Ruby Wax and guests talk toxic stress, forgiveness and compassion in Dublin

Wax has co-opted a monk and a neuroscientist to explain how our brains work

Ruby Wax (centre) with Gelong Thubten (left) and Ashish Ranpura

Ruby Wax (centre) with Gelong Thubten (left) and Ashish Ranpura

 

A comedian, a monk and a neuroscientist walk into a concert hall would be an interesting premise for a joke.

It is the premise of a sold-out show at the National Concert Hall involving Ruby Wax, the comedienne; Gelong Thubten, the monk; and Ashish Ranpura, the neuroscientist.

Wax, once a regular on British television, has in recent years reinvented herself as a student of the mind, graduating in September 2013 from Oxford with a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

Her central contention – that the mind has not evolved to keep track of the bewildering complexities of modern-life – was the subject of two previous books, Sane New World and A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled.

For her third, How to be Human – The Manual, she has co-opted Thubten and Ranpura for a bestselling book and tour.

Thubten, the red-robed, bald-headed Buddhist, is often the subject of some gentle teasing. “He lived in my house because he matches the colour of my sofa,” Wax says. “He’s available to play Aladdin.”

She coos over Ranpura’s academic qualifications including a bachelor’s degree in molecular neurobiology from Yale and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at University College London.

“If you understand the biological constraints that humans are under, we can be more forgiving of ourselves,” is Ranpura’s opening statement.

“Who are we?” Wax asks, “and don’t make it complicated.”

Ranpura continues: “The fundamental theory in neuroscience is that everything about who we are, every thought, every feeling and every emotion is the result of electrical and chemical activity happening in the brain.”

Thubten adds: “For me it is that relationship we have with our thoughts. All the suffering going on there, how much does that drive us and control us? Can we use methods to transform that relationship? Through mindfulness you get in the driving seat instead of being driven. It’s a tool for transformation.”

Ranpura explains that Buddhism and neuroscience have “had a love affair for a long time. We are both really interested in figuring out the mechanisms that govern mental life. What makes it work? Neuroscientists do it from the outside looking in using experiments and brain scans; Buddhists do that through introspection.”

Thubten once spent four years in retreat and was unhappy through a lot of it, but persevered using mindfulness to drive the negative thoughts away. He compares mindfulness to going to the gym. You practise every day and you focus on the breathing. You take back control.

Mindfulness does not mean clearing your mind. “The harder you push your thoughts down, the louder they shout,” he said. “The mind wanders and then you learn to capture your attention and bring it back. You are showing the mind who is boss. You are changing your habits.”

Ranpura speaks about neuroplasticity – the notion that over a long period of time you can consciously or unconsciously change how your brain works.

In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected as US president and Brexit happened, he says the first thing he did every morning was check the news on his smartphone. When he explained this to Thubten, the monk responded: “Every day you wake up and you practise getting very angry. You are training your brain to associate waking up with being in that state.

“Either way, you practise something intentional, or something unintentional, but your brain will get good at the thing you practise.”

The discussion moves on to the topic of stress. How much of it is good for you? Thubten teaches mindfulness to major corporations. They operate on the presumption that stress is important to do a good job and that mindfulness leads to a catatonic approach to business.

He differentiates between good stress and bad stress, between chronic and acute stress. Acute stress is necessary to get short term things done. Chronic, “always on” stress is no good for the body or mind.

Ranpura references a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Zebras respond to acute stress, ie being chased by a pack of lions, by running away, but even if one of their number is caught and eaten, they return to normal as if nothing has happened.

For them stress is episodic, but in humans it is chronic. “Humans are very bad at this. We don’t have the stress and let it go. We continue to rehearse it over and over. That is very toxic,” Ranpura says.

The pair also differentiate between empathy and compassion. Empathy is where one feels for another’s pain; compassion is being able to do something about it. The monk explains it further. A person is drowning in the water. If you have empathy, you will jump into the water to save him or her, but drown yourself. Compassion is learning how to swim.

Forgiveness, the monk says, is the highest form of compassion. “Forgiveness is a skill you can learn by not being controlled by your angry thoughts. You train yourself to understand the pain and suffering that drives other people. You can empathise with that and feel it and you want to do something to help them.”

Wax then turns to the subject of social media and our addiction to same. “I don’t think this is an accident,” Ranpura warns. “We are not born knowing how to control our attention. We are living in a time when people are trying to figure out how to control our attention.

“Where it gets to the point where companies can predict what you are thinking and what you are about to think, you are going to have to be very aware of your thought processes to see that happening.”

The trio finish with a question and answer session. One woman admits to suffering from depression and criticises the stigma around it.

Wax is succinct. “Yes, but you are standing up and talking about it.”

There was a lifetime of learning on the stage and so much to ponder. Luckily there is a book where they expand and elaborate on their views. Ruby Wax with a Neuroscientiest and a Monk: How To Be Human – the Manual is published by Penguin, priced €12.99.

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