So-called ‘poster girl for mental health’, and full-on comedian Ruby Wax explains where science meets mindfulness and helps me figure out just how it could help my own mental well-being
Before anyone even comes on to the stage at the strangely church-yet-village-hall-style venue that is Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, Holborn, a kind-yet-tired-looking man to my left starts telling me about his mental health.
Somehow, before I’ve even had a chance to really say anything, he’s told me that he had to give up work soon after his depression diagnosis and that for him, like 25% of those prescribed pills, medication didn’t work, so he’s been trying other ways to wrestle with his own mental demons.
He’s come to the talk with a group of people for whom trying to keep the black dog at bay has also seemingly become a daily struggle. And they, and me, make up just one line of the buzzing crowd of people – men and women, from teenagers to pensioners ‒ thronging into the hall with impatience to hear famous comedian and sufferer of depression Ruby Wax speak about that recent buzz word in mental health: mindfulness.
That’s what I tell the man to my left: “She’s talking about mindfulness,” I say, “It’s basically a way of focussing on the present – a bit like meditation but without the Buddhism,” I venture, sounding more confident in my definition than I feel.
Does mindfulness necessarily equal spirituality?
Most of my experience with mindfulness comes from Andy Puddicombe, himself becoming rather well-known in the field due to his brilliant ‘Get Some Headspace’ project, which provides how-to guides on mindfulness in nice bite-sized chunks – but he’s a former Buddhist monk. Mindfulness also reminds me of the good bits of my yoga classes – when you’re reaching just far enough to feel the muscles pull and the breath relax, but not so far that you’re in danger of losing your cool altogether and stumbling across the floor in a seriously undignified fashion.
But yoga itself comes from a Hindu, spiritual, tradition. Is mental health something you can only really achieve if you’re willing to embrace spiritualist concepts that are often completely at odds with the secularist, atheist viewpoints of today’s Western world (myself included)?
The overriding answer I took away from Ruby Wax’s talk to an audience full of people who had suffered anything from periods of feeling seriously blue to full-on crises of clinical depression, is, thankfully, is no.
How our brain makes us mad
David Cameron may have mentioned trying to measure happiness at some point, but in a world where – despite the greatest recession in almost a century ‒ money seemingly still equals success, where more machines and other ‘labour-saving’ devices actually force us to work harder and longer; ‘keep up’ with more; be constantly connected; entertained; informed – it’s clear that mental health issues aren’t going away.
And it’s this that Ruby Wax focuses on with when she bursts on to the stage, every bit as vivacious, hilarious, ironic and sparkling as she looks on TV.
Introduced by Mark Williamson, director of Action for Happiness – the movement started by Professor Richard Layard to promote and consider the meaning of wellbeing in today’s busy society ‒ who she ushered away as soon as he began talking about what she was planning to say, with a cheeky “Um, I can explain that,”, putting the audience at delighted ease before even beginning. And then followed her theory on how our brain’s reaction to the modern world can drive us mad, and how we can re-programme ourselves so it no longer does.
Unlike the shows (the incredibly successful ‘Losing It’ with Judith Owen) or Channel 4 documentaries (Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions) for which she has become famous – “a poster-girl for mental health” she says of herself, only half-jokingly, this isn’t a highly-polished performance.
This, Ruby explains, is a talk on “Existence: the Pros and Cons.” It’s preparation for her dissertation, which will come together early next month as she turns the reading into a two-night show run at the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre, London, before an audience of interested individuals.
Oxford University (“Yeah, I go to Oxford, it’s a miracle,” she snorts, laughing), she tells us, has agreed to let her present a show on the issues, and use that as her PhD thesis. Already, you can sense that Ruby, always known for pushing the boundaries a little, has taken the daunting idea of an Oxford Masters in Mindfulness, not to mention depression itself, and turned it wonderfully on its head.
What results is a touching, relaxed, honest yet very funny portrayal of a woman who, as she puts it, “had a mental car crash”, and decided, after literally sitting in a chair for five months, and only recovering via several stints in famous mental-health hospital The Priory and by taking regular antidepressants (of which she is an unashamed advocate), to actually study what the hell was going on.
Running out of bandwidth
Witty and outrageous as ever, Ruby reminds us that Gandhi may have said there’s more to life than speed, but, she paraphrases, he didn’t necessarily say what to replace it with. And, in a world where speed is so cherished, we still have ‘wellbeing’ celebrities like Oprah telling us that that we must all ‘be goddesses’ too.
“Who has time for that?!” she quips, before going on to call depression a “crippling mind fuck” that basically tells you that you can no longer keep on living the way you’re living. “A pat on the shoulder would have been nicer,” she jokes, but it’s this wake-up call that forces to you to examine what actually makes you you, and learn how to survive in a 21st century that evolution didn’t design us for. “We don’t have the bandwidth,” she says. “The ones saying they’re fine are the insane ones or the liars”.
So far, I recognised the ideas, but having never suffered from depression to such an extent, I was still waiting for the key that would allow me to apply what Ruby was saying to my own life. Could I?
The constant voices on a loop tape
But then, Ruby suddenly began to talk about language ‒ a double-edge sword for us humans, who, having evolved to think too much (and talk too much) now have the means by which to constantly articulate our ever-changing thoughts – without necessarily knowing what to do with them once they’ve been imagined. “The constant voices on a loop tape are what drive us mad,” she says – striking a bull’s eye into my own experience of poor mental health.
I’ve never been clinically diagnosed or stayed in bed for months on end (despite feeling like I want to sometimes), but I have found myself unable to move or decide where to go, what to do, who to talk to, whether to get off the sofa, or walk to the end of my road, because of the endless streams of constant mental chatter whirling around unceasingly in my head; none of it, you can probably guess, remotely positive or uplifting – quite the opposite.
I knew my mental health was bad when I couldn’t even turn on the TV or leave the house without comparing myself unfavourably to anyone and everyone, without even knowing them. In every respect, I found myself falling down – nothing was ever good enough; how it ‘should’ have been.
Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve
As Ruby explained, the worst thing we can think is “should have” and “could have” – because, by putting us in a state of constant wanting, this makes us vulnerable both to the capitalism that wants to drain us of money in the quest for constant materialistic betterment, and almost worse, to the mercy of our own minds.
We’ve become conditioned to love the chase more than the kill ‒ our brains release cortisol to deal with stress and constant movement, but we become addicted to the feeling of constantly being on the mental move, to chasing that hit. Cortisol is fine in small doses, but when we’re constantly calling on it, that ‘hit’ becomes harder and harder to achieve. We’re effectively setting ourselves on the path that will make us the slave of our own minds.
And that’s the rub, says Ruby, because, actually, “your physical brain controls you – not your stupid inner monologue about whether you’re too fat to wear tights.” It’s that inner monologue that can be re-trained, she says, to allow you to reclaim your place as not the slave, but the master.
“Carpetbombed by your own thoughts”
Ruby’s explanation of neuroscience along with the more usual discussion of mental health is the triumphant central pillar of her talk, and the reason why I came away with a renewed sense of why mindfulness works.
Mindfulness doesn’t have to be a Buddhist thing, she says, it’s about “the practical watching of your own thoughts, like a shrink would do, but now you’re not paying” – a rueful reference to her experiences with expensive psychologists, one of whom, she says, she found eating lunch behind her back, and whose sessions would make her feel better only as far as the steps down to the Tube.
“It’s a cesspool,” she goes on. “You’re being carpetbombed by your own thoughts.” That, I can really relate to.
Mindfulness allows us to “look into these voices and not get sucked into the vortex as you usually do,” she says, explaining the need for daily practice as like “getting a six-pack: you can’t just do one sit up”. You’re “intentionally re-routing your system, and not sticking to the same patterns you usually do.”
This, I’ve kind of heard before. It’s a relief to hear someone as well-known and funny and seemingly-outgoing as Ruby confirm it, not to mention a roomful of people agree, but what really makes Ruby’s explanation stand out is her down-to-earth explanation of the science behind the practice.
Welcome to the insula
The secret to “reining yourself in and not calling yourself an asshole”, she says, is rooted in awareness of the ‘insular cortex’. Now this, I hadn’t heard before.
“The insula,” she explains, “is just feeling and senses and touch and self-awareness” (and also, thank god, works without that peskily articulate thing called language). Mindfulness, Ruby continues, it just intentionally using it.
She takes us through. “Close your eyes,” she begins, “and just feel your feet.” I become conscious of my feet, my toes in my slightly-collapsing canvas shoes, resting lightly on the floor as I wrap one ankle comfortably around the other. “See how shining a mental torch down there helps train your mind on that bit of your body?” It’s weird to just randomly feel your feet, but she’s right. “Now feel your hands…but from the inside.” Everyone tries it. My hands tingle slightly. “Now stop, and listen.” The room is hushed as previously-masked background noises suddenly come into focus.
And suddenly, it all makes sense. This ‘insula’ knowledge has shown me, quite physically, how I can retreat back from all the voices, which, Ruby agrees, “drive us back as we’re worried about what we just fucked up, or worrying about what comes next”. It’s this focussing on the physical, the actual conscious desire to retreat back from the deafening inner monologue and just focus on forging new patterns in the brain – grounding yourself: “pulling back”, Ruby calls it. “It doesn’t stop the depression, but it allows you to look at it from a new paradigm” – and awareness of this ‘insula’ can really help.
“You have a choice in how you want to behave,” she says, “And see your thoughts as they really are, because they don’t stick around unless you fuel them – eventually it goes if you don’t hold on to it.”
This marriage of scientific explanation – new neurons, new mental patterns, the insular cortex ‒ with the very real sense of calm that comes from putting Ruby’s brand of mindfulness into practice adds a new dimension to the ‘spiritual’ or simply ‘sitting down with your eyes closed’ practice I’d read about before. It gives me, a doubtful atheist with a constantly niggling sense that ‘the search for happiness equals pretentiousness’, a very palpable ‒ and seemingly scientifically proven and rational ‒ idea to focus on, and feels like a cool relief.
Doing something different
“People will suffer any kind of pain to keep their life predictable,” Ruby says, because at least it’s pain you know. “When you’re in that red haze, you’re jamming the motor and you can’t think. But actually, the world is always in a state of flux.”
Ignoring thoughts, she explains, is chronically distracting, but when you look at something in focus, you can suddenly see it for what it is. It’s suddenly small, and manageable. You can see the depression coming along, but “rather than work harder, you can actually go and get rid of the toxic stuff”.
Ruby is clear to point out that she sees mindfulness and part of the on-going recovery for someone coming out of a depressive state, not the first port of call for a seriously, clinically depressed person. “When you’re a lump of concrete,” she says, referring to how she felt when depression first took hold, “mindfulness isn’t going to help”.
But when you’re in the stages of recovery, after the haze has lifted somewhat, the daily practice of monitoring your thoughts can really “stop you descending into that downwards spiral again”. It’s preventative. It’s about doing something different when those old demons begin to take hold.
Finding a new route?
It’s at this point that one of my favourite quotations came into my head – Ruby didn’t say it, but I think she’d agree – “If you never got lost, you’d never find a new route.” If depression is the getting lost, is discovering how to take a step back from the fast-paced, chattering, demanding world the new route?
Yes, quite literally, says Ruby, and crucially so. “What you’re trying to do,” she finishes, “is create something new. To improvise your life and grow some more neurons. And then you can say to your body thanks for the ride.”
After the show, I’m lucky enough to chat to Ruby personally, if only for a few minutes. I want to clear something up with her. Is mindfulness a way of shutting your brain down for a bit, and if so, I ask, does that stifle creativity and productiveness?
“Not at all,” she says, “Maybe I need to make that bit clearer,” endearingly self-doubting and friendly despite the great show she’s just put on. “It’s about just taking it down a notch. It’s about making things clearer, so you have space to think. It’s actually about enhancing creativity.”
Simply, she answers my question. “It’s about giving yourself space.”
Sounds good to me.
Ruby Wax is studying for a Master’s Degree in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) at Oxford with Dr Mark Williams
Her show, ‘Existence: the Pros and Cons’, is taking place in early September and is based on her dissertation about how the way our brains work ‘jeopardises our sanity’. See the flyer, aimed primarily at those interested in Mindfulness, here
Ruby’s talk at Conway Hall was organised by the brilliant people at Action for Happiness