By her own admission there’s still plenty to learn. Ruby Wax is endeavouring to fully understand how our minds work. Through her two books, 2013’s Sane New World: Taming the Mind and this year’s A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled she’s brought comfort, inspiration and empowerment to thousands. Although the US-born star is quick to say the books are not trendy improvement manuals, instead labelling them as science made funny. “Self-help is based on more of a weekend workshop,” she tells me. “You can’t do anything that quickly. It’s to do with muscles rather than a wish. You’re exercising parts of your brain.” Packed with charm and energy, her work has been transferred into two hugely successful shows. Educating audiences about the brain’s inner workings, she’s able to entertain whilst helping us all improve our cognitive health. Now Wax is headed to Brighton’s Theatre Royal on Sun 19 June, to combine sound thinking with sharp observations, anecdotes and some of her renowned wit.
Staunchly unafraid to discuss her experiences with depression, this much-loved comedian began exploring how we could all train our minds to work in a calmer fashion. “People are burning out, or becoming frazzled as the title says. I was reading a science journal about what you could do so you wouldn’t have to run to a shrink.” Her search for something that enabled her to be “driving the car instead of being in it” uncovered a technique called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Its methodology has been helping people face issues head on, providing the power to let go of their fears and deal with problems. “I would have hugged a tree if that was the answer.” As it aimed to help individuals recognise and repel bad feelings, especially those commonly associated with depression, she contacted its creator to find out more. “I said, ‘how does the brain work?’ He said I had to get into Oxford. Well, if you throw me something like that…” Wax admits it was a miracle she got into the university, previous flirtations with academia curtailed so she could hitchhike to Europe. But now the subject matter truly interested her. Wax’s husband even joked she somehow knew the experience would inspire a good show one day. A great deal of work later, she graduated with a master’s degree in MBCT.
The whole process has been funnelled into A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, an entertaining and light-hearted introduction to what she learnt. While the book is thought-provoking, it was vital that it remained compelling. “If you make somebody laugh then all the information goes into their heads, because they’re open for it.” This practical guide outlines a range of brain exercises, which form a six-week mindfulness course, explaining basic concepts, how it’s practised and the importance of living “in the moment”.
Leaving the US in the late 70s, Wax joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. She rose to prominence on BBC’s Girls on Top in 1985, but she was already becoming known for her skills as an interviewer. During the next decade she was regularly scrutinising some of the most famous personalities on the planet, including Tom Hanks, Imelda Marcos, Pamela Anderson and Sarah, Duchess of York. The latter drew an audience of over 14 million. By her own admission, Wax’s career has revolved around investigating what drives our actions. “I was always interested in how people work, what makes them tick. Now it’s been taken up a notch.”
She describes her new show as “a conversation with myself”, but found people wanted to interact and express their own experiences. “It becomes a place where people can be heard, or ask questions they’ve never asked before. I don’t claim to have the answers, but other people in the audience might.” It seems our brains are fundamentally stuck in the Stone Age, not yet fully adapted to what is going on around us. To get anything done is now vastly complicated. We can process actions, but we often fail to recognise the energy it takes to achieve everything. So often we stop noticing things around us, lose touch with the way we feel and become trapped in our thoughts. This can stop us appreciating how these thoughts govern our emotions and behaviour.
There’s no suggestion mindfulness provides some wondrous panacea. Growing institutional enthusiasm for the practice might even be financially motivated. Though research has started to lend support: a study published in the American Medical Association’s Psychiatry Journal indicated MBCT can be a useful tool in both preventing and managing depression. Trials involving 1,258 patients showed 38% of mindfulness-based therapy recipients experienced a depressive relapse, compared to 49% of those who received no treatment. Covering age, sex and level of education, analysis indicated no significant influence by these factors on the therapy’s performance.
Wax has learnt that whatever is going on in your mind affects how you talk to people. “How you see yourself, is how you see the world.” The way we think isn’t necessarily correct; it’s just a habit. MBCT offers a way to train your brain. You’re still you, but no longer tied to some preconception of yourself. “There is a limit. If you’ve not got the Einstein gene you’re not going there,” she lets loose a sly laugh. “But there’s a lot more elbow room than people think. That’s kind of liberating.” The overwhelming message from Wax’s show is that people aren’t stuck with who they are. “We can give ourselves labels like: ‘I’m weak’ or ‘I’m a bully’. It’s not true. You can decide who you are, but that’s not how your brain works.” So mindfulness concerns itself with knowing directly what is going on inside and around us, moment by moment. This helps us enjoy the world around us more, understand ourselves better and develop a refreshed appreciation for things we have but may take for granted. It’s possible to train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’, which don’t have to control us.
Excelling at making an extremely complex subject simple to understand, Ms Wax is showing how the power of mindfulness can be applied to daily life. It seems unlikely she’ll ever be bored with the working of the human mind. “You keep wanting to figure out how does that work? How does my memory work? How come I do this? How come I have critical thinking? If someone was really interested in cooking they’d have to start reading cookbooks.” A prominent campaigner for mental health issues, this year she was awarded an OBE in recognition of her efforts. Did she dream of such a thing as a child? “I didn’t know what it was. I only knew what a fairy princess was, but I wasn’t heading in that direction. But it’s close…”
Ruby Wax: Frazzled comes to Brighton’s Theatre Royal on Sun 19 June.
Her book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, is out now through Penguin Books.
*Image by Steve Ullathorne