A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)
Chapter 6. The Social Mind: Mindful Relationships
Underneath our hairless skin, we (humans) are social animals; whether we like it or not, or whether we like each other or not, we continue to exist only through our relationships. Language, art, civilization and religion all grew out of a need to connect. If we were all isolated, we wouldn’t have made it this far (certainly not without Tinder). Also, you can’t gossip when you’re alone; it won’t work, I’ve tried.
You: Do you know what I did last night?
You: I was alone and didn’t meet anyone.
You: What were you wearing?
You: Oh, the same old buffalo skin over-the-shoulder one-piece.
You: Who designed it?
The brain itself is a social organ; on its own, it’s just a 3lb piece of jelly. It only comes to life when it mingles with other brains; it’s then that the party starts. The brain is organized through social interaction and by engagement with other minds; it’s wired to connect right from the start. Even in the womb, the baby’s brain and body are influenced by the environment. Is the amniotic fluid warm enough? Is the womb too small? How is it decorated? Is there too much bling in there? Once out in the fresh air, if there isn’t the necessary parent or caregiver on hand to shape and develop the baby’s brain, things could get sticky – literally, because who’s going to change the nappy? And without the feedback of facial expressions, reciprocal ‘goo-goo’-ing and exchange of the bonding hormone, oxytocin, the child might grow up to find themselves playing a lifetime of solitaire. Just about everything that makes us human – our ability to speak, to think, to love and to hate – depends on our relations to each other.
Relationships weren’t my speciality (especially when I was young) as far as the opposite sex was concerned. I might be missing some crucial hormone, because no one but the really creepy guys in high school has ever tried to pick me up. In school, all the good-looking boys would throw the really pretty girls in the lake, and they’d scream, ‘Don’t throw me in! Don’t throw me in!’ I screamed, ‘Don’t throw me in!’ and no one ever did. And it wasn’t just that men were rejecting me. I was always left out in school gangs, too. All the popular girls could smell that I was not of their species and come over to me, saying things like, ‘Do you look like that on purpose?’ I only found my people when I was institutionalized; I felt understood and safe even with the ones who set their hair on fire and claimed that Norman the Conqueror was passing them secrets.
You can go to the zoo and watch our not-so-distant cousins, the apes, working naturally as a unit: bonding, playing, eating and mating with each other. Luckily, we don’t have to pick nits out of each other’s hair or be constantly hit on by the alpha-ape, because we have relationship counsellors to advise us on better ways of communicating. We’re able to attune to each other by allowing our own internal states to resonate with the inner world of the person we are talking to, so that when two people are interacting, the same brain structures are active; it’s a kind of dance of mutual responsiveness. This is why you see everyone cry or laugh at the same time when they’re watching a film. If you don’t believe me, just sit in the front row for Toy Story, turn around and watch what happens when Jesse sings ‘When She Loved Me’. (I had to be carried out by paramedics. I lost 200lbs in mucus and tears.) Whichever way you look at it, we are all in this together.
We pass our moods and emotional states on to each other like a virus. Don’t think you can hide your mood; the other person may not know exactly what you’re thinking but they can pick up what state you’re in loud and clear. Everyone knows ‘passive aggressive’ when they see it (smiling with fangs out), so you’re not fooling anyone. We work like neural Wi-Fi; whatever I’m feeling, I’ll pass to you, and that passes to whomever you meet and ripples out to your friends, workmates, neighbours, community, town, country … planet. You smile, the world smiles with you. (That’s not completely true, but you get what I mean …) You can’t change the world by howling to the gods or by hurling money or missiles at the problem. However, by becoming aware of your inner state, you won’t spend your life blaming the enemy; it may just lurk within.
So how did we turn into what we are now? What’s gone wrong and what’s gone right?
A Brief History of Human Relationships
Paul Gilbert, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby, is an expert on the social brain and the nature of compassion, and I advise you to read his books (after you finish mine, of course). He reminds us that, in our early days, we were part of small, isolated groups of about a hundred or two hundred people, all genetically linked. We all knew each other (and, I’m sure, had sex with each other). Survival depended on sharing and caring, even though certain inbred mutations came with the package (see Alabama). The good news was that everyone was family and everyone cared about each other’s welfare. If you went out hunting (not me; I’ve said this before: I come from a tribe that doesn’t hunt; we point at what we want) and you didn’t come back, people in your clan would go out to look for you. To this day, we still all want to feel that, if we suddenly disappeared, others would look for us and we wouldn’t be forgotten.
Think of those films where they all go to the planet of Klingfilmium and Sigourney Weaver (or a younger version), in khaki army pants and string bikini top, goes back five thousand years in time with a crew of manly hunks to rescue some guy whose spaceship ran out of gas and who’s been frozen in an ice bucket all this time, waiting for the space version of the AA to pick him up and defrost him. The whole cinema audience cheers when Sigourney (or a younger version) kisses him, and they return to Earth to live a boring life.
Anyway, what happened next was that the tribes expanded into cities and cities turned into shopping malls and we stopped caring about each other. (So if we lost our partner/ toddler in Zara, we’d never think of going back to find them. Or is this just me?) And, as we populated the planet and needed to find ways to communicate to a wider audience, enter the internet. This was probably around the time we started to lose some of our interpersonal skills and became more and more isolated behind our screens. (The truth is, Facebook doesn’t cut it. We need to be skin to skin to really go under the radar of words and catch each other’s drift.) This is why companies have to hire motivational speakers to teach some of the most powerful people in the world skills such as rapport, trust and compassion. Sad to realize that these aren’t attributes people assume you’d need as you climb up the ladder of success.
These days, we sometimes delude ourselves that we’re fighting for things like justice or world peace but, in my (often brutal) opinion, we’re simply appeasing our primitive urge to let it rip on some random foe – any foe, irrespective of race, religion or political affinity. We all carry the seeds of bigotry, tribalism, greed and selfishness, and we should be aware that, as civilized as we think we are, we were the ones who both built the Colosseum and put on floor shows that make The Hunger Games seem like miniature golf. We don’t need to cultivate negative behaviour; nature gives it to us for free.
We have to come to grips with the fact that, underneath our mild-mannered outsides, inside, we’re still (how can I put this delicately?) wild animals (especially my parents and me). I don’t care what kind of car you drive or how designer your label, below that snazzy front you’re still living in the bush. You’re not even potty-trained.
It takes great courage to stand apart from your politically or religiously motivated tribe and think about humanity as a whole. That’s the true nature of compassion: not just thinking about your own kind but all kinds of people. This, again, is about being able to tolerate the different aspects of yourself, to tolerate differences in other people, and it’s how we cultivate empathy. Yes, there is hope that we can break out of our cocoon of self-absorption. It’s inbuilt in us, every mammal has it (lizards couldn’t give a damn), but because we’re living in a selfish world it’s a little rusty and out of commission. You can even see evidence in an MRI scanner that certain areas in the brain become active when they respond to kindness and compassion from another person, and the corresponding areas in that other person are also active.
Professor Richard Davidson writes: ‘We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain. By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial. That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that qualities like warm-heartedness and well-being should best be regarded as skills.’
In 2014, I went to a retreat in New England led by Jack Kornfield, a doctor of clinical psychology who trained to become a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Myanmar and India. As you can imagine, he’s kind of a heavyweight in the world of meditation.
Usually, when I get to any kind of large gathering and I’m alone, the first thing I do is to collect people to form my own gang. They’re usually the spikier people there: the bitchy, funny and most cynical; of course, if there’s anyone gay, I scoop them up too. But here there was a ‘no talking’ policy, so what would be the point of me hunting for my people?
There was a lot of hugging, which always creeps me out and makes me want to head for the hills, but as long as I didn’t personally have to hug I was fine. As time went on I grew to love the silence: such a relief not have to indulge in small talk and act like you’re fascinated by the mundane. If you don’t talk, you can sit, surrounded by people with your own thoughts, watching the snow fall on the evergreen trees like on an American greeting card.
Jack Kornfield is the ‘real deal’. He’s completely present and calm, yet funny and razor sharp. He taught us a form of mindfulness which I practise only very occasionally … it’s called mindful compassion. My cynical hackles were up, I was ready to pounce, but the exercise he taught us wiped the smirk right off my face. He asked us to pick a random partner and then for each of us to stare into our partner’s eyes and imagine the other person as a child when they were laughing, in pain, etc. Then he had us imagine the other person as an adult, and experience their successes, their failures, difficulties and joy. I’d never met the woman who was my partner, but by the end of the exercise I felt I knew her better than I know some of my friends. It was so intimate, but she made me feel I was in safe hands. I stopped thinking about how she saw me; I just focused into her eyes, which showed every emotion under the sun. It seemed that an emotional bridge connected us; rather than us being two separate entities, our hearts and minds met somewhere in the middle. When we had finished, Jack said that what we had just experienced was compassion – but he didn’t have to explain it; we felt it.
Before I left, I realized I loved all those braless Earth Mothers in their Uggs, and indeed I found myself hugging several of them. Thank God no photos were allowed.
So, although we come with savage tendencies, we also come with more virtuous qualities: peace, fairness, care, nurture and equanimity. Basically, we’re a nice guy. The thing is, we don’t bring these qualities out on show too often, just in case we get caught or pillaged with our pants down.
For every five of our negative thoughts, we have on average one positive thought, so we have at least got it in us. (One is better than none, I always say … it’s not interesting, but I say it anyway.)
Even when you’re alone, if you imagine being kind or compassionate, the same areas of your brain are as active as they would be if you were actively being kind. A similar mechanism causes us to catch each other’s yawns by reciprocally activating the yawn area in each other’s brain.
It’s good to get to know our multidimensional selves; otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to recognize other people as being anything other than two-dimensional stereotypes. Maybe the reason we do see people less fully than they actually are is because we want to feel safe; it’s easier to label ourselves and other people as, for example, ‘friendly’, ‘hostile’ or ‘shy’. In actual fact, we’re all of these things; it’s just that if we’re not conscious of this, we will continue to believe our own inner CV: ‘I’m a … (fill in your own) type of person.’
I hope you saw the brilliant, inspirational Disney film Inside Out. (I never thought I’d use those words together again once they’d given us Mickey and Donald Duck – the greatest philosophers of my generation.) It’s about each of us being a potpourri of different personas, all of which are useful – even the asshole persona.
Mindfulness at Work
I think that the qualities of compassion and rapport are exactly what leaders of organizations need to get the best out of their staff and those they do business with. These days, people are required to work harder and longer hours and, recently, there’s been a rise in absenteeism at work, partially due to stress-related disorders. So much is required from employees in terms of hitting targets; if they’re going to function well in the future, corporations will need to switch their work modes from competition to cooperation. Maybe there should be some kind of reward which would reflect that ethos, so that if you help someone at work, it’s noted and you get a bonus – anything from a new trophy wife/ husband to a round of applause. The slogan of our times seems to be ‘May the best man win, no matter how many heads have to roll.’ Probably, if Macbeth were alive today, he would get into the Fortune 500 and be on the board of Goldman Sachs.
If we want our businesses – not to mention the human race – to succeed, we have to drop our obsession with ‘me’-ness and start thinking more about ‘we’-ness. We need to shift our eyes beyond personal greed to the bigger picture and see the ripple effects of our (and others’) behaviour to kickstart us to act in new ways.
Leaders might have to learn that, before any meeting, they should take note of their inner state so as not to unconsciously pass their stress or aggression on to the next guy. If they learn to tolerate their feelings and not just fling them out, they can make everyone around them feel good and that they are heard. And if their mind is clear, they’ll be able to listen rather than rant. That’s how you succeed, not by pushing people to hit targets or meet bottom lines. Deep down, people don’t really care about targets; they only really care if someone likes them or not.
It’s true if we want to be a big success in whatever field we choose: we have to drop our obsession with ‘me’-ness and start thinking more about ‘we’-ness. When you’re really listening to someone with curiosity, it’s known as having rapport, which is the Dom Perignon of communication: it doesn’t get better. If you give your full, fat attention to what someone is saying, it’s the most flattering thing you can do to another human being and they’ll either invite you home or adopt you. This goes back to my point about the importance of being able to pay attention: when a person is in front of you, you should not be thinking about a sandwich.
In this society, our survival depends on social acceptance and status, and we become stressed when we fall short in either of these areas. I have always fallen short.
I went to a garden party a few months ago and, this time, I was aware of why, in the past, I felt the need to get drunk. With so many people in one place, my mind was scattered to the wind, so I fell straight into my old habits from way back in childhood: getting people to laugh in order to gain their approval.
Why I need to do this I don’t know. It could be that, when I was a child, I always thought that the more people I could get to like me, the more protected I would be from my parents’ abuse. It was like building a human igloo of protection. Anyway, back to the party. I’m moving about like a starving animal, hunting from person to person for attention. I usually gravitate to the ones I perceive as the most powerful or the most popular. If I can get them to like me, my self-esteem goes up a mile. That feeling only lasts a few seconds, though, because it’s such hard work. While I’m mentally tap-dancing for their attention, my mind is assaulting me with ‘Any second they’re going to find out that you’re a fraud.’
There were famous people at this party, too. In the hierarchy of famous (even though I worked in television and may be considered famous by some), I am protoplasm. In these relationships it’s implicit that I am the handmaiden who feeds them lines … and I know that’s the deal, so no surprises. I’m ashamed to admit that, probably like other ‘non-fames’, when faced with an A-lister, I go into that slightly nervous, heart-pumping state of arousal, turning myself inside out to amuse. I’m sure it’s a throwback to when I was a loser in high school; when the Prom Queen deigned to look at me I’d exhaust myself to get her approval. I never did. One of the great pleasures in my life now is knowing that said Prom Queen is ensconced in rehab.
Anyway, I spend the rest of the evening panicking about how long I’m supposed to talk to one person and when should I turn and talk to the next. (Is there an etiquette rulebook ? Why can’t we do what we did as kids? Spit juice at the person and scream, ‘You bore me!’) I don’t want the other person to turn away first – that would stab me in the heart – so I knock myself out trying to stay interested even if they’re boring me senseless. I found myself saying to one guy, ‘So tell me about the diggers you invest in over in East Africa.’ I caught myself humped over, desperately trying to keep my interest going, but then I thought, ‘I can’t do this any more’ and, making sure he didn’t notice, I slipped away. I suppose that was being mindful, noticing that my mind was out of commission and that I wasn’t really there, so I left and went to the loo to calm my racing mind. I could then clearly decide what I really felt I wanted to do. Without beating myself up about it, which is what would have happened five years ago, I went home to bed.
It turns out no one noticed I had left. Sometimes it’s good not to feel like you have to steal the show – all you end up with is a hangover.
Some Suggestions for How to Deal with Relationships Mindfully
What to Do When Your Boss Tears Your Head Off
If you know that the meeting isn’t going to be a bowl of cherries, prepare yourself. Breathe. Focus on the sounds. Look at a photo that brings back good memories and send your focus to your feet on the floor. Notice if you’re starting to ruminate on a ‘what-if’ scenario and move your attention to where you feel the trepidation in your body. If your mind doesn’t de-mist, don’t berate yourself, just accept that that’s where your mind is but recognize also that the noticing alone has done its thing on the cortisol overdrive.
When you come face to face with your boss and he/she is as confrontational as you feared, hold on to your hat.
What I do is to focus on the furious person’s left eyebrow, or their right nostril (choose anything on the face near the eyes), and study it in minute detail: the hairs, the pores, the oils, the colour and how it changes. Your boss won’t know you’re not listening, because you’re still looking in his direction. He’ll want you to lob the anger ball back so he can give you another slam, but if you’re grounded he can’t play the game on his own and his anger will boomerang or peter out. Meanwhile, you’ve really learnt a lot about his nostril hair.
Alternatively, you can also choose to listen to your boss’s anger as if it were the wind, with high and low notes, loud and soft. Don’t focus on what he’s saying, just the raw sounds emanating from his lips. This focus on sense keeps you out of word-slinging mode.
By using social intelligence (circumnavigating the blast and not retaliating), you’re showing not only compassion for yourself but compassion for your boss. You may still get fired, but you won’t have given yourself a second dose of shame or pain.
How to Deal with Someone Who You Think is an Idiot
I have a weakness for this one. If I notice I want to eat someone alive and can catch myself early enough, I try to focus on their eyes and try to notice their fear rather than just treating them like a punch bag. If I can see the whites of their eyes and really spot the vulnerability, my compassion switches on. I am human, after all … sometimes.
How to Cope When Your Friend Cuts You Dead without Explanation
Notice your reactions and, whatever they are, that’s okay, even if you do want to throw them under the wheels of a car or hide like a wounded animal. Hold back on your instinct to express your reactions straight away, either by bursting into tears or shouting like a fishwife/ husband. If you can sit and focus on the raw feelings, your mind will settle and you will come up with a more level-headed strategy in order to find out what’s at the root of the problem without your old triggers blurring the picture. If your friend doesn’t give you an answer, they weren’t worth it anyway, but if they do tell you the truth, they’re worth holding on to, because very few people do.
How to Deal with Your Partner, Who is Biting Your Head Off and It’s Not Your Fault, It’s His
When you notice that you’re heading towards that old familiar duet of blame and finger-pointing performed in high C (one of my favourite tunes I sing to my husband is, ‘Why are we going in the wrong direction? We’re always lost! Why the fuck don’t you ever use a map?’), try this (almost impossible) technique.
Keeping your tone even and low, say that you see your partner’s point but you need to go to the loo; you’ll be right back. (No one can ever argue if you need to go to the loo.) Go and sit in an enclosed space and try and focus on a few breaths. Even if you don’t manage it, at least you took a pause, and a pause will give you both time to dump the adrenaline and rethink. I have never succeeded in this particular exercise, and I don’t think anyone has.
I hope I haven’t given the impression that mindfulness is just about sitting there in a chair, marinating in your own thoughts and loving yourself. The point of all this internal investigation is to become aware of the state you’re in so that you don’t infect anyone you come across by unconsciously dumping your mental trash on to them and then blaming them for your misery. No one said mindfulness was about letting people trample all over you or just accepting whatever, it’s about making appropriate decisions for what’s needed in specific situations. Sometimes you have to ease off; sometimes you have to put your foot on the pedal to kick everyone into action.
In conclusion, if we want to break our evolutionary ties with our beast within, we need to train ourselves to consciously move to our higher brain (before we tear the limbs off our opponent). At the same time, in doing this, we need to show some compassion for the beast within, because part of its actions got us this far. Without it, we would have been chewed up and spat out by now.
To evolve any further, we need to become conscious of these ‘ancient whispers’. Underneath our mild-mannered exteriors lurk our barbaric brothers of the past and, if we are unaware of our own dark forces, they will act out by lobbing in a grenade when you least expect it.
In essence, it has taken us 4 billion years to evolve to where we are and, though we’re cognitively brilliant, we’re still a little emotionally dwarfed. The question is: can our more empathetic and compassionate side catch up? I say the first step is learning to hug your inner ape. (Perhaps the name of a new book? Or maybe not.)
My Entrée into a Relationship with the Human Race
To celebrate, before going to the silent retreat I visited in this chapter, I decided (randomly) to go to Bruges. I’d never been before, but I wanted to show my brain a good time for letting me use it as a repository for incoming research and an outgoing conduit to whatever it is you’re now reading. (You be the judge of the contents, I’m just the messenger.) I wanted to go by myself to empty my mind, to be somewhere where there would be no associations that would spin my thoughts down Memory Lane. Distraction, when used discriminately and when it’s appropriate, is a great braking system. This intentional act of closing down my own mother ship is a rare act of self-compassion. I wouldn’t want to tip into burnout while writing a book on mindfulness – talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
As soon as I had sat on the train for a few hours (the first hour was hell; I spent it resisting the urge to jump off the train to go home and rewrite most of the book), the thoughts that were nagging at me to re-read the book became fainter. By the time I arrived in Bruges, those thoughts had all but vanished. If the city hadn’t been filled with so much astounding eye candy, I might have been thinking, ‘I shouldn’t have come. I’m going to get lonely. Why Bruges?’ But this place, miraculously, has been left untouched by time. Unlike any other city I’ve visited, it hasn’t been Disneyized or filled with La Starbucks and Das McDonald’s, cleverly integrated by some delusional city planner. I walked the narrow, cobbled streets lined with the original pointy-roofed houses (some accessorized with gold angels and saints), hearing myself say out loud, ‘Oh my God!’ I don’t know how long I walked, gaping at everything, but I felt, because there was so little interference from upstairs, that I was taking whatever was there in ‘eye-shot’. I was like an open lens. My ‘to do’ list was out of commission, my mental Wi-Fi was off and I felt human again. When I told a few friends I was going by myself, they thought it was strange and asked why I would do it. Now I can answer them. My concentration isn’t split; I can stare at what I want for as long as I want without worrying about anybody with me, which I know is an old habit of mine. There isn’t a moment of boredom as I watch the canal boats glide under the bridges, and admire those untouched seventeenth-century, moss-covered houses lining both sides of the canals.
Later that evening, I was still gawking and mumbling, ‘Oh my God!’, and I ended up in a town square packed to capacity with locals dancing to blasting salsa music. If I had been in pursuit of happiness, here it was. I stayed for hours, watching the pure joy on the dancers’ faces as their feet, hips and arms moved in perfect synchronization. God, did I want to know how to salsa at that moment … badly. They were fully focused on what their bodies were doing, not at all on how they looked on the surface. There were old bald guys who looked eight months pregnant but who were doing magnificent footwork with nubile young women. Young guys were glued in a dancer’s embrace to older women (some of them could have been my great-grandmother), occasionally tipping them into a back bend. Salsa is sexual, but they weren’t using the dance as a pick-up ploy; they all seemed locked in the joy of mutual movement with whoever happened to be dancing in front of them. A woman in a wheelchair was asked to dance by a punky, pink-haired woman with so many nose rings she looked like a bull. The wheelchaired woman clearly had salsa in her blood, and got up and danced like the best of them, her body still limber, not missing a beat, smiling. I noticed that some of the women had skins of very dark leather, deeply lined; they could pass as luggage. They wore the highest of heels, low-cut gypsy dresses with slits up to their earlobes. At first I thought, ‘How could they come out looking like that?’ but after I had watched them dancing they transformed before my eyes into seriously sexy-looking babes – even the women who looked like men. At one point, everyone formed a large circle, and one wizened but lithe older man shouted instructions. At lightning speed, everyone in the circle switched partners, not a step out of place, each person looping their arms over other people’s heads with complicated precision and somehow without choking each other to death. I knew I was standing there on the side lines grinning like a proud mother, even though I didn’t know anyone there. I loved them all. I started watching at five in the afternoon, then went to dinner. When I came back at eleven at night they were still going, no one out of breath, everyone still hoofing it – including the woman once in, now out of the wheelchair.
This, I thought, is the human race at its finest; these people weren’t trying to be the best at anything, they didn’t care what they looked like: they were free. I didn’t for one second feel that I was alone, because the atmosphere made me feel that we were all part of this wonderful thing. These people were residents of the present, and I was catching it. I could learn so much from them, and not just salsa. I wondered why I go on about there being so much wrong in the world when so much is right. I started thinking that we all have it in us to be connected to each other in this way. All we need to do is somehow become less affected by the torrential incoming of unnecessary information and the pressure on us to be someone else. We don’t have to do something in politics or start a new religion; we just need to learn to navigate the world we created so we can feel less isolated and frightened. This is who we are when we’re not trapped by mayhem. We all have this potential to let it rip and feel this kind of joy. Even if it lasts only a little while, it will still affect us for the rest of our lives.
In the following chapter, I’ll give specific mindfulness exercises for baby, child and parents. The adult and the older folks have to learn it without Mommy there to hold their hands, but they can use the six-week mindfulness course as a handbook. Our brains go through different growth stages at each phase in our lives. I believe we need bespoke exercises which are suitable for each. The solution is not a one size fits all.