Why Mindfulness is for everyone, according to Ruby Wax’s Sane New World
In her book, Sane New World, Ruby Wax asserts there is a way to increase your focus, turn down the noise and tame the mind through mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
Almost a decade ago, Ruby Wax gave up television and returned to Oxford University to study neuroscience. Those familiar with her talk shows or Absolutely Fabulous may find that life decision slightly strange, as did I when I began reading what I thought was her autobiography, until I learned of Wax’s life-long battle with depression. In recent years, Wax has been very open about her mental health issues, being publicly outed by Comic Relief, and her stays at the Priory during her breakdowns. It was her search to learn about her own brain chemistry and how to help herself that brought her to study under one of the founders of mindfulness, Dr Mark Williams.
“No other species is as cruel as we are to ourselves” states Wax, as she describes how we all have a critical voice in our heads telling us to push further, climb higher and keep busy. She blames this on the physiology of the brain, how over 400 million years we have evolved into a wonder of the natural world, able to use critical thinking and mathematics, but are still stuck with our primitive impulses to ‘kill, fuck and eat’. “This is why there are [men] who read Heidegger but still want to screw the plumber”. When we can’t kill the parking inspector for giving us a ticket, she explains, we’re left with the adrenaline and cortisone flooding our systems, in ‘fight or flight’ mode, grasping for alternatives as the brain shuts down cognitive ability and sends our bodies into overdrive. If we need a manual for modern living, this book is a compelling read, combining the hard science of the brain with comedy, without sacrificing the credibility of either.
“No other species is as cruel as we are to ourselves”
In her TED Talk from 2012, Wax says diseases of the body garner sympathy – except those of the brain. Why is that? With dazzling energy and humour she urges us to put an end to the stigma of mental illness.
Mindfulness is an everyday practice that helps you regulate your thoughts and breaks old patterns of lurching into panic mode when things get stressful. One in four of us will experience issues with mental health, she says, but the four in four of us, or “the normal-mad”, can benefit from practicing mindfulness. By doing so, the science shows that we can rewrite the neural pathways of the brain and change its chemistry, breaking the automatic responses to stressors, and learning to act differently.
“Mindfulness is an everyday practice that helps you regulate your thoughts and breaks old patterns of lurching into panic mode when things get stressful.”
For anyone wary that a practice based in meditation sounds a bit like pseudoscience and spirituality, you are not alone, Wax was sceptical too; “I was not about to worship some elephant with a thousand arms or a smiling fat man.” She wanted to see the science, and the book is peppered with many studies and much of the biological evidence that explain the effectiveness of the practice.
“Mindfulness works by refocusing the brain on your physical senses rather than getting caught up in constant negative thinking, planning, scheming or daydreaming.”
Wax states that her big ‘aha’ moment was when she learned that we are not stuck with the brains we have, Gloria Gaynor was wrong when she sang I Am What I Am; we continually change as we grow. It’s called neuroplasticity. New memories form, new ways of seeing the world are created every day; “like a pliable 3lb piece of Play-Doh, you can resculpt [your brain] by breaking old mental habits and creating new, more flexible ways of thinking”. It taught her that the critical voices “aren’t facts, they just come and go”, and that “we can change the wiring in our brains by changing how we think”.
Mindfulness works by refocusing the brain on your physical senses rather than getting caught up in constant negative thinking, planning, scheming or daydreaming.
Wax uses the analogy of the brain being like a car; there are different gears for the different states of mind we might find ourselves in, be it autopilot, ‘doing mode’, or ‘being mode’. “It’s impossible for a car to be in two gears at once […] same with the mind, it can’t be in two modes at once”.
One of the exercises Wax gives is called ‘Anchoring’. When you feel your thoughts starting to run away with themselves, rather than indulging them or judging yourself for them, you bring your focus to something real and physical. This can be the feel of your feet planted on the ground or the sound of your breathing. Your brain shifts from an emotional state, to a physically aware one and should bring calm. Over time, new neural pathways are created so that when the same thing happens in the future, you are less likely to spiral and more able to manage the situation rationally.
“In our crazy, smartphone-centred, deadline-driven, competitively busy world, we are all searching for a way to sleep at night. And, mindfulness just might be it.”
Learning that mindfulness wasn’t about meditating, sitting there “like a lump of tofu, with a bindi on your head, listening to the sitar” (her words, not mine), but taking a few moments throughout the day to focus yourself, was a revelation. Like Wax, I suffer from depression, something she describes as feeling like “if the devil had Tourette’s” and I have tried practices like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). To me though, CBT’s teachings to constantly ruminate on negative thoughts in order to change them left me in a constant state of worry and anxiety.
The greatest asset of the book is its “mental health for dummies” approach. Wax eloquently explains the finer workings of the mind, from the neural pathways to the neocortex, in a way that even the most brainless among us can understand.
As Wax says; “this isn’t just for those who are considered mad, it’s for all of us”. In our crazy, smartphone-centred, deadline-driven, competitively busy world, we are all searching for a way to sleep at night. And, mindfulness just might be it.
Written with her famously dry wit; and with personal experiences and much of the science that backs up the practice of mindfulness, Wax has created a brilliant guide for anyone and everyone looking to tame the madness of their mind.