I’m lying on a giant tarpaulin, looking up at a baby blue sky dotted with cotton wool clouds. Like a tiny icon on a computer screen, a plane glides from east to west, leaving a ruler-straight contrail. The breeze dances in, wafting my hair and skimming the tip of my nose. Now and then I raise a hand to shield my eyes from the welcome but dazzlingly bright sun.
Beside me are my fellow retreaters, all doing a blissful sky meditation led by a Buddhist monk. We’re a group of around 30, who all signed up to experience the first of comedian Ruby Wax’s mindfulness retreats. Like me, they all thought if Ruby Wax can explain the mysterious subject of mindfulness in her warm, witty way, we might just get the hang of it.
Once known for her no-holds-barred interviews with the likes of former US president Donald Trump and pop megastar Madonna, as well as being a script editor on the BBC TV series Absolutely Fabulous, Ruby has turned to academia.
Now with a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University, she’s keen to spread the word about mindfulness and make the world a less frenzied place. She’s also the author of I’m Not as Well as I Thought I Was (Penguin Random House), her personal story of depression.
Mindfulness In A Frantic World
Ruby’s retreat, named Keeping it Real in a Frantic World, has already attracted an eclectic bunch of mainly middle-aged people, from those who want to tackle their own depression to a handful, like me, keen to learn to handle everyday stress and be less self-critical.
I’m among yoga teachers, nurses, IT technicians and film directors who have ventured to the UK – some from as far afield as Canada – to learn from Ruby and her support team – Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten, author of Handbook for Hard Times (Hodder & Stoughton) and Rahla Xenopoulos, a South African author and writing coach, whose latest book, The Season of Glass, was a finalist for the Sunday Times Literary Awards.
But the setting for Ruby’s first foray into leading retreats is neither her native US, nor central London, where she now lives with her television producer and director husband Ed Bye. Instead, she has chosen Broughton Sanctuary, a verdant 16th century Yorkshire estate in the north of England, the setting for recent hit TV drama Gentleman Jack.
Now in the caring hands of Roger Tempest, whose family have inhabited the estate since 1097, the present house, Broughton Hall, dates back to 1597.
Together with his partner Paris Ackrill, also a retreat leader, Roger intends to make the 3,000-acre pile a ‘turbocharged ashram’, where people of all backgrounds can find a beacon of hope in these busy times. Fiercely protective of nature, with a massive rewilding project underway, they have planted some 350,000 trees over the last three years, creating a multitude of habitats and wetlands for wildlife.
Each day’s schedule, built around three mostly vegan, always delicious meals, is similar. After yoga, we have talks on mindfulness with Ruby and Thubten, followed by a free-writing workshop with Rahla. Spare time is spent in the pool, sauna and steam room, out walking, having treatments and relaxing. The exceptions are a morning on the moors, doing the sky meditation, walking mindfully, plunging into ice barrels and wild swimming, and an evening when we do some drumming in the woods.
And so begins our quest for mindfulness. After introductions, Ruby gets down to business, splattering her explanations not only with expletives that entertain and relax us, but also with everyday metaphors that make mindfulness feel more accessible.
‘Inside you there’s a cascade of emotions going on, from shame and embarrassment to fear and envy. We tell ourselves we’re lacking. We’re not good enough. It becomes our story.’
Our aim, she says, is to manage the mothership of the mind. ‘Our minds are still cavemen,’ she tells us. ‘But back in the day, stress didn’t kill you. You lived a good life and died of old age at twelve and a half. But these days our predators are so invisible, the amygdala in our brain never calms down. We’re always wired and on high alert, whether we’re anxious about what’s happening in Ukraine, or worried that we’re eating too much salt.’
But what exactly is mindfulness and why should we do it, we ask? ‘It isn’t about clearing your mind,’ Ruby says. ‘It’s a way of paying attention to something so that critical thoughts within your mind quieten down. Unless we’re mindful, out of five of our thoughts, four will be negative, and we have 84,000 thoughts a day.
‘We all ruminate with stories we put around a reaction. If someone walks out of a meeting, you automatically think they hate you. If someone walks past you in the street without speaking, you think you’ve upset them in the past in some way.
‘Yet these thoughts are the tip of the iceberg. Inside you there’s a cascade of emotions going on, from shame and embarrassment to fear and envy. We tell ourselves we’re lacking. We’re not good enough. It becomes our story.
‘But when you’re mindful and in touch with even one of your five senses, you’re using an area of your brain that competes with the area that ruminates. You can’t focus on your senses and ruminate at the same time. It’s like being in two gears at once. The more mindful you are, the more neural connections you build. You lower your stress hormones and increase the happy, delicious ones.’
By the end of our six days, we’re transformed. Those who were down in the welcome circle have renewed hope in their eyes. Others, like me, feel enlightened. Let’s hear it for the five senses!
Top tips from Ruby’s retreat
Intersperse your day with mindful moments, advises Ruby. ‘Start by really savouring your morning coffee, or being mindful when you’re stuck in traffic,’ she says. ‘When you get home, be at home with your family and pets. Don’t think about work. Eat your dinner mindfully, paying attention to the food – notice its texture, the taste, and how you feel.’
When we’re born, we have immediate skin-to-skin contact with our parents, usually our mother, says Thubten.
‘The baby gets a surge of oxytocin, the cuddle chemical that’s associated with love, kindness and compassion,’ he says. ‘As an adult, you can create your own oxytocin by doing ten to 15 minutes of meditation, just being aware of your breath going in and out. If your attention wanders, notice where it went, then bring it back to your breathing.’
Think About It
For just one minute, watch your thoughts when you do something you do every day, whether that’s having a shower, drinking coffee or even going through the same doorway, recommends Ruby.
‘When you’re in observer mode, just witnessing your thoughts, they lose their power and sting as you begin to realise you’re not your thoughts,’ she says. ‘If thoughts were who you are, how would you be able to observe them?’
Practise Your Handwriting
When you write by hand, not on a keyboard, your words are coming from the heart, not the head, reveals writing coach Rahla Xenopoulous.
‘You can give yourself personal prompts like: “What keeps me awake at night is……” Then you write stream-of-consciousness style everything that comes into your mind,’ she says. ‘Set a timer and don’t worry about spelling or punctuation. You’ll find the deep emotions, the things you’ve never told anyone, things you didn’t even realise about yourself all come tumbling out.’
When someone is yelling at you, don’t lock antlers or hang on to their every word and take it to heart, advises Ruby.
‘In this situation, you could listen to the sound of their voice, anchor on their eyebrows, and feel something physical like worry beads or hear the birds chirping outside the office,’ she says. ‘Because you cannot be in your head and your body at the same time, you won’t be thinking this person scares you or you’re always messing up. If it’s too painful, get away from the situation.’
Practise A Compassion Meditation
Move away from egocentric thinking – the part that is all ‘me, me, me’ and send compassion all over the world, recommends Thubten.
‘Meditation can only progress if it’s coming from a place of love. Start by being kind to people in your community and doing what you can in your own small way’
‘Imagine a white ball within you and send it with love to the person next to you, then to your family and friends, to your tribe – the people you like to be with,’ he urges. ‘The next stage is to expand and send it to the whole world, even mosquitoes! It ends egocentric thinking which is like having a faulty computer.’
If you have self-compassion, you don’t need to depend on accomplishments and failures to make you feel good about yourself, says Ruby.
‘Sitting down and practising mindfulness for just one minute is being kind to yourself,’ she says. ‘Mindfulness is the only thing I know to do that can dig me out of despair and can give me even a few seconds of time out from me. And if you’re kind to yourself, you’re in the right mind to pass that kindness to others.’
We often want to take on causes in the world, but we ask: ‘What can little old me do about this?’ confides Thubten.
‘When you sit quietly and meditate, generate the intention that your practice will benefit others,’ he says. ‘Meditation can only progress if it’s coming from a place of love. Start by being kind to people in your community and doing what you can in your own small way.’
The next Keeping it Real in a Frantic World five day retreat is on 12-17 March 2024 at Broughton Sanctuary in Yorkshire, UK. From £1500 per person. avalonwellbeing.com