You have been championing a greater awareness around mental health for many years. What was the motivation to start Frazzled Cafe and build this community?
Ruby Wax: Four years ago AA existed, but I wanted a place where anybody, anybody at all who is frazzled, (even before the pandemic) could go. I really believe in community and talking is half the cure. Where could we meet? I wanted a community where I didn't have to go to a cocktail party and bullshit and say how my kids were doing. We don't really communicate in a real way anymore, I don't think. Except with one friend or another.
So I started holding meetings in Marks and Spencer's cafes up and down the country, and the perfect number was about 12 to 15 people. And they'd have a facilitator, and meet every two weeks. It's not a drop-in, because it's anonymous and you have to feel safe with this group. So they met. Some of them met for four years every two weeks. Then of course, when the pandemic started, I took over, and I hold online meetings in the evening with about 100 people now. I did it every night in the beginning and you could really see a hunger for this community. Then there are hosts in the day who take small groups, of about 12 to 14.
When you come to my meetings, it's like a religious experience for me. It has a format. It begins and ends with mindfulness, just to get everybody's mind in the same place. And then I have regulars. They just speak as humans. I always say, "Tell me the weather conditions that are going on in your mind?” We're not allowed to talk about politics. And it isn't therapy. So nobody can say, "Here's what I would do," because everybody's different.
What issues do people bring to sessions?
I've had everything. People who are in a room with their kids and they want to kill them, people who are isolated and they love it but feel guilty. Other people are losing their minds because they feel nobody cares about them and the loneliness is just killing them. People say, "This is my lifeline." And other people who are very shy say, "I never thought anybody would care about me, and now I feel I'm heard." And some of them say, "I'm practicing compassion, so that when we get out of this, I can use these skills." It's a training ground for what's possible.
Due to Covid-19 Frazzled Cafe meetings were moved online and as a result you were able to reach so many more people, what was that experience like?
Oh this really works, because people couldn't always get to the cafe. And that was the hassle. And now we have people in America and Europe logging in. And what's great about it is people always say, "Is community really tribal? I'm with people that make me feel secure." But in this case, I can't tell what colour you are, if you’re young or old. Whenever somebody speaks and you resonate with it, that’s what matters. And the more honest they are, the more people love them. This guy yesterday said, "I feel unloved. Nobody ever responds to me. I don't love myself. It's getting to me." Well, all these people responded by saying, "We love you.”
When restrictions are lifted, will you continue with this format of holding meetings online?
Definitely. When it was offline, when it was in real cafes, Marks and Spencer paid for those cafes. Frazzled Cafe doesn’t charge anything. It's free. But now we have an office and we have to direct traffic so that's why we do some fundraising now.
Apart from seeking professional support, what are some of the daily practices which help people to manage their mental health?
I know from a scientific point of view that what develops in your brain when you practice mindfulness is the equivalent of a six pack, it gives you the ability to pay attention more and to lower your own anxiety levels. But I can't tell people to do mindfulness. This isn't fluffy stuff. Sometimes my job is to teach mindfulness, but the quickest way for people to connect is through community. We work like neural wifi. If you see other people and they're starting to listen to you and they care, immediately your system starts to relax and your cortisol levels comes down. That's the way it is. We were built like this.
So if you want advice, the killer is loneliness. Come to Frazzled Cafe, learn mindfulness, learn Tai Chi. I can't say read a book. I can't say jog, because these are all good for your endorphins, but it doesn't train your brain. But if you go and you feel what it is to connect, your brain changes. You go, "Oh, I feel so helped." People want to come all the time because they're getting hits of this oxytocin, which is the bonding chemical. They're getting hits of it in our meetings. And the more you get, the more your heart comes online.
Can you tell us about your new book, 'And now for the Good News'?
It's called ‘And Now For The Good News, To The Future With Love’. I went around the globe to find out what and who is reinventing the wheel: in business and in education and in a community and in tech and in health. People are inventing new ways for us to survive. They have to, because the old model didn't work. It's about teamwork, and every single different area leads to community.
Thank you Ruby!