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Why mindfulness matters to Ruby Wax

Known for being loud and funny, Ruby’s work now blends mental health advocacy with laughs.

Ruby Wax is experiencing a couple of difficulties. Since arriving in New Zealand, she's picked up a cold she can't shake and now her phone doesn't seem to be working.
"Would you mind if I used yours?" she asks upon meeting the Weekly in her Auckland hotel foyer, before suggesting we go up to her room to talk, rather than in a conference room. There, her husband, producer-director Ed Bye – who up until this second was having a nice rest in the room – barely bats an eyelid at the sudden intrusion. Instead, Ed (60) quietly apologises for any mess, while Ruby – a whirlwind – uses the borrowed phone to change their travel arrangements in Queenstown, the next stop on their Kiwi trip.
Ruby (62) likes to tell it like it is, which is all delivered with her unique brand of humour. She's in Auckland on business, but she and her husband of 37 years have turned it into a holiday, spending three nights at Huka Lodge – "which might be the most beautiful hotel I've ever seen", she raves – as well as several nights in Auckland, and then on to the south.
The business part of the trip saw Ruby deliver the keynote speech at the APAC Forum, a two-day event held by Ko Awatea, a centre for health innovation and improvement within Counties Manukau Health (DHB). "I wanted to support this cause, and it meant I get to see New Zealand again, which otherwise is just too far. It's a killer trip – the duty-free shopping isn't worth it!"
Healthcare – specifically mental health – is a topic close to Ruby's heart and is where her main career focus now lies. After debilitating bouts of depression saw Ruby institutionalised in 1994, she looked for more answers and ways to help her cope.
"People can end up seeing shrinks for years," she says with a shrug, "but basically, I didn't want to keep paying money forever, so I decided to study what goes on in the brain instead."
She had studied psychology at varsity in Berkeley, California, when she was 19, but two years ago, she graduated with a masters in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from the University of Oxford.
"To me, there is nothing more interesting than how people's minds work, what you think and how you can control it, or not control it, in some cases!" Ruby is happy to talk about mental illness – and to those who are suffering – but she really wants to talk to all of us, before it's too late.
"We need to do something now, before it gets really chronic," she tells. "In children, mental illness is accelerating and it's going to be a pandemic in a few years. It is the root of so many problems, but it's the most ignored illness due to the stigma attached to it."
She's written a book, Sane New World, which she also turned into a one-woman stage show, all based on her research. Two weeks before arriving in New Zealand, she finished her second book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, due out early next year – her hand-drawn illustrations for it are strewn across her hotel room table. While here, she's also been writing additional material for the upcoming Absolutely Fabulous movie, something she says is "just another job, really".
It's tempting to describe her as "busy", but it's the last thing she'd want. It's our busy lives, our busy minds, chattering away with self-critical thoughts that she says are helping to drive us to anxiety and stress. Yet we praise people for being "busy".
"We perceive it as a good thing!" she laughs. "I look at magazines and there are women in there who work 70 hours a week, they've got 30 kids, they bake and they work out at 3am. That's successful?!"
Her books, stage show and speech at APAC, all poke fun at our behaviours, while explaining how our minds are jeopardising our sanity. "Mindfulness", as Ruby describes it, is about understanding how our brains work, rewiring our thinking and finding calm. It includes mental exercises that need to be done often – there are no shortcuts.
"It's like saying, 'Can I shortcut going to the gym?' No, you have to do the sit-ups every day. But it's worth it. "There is a way to intervene with the thoughts that bounce around your head. You need
to learn not to listen to every command in your head – otherwise, that's when you get all burned out.
"It's about knowing when and how to shut it down, so you can catch your breath before you go back into the fray."

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