She’s known for many things: a lifelong career in stand-up comedy, interviewing the biggest celebrities in the world for her own TV show, and script editing a little sitcom called Absolutely Fabulous. But in recent years, Ruby Wax has become a “poster girl” for mental health, sharing her own experiences with depression (she was at one point institutionalised), and what she’s learned about mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (she has a master’s degree on the topic from Oxford University). We sat down to talk with Ruby in Melbourne during her tour of Frazzled, a live comedy show in which she interviews herself. While munching on nuts (she carries a bag of her own, in case the ones in the hotel aren’t good enough – which on this occasion they weren’t), she told us what she’s learned about dealing with the red mist that enters her mind during stressful periods, the nature of self-compassion, and how she’s customised the closet in her London home to provide her with respite from the wider world.
Mindfulness is watching your thoughts. You’re not trying to slow down; you’re adopting this observer point-of-view, so when you start getting the critical thoughts, you’re not at the mercy of them, but watching them, the way you’d watch an old TV show.
Slowing down isn’t the same thing. You can be present and pretty fast. A monk lives in my house in London, and he said they can run like hell, but they’re present. They’re there. Their mind isn’t going a thousand miles an hour in a different direction. They’re in their body. And you get to that point through practice. You can’t get a six-pack with one sit-up.
Humans need stress. If we didn’t have stress, we wouldn’t be motivated to do anything. But frazzled is a new phenomenon, and that’s stress about stress. So now we’re thinking: Is my stress worse? Is my stress less? Am I good enough? Am I fast enough? We’re stressed because we know about news constantly, 24 hours a day, and it’s there to shock us. We never have a rest period. There’s no braking-system. And it’s our own fault, in a way. We put it there. So now, in a world that’s crazy, we need to learn how to deal with it.
I can tell it’s time to slow down when there’s a red mist coming into my head and I can’t think clearly anymore. In the past I would ignore it and just stay in hyper-drive. But now I go, “Uh-uh, this is really coming.” So I’ll either sit silently and follow my breath, or go to a gym. I’ll just do something. And that’s all mindfulness is: paying attention and taking your pulse, before you get wiped out.
If you want to slow down, move to the country. But if you want to live in the city where life is full of deadlines, just make sure there are little spaces. People are really proud, saying, “I’ve worked 12 hours today.” Well, good luck living long. You have to keep up with it, but you have to take breaks. At Google, they have a buzzer that goes off every so often and they have to put the lid down. But you don’t keep it down all day.
There’s a moment when stress is energy and there’s a moment when it’s addiction. Listen, when I was young, I was addicted, too. And you can take it. Later on, it will trip you up. Your body will tell you when it’s time to do something about it. Besides the clichés, like yoga, Pilates, tai chi and mindfulness, there’s no pill. You can’t wish it away. It’s not going to happen because you think, ‘I should be slowing down.’ ‘Should’ ain’t gonna get you there. You have to physically do something.
Self-compassion is the topic of my next book, which I’m writing with the monk and a neuroscientist. First, just take one step at a time: learn to take your pulse mentally, see when you’re burning out, and watch your levels of anxiety. I said to my professor [at Oxford], “I don’t have self-compassion.” And he said, “The fact that you even sit and do mindfulness is self-compassion.” You don’t need to practice anything. You don’t have to define it or write yourself a greeting card. If you want to do something to ensure you don’t burnout, that’s self-compassion.
Travelling and watching people are soothing to me. I love trying to unravel them and listening to their conversations. There are also things that get me in the zone, like writing. That’s an addiction. But then I’ll take a break. Intentionally doing mindfulness, that’s not soothing. It’s like Iron Man. That’s why I say it’s hardcore. It’s not tinging music and dreamcatchers – it’s watching your thoughts, which is brutal. But eventually you’re training that muscle to be able to watch them, rather than respond to them.
You know you’re happy when your mind is settled. You’re noticing the food or the scenery, rather than thinking about what you’re supposed to do. I have that mind-state more than I used to. But you’re still a victim of your genes and your habits.
At home in London, I’ve transformed my closet. I filled it with a mattress, and I hung white sheets from the rails. So I’ve created this white space, just the width of a bed, and I can go in there and either meditate or just be. I sleep in it, too. I tell my husband, “I’m going to The White Cave.” To be in that small space comforts me. You’re controlling your distraction factor.
Mindfulness makes us more tolerant. Because I get that everybody has a similar mind, we’re all cruel to ourselves, and we all suffer the same things, give or take. Vulnerability is what makes us human. Everybody’s got it underneath, unless you have a disease, like narcissism or borderline personality. If you peel back the skin, everyone’s pretty similar. That, to me, connects everybody. And then life becomes less fearful.
This article first appeared in Slow magazine issue 31 (Winter 2017).