“Ruby Takes a Trip” (documentary, 1991)

I recorded this unusual and imaginative documentary on VHS tape back when it first screened, and re-watched it several times. During the first two-thirds, comedienne and presenter Ruby Wax lampoons various California New Age therapies and ostensibly mystical practices (or at least provides color commentary as they lampoon themselves) and it’s fun and funny to watch.

The tone gradually changes when Ruby undergoes an initiation ceremony with Yoruba Lucumi priestess Luisah Teish, and then a sweat lodge and three-day vision quest in the redwoods forest. As Ruby Wax would reminisce some thirty years later:

I could have done a piss-take, but perhaps subconsciously I had booked the real deal: not some guy who did it with Beverly Hills housewives, but a guy who took veterans and kids with terminal cancer to do vision quests. When I first met him, I was cynical and making jokes for the cameras. 

He sent us into the redwood forest for three days alone, without food. The camera crew were meant to come, but for some reason, I said no. I guess I wanted to do it for real. Up until then it was about me and showing off and being the presenter, and then suddenly I caught on.

I starved and looked up at the trees and something profound happened. I had never felt protected in my life and suddenly I thought “I feel protected now” and the ground was holding me. It was something bigger than myself. I noticed the details on the trees, which I had never noticed. Everything just slowed down. I was the happiest I’d ever been. It was a very different sort of happiness from what I’d felt previously, for example from being awarded things. It’s a rush to hear your book is number one in the bestseller list, but that lasts a minute. This one lasted three days. 

The peace and contentment I experienced on the vision quest introduced me to the idea of mindfulness. It resonated so strongly with me that I just knew that I wanted to study the brain – I wanted to know how you get that feeling and keep it when you’re not looking up at those trees.

I had suffered bouts of depression for most of my life and wanted to know how to deal with it rather than stuffing pills down my throat, needing therapy, getting into a downward spiral of critical thinking. This vision quest put me on a whole new path to thinking I could learn how to train my brain. And I was different with people after that. There was a kind of sweetness coming out of me that was new. It didn’t happen all at once. Anyway, a few years later, my television career came to an end when the phone stopped ringing and I decided to reinvent myself. Maybe it was meant to be.

I did a postgraduate certificate in psychotherapy and counselling at Regent’s College in London and in 2013 got a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Kellogg College, Oxford. I have learnt about neuroplasticity, which is basically how you can change your brain and way of thinking. It’s had a big effect on my personality, that sweetness I referred to.

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