Book Review: A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax
Ruby Wax recently released A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled – we were intrigued by the book, and asked Billy Burgess to write a review of it for us. Here are his thoughts.
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If you’re somewhat dubious about Ruby Wax’s suitability to educate the masses on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), consider this: in 2013, the actor and TV personality gained a Master’s degree in MBCT from Oxford University; she’s spent much of her latter career raising mental health awareness; and A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled follows her earlier mental health novel, Sane New World.
To compile this book, Wax referred to an extensive catalogue of academic sources (all of which are listed in the back of the book) as well as calling on a number of professors and neurologists to verify the meatier scientific information. However, Frazzled isn’t an academic manual nor is it aimed at people already comprehensively acquainted with MBCT.
As the title suggests, Wax wants to impart guidance to people who are overcome with stress and constant worries. She outlines the principles and fundamental practices of mindfulness and then exhaustively promotes its efficacy in soothing mental unrest, improving self-understanding and contributing to continued human evolution. As well as self-improvement, the book covers social mindfulness and ways mindfulness can assist with raising children and dealing with teenagers.
In the book’s second chapter, Wax provides a simple encapsulation of mindfulness: “Mindfulness is a way of exercising your ability to pay attention. When you can bring focus to something, the critical thoughts quieten down.”
She explains that this process equips us to soberly observe our thoughts, rather than simply getting bossed around by them. Subsequently, we can learn to face up to our feelings without any fear – “they’re just feelings and nothing to be scared of.”
Wax’s angle is quite personal – she has a background of severe depression and endured a tough, loveless childhood. Her most significant mental breakthrough came after applying the mindfulness practices that are laid out in chapter five’s six-week mindfulness course.
Now, you could be forgiven for presuming mindfulness is something practiced exclusively by self-absorbed mystics with dreadlocked hair and a wardrobe full of hemp robes. Self-help books, similarly, could prompt a decisive scoff. Wax realises the prevalence of these kinds of reservations and devotes a considerable number of ink to conveying the scientific vindication for MBCT.
She proposes the notion that stress only exists by virtue of humankind’s advanced evolution (it doesn’t affect our cousin, the ape). But, while we’re capable of wonderful ingenuity and each in possession of a ratatouille of emotions, we’re still animals and thus prone to automatic, primal responses.
These responses are often integral to survival, but they can also lead to panicked thoughts that are detrimental to our mental wellbeing. Rumination, in Wax’s reckoning, is an insidious vice. So instead of ruminating – that is, getting stuck in an infinite loop of neurosis, flickering between self-hatred and misanthropy – mindfulness can help us achieve a calmer, more productive and healthier relationship with the chaos fizzing around inside us.
Wax is careful to remind us that mindfulness isn’t just about “sitting in a chair marinating in your own thoughts and loving yourself.” Conversely, she emphasises the need to relinquish self-obsession and start thinking in more communal terms.
We’re all incredibly sensitive and receptive to the feelings of others, even if it’s not consciously apparent. She claims mindfulness will help prevent us from unconsciously passing our negative feelings onto others.
A slight criticism can be directed at Wax’s somewhat volatile tenor. Much of the book is written in a conversational tone, which contrasts to the sections relating neurological findings. Her jokey, conversational style does make Frazzled more immediately accessible, but the attempted humour generally feels contrived.
That said, the humour is effective in underlining Wax’s erstwhile scepticism towards mindfulness and associated activities such as silent retreats and day-long meditation sessions. And although she comes across as self-absorbed at times, she speaks with sympathy and concedes that a lot of her psychological recommendations are easier said than done.
Foibles aside, Wax is undoubtedly sincere in her avowal of the positive outcomes that can arise once you commit yourself to mindfulness. Frazzled is suitable for anyone looking to gain a more consistent and relaxed self-understanding, which will lead to stronger connections with friends, family and workmates.
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