As part of my work, I read a lot of books on mindfulness and mental wellbeing but instead of being inspired or motivated after reading them, there are some books that make me just want to bang my head against a brick wall.
When you’re feeling anxious or depressed, the last thing you want to read is some dry old doctor wanging on in jargonese and making you feel like you’re a specimen in a jar. Or otherwise you get some shiny guru type who gives you advice in between eating quinoa and standing on their head on the sand dunes near their Malibu home.
That’s why I liked comedian Ruby Wax’s book ‘Sane New World’. She’s neither of those types. Despite taking a masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy at Oxford University and being hugely well qualified to talk about the subject, she does so in a sympathetic and down-to-earth way that makes sense to someone who may be fraying at the seams. She doesn’t pretend to be anything she isn’t and she doesn’t gloss over the worst parts of her depression. She reveals everything in an honest, touching and humorous way that makes you just want to hug her. (Although she mentions in the book that she hates hugging so maybe I’d leave that out).
My favourite part of the book is when she describes how she tried to organise a dinner party whilst feeling well below par. The stress, the drinking, the putting-on-a-brave face, the disastrous food and the final collapse, all rings true to anyone with a mental health issues who has had to deal with a social occasion whilst in the throes of their condition.
I was introduced to Mindfulness through a therapist back in 2008. I was trying to find ways of not being so stressed and angry all the time so she gave me a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn – one of the pioneers of mindfulness practice who had a stress-reduction mindfulness program. I liked the initial idea of always being present in your mind instead of rehashing the past or chundering through a list of things to do in my mind, but unfortunately I didn’t get on well with the practise because one of the first exercises it told me to do was to wash up the dishes mindfully.
Now the problem with me is that I bloody hate housework of any kind. I feel like a part of my soul is being chipped away whenever I have to do it because it’s one of those things that seems an utter waste of time because housework never stays done. There is always more washing up to do. But in the book it was telling me to “enjoy the feeling of the warm water” and the “fragrance of the washing up liquid”. This just served to really REALLY annoy me. So I became stressed out because not only had I become very angry whilst doing the exercise – exactly the opposite of what I wanted – but it also made me feel like a failure.
When I went back to my therapist she asked me how I got on. Not wanting to disappoint her, or appear a loser, I lied. (Yes, I know lying to your therapist is a supreme waste of money, but name me one person who hasn’t lied to their therapist and you’ll have yourself a liar right there.) I told her I really liked the “being in the present” idea and…and… and then promptly ran out of things to say. Then she did that therapist thing of staying quiet and looking at me until I broke down and shouted: “I hated it. Take your stupid book back! I can’t wash up mindfully! I’m not a zombie who goes around doing chores with a serene smile on her face.”
My therapist laughed and asked me if I’d learned anything about myself from doing the exercises. I said: “I am an angry person. I get angry. That’s just the way I am. I am not someone who can float through life, I am someone who charges through it. And sometimes that’s not good, but that’s who I am and I have to accept it.”
And right there, Mindfulness taught me my first lesson. That instead of stressing out about my personality, I had to accept it and try and work within my behavioural limitations instead of constantly trying to be something I wasn’t, striving for the holy grail of calmness and peace that never seemed attainable to me. It taught me to let go.
Almost a decade on from that session, I can now read Ruby Wax’s book and see that there are many more lessons I can learn from Mindfulness and none of them have anything to do with washing up. I now do Mindful Walking, Mindful Body Scans and Mindful Breathing. I can cherry pick the exercises that speak to me, and leave out the ones that don’t. I practise Mindfulness when sitting in traffic, knowing I cannot get to my destination any quicker so I instead listen to music and breathe deeply and try and enjoy that moment anyway because if I’m going to be late, I’m going to be late and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it so there is no point in getting stressed out and smashing my head against the horn on the steering wheel.
So I would highly recommend Ms Wax’s book and if you want to give Mindfulness a quick go, try our Mindful Body Scan recording (below) which I recorded as part of our free online mental health course with NHS psychiatric nurse Liz Axham. (No washing up required.)
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