Mindfulness comes alive

Kate Williams reviews the new book from Ruby Wax - and we publish an exclusive extract.

With mindfulness becoming ever popular, Ruby Wax’s book is well timed and combines a theoretical, practical and personal account of mindfulness describing how we could all benefit from it. Ruby begins the book through describing how we have lost touch with the simplicity of life outlining a place for mindfulness today whilst citing recent evidence from neuroscience showing how mindfulness can change our brains. Ruby comments how most of us ‘spend our lives hunting for something that has a very limited shelf life, sometimes lasting only seconds’. In the end, we are all searching for happiness but in the process can become miserable searching for it. Ruby describes how mindfulness practice can help us to live more in the present moment – be it a happy, sad, or dull moment.

The latter half of the book provides more practical guidance offering a six week mindfulness course, mindful tips for developing healthier relationships and accessible mindfulness practices for children and teenagers. Mindful practices offered are short and engaging making them invaluable both for helping children understand their emotions and helping families communicate better. This is where the book really comes alive and is unlike any other mindfulness book I have encountered. Ruby’s personal accounts of her own experiences with depression throughout are a wonderful and genuine addition to the book adding credibility to the mindfulness practices she talks us through. This is particularly evident during her final chapter where she bravely recounts her personal experiences of being on a mindfulness retreat.

At times, the book is lacking in a specific direction and can feel like a mishmash of different mindfulness topics, but it is clear that Ruby has done her research and the topics she does present would be of interest to the novice mindfulness reader. Due to Ruby’s down-to-earth writing style, the book feels accessible to those who may otherwise be put off by more spiritual-sounding or specialist language sometimes used in other mindfulness books. Providing mindfulness audio would perhaps help readers engage more with the written practices, but overall, this book is an easy, uplifting, humorous read providing a genuine introduction to mindfulness practice. What makes mindfulness so powerful is the personal touch teachers and authors offer. Ruby certainly offers this through recounting her genuine and heartfelt personal experiences of mindfulness and depression, giving the book a more personal touch from someone who knows the territory of mindfulness practice.

- Kate Williams, PhD research student and mindfulness teacher. University of Manchester.

Extract

For the ending of the book, Ruby visits the University of Bangor in Wales, a centre for mindfulness research, to have her brain scanned before and after a week-long retreat, with no Wi‑Fi and seven hours of meditation a day. 'I figured that, if I’m writing this book about mindfulness, I might as well see if it delivers what it says on the label . . . and what better way than to use me as the guinea pig?'

Day three

'I go back to . . . what else? Sitting . . . it never ends. I start counting how many more hours are left until I can go home. I feel my mind’s like a spoiled brat: it wants to eat, to sleep, to go to France, it wants the sleeting rain to stop (it’s August – what’s wrong with this country?) – but I’m getting more than a slight inkling about the effect this mindfulness lark might be having. From this endless exercise, I can actually feel the muscle of my attention growing from a puny little bump to something quite powerful; I’m able to keep my attention on a particular thing for a longer period than I normally could. The voices don’t stop, but because I have stopped trying to stop them (or wishing that they were more profound) they’re getting less vitriolic. I’m becoming less frightened that I might not be as special as I think I am. My ego is starting to do a striptease.

(Only days ago, in the brain scanner, I thought my brain was a golden orb of enlightenment.) None of us wants to look into our mind and discover that we’re just simple folk and that we’re no different from each other under our armour. We are all delusional if we think we’re above the herd; we’re all just people trying to scratch out some kind of a life. If we demand too much of ourselves, life isn’t fun and we make ourselves ill, so why do that? I’ve always wondered why I am such a slave driver to myself? I usually can’t think without pushing my mind to heights it can’t reach – like a mother who pushes her child until he goes over the edge. Why can’t I just leave me alone? I realize I might be so stressed in life because I’m always trying to improve myself, when it’s okay just to be me, with these plain, vanilla thoughts. And as I sit there and the thoughts arise, it’s as if they’re rising like sediment from the bottom of a pail of clear water. Each time one disengages from the bottom, the water below gets clearer.

As I start to get off my own back, I notice that all this self-punishment for not doing enough is starting to go; I can even feel the muscles in my face moving towards a smile. I’m beginning to be able to stand back and observe my thoughts and, when I get even a trace of a negative thought or the first scent of rumination, I can re-route my focus from my head into my body, where I can sensually investigate it rather than agonize about it. I’ve always said that, with depression, it’s impossible to know when it’s coming, because you don’t have a spare brain to assess whether there’s something wrong, like you could with a lost finger or a lump. So I know I can’t get a warning in words that it’s coming, as in, ‘Oh, I’m getting depression. What should I do about it?’ But from all this practising, this bulking up of my insula, I know I’ll be able to sense it coming. I won’t feel so unaware, so helpless, next time; I understand now that the two statements ‘There is sadness’ and ‘I am sad’ are different. (It’s part of me, not the whole of me.)'

'A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled' by Ruby Wax is published in hardback on 7th January by Penguin Life, priced £14.99.

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