WORDS BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
PHOTOGRAPH BY CATHERINE ASHMORE
Ruby Wax has done it all: she’s been a comedian, talk show host, reality TV star, awards evening presenter and actress. And now she’s written a book (her second, actually). Long plagued by depression, Wax decided to learn more about psychology and therapy so that she could become better at understanding her brain, and treating herself.
The more she studied, the sooner she realised she didn’t want to become a psychotherapist. She was, however, inspired to share with the world the insights gained from her master’s degree at Oxford in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. These insights have been distilled the marvellous Sane New World. With gentle humour and a no-nonsense and vivid style, Wax explains how the brain works, why we behave the way we do, and shows how changing our thought processes and behaviour can rewire the brain, liberating us from the destructive power of emotions and recurring thought patterns.
Backed by a growing body of scientific research, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy tackles depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental health challenges – but it is of great benefit even to those who don’t suffer from these. Mindfulness draws you into the present, instead of being trapped in the past or worrying about the future. Its techniques soothe anxiety, reduce stress, and improve focus and concentration – helping to achieve a balanced mind, one no longer held hostage by the inner voices and savage self-criticism that can plague us all.
Sane New World is easily digested and wondrously funny — part memoir, part manual to living life in the here-and-now. I chatted with Wax about the book during her recent visit to Cape Town.
What was the hardest part about writing the book?
The neuroscience. Where do you cut it off because it’s so much more complicated? So, it’s deciding how much I could explain, and still get a picture of how it works.
How did you go about doing that – how do you distil what is such a dense subject into something which is accessible?
I don’t know – I wrote probably about everything. And then I started to cut down as to what I thought the public could understand.
So, was the book quite a bit bigger when you were developing it?
Always. I must have written that a 100 times. Hacking, hacking, hacking.
When did you start it?
Two years ago? Probably more.
Where did you write?
Most of it there [in London] but I came here [Cape Town] for a little spurt. I have a house here. I used to have one in De Waterkant; now it’s in Bakoven and it’s pretty sensational. I love this place. I was going to come and write it here renting it but I got the house. That’s all my money, so I hope people buy the book.
When did you first encounter mindfulness as a concept?
I had meditated but I’m not a Buddhist. Then I heard about mindfulness so I was going to try that and cognitive therapy but I was sick of paying for shrinks. So, I thought mindfulness you do on your own – you pay for the eight-week course and it isn’t a rip-off: it’s the real thing. It was so hard but I was so desperate – so I did it.
The book launched really recently. What has the reaction been like to it so far?
It got to number one of the Sunday Times’s Bestseller List and it’s pretty high on Amazon.
It was very interesting how you delve into elements of your own past in sections of the book. How did you go about choosing those experiences, and was it hard to write about the experiences you’ve dealt with?
No, there was a first book I wrote ten years ago called How Do You Want Me and it’s autobiographical but funny – so it was all me. And I was sick of me. But I needed to tell you how I got from thing to thing. I said I don’t want my picture on [the cover of Sane New World]. But I did need to tell you how I got from [where I came from] so I’m “island-hopping”.
Mindfulness is a very positive thing but a lot of what it’s dealing with can be extremely negative – when you think of anxiety and self-criticism etc. And yet there are moments in the book which are hilarious. Do you think humour helps to engage people with a topic like this?
Oh yes, for me. Like Bill Bryson does it. A lot of people can’t do it, and I can’t do what a lot of people can do but I think if they get the joke, they get the concept, it goes in and it stays in. Not many people can do that, but on the other hand I can’t write academically. I can’t remember a fact unless I’m just staring at it.
Which writers do you enjoy reading?
Philip Roth and Saul Bellows; the American writers, mostly.
For you, has mindfulness become easier to practise since you began doing it or is it still the same challenge every day?
Every day it’s a chore because I don’t do it for one minute a day; I have to sit for 20 minutes. It’s always murder. There are moments when I can feel my breath, then I observe just my thoughts; there’s no right or wrong – it’s just constantly yin yang, you know, they’re pulling, but I can feel that the chemicals go down, just as you can when you work out.
What’s your family’s reaction been to the book?
My son practices mindfulness and he’s now making apps for mental health to do with mindfulness. [But] kids see you as the mother. They say “that’s good”, but nothing is impressive to a kid. Like my parents were never proud, I think kids also have that thing – maybe they secretly go “wow”, but I think when blood’s involved, people don’t have the same reactions: they just go “Oh well, that’s what my mom does – she goes to Oxford.”
Sane New World is published by Hodder & Stoughton, R240.
Photograph: Catherine Ashmore