Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Wax On, Wax Off

This weekend I read Ruby Wax's book, Sane New World. I read it because a friend had pointed out that Ruby's work on mindfulness might help me with my anxiety.  I'll get back to you with the results on that count, but I thought that, since the theme this week is discoveries, I'd share the nuggets I discovered in this book with you.

Sane New World is a very funny book.  Ruby Wax is scathing and remarkably honest about her own thought processes.  She relives the embarrasing moments when stress has pushed her into acting in seemingly irrational ways; the shark dive with Richard E Grant, the epic 'to-do' lists, her ongoing search for the perfect cushion, and the desperate phone calls to Nigella Lawson, asking Nigella to cook for her, minutes before her dinner party guests arrive.

In the book, Ruby describes her journey to Oxford University to study for her master's degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.  She covers current scientific research in some depth, bringing her readers up to date with the biology of consciousness and current techniques and research.  The overall argument for mindful practice is extremely persuasive but one of the elements which fascinated me was that of neuroplasticity; the idea that our brains are able to create new connections throughout our lives, ie we can alter our brains at the cellular level beyond the previously accepted 'critical period' in childhood.  This, it is posited, is the key to maintaining active minds into old age.

In the words of L'Oreal/Jennifer Aniston, 'here comes the science bit - concentrate':

Learning new things and exposing ourselves to novelty are just some of the ways we encourage neuroplasticity to happen.

Every time you go to a new hotel, stay in a new city, learn a new software program or pickup a new word in your vocabulary, you are forcing your brain to make new connections (or form new synapses) and make use of the new neurons it produces every day. And this brain growth and change has all sorts of positive ramifications for the treatment of many stress-related disorders from anxiety to depression. I think that's why we all love traveling so much. So many new neurons and new synapses are formed, without really much effort at all.
 ~ Daniel Siegel, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine

Constellation Scorpius (Credit: ESA/NASA)
I want my mind to be a galaxy of constellations which is constantly evolving with new stars blazing into life.  I crave that sense of novelty, so abundant in childhood, and the ability to see fresh details every day.  But travelling is expensive and although I am trying to put the exercises in Sane New World into practice, I think there might be a quicker way to encounter novelty, without leaving home. 

With a density of imagery to rival the heaviest black hole, the best poetry presents us with discoveries condensed into hard-won language.  It transports us to new locations, introduces us to bewildering characters and startling activities.  And reading a poem is a form of meditation.  When the world around us drops away and we are entirely focused on the page before us, what is that but meditation?

Here is an excerpt to take you away.  If you have a portal/poem to somewhere else, please feel free to post in the comments below.  Thank you.

from Xian of Eight Rivers
by Curzio Malaparte

China is made of earth, of sun-dried mud.
In this part of China everything is made from the earth:
the houses, the walls around cities, and villages,
the tombs scattered over the countryside.
Even the people.
There are hills below that appear to be piles of mud
set out to dry in the sun, naked,
without a single tree or bush.
They crowd around the landscape
like the coils of bulging intestines
tossed on the ground outside butchers' shops,
slowly unraveling.


Colin Davies said...

What a great insight. I must get a copy of that book.

I also really like you astral journey through poetry. I gain experiences like that through music and the act of writing as well.

I look forward to hearing you further thoughts on Ruby's methods once you have worn them for a while.

Thank you.

Lara Clayton said...

I would probably never have thought of reading this book, but I definitely will now. Thank you for the recommendation.