At it’s best, humour can shine a light on dark issues and open up spaces for conversations that would not otherwise be possible. I was reminded of this while listening to Ruby Wax at an Action for Happiness event.
Ruby was sharing insights gained through her Oxford University Masters degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy; which is also the topic of her book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. Through jokes about everything from her childhood to Donald Trump, Ruby opened up a safe space to explore mental illness, as well as the benefits mindfulness can offer.
The benefits of mindfulness
Ruby was open about the challenges she’s faced with depression, and explained how she has found mindfulness a helpful tool in dealing with these. “We all have records playing in our heads”, she said, “and mindfulness doesn’t make the negative thoughts on those records go away; it just helps you to notice them and then have a distance from them.” Through this shift in perspective, Ruby said, negative thoughts can potentially start to hold less power over you.
Ruby first become interested in mindfulness after reading scientific research backing up its effectiveness. She explained how mindfulness practices can demonstrably lower people’s levels of cortisol, which is the hormone that can flood the brain during times of stress. Cortisol can be very helpful for us in flight or flight situations, but is not always so useful in modern life.
Ruby also talked about neuroplasticity; the potential that the brain has to reorganise by creating new neural pathways to adapt, as it needs. She joked how she enjoys sharing her knowledge on the brain because it makes her look really smart, but the point she was making was also very accessible – we can all change our own brains through practice.
Ruby broke up her talk by leading short mindfulness exercises, to help us put in to practice bringing our attention to the present moment and focusing on our physicality – our breath, what we could hear around us, the weight of our bodies on the seats. These experiences were made all the more relaxing by Ruby’s acknowledgement that it’s normal for our attention to wander; mindful attention is simply a practice we can build up gently over time.
Ruby was very clear that mindfulness should not be the primary treatment for mental illness. She says she “takes medication for her depression, just as you would for any other physical illness”. But Ruby explained how she has “added meditation to my medication” as a way to help her manage her mental health over time. She is also clear that this may not work for everyone, and that people should find the balance that’s right for them.
Caring for yourself, caring for others
One question that Ruby said she’s often asked is whether mindfulness is actually a bit self-indulgent? In response she highlights how practicing mindfulness can have a beneficial impact on those around you, too. The more you’re able to care for yourself – lower your own cortisol levels and feel less stressed – the more positively you will engage with those around you. In her book, Ruby explores how mindfulness can improve our relationships, highlighting that, “we only survive and flourish because of others”. Mindful awareness can also result in more compassion for others struggling with their own mental health, realising that many are listening to the own “negative records playing in their heads”.
Fighting the stigma
Ruby’s work has also helped break down the stigma around mental health. Too often people with mental health issues can feel ashamed to speak about the challenges they face, yet Ruby’s willingness to discuss her own mental health openly can pave the way for others. “It’s liberating to talk about, because then other people share their own experiences with me”, explained Ruby. This was something I directly experienced at her talk; we were invited to share what we had taken from the talk with our neighbour, and I found myself having a very open discussion about mental health with someone I’d never met before.
Overall, it was really enjoyable to spend an evening listening to and laughing with Ruby. I experienced the practical benefits of mindfulness, and was reminded of the importance of open, honest discussions on mental health.
To find out more about Ruby’s work, please visit http://www.rubywax.net.
Photos from Action for Happiness event with Ruby Wax in London on 15 June 2016 – by John Emmerson.