Funny and direct, as well as useful and nurturing, Sane New World is a must read for anyone who has been up at night worrying about the future or regretting the past.
Sane New World: A User's Guide to the Normal-Crazy MindPublisher: Perigee
Length: 256 pages
Author: Ruby Wax
Publication date: 2014-22
In her UK best-seller, Sane New World: A User's Guide to the Normal-Crazy Mind, British comedian, Ruby Wax talks a lot about the voices in our heads. You know, those voices that wake us up at 3AM to tell us that we made fools of ourselves at the Christmas party or that we probably shouldn't have had that fifth margarita.
This incessant, sometimes debilitating, internal chatter that so many of us experience, Wax argues, is not only passed on by our parents, but is also a product of evolution. In prehistoric times when we were met with danger, we filled up with adrenaline and cortisol to fight off predators, then our bodies simply defueled themselves. These days, we aren't faced with daily kill-or-be-killed situations, so when we feel that we are endangered and fill up with these same chemicals, we can't just go off and "kill a traffic cop or eat a real estate agent". Basically, as Wax puts it, we are "in a constant state of red alert" and biologically unequipped to live in modern times.
Her cure for this over abundance of adrenaline and mental chatter is "mindfulness", a buzzword that has become trendy among yogis and psychologists in the last few years. Buddhist monks, however; have practiced mindfulness, since 6BC. Having said that, you won't find Wax wearing crystals or burning Nag Champa any time soon. She uses hard science (in this case neuroscience) to explain how our brains work and how we can self-regulate our thinking instead of popping pills.
The Oxford English Dictionary's simple definition of "mindfulness" is: "The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something." In Wax's book, she communicates the value of being aware of our thoughts. Mindfulness also entails self-regulating those thoughts and emotions so that you are, as Wax puts it, "the master and not the slave of your mind."
Wax was drawn to mindfulness for good reason. A product of a panicky mother who escaped Nazi Austria in a laundry basket, Wax picked up her mother's anxiety and predisposition for negative thinking. Her bouts of deep depression and penchant for thinking things into the ground led her to finally try something other than therapy and medication. She credits mindfulness for being able to now refer to herself as "a recovered ruminator".
Wax devotes the first half of the book to her struggles with depression, her TV career, and her reinvention as an Oxford University student in her 50s, studying neuroscience and psychotherapy. Though these are all fascinating stories and often filled with humor, in-between telling them Wax does a lot of expounding that often doubles as bitching. She contends that the reasons we are so bonkers is that we are overloaded on a daily basis with information from the media and the Internet. Additionally, she points out that we are a self-entitled society that fears change and will never be satisfied with what it has. Our negative thinking, observes Wax, is rooted in rumination, worrying, regret, and resentment.
While all valid (and often funny) observations, Wax's rhetorical style may turn off some readers. Frequently, her opinions seem fueled by anger at a particular demographic. She takes aim at anyone whom she deems guilty for Western society's mental demise. The groups in her crosshairs include everyone from motivational speakers to art collectors.
The second half of the book is less aggressive and more useful than the first half. It seems that once Wax got the anger out of her system and the laughs she wanted from her readers, she was able to impart her wisdom with them. In easy-to-understand language, she expounds on the different aspects of the brain – the hemispheres, hormones, and neurotransmitters – that make us who we are. Backed by research, Wax shares the reasons mindfulness works for not only people suffering from depression and anxiety, but also for those afflicted with bodily ailments such as HIV, cancer, skin diseases, and IBS.
Most importantly, Wax gives her readers a host of helpful and straightforward mindfulness exercises to redirect and calm overactive thinking. At the end of the book, she even gives alternative techniques helpful to those who don't believe they benefit from mindfulness.
Funny and direct, as well as useful and nurturing, Ruby Wax's Sane New World is a book that can be useful to almost anyone, whether a chronic ruminator or someone who is just worried about an email response they never received.