Wild Swimming With Ruby Wax & A Monk At Broughton Hall – Review

By Annabel Heseltine

9 months ago

Expect a truly transformative retreat

Family breakdown and a desire to go deeper into her internal spiritual space led Annabel Heseltine to Broughton Hall, a groundbreaking retreat space in Yorkshire that offers seriously transformational experiences.

Wild Swimming With Ruby Wax & A Monk At Broughton Hall – Review

Broughton Hall hotel at sunset

The last time I went wild swimming, I was naked in the Outer Hebrides wearing only a blue bobble hat and swearing a lot to shut out the cold. But this time I have a problem. You can’t swear in front of a monk and because Ruby, as in Wax, has asked us to swim in mindful silence, I can’t scream either. But boy do I want to. 

I am on her retreat, Keeping it Real in a Frantic World, in Yorkshire. Wax is running it with Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten, an ex-New York wild-boy and actor who, spent thirty years in a Scottish Buddhist monastery after having an epiphany, and now teaches meditation to Silicon valley tech giants, Hollywood film stars, prisoners, accountants and schoolchildren. Also in attendance is South African author Rahla Xenopoulos, who’s written a memoir about being bi-polar. And I am wondering how I am going to cope, not just with the swim, followed by a Hoffman-style dunk in a barrel of ice cubes, but thirty-one other people milling around me and talking about childhood trauma, suicide, abuse, lost husbands, failed careers; while some aren’t talking at all. The trauma they have coped with is humbling but depressing. 

Image credit: Annabel Heseltine

Even the title of Wax’s most recent book, I’m Not as Well as I Thought I Was, scares me. For five years I had been trying to repair a family pulled apart by mental breakdown, anxiety, autism and rampant neurodiversity, as well as deal with my own post-divorce guilt – the kind of guilt only a mother can pour on herself. Mothers are meant to hold a family. Not destroy it. It’s heart-breaking to watch your children cry and know it’s your fault. But so much therapy later, I was getting there, I thought. So, I wasn’t sure I wanted to discover just how well I still wasn’t. 

But the monk got me. Meditation saved my sanity during covid, and I wanted to go deeper, so I bundled myself and a suitcase full of baggage onto a train to the Yorkshire Dales to a stately home transformed into a ‘turbo-charged ashram’. Broughton Hall has been in the Tempest family for nigh on a millennium, but now, moving ahead of the times, its 32nd owner, Roger, and his partner Paris Ackrill, a holistic well-being guide, have created a ground-breaking retreat-space where people come to be transformed. Asides from rewilding three thousand acres, creating a small addiction clinic and Avalon, a state-of-the-art wellness centre, Tempest facilitates fifty-odd retreats a year. For this one he had invited Wax and her co-conspirators to teach us about mindfulness. The hope is that we might garner some useful tools to better manage the ridiculous world in which we live. 

Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten during meditation. Image credit: Annabel Heseltine

Wax is masterful at holding up a mirror to society’s foibles. ‘Life’s a shitshow.’ She’s earned a living out of being funny for four decades, but she’s also a mental health crusader with a masters from Oxford on cognitive therapy, and it’s a good combo. ‘We made social media. It didn’t land in the garden like a meteor. Now everybody wants to be a king; celebrities are the anti-Christ,’ says Wax. Stripped of make-up, purple hair floppy after her own swim in the freezing pond, she’s baring her soul, showing her vulnerability through green, caring eyes. It’s deliberate. She knows that if she reveals herself, others will feel braver about opening up. And she has a lot to say, because she’s been there, got the sad T-shirt. She‘s had depression. She’s been in psychiatric hospitals. She’s back to basics. Cavemen days. Fight, flight and freeze. Dopamine, cortisone and oxytocin; a cocktail of chemicals controlling our lives through adrenaline hits, angst fests and in our craving to feel loved. 

‘In the past our reward for wanting more, for achieving the dopamine highs, was food. It was a necessity,’ says Wax, but now the highs are fed by buying shoes online or 20 cream polo-necks. ‘Our brain doesn’t realise the wallpaper has changed,’ adds Wax who co-wrote How to Be Human with Thubten and neuroscientist Ash Ranpura. ‘I am addicted to emails. How many do you need to answer? I answer them all. At 2am I have run out of friends. I get so desperate; I am answering spam. So how far can you go?’

That, of course, is the billion-dollar question. And Wax, of course, has the answer. Unlike animals, who don’t know what’s ahead of them, we do, so we are living in a state of perpetual anxiety. ‘When a zebra escapes a lion, it starts grazing again; it doesn’t need therapy. It doesn’t need Oprah.’ Our threats are unseen and the clock is speeding up. ‘There has never been anything like this; kids getting depressed at 13. We are in a constant state of fear. People are frazzled. They stress about stress.’ She’s written a book about that too.

The problem she says is that we live our lives blindly without awareness. ‘We know about black holes, but we don’t know about our heads, the mothership. It’s like having a Ferrari on our shoulders but no-one gave us the key.’ And the key, says this compelling trio, complementing each other with their different strategies, is awareness, gained through the practice of compassionate mindfulness. You can change the way you live your life; self-awareness lowers cortisone and while you are focussing on your body you cannot be ruminating. ‘It’s like driving a car in two gears,’ says Wax.  ‘Impossible.’ 

Image credit: Annabel Heseltine

So while Wax chatted hilariously about science and, encouraged by Xenopoulos, we scribbled for two hours a day, hotwiring our emotions to the page, bypassing the critical brain, Thubten instructed us on meditation – it’s easier than you think. We have 84,000 thoughts a day, and each time we catch our mind wandering and bring it gently back to focusing on the breath we are exercising our meditation muscle, he explained. Each day we set a different intention, compassion, forgiveness as he took us through different meditation exercises; body scans, sky gazes, compassion for self and others. Focusing not on the story but the feelings. It was the compassion that got me. A hiccup shuddered my body. Somebody handed me a tissue. Afterwards I looked as drained as I felt. It was deep, raw and exhausting but astonishingly, in spite of the resistance, I had healed some guilt. My suitcase was much lighter going home.

Ruby Wax returns to Broughton Sanctuary in 2024. Prices from £1,450pp.

Ruby Wax is on tour following the publication of her book, I’m Not as Well as I Thought I Was. Closes November 2023.

Gelong Thubten’s second book Handbook for Hard Times – A Monk’s Guide to Fearless Living is out now.