Sane New World – Anyone?
What do we say when asked what we’d wish ourselves or our loved ones? “A happy life” or “I just want them to be happy” is the usual answer. Okay, aside from the lottery wins and superpowers.
Having mentioned Mindfulness – or yes, banged a drum about it – in a couple of blogposts, I can’t help noticing discontent and unhappiness in various quarters, some close to home. I notice this because I relate to and recognise it.
My life used to run on frenzy, stress, busy-busy, the “must be, should do, you’re crap, supposed to be, gotta do this, gotta do that”, let down, disappointed, endless auto-pilot, dopamine rat-run. I’m exhausted just looking at it. And when that overwhelmed me, I’d crash and burn, often with unhelpful depressive or mildly hypomanic episodes which could last weeks or months. My life’s not perfect now but I accept it – fine and flawed – as it is. It’s nothing remotely like The Mentally Hellish Years; and that radical change has come about in a short space of time.
So today I’m throwing my hat into the ring to write something specific about Mindfulness with some words here, and a link to my Amazon book review for Sane New World: Taming The Mind by Ruby Wax. Currently available on Kindle and in hardback only, the paperback will be out in early 2014.
Ruby firstly takes a look at current neuroscientific knowledge. Then writes about it so that people who aren’t neuroscientists can understand it. Handy information for me, whose brain and thoughts never seem to stop and sometimes hold mad firework displays of their own.
In the latter part of the book, Ruby goes on to talk about Mindfulness, “for the four-in-four” humans not solely the one-in-four with mental health issues, and about how we can use it to help “rewire” our brains for our benefit. Mindfulness is not “ever about relaxation”, she says. Ruby defines Mindfulness in the classic way:
“Mindful means intentionally paying attention, in the present moment, in a non-judgmental way (you don’t snap at yourself when you notice you might not be in a good place).”
I know Ruby Wax isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And I’m no Wax sycophant. There’s a Marmite reaction among my friends and relatives. But I’m interested in saving my life, and poor mental health can spoil our enjoyment of life, and for some can be life-threatening. Ruby Wax is a woman who’s put her money where her mouth is as far as mental health is concerned. I personally can’t abide Anthony Robbins’ (he of the walking on hot coals fame) or Wayne Dyer’s ‘motivational writings’ on success. I’m not sure their ideas of what constitutes success are compatible with mine – but it’s all subjective, I guess.
Ruby Wax’s book isn’t like that. This isn’t about rushing out and being an entrepreneur, or telling yourself you’re wonderful in the mirror every day. Last year, Ms. Wax and others set up Black Dog Tribe with the aim of helping to eradicate mental health stigma and open communication channels for anyone suffering those mental slings and arrows. She’s now studied as much as she possibly could to learn about the brain, how it works, the life of the mind and Mindfulness (based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, see video below) with Mark Williams at Oxford.
Much more research needs doing but this book does its best to enlighten those of us who want to know the current research status, can’t or haven’t the time to grasp those neuroscience textbooks and websites, and who want to know what’s going on Up There, what we can do to deal with negative mental bombardments; how to be happy or at least happier.
Make what you wish of all this but I’m sure you’ll have noticed one thing: Mindfulness is being discussed more and more frequently in this frantic 21st century. Learning those simple-but-now-routine techniques came at the perfect time for me.
Here’s a review I’ve posted for Sane New World:
So three courses were the start for me: one of Mindfulness-Based CBT and two of Mindfulness – I took a second because I had to miss some of the first because I couldn’t concentrate; they kindly arranged for me to do the second because it’s important to attend all of the eight weeks. At those times, I had to work hard to pay attention. But it was interesting how my mildly high mood stayed steady and manageable over that five months. I learned a lot about my thoughts. Ruby says:
“Thoughts are not who you are, they’re habitual patterns in the mind, nothing more, and as soon as you see them that way, they lose their sting.”
Mindulness practice helps me see thoughts that way: “the noise of a radio in another room” and they can’t actually harm me. It’s my reactions to them that are harmful or unhelpful and which I’m learning to change. Like the drowning woman grabbing the lifebelt, then using it.
I don’t meditate daily, more like weekly, (I can manage short daily cd meditations of 2-5 minutes, or a breath-centred couple of minutes if anxiety throws itself at me) but I do try and consciously do a few daily things, washing up or dog-walking or anything, in a mindful way, paying attention. That in itself can be meditative.
In Part 4 of the book, Ruby gives us the practical side: the easiest exercises ever (you have all the equipment, they’re free, and some take just five seconds to do). This is the last subject I want to spoil by revelation. It’s best to read the book and then *thinks* start! But here’s something similar from my Mindfulness course:
Try eating a raisin mindfully (not merely chomp it once and gulp it down), feel it with your tongue, just taste it for a while and be fully aware of all sensations and thoughts. Yes, just one. It’ll be the best raisin you ever tasted.
Or try for a few seconds, building up in time, being completely present; fully listening, in conversations with family or friends.
Everyone will have their own preferences as to how to do mindfulness or be mindful but Wax’s book was the icing on the cake for me. It explained what changes were going on and how they were taking place in the brain. How, living mindfully and aware of whatever mental or physical state I’m in, I now have an early “warning system” for depression or anxiety episodes.
All this has meant more contentment – no longer habitually/internally screaming want, want, want and need, need, need in the dopamine-led life. If those thoughts come, I now have awareness of them, and know what to do – not merely react as humans so often do. Instead, I have a richer (not in a Tony Robbins way) way of living and “being”, where I, like Wax, may still wake up thinking bleakly but I can handle it – often laugh at it; it doesn’t ruin or control my whole day.
My former occasional erratic concentration and focus (this wretched Age of Distraction) have improved and I’ve no reason to believe that, if I keep practising, this won’t continue. There may yet be even more healthy and positive effects. It’s early days for me. One thing none of this has caused is more unhelpful or negative thoughts. The old thoughts crop up, of course, but:
“Regulating the mind is like driving a car and constantly having to shift gears to adjust to ever-changing road conditions… The car can be on automatic or manual, same with the mind; you can choose to respond automatically or you can choose to override it.” (my italics)
If you struggle with habitual negative thoughts which affect your self-worth; your emotions and feelings; your behaviour and how you live life (anxious, suffering depressive or anxiety symptoms or obsessive thoughts, or addictive behaviours) and you truly want to change those things, end the pain, and stop bashing your head against a nail-studded wall, then I believe this is fundamentally one of the best answers we have for now – at least outside of chocolate.
You are not alone, you’re a human being, and Ruby’s written a funny, accessible, practical manual to help you change these things. She and I may sometimes seem crazy. But we’re not daft. As Kabat-Zinn says, we do Mindfulness like our lives depend on it.
Your habitual thoughts and behaviours won’t change – or rewire themselves – merely by reading someone’s blog post, or even by reading any book on these matters, but they will if you put in the practice. For me, that meant reading about it first, then learning to practice mindfulness on courses, meditation from cds. I waited four years for an NHS course, mainly because I moved area whilst waiting. But that doesn’t matter now. It’s the best present (literally, in all senses of the word) I’ve ever had.
Life can only improve with this stuff. We can’t expect to be happy all the time – that’d be inhuman. I had a Luddite rant on my last post. But I’m over it, which is a huge improvement. Our life can be happier, if we choose and if we put in the spade work. No-one came to our house with a parcel for me and said “here’s that happiness and contentment you were looking for.” I spent years wishing for that or a Harry Potter scenario to happen. “You’re really adopted – and look! Patrick Stewart is your dad!”
If that painful, esteem-diminishing discomfort-zone is the one you want to keep, you go ahead. You’re welcome to it. Take my words or leave them. But don’t say I never tipped you the wink! It’s too late to suggest mindfulness for my mother but, if there’s one thing I’d recommend to our children for a more easily managed life, Mindfulness would be it.
So, some observations, a review of Sane New World, and sharing on my blog something helpful and of practical use. It would have been mean of me to keep it all to myself. If it helps one person, I’m glad. And I’m not always happy, clicking my heels as I hum a merry tune. Far from it but, after only eight months of mindful living, reading, listening, learning and practice, I’m a much less , distracted and stressed human than I was.
Of course the old Default Thought Dungeon – with all its torturous-thought-implements – crops up but, even at this stage, it doesn’t have the same undeserved power. I am more equipped to notice, observe, identify, control and manage them now. So they no longer frighten the life out of me. Interesting phrase!
Here’s an introductory video from Jon Kabat-Zinn explaining Mindfulness in a nutshell. There are many more on Youtube, including guided meditations and talks on living mindfully:
Like F. Gump, that’s all I’ve got to say on that, at least for now. Unsurprisingly, Mindfulness has helped with those occasional times of poor focus and distractibility (see Focus post) and I want to pay attention to writing the book.
Have you read this book or similar others? Cynically? As convert? Or as a desperately unhappy person seeking relief from the old default mental autopilot? (I was the last one). Have you taken a mindfulness or mindfulness-based CBT course? Did it change your life? Or (as I have thought in the past) is it all rubbish from smug, new age types trying to make a buck? I think not but I’d love to hear your comments.