As part of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Canterbury Christ Church University and the Student Union organised a series of events that included a poetry night, a tea party and various lectures, promoting good mental health for all.
Isabel Losada, internationally bestselling author of The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment, came to Canterbury to share her accumulated wisdoms. I joined an eager audience who had gathered in Waterstones Rose Lane to hear her talk, entitled ‘Life, Happiness and Everything.’
I exchange a few words with Isabel before the talk begins. She feels immediately warm and welcoming, and when a woman with a shaved head walks in, Isabel reels her in without hesitation. “I just love your hair!” she beams at the girl. “It really brings out your bone structure. Beautiful!” I am intrigued by the natural openness and warmth that Isabel radiates.
Rosie Duffield MP takes the stage with a brief introduction. “We are hypocrites, because we’re not looking after our own mental health.” She mentions a colleague who has recently opened up about his struggles with depression, and she encourages everyone to open up and be vulnerable. “Like Jo Cox said, we must keep looking for things we have in common. We are human first.”
Isabel steps up and throws us right into the deep end: “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here?” She challenges us to guess how the Dalai Lama answers this question. The audience holds its breath, afraid to say something stupid. Love, someone suggests. Learning, another adds.
“Happiness?” a small voice puts forward. Third time lucky. “Happiness!” Isabel exclaims.
Through her writings, Isabel has spent twenty years exploring the topic of happiness in its many forms, covering mind, body and spirit. “I want to find out how to live life completely, abundantly, joyfully, stupidly,” she writes in Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment. And she does so with refreshing honesty and laugh-out-loud humour, making her stand out from traditional self-help writers.
“Psychotherapy and psychiatry study what’s wrong with the mind,” she explains. “Very few fields study what’s right. That’s what I aim to do.”
The joy of Isabel is that she doesn’t start her books as an expert. Rather, she is a learner, a detective, throwing herself into bewildering adventures that might offer answers to her questions. And she takes her quests to the extreme, bringing her readers along on intimate journeys through Ayahuasca ceremonies, rebirthing rituals and colonic irrigation, all the way to Lhasa to meet the 14th Dalai Lama. All in the name of pinning down this seemingly elusive mind state.
After two decades of refining her knowledge on the topic, she is now able to define happiness – although she emphasises that it’s a constantly evolving definition – as “a positive state of well-being that can’t be taken away by externals, which maintains focus on love, joy and gratitude.”
So how do we get there? Isabel paces the stage, full of energy. It is clear she has a lot to say, with a burning desire to impart all that she has learned. “Do what I did,” she instructs, “and take an active interest in happiness. Go chasing after it, make it your mission.”
Isabel guides us through a number of crucial steps on the road to joy, such as letting go of anger and resentment, and cultivating self-compassion. “Another thing,” she says, “we must learn to detach from our constant inner chatter.” She is about to launch into an introduction to meditation, but stops herself. “Actually, let’s just do it! Who here wants to do meditation right now?”
Over half the audience raises their hands. “Well, why not!” Isabel says, throwing her arms in the air and proceeds to briefly instruct us on the art of mindfulness. “See you in five minutes!” she hollers, as we all close our eyes.
And she’s right – why not? Meditation is about practice, not talk. To reap the benefits, we must take the time to sit down and actually do it. The entire room is silent for a full five minutes, except for the odd creaking chair and the wall clock that ticks away the seconds.
When we come back, I feel calmer, and strangely confident that I’ll be doing this more regularly from now on. This is exactly the message Isabel wants to convey – go hunt down happiness, be proactive about cultivating a good relationship with yourself. And do it now.
“Thoughts are just that – thoughts,” Isabel explains. “Good or bad, we don’t have to identify with them. Imagine you’re sitting above a busy highway looking down at the traffic. That’s you! You’re not the cars rushing past, you are the consciousness watching the cars. Find the peace in that place.”
“Also, you are not your body. You have a body – that’s different! You are not your memories. You are not your conditioning. A lot of our identity is painted on like a mask, and it can get in the way of realising that life is just a game.”
I am amazed at Isabel’s gutsy approach to her work and her ease on stage. After the talk, I ask her how she has achieved this level of confidence. “I’ve always explored going outside the comfort zone,” Isabel replies, “because the more you go out of it, the braver you get to be.”
Acting school taught her to push the boundaries. “Nothing is ever quite as terrifying as doing your two-minute Shakespearean piece in front of ten people who may or may not give you a job. After that, everything is a piece of cake.”
In her latest book, Sensation, Isabel makes good use of the courage she has cultivated over the years. It is an honest exploration into the subject of sex, particularly from a woman’s perspective. She attends workshops where she has to get naked in front a room full of women, and visits the world’s first international conference on clitoral stroking.
Before writing the book, she posed a question on social media, asking her followers what their sex life is like. “And the messages that came back – you could just cry!” she tells me. “A staggeringly low number of people, I would say, have good sex lives. And when I say good, I mean deep, enriching, loving, happy, relaxing, enjoyable, intimate sex with someone they love.”
There is too much pressure on having what Isabel refers to as “red-hot Hollywood sex.” But what about all the other colours, the other flavours? “You don’t just order Vindaloo every time you get a curry,” says Isabel. “Try having light green sex sometime; maybe just have your lover gently stroke your arm. Or light blue sex, imagine what that would be like! It’s not all about chasing the orgasm.”
Isabel admits that, initially, she was terrified to tackle the subject of sex. I ask her how she moved past that fear, and she thinks for a moment. “As one always moves forward dealing with any fear,” she says emphatically, “which is slowly and one step at a time.”
“And take risks!” she urges. “Whenever anyone asks you to do something that you’re frightened of doing, do it immediately.”
As the evening wraps up, people queue to get their books signed, and Isabel beams at them all, chatting cheerfully and embracing them. She certainly walks the walk, I think, as we spill out of Waterstones into the chilly October night – all, I believe, inspired to go chasing after our own happiness.
Sensation is out now.
Other books by Isabel Losada: The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment, For Tibet, With Love – A Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World, Men! and The Battersea Park Road to Paradise.