Monday, 11 April 2016
The Cambridge Literature Festival has blossomed and grown, there's now a supply of live music and champagne outside the union and the one in, one out author timetable reflects its popularity. It's given me the opportunity to see writers, thinkers and actors close at hand - Clive James, Ali Smith, Bill Nighy and now one of my favourite comedians and all round people - Ruby Wax.
Inside, the chamber is packed. We are pitched in rows as if for battle, our attention drawn by the entrance of a small woman who takes her seat on stage. When she speaks it's scatter-gun with purpose, like the voice of an MGM cartoon character with the wisdom of Aristotle. You can't help but listen. She's dynamic, effervescent, a pocket rocket, a firecracker exclamation of black hair and red lips. I could go on with a ready supply of attempts at fronted adverbial's, but it turns out Ruby is just like the rest of us - Frazzled. Hence the name of her new book born out of research into mindfulness and the achievement of a Masters in mindfulness based cognitive therapy at Oxford Univeristy (The Cambridge Dons in the audience wince). The study was born out of the desire to understand and control the depression that was hounding her with its black dog ways. The process seems to have been successful, her work on mental health awareness gained her an OBE a few years back.
Why Frazzled? 'It's in my veins, and they say, write about something you know.... so I thought, lets build a career on that.' There is a rush of laughter around the chamber, we know she's only half joking. She was drawn to mindfulness because of the science behind it's effects. 'There's a plague of slight hysteria everywhere. Not everyone, there are people who live out of this, somewhere in Oxfordshire, milking their chickens, but the rest of us battle with overload in our reactive culture. We have to accept that stress is not a badge of honour, it breaks down your immune defence, its a disease and its reaching epidemic proportions.'
I know Ruby Wax from her comedy persona, appearing in Girls On Top alongside Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, then there was the writing and her documentary work. She wanted to be noticed, she created this character, this loud, American stereotype; People started treating her like that,
'I was running on non-stop adrenaline, I'd be doing stand up for the milkman.' Ruby explains how we have yet to evolve beyond our stress response, 'You're always, 'on' we haven't evolved to have a handbrake for this stress, we don't have an off switch, now the fear is invisible' It's not a sabre tooth tiger lurking round the corner.
She ask us not to judge ourselves for the flow of negative thoughts, we haven't done anything wrong, 'Four out of our five thoughts are negative, we have to counterbalance that.' and then she gives the audience a few exercise to try, and we are quiet, reflective, listening to her instruction, focusing on the senses. I feel it would be good to try this with a fractious class and stressed staff in the school where I work.
It's not a cure all, it won't work for everybody, but 'Mindfulness is good practice, (it won't replace medication, if you're ill you need to take the medication, she says) thoughts can lose their solidity, minds can be scrambled, it's like watching a thunderstorm from under an umbrella. You have to get ready for when the shit hits the fan.
So armed, I buy a copy of her book and get her to sign it for my teenage daughter, but I'll read it first.