Ruby Wax: I've been turned on to switching off
Comedienne and writer Ruby Wax discusses the benefits of meditation and how her new book can help you train your brain to function in a better way.
If you've ever attempted to meditate, but found it impossible, or your brain just refused to switch off its running commentary of chores not done/emails unanswered/relatives not phoned/friends unseen, then Ruby Wax can relate.
But she'd urge you to stick with it.
“It's the most difficult thing,” she says. “You think, ‘Why am I doing this? I'm busy!”'
These days, however, meditation and mindfulness are a central part of her life, and she swears by their benefits. She can also back them up with science. Wax graduated from Oxford University last year, where she'd done a Master’s in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) under the guidance, among others, of Professor Mark Williams.
“Everybody's in the gym, we're all caring about the physical things, because of all the research and scientific evidence (that it's good for us),” Wax (61) continues. “Well, there is evidence and empirical proof that mindfulness affects the brain in quite a positive way.”
Professor Williams is a big deal in the mindfulness field. He co-developed MBCT, and by the time Wax crossed paths with him, she was already quite engrossed in her own research into the workings of the human mind — an interest which stems from her personal experiences of mental illness.
She was diagnosed with clinical depression almost two decades ago, though she's since said the illness had been there all along, right back to her childhood in Illinois, USA, but it just wasn't recognised then.
Wax, who lives in London with her husband Ed Bye and has three children in their early 20s, rose to fame, of course, as a comedic interviewer, known for her brash, often outrageous chats with celebrities on a string of TV shows during the Nineties, including Ruby Wax Meets. Also a trained actress and writer/script editor, with shows like Girls On Top and Absolutely Fabulous under her belt, humour was always on the agenda.
And it's remained on the agenda, even now that she's become something of a poster girl for depression — which started, quite literally, with her face being plastered across Comic Relief posters for the Time to Change campaign, to end mental health discrimination.
A couple of years earlier, in the late Nineties, Wax had been hospitalised with what she described as “the tsunami of all depressions”, and after treatment, she and friend Judith Owen wrote their show, Live From The Priory, which they performed at the Priory and various NHS institutions.
At the time, Wax hadn't anticipated these moves would prove so ‘big', but the public response was immense — well, with one in four people experiencing mental health problems, the demand for more open discussion, and less stigma, is certainly there. And following the success of her 2010/11 stand-up show, Losing It, Wax co-founded blackdogtribe.com, a networking site where people can chat, and find out stuff, about depression.
It's not about ‘switching off' the brain, and whatever internal commentary we're fielding, she says, but paying attention.
“It's something we don't really understand how to do. People say, ‘I do pay attention', but then your mind is skittling off.
That's a muscle that we really don't have, and I mean paying attention when we really want to, rather than getting carried away with, ‘I should do this', ‘I can't do this',” she explains.
“Yeah, you'll still have that, it's not like positive thinking; it's saying, ‘Ok, I need to look at my kids, I have to put the computer down, I'm not going to do it by whipping myself'.”
A big part of ‘whipping' ourselves is the inner self-critical voice we all have. Wax talks a lot about this in her book, Sane New World: Taming The Mind, Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99, which shot up the bestseller lists after being published last year, making mindfulness accessible — and humorous, naturally.
Now, it's the basis of her Sane New World tour, which she's set to continue across the UK until late October.
The promo blurb for the show says it'll help us ‘understand why we sabotage our own sanity', as well as showing us how to stop.
“We have our eyes off the button,” says Wax. “We blame it (our problems) on the universe, the economy, or whatever else is going on, but my main thing is that the conflict is going on in our head. The bully isn't out there, it's in here, and nothing will be resolved until we declare a truce in our own minds.”
She talks about our thoughts “jumping around like moths on cocaine”.
“You know, ‘Why can't I be as thin as Kate Moss?', ‘Why wasn't I asked to be in the Olympics?'
“Through evolution, we needed a few helpful hands, like, ‘There's a predator behind you'. But now the predator is everywhere!”
Indeed — these ‘predators' are everywhere; in those endless to-do lists, ‘having' to say yes to everything, ‘having' to keep up with everybody else...
Nobody else can take control of managing our lives and minds, though. That's down to us. So we need to figure out “where to pull the breaks” — and that's a very individual thing.
“If a woman has 17 children, works 70 hours and jogs at three in the morning — we think something's wrong with her. Or we think we can't do that. So we're in that state of envy; it's what knocks us out.”
Let go of that envy, and figure out your own tipping points. Doing this means learning to pay attention, allowing your thoughts to really focus on something.
This isn't just a practical solution; it actually alters brain chemistry, promoting a sense of calm and, in Wax's case, helping her manage her depression.
“You can't quiet your mind, but just to notice that it won't quieten down is everything. All mindfulness is, is noticing that your mind is skittling around, even if it's screaming at you.
“The noticing activates a certain part of your brain that pulls the focus from the chattering mind, and the repercussions are chemical changes.”
This is something Wax now practises daily, whenever the need arises. She still has a head full of self-doubt before stepping out on stage, she says, but by “listening to those thoughts”, they become less prominent (“They're still there but they're not burning me”).
Getting into the habit, she admits, requires effort, but think of your mind as a muscle — keeping it fit requires constant training.
“You won't get it through wishful thinking. If you let go of doing sit-ups, you're gonna (lose the six-pack), if a ballet dancer doesn't practise, he ain't gonna be doing plies any more.”
And like the six-pack, a fit mind doesn't happen overnight.
The star who laughs in the face of depression
- Ruby Wax was brought up in Evanston, Illinois, the daughter of Jewish parents who left Austria in 1939 because of the Nazi threat. Her father was a sausage manufacturer and her mother was an accountant
- After studying psychology at the University of California, she moved to the UK and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She began her acting career at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield
- Even though she's a classically trained actress, she came to prominence as a comic interviewer, famed for her brash technique, which she recreated in the TV sitcom Girls on Top
- Her 2010 stand-up show Losing It deals with her experience of clinical depression. In 2011, she founded a mental health website in response to the audience reaction from her theatre show
Sane New World: Taming The Mind by Ruby Wax is available now, Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99