Sent to me by Penguin Life UK in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: 25/01/18
Publisher: Penguin Life UK
Format: Hardback, 272pp
Summed up in a two words: Rejoining Humanity
I was excited to read How To Be Human by Ruby Wax. It was on my list for 2018 and when I got an email asking if I wanted to review it I was more than pleased. How To Be Human is Ruby’s letter to the people to reconnect with their humanity. Working with a monk and a neuroscientist, Ruby works her way through the many important factors and moments in our lives and discusses the importance of being aware of others, slowing down and focusing on what is truly important to us as human beings. We are not perfect, we all make mistakes but it is important to take steps to bring peace of mind into your life so you can get on with your life and enjoy it. Ruby does all this is her signature writing style (whimsical, provocative but also personal) and it is well worth the read. Full review below.
It took us 4 billion years to evolve to where we are now. No question, anyone reading this has won the evolutionary Hunger Games by the fact you’re on all twos and not some fossil. This should make us all the happiest species alive – most of us aren’t, what’s gone wrong? We’ve started treating ourselves more like machines and less like humans. We’re so used to upgrading things like our iPhones: as soon as the new one comes out, we don’t think twice, we dump it. (Many people I know are now on iWife4 or iHusband8, the motto being, if it’s new, it’s better.)
We can’t stop the future from arriving, no matter what drugs we’re on. But even if nearly every part of us becomes robotic, we’ll still, fingers crossed, have our minds, which, hopefully, we’ll be able use for things like compassion, rather than chasing what’s ‘better’, and if we can do that we’re on the yellow brick road to happiness.
I wrote this book with a little help from a monk, who explains how the mind works, and also gives some mindfulness exercises, and a neuroscientist who explains what makes us ‘us’ in the brain. We answer every question you’ve ever had about: evolution, thoughts, emotions, the body, addictions, relationships, kids, the future and compassion. How to be Human is extremely funny, true and the only manual you’ll need to help you upgrade your mind as much as you’ve upgraded your iPhone.
”I’m going to start where we all started, back in the swamp and with a fine-toothed comb find out what happened to make us who we are today. (I spoke a little about this in Frazzled but am now digging deeper). Are we everything evolution dreamed we’d be? If not – who can we blame? Not that we can do anything about it. but if there’s life on other planets, they may learn from us. The human race is a miracle when it comes to survival. If you’re alive and reading this book right now, you’re a bona fide, gold medal winner in the ‘Evolutionary Hunger Games’ where you had a trillion in one chance of not being born a frog.” p1
Mindfulness is gaining popularity all around the world and it is a proven remedy to our modern day stresses and addiction to technology. Ruby Wax, along with Ash (a neuroscientist) and Thubten (a monk), has written How To Be Human to open up a discussion and give advice to us all about disconnecting from the high-speed world we occupy and focus on reconnecting with our humanity. By looking at where we came from, exploring where we are right now and looking where we are headed in a wide selection of areas within our existence. Across 12 chapters Ruby talks about relationships, addiction, our thoughts, our bodies, compassion, emotions and so much more. How we have evolved biologically, physiologically and psychologically into a new technology dependant species (us tech-heads will on average spend 11 years of our lives on our phones) and how science and mindfulness can be tools to help us respect and enjoy our fellow humans, face-to-face and hand-in-hand.
“I’d say I’m different since the last book, but my insatiable desire to know everything about everything remains., and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Luckily, I found a brilliant neuroscientist and a Buddhist monk to help answer some of my niggling questions. I figured the monk could explain how our minds work and the neuroscientist could tell me where it all goes on in the brain.” p2
I appreciated How To Be Human because the subject matter is vital to us all. What Ruby is trying to achieve with this book is incredibly important to us all. Ruby implores us to slow down, taking into account our minds and our bodies and, most importantly, to stop being so hard on ourselves. Truly paying attention to ourselves and listening to our bodies could improve stress, mental health and contentment. How To Be Human is a provocative, funny and personal account of our humanity and how taking a few minutes out of our day to stop and realise ourselves could improve our lives ten-fold. I can see why Ruby is so popular with readers as her writing is whimsical, down-to-earth and genuine. A lot of the points discussed within are important to her on a personal level, sharing thoughts and experiences surrounding her own life including pitfalls, relationships and mental health among other aspects.
“Why are we so hard on ourselves when, in our evolutionary timescale, we’re still in infancy? Here are a couple of facts to show that we as Homo sapiens are still a work in progress and not at all cutting edge as we like to think. We share 98 per cent of our DNA with great apes., about 90 per cent with mice. And it gets worse: we share 300 per cent of our DNA with yeast. I heard there’s a T-shirt with the slogan, ‘You share 25 per cent of your DNA with bananas. Get over yourself.'” p14
Each chapter is filled with relevant information about the past and present statuses of areas such as emotions, compassion, mental stability, understanding our bodies, connecting with our loved ones and much more. Ruby also sits down with Ash and Thubten to have an open discussion about each topic. Giving a scientific and philosophical perspective on our minds/bodies and what we can do to invigorate them was fascinating and deeply helpful. It not only gave a bigger picture outlook on our present day troubles but offered unpatronising and non-judgemental advice on how we can look into ourselves. We can be so hard on ourselves thinking about our appearances, achievements, prospects and faults (we are negative obsessed mammals); we are only human though and Ruby is working to remind us to gain peace in our lives and move forward.
I enjoyed how Ruby threw herself into these discussion in a meaningful way. Contemplating the deeper ideological conundrums surrounding consciousness, addiction, the soul, cyborgs and living with someone for the rest of your life (see the chapter for sex :). After the discussion Ruby and Thubten take us through their own personal mindfulness exercises that are relevant to each subject. I found these immensely helpful especially the section surrounding children. I already have a list of helpful exercises I can do with my 4 year-old to develop his emotional intelligence. Ruby’s encouraging and slightly mischievous advice on all these topics made this book such an easy read. There are plenty of insights within these pages that I hadn’t even considered until I read the book, heaps of information about emotions, cultivating compassion and working the brain like a muscle to reshape the way we think and avoid stress that I hope will improve my own outlook on life over time. I thought the ‘manual’ aspect of this book was a loose term but it is actually a decent description of How To Be Human.
Ruby has written How To Be Human to guide us, not tell us, through the implications that modern technology have on our future as a species and why taking the time to snap out of it (so to speak) is important once in a while. Ruby concedes that technology is vital to our progression but has some advice about dealing with life when it all gets a bit much. I really appreciated Ruby’s advice and I am happy to keep HTBH on my bookshelf to pull out when I find myself struggling or frustrated. Mindfulness may seem like a fad now but I have explored it in the past to deal with my own stress and I have had positive results. Ruby isn’t trying to force mindfulness on us, just to think about it as a tool to re-organise our thoughts and shake up our lives a bit. It was good to have the neuroscientist involved as it added a objective perspective on mindfulness and even Ash can agree that it does have a positive effect on our minds.
There is plenty of information within to satisfy non-fiction readers such as history, sociology, education, politics and psychology but I will say that this is a novice level book for those interested in neuroscience. There are some refreshing perspectives on the brain and how to re-map it but I read quite a lot of neuroscience books and I would say that seasoned readers looking for new information may not get it from How To Be Human. I do recommend reading this book for Ruby’s insightful advice and discussions though. Her worldly view on people, health and writing among other things is refreshing and inspiring. I liked Thubten’s story as well, coming from a life of excess and chaos and giving it up for the quiet life of a monk. His perspective is one of optimism, peacefulness and encouragement. The three of them make quite the team.
Overall I highly recommend How To Be Human to all non-fiction lovers and readers who just want to shake things up a bit. How To Be Human isn’t a ‘we are on the wrong path!’ book, it is a collection of open discussions on the importance of our humanity and how forgetting about it can be detrimental to our existence. Technology is certainly the future of our species and as we become more dependant on it we will require more effort to maintain our connection to the human body. Ruby Wax is sitting us down to give us the talk and I am glad I got to listen.
About Ruby Wax
Ruby Wax is a successful comedian, TV writer and performer of over 25 years. Ruby additionally holds a Master’s degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University, and was awarded an OBE in 2015 for her services to mental health. She is the author of books Sane New Worldand A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, and has toured all over the world with the accompanying one-woman shows. Both books have reached the number one spot on The Sunday Times bestsellers list.