Category Archives: Meditation

Why Acting Like a Toddler Is a Great Idea

toddler

Have you ever seen what toddlers do when life bumps up against them unexpectedly? Think about what happens when they have just fallen over on their padded bottoms or experienced some other small event that didn’t entirely delight them. They haven’t hurt themselves, they’ve just been given a bit of a surprise. What happens next is very interesting — and every parent, grandparent, aunty, uncle or anyone who’s had anything to do with toddlers will recognize this — they don’t do anything. Just for a second, they pause. It’s as if their minds are doing a little damage report: What just happened? Am I hurt? Is it bad? Should I cry? Should I scream the house down?

And what we do next can make all the difference. If we react, run to them, start fussing over them, then you can guarantee that yes, they will start crying and yes, they will probably scream the house down. But if we don’t react, if we stay calm, if we go on with whatever we’re doing, they will almost always pick themselves up and within moments, be exploring and laughing again.

We can learn a lot from toddlers. What happens when life bumps up against us? Sometimes, something that we want hasn’t happened. Sometimes, something we didn’t want has happened. A friend lets us down. Our boss berates us. Someone we don’t even know is rude to us. We get cut off in traffic. We have to wait way too long in a queue. We don’t win the prize, the girl, the accolades, the contract. What do we do?

We react. We defend, justify, complain. We go on the attack. We try to make the other person feel as bad as we do. We plot our revenge. Or we pretend to shrug it off —“Nothing to see here, folks” — while inside, we’re seething in anger and resentment.

And so here we are. Something bad has happened. We’ve reacted. And now we feel even worse. We are that toddler screaming and crying. We are not having fun. We are not free to explore. We’ve turned that little bump into a major catastrophe.

So, what’s the alternative? We can pause — like that toddler. There is a small space between experiencing something in our lives and reacting to it. For most of us, that space hardly exists. Something happens to us and we instantly go into reaction. Once there, we are left with no choice. But if we pause, if we give ourselves that space, we have choice, and that is a powerful thing.

We don’t have to react. We don’t have to paint ourselves into a corner. We don’t have to be left shaking our heads thinking, Why did I do that – again?! Instead, we can choose how we respond and what we do – if anything. We have the choice.

How do we learn to do this? How do we give ourselves that pause, that space? How do we even become aware of that space? And how do we learn to expand that space?

By doing nothing. Yes, by doing nothing. And just by practicing doing nothing.

Meditation teaches something that toddlers already know — sitting on their padded bottoms, running through those damage reports. And that is everything we experience, we experience as a sensation. Every sight, taste, smell, sound, touch, every emotion, every thought creates a sensation on or in the body. Some we label as good — beauty, love, chocolate. Others we label as bad — anger, weeds, chocolate. But all sensations have a common denominator. They’re ephemeral. They don’t last. They will pass, some slower than others, but they will change and they will end. So, why cause a fuss? Why make things worse? Why scream the house down?

Through meditation, we learn that we don’t have to be driven by automatic reactions. We come out of the habit pattern of our minds, the endless treadmill of cause and effect, and get enough space to look around and go “What do I really want to choose here?” Meditation works because it gives us more space, even if it’s just the length of an intake of breath. Space to be and space to choose. Just like that toddler, with a world of infinite possibilities to explore and enjoy.

My hope for you is that you become more like a toddler. Not in all respects, of course. Being toilet-trained and the ability to cook are two great attributes. But in taking that pause, in being in that space that is yours and yours alone, that small pause gives you power. The power to be anything and to be anyway you choose.

Mary-Lou Stephens’ meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, is the true story of how meditation helped changed her life, save her job and find a husband.

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

My TED Talk

Here’s the script for the talk I hoped to deliver at TEDxNoosa. I did the talk but not exactly as is written here. No one would have known though. It was almost the same. Perfection doesn’t exist in nature I am told

little hands and little feetI think we all know what a toddler is. A small version of a human usually found wearing a nappy. Have you ever seen what toddlers do when life bumps up against them unexpectedly? They might have just fallen over on their padded bottoms or experienced some other small event that didn’t entirely delight them? They haven’t hurt themselves, they’ve just been given a bit of a surprise.

What happens next is very interesting – and every parent, grandparent, aunty or uncle, or anyone who’s had anything to do with toddlers will recognise this – they don’t do anything. Just for a second they pause. It’s as if their minds are doing a little damage report – “What just happened? Am I hurt? Is it bad? Should I cry? Should I scream the house down?”

And what we do next can make all the difference. If we react, run to them, start fussing over them then you can guarantee that yes, they will start crying and yes they will probably scream the house down. But if we don’t react, if we stay calm, if we go on with whatever we’re doing they will almost always pick themselves up, keep wobbling along and within moments be exploring and laughing again.

We can learn a lot from toddlers. What happens when life bumps up against us? Something we want hasn’t happened. Something we didn’t want has happened. A friend lets us down. Our boss berates us. Someone we don’t even know is rude to us. We get cut off in traffic. We have to wait way too long in a queue. We don’t win the prize, the girl, the accolades, the contract. What do we do?

We react. We defend, justify, complain. We go on the attack. We try to make the other person feel as bad as we do. We plot our revenge. Or we pretend to shrug it off. “Nothing to see hear folks,” while inside we’re seething in anger and resentment.

And so here we are. Something bad has happened. We’ve reacted. And now we feel even worse. We are that toddler screaming and crying. We are not having fun. We are not free to explore. We’ve turned that little bump into a major catastrophe.

So what’s the alternative. We can pause – like that toddler. There is a small space between experiencing something in our lives and reacting to it. For most of us that space hardly exists. Something happens to us and we instantly go into reaction. Once there we are left with no choice. But if we pause, if we give ourselves that space, we have choice and that is a powerful thing.

I will make one exception  to the “taking a pause” thing- and that is if the attack is physical. Many years ago I signed up for a self-defence class. I thought I would become a kung fu master. Instead the first thing they taught us was “If they want your money – give it to them.” And the next thing they taught was – whenever possible the best thing to do is run away. If in physical danger, don’t pause, don’t stop and think about your next word or action, just run. Good advice.

But in all other circumstances….when we pause, when we leave that space, we give ourselves options, we have choice. We don’t have to react. We don’t have to paint ourselves into a corner. We don’t have to be left shaking our heads thinking “Why did I do that – again?!” Instead we can choose how we respond and what we do – if anything. We have the choice.

How do we learn to do this? How do we give ourselves that pause, that space? How do we even become aware of that space? And how do we learn to expand that space?

By doing nothing. Yes, by doing nothing. And just by practising doing nothing.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was head hunted to start up a new radio station. The program director of the network advised me, as he advised all the staff he was recruiting, to read Thick Face Black Heart by Chin-Ning Chu – an expert in business psyche and success tactics. I dutifully bought a copy but never got around to reading it.

Almost a year later, completely overwhelmed by the workload, I was at breaking point.  After each frantic and exhausting day I would crawl back to my small apartment to cry and eat ice cream. The only thing I was capable of reading was junk mail; not much text, lots of pictures and the promise of happiness. I thought perhaps the reason I wasn’t coping was because I hadn’t read the book. Could Thick Face Black Heart be the key to managing the sixteen hour days I was regularly putting in? I had a mentor who would often say to me, “You can only do what you can do.” His voice was soothing but his advice was not helpful. I told him that I was finally going to read Thick Face Black Heart.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “Read her next book instead, The Secrets of the Rainmaker. I think you’ll find it more beneficial.”

I ordered a copy and when it arrived tossed the junk mail in the recycling bin and began to read.

The Secrets of the Rainmaker is based on a story Carl Jung used to tell. In this story a village has been in drought for many years. The people have tried everything, brought in many experts but the drought remains crippling. Finally they call upon a renowned Rainmaker from afar. The Rainmaker arrives, pitches his tent and disappears inside it. The villagers are a bit non-plussed. They were expecting some chanting, a dance, some shaking of a rain stick, something. But no. After a couple of days they start to get worried. Is he a charlatan? Have they been idiots to bring him all the way to their village for this? All he does is sit in his tent all day. After four days The Rainmaker still hasn’t emerged from his tent and it still isn’t raining. The villagers are considering burning down his tent with him in it. On the fifth day the rain begins to fall. When the villagers ask him how he’d achieved such a miracle he answers that he didn’t do anything.

He didn’t do anything. When he’d arrived he noticed that the village was not in harmony with nature, with the Divine, with God, with whatever you want to call it. He spent four days inside his tent bringing himself in harmony with nature, the Divine, with God, with whatever you want to call it. Then the rain came.

Chin-Ning Chiu’s book wasn’t what I was expecting – which was an instruction manual on getting ahead, cramming more into each day and beating my opponents. Instead it talked about trading what you have for what you want, being willing not to survive, and how to respond rather than react through surrender, ease and meditation.

I was already getting up at 4 am but I set my alarm forty minutes earlier to sit in front of a candle on a small table draped in purple silk and meditate. My desperate thoughts would make meditation all but impossible yet I persisted. Day after day in the darkness of early morning, I sat, breathed and gave my heart and mind a place to rest. I did nothing.

The months passed, the workload remained unmanageable, but I kept meditating. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was slowing down enough to allow, as Chin-Ning Chiu says, the angel of good fortune catch up.

And catch up it did. I landed my dream job and moved to the stunningly beautiful Sunshine Coast. Good fortune indeed. But within a year….my dream job  turned into a nightmare Now I’d spent a lot of time in Twelve Step programs in the past, recovering from a gaggle of addictions. There I had learnt, thanks to the Serenity Prayer, that I was powerless over other people, places and things. So I knew I couldn’t change my boss or the company I worked for. If I was to keep the job I loved there was only one thing I could change. Myself. I took some annual leave and instead of having a relaxing holiday I went to a ten day silent meditation retreat where I meditated for 12 hours a day often in excruciating pain.

It was at this meditation retreat that I learnt something that toddlers already know – sitting on their padded bottoms, running through those damage reports. And that is everything we experience, we experience as a sensation. Every sight, taste, smell, sound, touch, every emotion, every thought creates a sensation on or in the body. Some we label as good – beauty, love, chocolate. Others we label as bad – anger, weeds, chocolate.

But all sensations have a common denominator. They’re ephemeral. They don’t last. They will pass, some slower than others, but they will change and they will end. So why cause  a fuss? Why make things worse? Why scream the house down? In those hours of meditation I leant to observe those sensations and realise I didn’t have to react to them. And there’s that space. That space of choice. That space of freedom.  I also learnt to expand that space, to slow down that process enough to allow the angel of fortune catch up.

An angel needs two wings to fly. The two wings of meditation are awareness and equanimity. Thoughts happen, emotions arise. Our job is to be aware of them, use that space to observe them and not to react to them. The power of choice. It’s liberating – and it can be annoying. Sometimes, I must admit, I pause in that space of awareness and choose to be miserable, choose to wallow. Sometimes having a darned good wallow can be fun – the trick is to aware of it, not to take it seriously, and not annoy anyone else if you decide to scream the house down.

So meditation. Sitting and breathing and observing the thoughts, the emotions, the sensations. Through meditation we learn that we don’t have to be driven by automatic reactions. We come out of the habit pattern of our minds, the endless treadmill of cause and effect, and get enough space to look around and go “What do I really want to choose here?” Meditation works because it gives us more space, even if it’s just the length of an intake of breath. Space to be and space to choose. Just like that toddler, with a world of infinite possibilities to explore and enjoy.

My hope for you is that you become more like a toddler. Not in all respects of course. Being toilet trained and the ability to cook are two great attributes. But in taking that pause. In being in that space that is yours and yours alone. That small pause gives you power. The power to be anything and to be anyway you choose. And may you slow down enough, even if it’s just the length of an intake of breath, to allow the angel of good fortune to catch up.

Writing Process? What Writing Process?

I’ve been amazed by the generosity of other writers during this journey to becoming a published author. At every stage there has been a helping hand, an understanding voice and a lift, or in some cases a shove, to the next level. And after publication there has been the same generosity of spirit; other writers willing to spruik my book, to sing its praises and to let the world know. Thank you

Why am I amazed? When I was a musician I helped other songwriters and musos. We were a family. In my life in radio I’ve given advice when asked to those who wanted to work in this form of media. I’m always happy to give what I have in the way of knowledge, connections and practical experience.

Sexdrugsmeditation-pile 2I’ve been a member of a writing group for years and the support of those women has been immeasurable. But when I stepped into the world of publishing I was in unknown territory. That’s why the generosity has amazed me. I’m an old hand at being a singer/songwriter and experienced in the realm of radio but I felt newborn and vulnerable in the world of publishing.

That’s why I’m delighted to take part in this writer’s blog chain. Passing on this generosity of spirit and highlighting other authors in a world that needs to know about great writing.

SusannahI have been tagged by the wonderful and effusive Susanna Freymark whose debut novel Losing February has been described with the same adjective as my memoir. “Brave.” We met at the yearly soiree that our agent throws in Sydney. I was new and shy. Susanna was a beacon of joy and laughter. I was drawn like the proverbial moth. Since then I’ve interviewed her for the ABC and shared a couple of panels with her at The Byron Bay Writers Festival. She continues to be a joy. Susanna is in the process of editing her second novel and you can read about her ongoing writing adventure here.

And now to the questions I must answer about my writing.

So . . .  what am I working on now?

I’m not. There, that was a surprise wasn’t it. I refuse to work. I’m in a mind to relax. To read. To reinvigorate. My memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation was released last April. My next manuscript is with my publisher after getting the thumbs up from my agent. Right now I’m tired. I need to rest. I’m inspired by the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt and his holy minimalism. Arvo spends time in reflection and meditation to gain inspiration for his next composition. I’m not comparing myself to his beatific brilliance but I resonate with his need to retreat, to be still, to be, before moving on to the next project. This year for me is a year of slow transformation. I know what my next project is and I have a notebook of scribbled lines and ideas which I add to on an ad hoc basis but to tell you the truth I’ve never written anything like this before. My publisher has expressed interest in what really is little more than a title at this stage. I will write it but it needs to evolve. I need to evolve to meet it. For the first time I’m not in a hurry. I’m not anxious. It will come. I will be ready. In some ways I’m already there. (You’ll have an “aha moment” when the title is revealed.)

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

My work is inspired, like Arvo Pärt’s, by meditation. My first memoir is about how meditation saved my job, changed my life and helped me find a husband. It might sound a bit woo-woo but it’s real and it’s funny and it’s “brave.” My second memoir is about the truth of the happy ending. Meditation helped me survive some of the toughest years of my life – the early years of my marriage. We’re still married and our marriage gets stronger all the time. This second book is about relationships. Big stuff, sometimes heavy stuff, but also funny stuff  and very, very, “brave” stuff.

I’ve also written a novel that my agent tells me doesn’t work but I haven’t given up on it. It too was inspired by meditation. The story and the protagonist came to me at one of the silent ten-day meditation retreats I insist on doing. Meditation is a creative process. You can’t stop your mind that’s for sure. But when you slow it down some very interesting things pop up.

Why do I write about what I do?

When I used to read self-help books I would skip over the theory and never do the exercises at the end of each chapter. Instead I would head straight to the case studies. These are the stories of transformation that we all love so much; the Hero’s Journey, the overcoming of obstacles, the realisations that lead to change. When it became apparent that my life had changed through meditation I thought perhaps someone might like to read my story. Turns out they would.

I also love fiction because I get to play. I get to make stuff up. I have plans for a lot more fiction after the next book and more resting. Watch this space.

How does my writing process work?

I have no idea. Honestly. It’s always different. It always changes. I’m not methodical. I’m not a plotter. There are times when I write every night after work and every weekend. I’ve gone years without holidays because every scrap of leave has been spent writing or going on those silent ten-day meditation retreats. I saved up my money and took six months leave without pay, worked with a manuscript assessor and a mentor – all for a novel that doesn’t work, allegedly. But boy, oh boy, did I learn a lot about writing. The one constant has been meditation. Meditation breaks down the barrier between the conscious and the subconscious. It gets to the juice, the real driving force. We think our minds are in charge. They’re not. Meditation allows us to access the real deal, the source of all the action, love, fear and truth. As I mentioned at the moment I’m having a rest from writing. Vital for rejuvenation. Some say you must write every day. I say not so. Forget the musts. Find out what works for you. Everyday is creative whether you write or not. I’d rather have some time to stretch and rest and play and then return to writing with love than to feel duty bound to chain myself to a desk everyday. Besides I have a very exacting day job. Sometimes I need some space.

Now it’s my turn to spread the love by introducing you to two writers.

walter masonWalter Mason writes a whole different kind of travel book. Spiritual, humorous, honest and intriguing. If you haven’t yet read Destination Saigon or Destination Cambodia you will fall in love with him too when you do. Walter is tireless in his promotion of other writers. He is an inspiration. I’ve interviewed him for my program on the ABC, I’ve written a blog for his Universal Heart Book Club and he’s featured my book in his own blog. He is a generous and loving soul. Irresistible. Follow his adventures here and check out The Universal Heart Book Club as well.

blue mileKim Swivel writes as Kim Kelly and her latest novel The Blue Mile will be released in May. She tells a great story and weaves so much history into her novels that I find them fascinating. I’ve learnt things about Australia that I never knew and I’ve learnt them the best way – by being entertained. It’s a great mix. I’ve also interviewed her and found her delightful, humble and quietly determined. You can find out more about Kim here.

Check out their blogs for more about them and their writing process. Read their books and keep reading. It’s fun, inspiring and sometimes even life changing.

 

How I Became a Huffington Post Blogger

huffpostHere I am, a woman from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a long, long way from New York City where The Huffington Post is based. So how did I become a blogger for HuffPost?

To tell you the truth it was totally unexpected.

I knew Arianna Huffington was a huge fan of meditation and I just happen to have written a book about how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. I thought perhaps she might like to read my book,  and if she enjoyed it she might tell her friends about it.

I tracked down her email address, it wasn’t hard, and after she had finished her holiday digital detox I sent her an email. This is what it said:

Hi Arianna

Welcome back to the plugged-in world.
 
I’d love to send you a copy of my meditation memoir. I think you might enjoy it. It’s about how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. Plus I’m told it’s very funny.  It’s published in Australia by Pan Macmillan.
 
“Bracingly honest, funny and rewarding, this is a book you can’t put down.” Sydney Morning Herald.
 
It is available as an e-book but I’d like to give you a book made out of paper – it is recycled paper 🙂
 
What’s the best address to send it to?
 
Thanks for your time, I appreciate it.
 
Warm regards
Mary-Lou Stephens
Did I expect to hear back from her? Not really. She’s a very busy woman with way too many emails to read I’m sure. But I hoped someone might get back to me with an address.
To my great surprise and delight, less than 2 weeks later this email appeared in my Inbox.
Mary-Lou, many thanks for thinking of us. We would love to feature your voice on HuffPost about your meditation memoir. I’m ccing our Third Metric editor Carolyn Gregoire as well as our Books editor Zoe to follow up. All the best, Arianna
Very quickly afterwards this email chimed in:
Thanks so much for reaching out, Mary-Lou. We’d be thrilled to feature your voice on the page. All we need to get started is a first blog (typically 500-1,000 words), along with a headshot and a bio, all in one email. Please let me know if you have any questions, and feel free to send a copy of the book to the below address. Best, Carolyn

So I did as requested, emailed my bio, headshot and a sample blog.  Within a day I was accepted into the fold at The Huffington Post, set up with my blogger’s toolkit, and my first blog was up on their site shortly afterwards.
The whole experience was miraculous, unexpected, joyful and welcoming. I was amazed at the warmth and promptness of their responses. But I guess when you have the boss suggesting that something should happen, it happens.
So there you have it, I wasn’t looking to become a blogger for The Huffington Post but here I am. And I’m thrilled. Thank you Arianna, thank you Caroline, thank you everyone at HuffPost for making miracles happen.

 

The Power of Miracles

IMG_3311

Many years ago I was head-hunted to start up a new radio station in a major regional market. It was exciting, thrilling and ultimately exhausting. After almost a year I was at breaking point. After each frantic and demanding day I would crawl back to my small apartment to cry and eat ice cream. The only thing I was capable of reading was junk mail; not much text, lots of pictures and the promise of happiness. Fortunately I had a wonderful mentor, he even looked a bit like Yoda. He suggested I read a particular book.

I ordered a copy and when it arrived tossed the junk mail in the recycling bin and began to read. What I found within its pages changed my life.

The Secrets of the Rainmaker by Chin-Ning Chiu is based on a story Carl Jung used to tell about the power of miracles. In this story a village has been in drought for many years. The people have tried everything but the drought remains crippling. Finally they call upon a renowned Rainmaker from afar. The Rainmaker arrives, pitches his tent and disappears inside it for four days. On the fifth day the rain begins to fall. When the villagers ask him how he’d achieved such a miracle he answers that he didn’t do anything. When he arrived he noticed that the village was not in harmony with heaven. He spent four days inside his tent putting himself in harmony with the Divine. Then the rain came.

To say I was surprised by what I read is an understatement. I was expecting a book about getting ahead, cramming more into each day and beating my opponents. Instead I devoured a book about surrender, ease and meditation. It spoke to my weary soul with words like, “When one is excessively busy, the heart is dead”. I set about reviving my heart and replenishing my soul. Day after day in the darkness of early morning, I sat, breathed and gave my heart and mind a place to rest.

I had tried many guided meditations before, in my time in Twelve Step programs recovering from a gaggle of addictions, but this was the first time I let my mind just be.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but by spending this time in meditation and reflection I was slowing down enough to allow the angel of good fortune catch up.

It took a lot longer than the Rainmaker’s four days but it did happen. Miracles occurred, unexpected miracles that remain and continue to unfold to this day. And to this day I continue to meditate, allowing the angel of good fortune to catch up as often as possible.

 

Book Review – Sex, Drugs and Meditation

“For a first book, it’s exquisite.”

Sex, Drugs and Meditation Front coverWe all know the rules. Stories, whether fiction or memoir, need to contain conflict. So when I heard that Mary-Lou Stephens had written a book about ten days of silence at a meditation retreat, my inner cynic snorted. Where’s the conflict in a bunch of people sitting silent and cross legged all day? Maybe Mary-Lou’s peppered the narrative with interesting flashbacks, but even so, the book is 270-pages long. What’s going to move the story forward?  When I finally meet Mary-Lou Stephens, I admit that Sex, Drugs and Meditation is an interesting title, but what I really want to know is how she made a book about silence so interesting that the world’s fifth largest publisher wanted it. 

The answers are in the text, but they’re not easy to explain. I’ve read the Macmillan-published book twice now, and to get your head around how she accomplished this feat, you have to imagine the book as three narratives, each with its own antagonist. In the first narrative we meet  Mary Lou in her afternoon drive-time ABC radio presenter persona, competent to the core, clearly loving her job. But then along comes nasty Mr Purvis, with his sharp suit, his pointy shoes and his perfect teeth. He tells everyone there’s been a restructure and even the old hands must reapply for their jobs. The Hideous Mr Purvis, as Mary-Lou calls him, is her new-found capricious enemy, and is the literary equivalent of Chekov’s gun. We know he’s coming back in the final scenes to take a swipe at Mary-Lou’s composure; he’ll turn up again after her meditation retreat, no doubt. In the meantime, though, it’s the Christmas break and she’s off to the Vipassana retreat.

Those familiar with meditation centres will recognise the subtle interplay of powers and hierarchies that Mary Lou flags. This is Mary-Lou’s first time; returnees get special tea, a tailored meditation routine, and possess an enviable straight-backed purity. Soon it’s obvious to readers that the antagonist in this second narrative is Mary-Lou’s inner critic. Readers familiar with Bridget Jones will recognise the negative self talk. Regarding Bernadette, a fellow meditator she’s only just met: I’m hoping we’ll be friends and I like my friends to be as flawed as I am. Because no one’s able to talk, Mary-Lou tells herself all kinds of stories about the people here: that the straight-backed meditator feels no pain, that her roommate suffers lung cancer, and that the cool yoga chicks want Mary Lou out. In Mary-Lou’s Sittings of Strong Determination, she must learn to remain composed against the demanding pain of an old knee injury. Quiet on the outside, her inner self is all noisy turmoil. At one point during her meditation, she takes up her imaginary machine gun, and mentally opens fire on all the perfect people that annoy her and then all the imperfect people who annoy her. As the heavy artillery rains down, she declares to her inner triumphant self, Take that you fucking serene shits. 

Dealing with ‘serene shits’ is only one of Mary Lou’s myriad challenges. In the third narrative, presented through flashbacks, we meet the younger Mary-Lou: needy child, isolated adolescent, young adult junkie, talented musician. The antagonist in this narrative is Mary-Lou’s mother. From age eight, Mary-Lou felt that her mother, already burdened with raising five other children, simply stopped loving her. Mary-Lou’s never been able to reclaim that love, and always feels as if she doesn’t come up to her mother’s expectations. The dramatic climax to this narrative is the day Mary Lou’s mother condescends to tell her daughter she mustn’t have a social drink today because she’s a recovering alcoholic. [My mother] said it with meanness and spite. Sitting on the couch opposite me, glass of sherry in her hand. I felt wounded beyond measure. I’d been honest with her about my work in Twelve Step programs and she threw it back at me, as an insult. I could let it slide but I knew I would resent it. ‘Mum, it makes it really hard for me to tell you things that are important to me when you say things like that.’ ….She said nothing. The silence stretched between us. I began to panic. I had just stood up to my mother and it didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel safe. I wanted to suck those words right back in….Instead, Mary Lou rallies against a retraction and holds her ground in silence. It is a pivotal moment in the book, and an astonishing tribute to the power of silence in the context of conversation. It marks a nice contrast with the studied, contrived silence of the meditators, a much harder silence to admire.

Beyond the book’s clever structural conceits, you’ll find a narrator with a taste for humour: be it ironic, bathetic, or self deprecating. At times her voice turns lyrical, particularly in passages that coalesce around grief: the Port Arthur massacre, her mother’s two miscarriages, and the loss of her father. For a first book, it’s exquisite. She says there’s a sequel on the way. Whether it’s about silence or not, it’s sure to get the tongues wagging.

Ali Quigley, SCLA secretary

 www.scliterary.org

A Book That Changed My Life

I was asked to write a guest blog for The Universal Heart Book Club and this was the result

Mary-Lou Stephens on a book that changed her life

Walter Mason writes: One of my favourite books  this year has been Mary-Lou Stephens‘ totally unique and beautifully written memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation – you can read my review of it here. I have been asking the very busy Mary-Lou (she is also a much-loved radio host on ABC Sunshine Coast) to write something for us for some time, and she has finally told us about a book that taught her that less is more:

It was my second job in radio. I was head-hunted to start up a new radio station in a major regional market. The program director of the network advised me, as he advised all the staff he was recruiting, to read Thick Face Black Heart by Chin-Ning Chu, an expert in business psyche and success tactics. I dutifully bought a copy but never got around to reading it.

Chin-Ning Chu, inspirational author of Do Less, Achieve More (Secrets of the Rainmaker)

Six months later, completely overwhelmed by the workload I was at breaking point.  After each frantic and exhausting day I would crawl back to my small apartment to cry and eat ice cream. The only thing I was capable of reading was junk mail; not much text, lots of pictures and the promise of happiness. I thought perhaps the reason I wasn’t coping was because I hadn’t read the book. Could Thick Face Black Heart be the key to managing the sixteen-hour days I was regularly putting in? I had a mentor who would often say to me, “You can only do what you can do.” His voice was soothing but his advice was not helpful. I told him that I was finally going to read Thick Face Black Heart.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “Read her next book instead, The Secrets of the Rainmaker. I think you’ll find it more beneficial.”

I ordered a copy and when it arrived tossed the junk mail in the recycling bin and began to read. What I found within its pages changed my life.

The Secrets of the Rainmaker, subtitled ‘Success without Stress’, is based on a story Carl Jung used to tell. In this story a village has been in drought for many years. The people have tried everything, brought in many experts but the drought remains crippling. Finally they call upon a renowned Rainmaker from afar. The Rainmaker arrives, pitches his tent and disappears inside it for four days. On the fifth day the rain begins to fall. When the villagers ask him how he’d achieved such a miracle he answers that he didn’t do anything. When he arrived he noticed that the village was not in harmony with heaven. He spent four days inside his tent putting himself in harmony with the Divine. Then the rain came.

Chin-Ning Chu extrapolates the Rainmaker’s success into four secrets; creating a harmonious inner environment, putting your mind at ease, finding the resting point within, and letting spirituality energize business. Within these secrets are many more insights including trading what you have for what you want, being willing not to survive, making peace with time and how to respond rather than react.

To say I was surprised by what I read is an understatement. I was expecting a book about getting ahead, cramming more into each day and beating my opponents. Instead I devoured a book about surrender, ease and meditation. It spoke to my weary soul with words like, “When one is excessively busy, his heart is dead.” I set about reviving my heart and replenishing my soul. I was already getting up at 4 am but I set my alarm forty minutes earlier to sit in front of a candle on a small table draped in purple silk and meditate. My desperate thoughts would make meditation all but impossible yet I persisted. Day after day in the darkness of early morning, I sat, breathed and gave my heart and mind a place to rest.

The months passed, the workload remained unmanageable, but I kept meditating. I had tried many guided meditations before, in my time, in Twelve Step programs recovering from a gaggle of addictions, but this was the first time I let my mind just be. I didn’t realise it then, but by spending this time in meditation and reflection I was slowing down enough to allow, as Chin-Ning Chu says, the angel of good fortune catch up. It took a lot longer than the Rainmaker’s four days.

The first time I saw the ad I couldn’t believe it. The job I had always wished for at the station I had said should exist, but never thought did, in one of the most beautiful places in Australia. It was my dream job. I put in the effort and then let go. Another secret of the Rainmaker, the balance between energy and ease. Three months later the job was mine. Miracles happen much more often than we are willing to acknowledge, says Chin-Ning.

I had learned in the rooms of AA and NA that I couldn’t change other people, places or things. The only thing I can change is myself. The Secrets of the Rainmaker brought that fact into focus for me. Less than two years later I was to use that insight again when my dream job became a nightmare. I didn’t pitch a tent and disappear into it for four days, instead I went to a meditation retreat and spent ten days meditating in silence. Once again miracles happened, unexpected miracles that remain and continue to unfold to this day. And to this day I continue to meditate. I enjoy allowing the angel of good fortune to catch up as often as possible.

(NB. In the USA Secrets of the Rainmaker is called Do Less, Achieve More. The book is a lot easier to find under the second title.)

Bio

No Pain Without Gain

This article first appeared in WQ, the monthly publication of the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC).

Mary-Lou Stephens, Sex Drugs and Meditation

The coolness of the concrete floor is a relief after the heat of the afternoon sun. Outside the scrub is drained of colour. All the leaves are grey. Inside the light is dim and a blessed air conditioner hums high on the wall. I walk to my spot and sit down, a mat beneath me and two cushions under my bottom. I’m comfortable now but I know it won’t last. Within ten minutes the aches will begin. Dull and annoying to start and then as time drags on they will intensify. Ten days of silence, meditating eleven hours a day. Why do I do it? You’d think once would be enough. And yet I have returned time and time again to sit for ten days in silence and in pain.

I do it because I’m a moody woman. I resent, I hate, I react, I refuse. I’m terrified of everything and everyone. I do too much in order to impress, or hide so no one will expect anything of me.

Tossed on the vagaries of emotion, it’s an exhausting and wasteful way to live.

When I sit in silence I experience all emotions, all feelings, all states. I experience them knowing they will change. Everything always does. Even the pain. And during this time, when I’m supposed to be meditating where does my mind go? Everywhere. It dives into the past, raking over the embers. It plunges into the future, inventing scenarios. And when it’s done regretting and worrying it makes up possibilities of increasing drama and intensity. After a while I tire of all of this. But am I ready to do the work? Am I ready to meditate properly. Oh no, not yet. This is where things get really interesting. My creativity bubbles with characters, stories and adventures that are pure imagination, often not of this world. It’s fascinating to allow my mind to follow where my creativity leads.

I’m not a very good meditator, it’s true, but there comes a time when the meditation takes over, when my mind finally stills, when I get the essence of what I’m here to do. Come out of all my suffering, be liberated from all my misery. Stop reacting and resenting. Stop being such a moody bitch.

I’m not perfect, not even close, which is why I keep meditating. I meditate because it helps in my day to day life, literally. I saved my job and found a husband through meditation. I also meditate because it helps my writing. Meditation is creative, not only because my restless mind supplies me with endless plots and characters. It’s creative because it helps me to write, no matter what mood I’m in, no matter what’s happening around me. It gives me the kind of detachment from the world a writer needs. It’s not selfishness, it’s just knowing that what ever the problem or drama is, it will pass without me meddling or trying to fix it. And if it doesn’t? Then it’s time for a different approach but an approach that’s tempered by thoughtfulness not desperation.

Meditation also allows me to write memoir with bravery and honesty. I’m able to step aside and let the story glow and burn without the temptation to modify  to make myself look better. It wasn’t always that way.

 

Front coverThe words on the screen terrified me, on the page they were even worse; more permanent, more real. In interviews I’m often asked how I feel about my life, my dirty laundry some call it, being out there for all to read.

 

 

 

It was a different time, I say, I was a different person. The more I meditate the less I judge myself and the easier it is to talk about the life I’ve lived. Other people may judge me. They will think what they like. It’s none of my business. Besides, what they think will change. Everything does.

Judgement is a hinderance to life and to writing. I’ve been working on the next book and my progress is excruciatingly slow. This confused and frustrated me until I realised that I was demanding the first draft of my new manuscript be as good as the final draft of my last. What a weight of expectation. Impossible to meet. And yet I was judging every paragraph, every sentence with that dictate. Time to let this go, but how?

I have returned to this meditation hall hidden in the Queensland country side seven times. Seven times I have sat in silence and in pain. Seven times I have reaped the benefits. Am I suffering for my art? Some say life is suffering and the art is to overcome that suffering. For me meditation is the art of living. And writing.

————————————————————————————————-

Mary-Lou Stephens studied acting and played in bands in Melbourne and Sydney before she got a proper job – in radio. Sex, Drugs and Meditation (Pan Macmillan) is her first published book but not the first book she’s written.

Find her online at www.maryloustephens.com.au and on Facebook www.facebook.com/maryloustephenswrites

 

How I Learnt to Swim in the Mainstream

Main Stream

How can we swim in the mainstream and still frolic in the areas that we love, those deep and mysterious rock pools where the mainstream doesn’t flow? By playing the game. Why not? It’s just a game after all. The beauty of the mainstream is that everyone knows the rules. The trick is to colour between the lines while using your own palette.

When my book was picked up by a mainstream publisher they wanted to change the title. Sex, Drugs and Meditation was too confrontational. Sex was okay. Drugs was not. They came up with a pleasant, inoffensive title and a pretty pastel cover. Trouble was neither the cover or the name was indicative of the truth inside. Fortunately, with a little persuasion, they agreed do go back to the drawing board. Literally. A new designer was commissioned. Her work was bold and edgy. I loved her cover concepts with a passion. But what would my publisher think?

I’ve always been on the edge creatively. I played in indie bands, wrote alt-country songs, before the phrase alt-country was even invented, and went to the alternative acting school, the one which fostered independent self-created work instead of slim blonde movie star smiles.

Money was not my goal nor was it the result. I learnt to live on very little. It was a great space in which to live and play but when my last band broke up I knew it was time to move on. When working in radio became an option I grabbed it with both hands, even though it meant diving into the mainstream. Commercial radio. Not my first choice but I worked hard, learnt a lot and eventually moved on to where I’d always wanted to be. The ABC. By then I had the skills that commercial radio demands and that the ABC wants. Now I get to swim in some interesting places indeed. For example in my series Modalities I explore the many ways of healing the body and soul that are available and interview the practitioners who facilitate them. Fascinating.

Writing books grew from writing columns for a newspaper. A weekly discipline that I loved. Although it was mainstream media I was given the freedom to be creative. Years of writing and rewriting have finally seen my book on the shelves. Despite diving into some very deep and mysterious waters the mainstream world has embraced it. You might see my meditation memoir in your local bookstore with my original title and a fabulous cover. How did that happen? Why did the publisher change their mind? The clever designer managed to swim in the mainstream but still remain edgy. A perfect balance. The best of both worlds. She played the game and we all won.

You are loved. You are beautiful.

Yes, Highly Creative People Hear Voices—& It’s Normal. ~ Mary-Lou Stephens

elephant journal

Via on Jun 26, 2013

Source: via Gina on Pinterest

When I was a kid I heard voices.

The low murmuring ones frightened me. They were dark and powerful. I could never understand what they were saying but they scared me.

The other voices were light, like a breeze rippling through my mind. I liked them. Sometimes the light and dark voices had conversations but it was in a language I didn’t understand. I remember sitting on the toilet listening to them—they liked small spaces. That’s when they talked the most. I liked small spaces too.

Especially ones where you could lock the door.

I don’t remember when they left. Perhaps I was possessed by spirits and they were blasted out by the power of the Holy Spirit at the charismatic Christian rallies I went to with my parents when I was a teenager. Slain in the spirit, talking in tongues, the voices in my head couldn’t compete. They packed up shop and went off to find some other vulnerable, lonely kid.

The voices were long gone by the time I got to therapy, so I never mentioned them. But when I was living in Sydney and heavily involved with 12 Step programs for my various addictions, I became a Lifeline telephone counsellor. At one of the training sessions the subject of hearing voices came up. Afterwards, I had a private word to the lecturer about the voices I’d heard when I was a child.

“Are you a creative person?” he asked.

“Yes. I write songs and play in bands.”

“Well, that explains it.”

“How?”

“Clearly you’re not schizophrenic or delusional,” he said.

“One theory that I particularly like, and I think pertains to you, is that highly creative people, as well as those we’d think of as geniuses, hear voices. These voices can be the source of creativity or a precursor of creativity. I’d see them as a gift.”

He was a gift. The perfect person to ask the question I’d never been game to ask before. I was afraid that I would be thought mad. Instead, he considered me to be a creative genius.

I do still hear voices from time to time but now when they speak I understand them perfectly. A few years ago, I had a voice that would ask me a question. It was always the same question and always asked in a loving way.

“Are you happy?” the voice would ask.

My answer was always “Yes.”

After the latest 10 day silent meditation retreat I went to earlier this year, I brought a new voice home with me. When I’m on the edge of sleep and when I first wake up, the voice says,

“You are loved.”

This voice has stayed with me in the months since the retreat and I hope it stays forever. Sometimes, even during the day, I will hear it say, “I love you.” At the end of my daily meditation it is often there, “You are loved.”

Another voice spoke to me just last weekend. It said something shocking, something so radical, I was rocked to my core. I was walking, on my way to visit a friend, the warm sun on my back, a gentle breeze blowing through my hair. Out of nowhere this new voice said,

“You are beautiful.”

I was stunned. Those are three words I would never say to myself.  The three words I most often say are, “You are fat” or “You are stupid.” Never, “You are beautiful.” But I heard those words, “You are beautiful” and I thought, “Yes. Yes I am.”

Where are these loving voices coming from? A gift of my meditation practice? Is it that the persona I have built in an effort to protect myself is no longer needed?

Am I finally allowing the truth in? I am loved. I am beautiful.

I arrived at my friend’s house and she opened the door. “You are beautiful,” she said.

Without a moment’s hesitation I replied, “Yes. Yes I am.”