A Tai Chi teacher reviews Ruby Wax’s latest show
My wife and I went to see Ruby Wax doing a promotional tour for her new book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled.
After her previous life as a TV personality ended up with her crashing and burning into a breakdown and rehab, Ruby looked to science to provide the answers to depression and found them in mindfulness, which seemed to be one of the few alternative therapies that showed real scientific results of success. She got a masters degree in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University and went on to write Sane New World about her experiences, and got an OBE for her efforts to remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and have it accepted as an illness, just like any other. I have not (so far) suffered from a mental illness, so I did feel like a bit of a fraud sitting amongst the audience, but I have meditated and felt the benefits of doing so, so I was interested in seeing her show. Tai Chi, after all, is a mindfulness-based practice, but more of that later.
Firstly, the show was at the Playhouse in Weston-super-mare, which is a seaside town, so you’re probably conjuring up images of sunny Brighton in your head. Stop. It’s not like that. When he heard I was going to Weston at the weekend one of my friends said – “I really like Weston because it can’t get any worse. It’s kind of at the bottom, and doesn’t pretend to be anything its not.” That’s about it, really. The beach is very long and sandy, and there are lots of shops that sell seaside tat, like candy floss, sticks of rock and buckets and spades. There’s also a lot of drinking. By 5.00pm in the evening on a sunny but cold April day several packs of bald, intimidating, tattooed men and shouty, even more intimidating, drunken women were trawling up and down the strip looking for the next table to land on to keep the party going. Occasionally two packs would meet, and the outcome would be pretty horrendous.
In the midst of all these people blatantly doing their best to drink themselves into oblivion and escape from reality, we were going on a talk on mindfulness, which is blatantly an attempt to return to it.
The show itself took the form of a question and answer first half, where Ruby was ‘interviewed’ by her friend (whose name I can’t remember, but she used to be in Grange Hill when she was 14) who asks her a series of clearly prepared questions about mindfulness that she answers in an entertaining way while trying to make it not look like these are rehearsed answers. We all play along, because that’s what you do. There was a little bit of audience participation where she’d get us to discover our senses by clapping our hands, or sniffing the scented flier she’d thoughtfully left on each seat.
In the interval she signed books then returned to the stage for a second half where the audience got the chance to ask her questions. Interestingly, most of the questions revealed that the audience hadn’t really been paying attention to the first half, as everybody seemed to have a view on mindfulness which wasn’t exactly the same one that Ruby had. “That’s not really what I said…”, was a common refrain.
I think that’s often the problem with ‘mindfulness’ – it gets treated like any other ‘thing’ on offer to distract us from doing the hard work of coming back to face our lives as they actually are, which is what it’s really about. Instead we want another book to read, another movie to watch, or another phone to check. Everybody already has an idea of what mindfulness means to them, and it’s going to take a lot of mindfulness to change it.
Anyway, Ruby disappeared off into the Weston night, and so did we, which was utterly terrifying as by the time we left the theatre the walking dead were out in full force, tottering from pavement to road and back again, and then into a bush to be sick. There wasn’t a police man in sight. They’d either given up on Weston and abandoned it to the shadows, or they were all too scared to come out of the police station. We scampered back to our hotel and hid in our hotel room until the shouting and screaming stopped, then we could sleep.
I did enjoy Ruby’s show. It wasn’t anything amazing. Nothing extraordinary happened but, as she repeatedly said, a life without highs and lows, where you just maintain an active presence is really our best hope of being sane and healthy. The mindfulness practice she introduced, where you focus on your senses, and just keep coming back to them instead of letting your thoughts steal ‘you’ away and keep you captive, reminded me a lot of Tai Chi. This is what Tai Chi practice is – if you let yourself float away in your thoughts while doing the form then you lose half the benefit of practicing Tai Chi. You need to be in your body, feeling its movements, aware of its fluctuations and shifts. When you get caught up in your thoughts about Tai Chi you stop doing Tai Chi, so you need to keep coming back to the body.
It says in chapter 3 of the Tao Te Ching (an ancient book of Chinese wisdom, which has influenced Tai Chi)
“Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties
their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens
Again, it’s the idea of getting out of your head, and into your body, if you want to successfully govern yourself.
I imagine a lot of Buddhists and Taoists have their nose put out of joint by the popularity of mindfulness, which has essentially taken the core bit of their practice and stripped out the religious elements into a kind of Buddhism-Light. But so what? If it works, do it.
Anyway, I bought her book. I’m sure it will distract me for long enough until there’s another one on mindfulness for me to buy. Or I might even sit down, shut up and practice it. Let’s see what happens.