentment things, then we have to work on it like a muscle. Obviously we’re not always sad, but it is true that for every four critical thoughts, there is only one positive one.’ She truly believes mindfulness can save you, but only if you put in the hard work.
In a few words, Wax sums it up as something that trains you to pay attention, something that teaches you how to focus in a way that means you always know where your mind is and what it’s doing to you. ‘I always say it’s learning to pay attention without kicking your own ass when you start to notice the critical thoughts,’ says Wax. ‘You learn to focus on what you need to focus on, and in turn you get a different relationship with your thoughts and learn to live in the present.’
The facts are simple: it has been particularly helpful in aiding depression and recovery, but mindfulness can help anyone who wants it to help them. ‘We are all stressed,’ exclaims Wax. ‘We get stressed about being stressed so mindfulness, when you’re seriously stressed, can bring the anchor down before you get carried away.’ Each mental activity, she says, is easy but you must do it everyday to train the insular, which gets stronger when you start focusing on sensors. So, whatever you find to help you, it must be able to be done every day.
Following the success of her Sane New World tour in ‘providing a manual to surviving the 21st century’, Wax starts the Frazzled tour in April at Oxford Playhouse. She’s not one for sitting back though. Wax has an ambition to roll out walk-in centres across the country for people who want to talk, or just have that ‘little bit too much’ as she calls it. ‘It’s actually why I need to rush off from you in a few minutes,’ she apologises. ‘I have a walk-in centre today where the public are invited to come in free and I have great speakers – plus I serve cookies.’
Yet she remains outwardly modest about her achievements. When I ask her about receiving an OBE for services to mental health, she simply responds: ‘Well, you get a letter and you’re really taken by surprise, that’s it! If you want to know what happiness or a high is though, that would be it. The only problem is that once it goes down, I can’t repeat it again; I’ll have to get a knighthood now or something!’
What about Wax’s own sanctuary? For Wax, Notting Hill has always been there for her from the days she classed herself as poor and ‘living on somebody’s bookshelf on Ladbroke Grove’, to the first property she was able to buy. ‘I walked into my garden, exhausted after spending every penny on the place, to find a girl in there who said: “Are you Ruby Wax’s mother?” I hit a serious depression then!’ she laughs. ‘Funnily enough, though, my garden is still where I go to reflect; you pay a lot of money for those gardens.’
Wax hopes she has answered all your questions in her new book, from dealing with mindfulness with children to bosses, from husbands to teenagers, and perhaps most importantly, she feels that wrapping it in humour is the best way to swallow things. And I think we can all take a little lesson from that…
A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, £14.99, is published by Penguin and is available in all good bookshops now