Mindfulness is all the rage these days, but writer and entertainer Ruby Wax argues it’s more than just another buzzword. Mindfulness “is the gateway to the ‘shit happens’ school of enlightenment,” she writes in her latest book, Frazzled. It presents a way of paying attention to your thoughts that doesn’t require meditating on a yoga mat all day or chanting, naked, in the rain. Wax’s method is simpler: It’s about bringing awareness to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Yep, that’s really it.
The US-born actor, comedian, and mental health campaigner’s new book guides readers through what she calls “Frazzledom”: a state in which the body is constantly overloaded with stress and worry. More importantly, she tells how to get out of this state, how to stop living your life on autopilot, and how to stay in the present.
“We’re caught up in distraction all the time,” the author told BuzzFeed last month. “We flicker like a moth on cocaine. If you want to focus, mindfulness is a really good way to do so.” And what exactly is mindfulness to Wax? According to her book, it’s nothing more or less than a “way of exercising your ability to pay attention.” She believes stress calms down when you bring your situation into focus: “It means you’re able to taste the tea, focus on people when they’re talking, and not get distracted by that one email.”
So how do you achieve it? The book details a six-week course in mindfulness for the frazzled, but before diving in, Wax makes a point of assuring the reader that “there is no getting it right”; it’s important to keep noticing what’s going on in your mind. As long as you do that, you can’t fail. The exercises include tasting something you enjoy (really noticing the textures and sensations), breathing exercises, and dealing with difficult emotions by using a mindful diary.
The main trick to taking care of your body and your mind is to just do it, stick with it, and incorporate it into your daily routine as much as possible: “It takes gallons of willpower for you to get yourself to sit and practise but, to be honest, I don’t love lugging myself into the shower every day either,” Wax writes. Practising mindfulness doesn’t mean sitting frozen for hours: Your mind is engaged and actively observing your thoughts. The goal is that, eventually, “it should become easier to discriminate between which thoughts are winners and which are dross to be flushed on arrival.”
Wax credits mindfulness with helping her stay in the present, especially when it comes to being a mother: “All humans are creatures of addiction. It tastes really good to keep going, to look at that one email, and before you know it you’re answering spam. With my kids I missed their childhood sometimes, but now I can catch myself and go OK, I’m not listening. If you learn to focus that’s the most flattering thing you can do to someone. Else they can tell I’m thinking about the emails – they know you’re not in the room.”
For anyone who doubts the effectiveness of mindfulness, Wax simply says to trust the research behind it: “If you don’t believe in science then you won’t believe in it.” She herself had been through several psychological treatments and therapies when she eventually decided to turn to scientific research. She did her master's in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at Oxford University and used that as the foundation for her book. “What’s good about studying this stuff is that you find out that it’s the human condition,” she says. “I don’t feel so freakish any more.”
Despite the in-depth research that’s gone into the book, Wax’s trademark voice still comes through: “I’m not that smart. I put it more in a ‘science for dummies’ kinda way. I speak in dummy speak but if you flip it to comedy it’s OK. You get the real information, which I find really interesting, and then you start re-editing it and spinning it into comedy.”
Wax uses the comedy elements in her book the same way she uses comedy in her stage shows: “In order to get something across you have to make people laugh because they imbue it and then when I’ve got them like that, you can give them information. I’m using it as kind of medicine, to get them ready. It’s like foreplay.”
Frazzled also features sections plucked from Wax’s own experience, offering a weightier insight into the reality of struggling with mental health. Around 80 pages in, there’s a chapter called “A Depressing Interlude” where the tone of the book shifts back to Wax’s own life at a time when she had to take a break from writing. “Here’s where the mindfulness came in handy,” she writes. “This time I knew I was ill. I knew I wasn’t being a wanker and making it up. It took me a while, but I knew not to punish myself.” Applying mindfulness helped her to take a step back and resist forcing herself to just “perk up”. Being mindful offered a different perspective: “You’re not the slave of it, you’re observing. It’s still awful but it will pass faster.”
Twenty years ago Wax went to her doctor. “I thought I was possessed by the devil and I had every disease known to man,” she tells BuzzFeed. “The doctor said, ‘No, you have clinical depression.’” She describes this time in her life as her zombie state: “It felt like someone was putting date rape drugs in my drink, that’s what it felt like.” Now Wax is aware of what’s happening to her brain and she’s much kinder to herself: “For me, one of the hardest parts of practising mindfulness is getting to grips with self-compassion, which is the bedrock of mindfulness.”
Despite the self-investigation mindfulness has led her through, Wax’s journey is far from over. She’s already writing her next book. “This is a universe,” she says, pointing to her head. “There’s no end to this information and I just find it really riveting.”