All posts by Mary-Lou Stephens

About Mary-Lou Stephens

Mary-Lou Stephens was born in Tasmania, studied acting at the Victorian College of the Arts and played in bands in Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney before she got a proper job – in radio. She has worked and played all over Australia and now lives on the Sunshine Coast with her husband, their dog and a hive of killer native bees. Her meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation has recently been released by Pan Macmillan.

Trust your Truth (Even When it Doesn’t Match Your Beliefs)

HTSM ShopfrontWhen I first met my husband I tried to ignore him, even though he fascinated me. We met at a dinner party; I thought my friends were trying to match-make us and being the mature and sophisticated woman I am, I avoided him for the entire evening. I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of succeeding.

Fortunately the things we had in common, the soul truths and connections were too strong. When I finally surrendered to the fact he was intelligent, funny and many of his beliefs aligned with mine, we talked late into the night. I went home, alone, and had a dream. I dreamt we’d had dinner together and then the next day met up for a cup of tea. When I woke I realised I could do something we rarely get to do in this life. I could make a dream come true. I rang him. He swears if I hadn’t, he would have rung me. We met for a cup of tea. And so my dream came true. There’s a longer version of this story in my first book Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

He was very different to any man I’d ever dated. In my old way of thinking, he was a nerd and a dag; not cool. I believed I should only go out with musicians, writers or artists; men who dressed and acted in a certain way, were mysterious, slightly dangerous and never fully present.  It took me some time and effort to relax enough so I could accept him for the way he was. And the way he was, was perfect.

Later, when friends told me to leave him, I had to examine what was true for me, not for them. We all had the belief that a man should provide financially and take care of his wife. My husband had promised he would and though he may have had trouble doing so financially, he was committed to learning how to take care of me in other ways. As I said to my friends at the time, “I can either have an investment property or I can be with the man I love”. I made my choice. By the time our financial situation improved, our investment in our marriage had brought us immeasurable wealth in all the ways that matter.

A lot of the beliefs that I have (and probably many of you, too) are drummed into our heads by advertising. The most entrenched beliefs are handed down to us through our cultures; the fairytale ending, the handsome prince, the knight on the white charger, the perfect man. Nothing else will suffice. The man I married was none of these but he was perfect for me. I just had to discard those beliefs and find the truth underneath.

Mary-Lou’s new book How To Stay Married is available now. For a free copy of  7 Tips for a Happy  Marriage sign up for Mary-Lou’s newsletter.

On the Anniversary of my Mother’s Birth

Mum & 6I noticed the date and realised that today would have been my mother’s birthday, if she was still alive to have birthdays. The realisation caused me to pause, to breathe and to allow myself a little bit of space to remember her.

I’ve written about her in my latest book How To Stay Married and how instrumental her impending death was on my marriage. I honour her in my Seven Tips for a Happy Marriage (and one from my mum.) And today, on the anniversary of her birthday I’d like to share with you just a snippet from How To Stay Married. How fitting that this extract is from the chapter called Heaven.

I wake the next morning with a very strong sense of my mother. After she died I had a dream. Our country was under attack. Air-borne missiles filled with toxic chemicals were heading our way. It was clear we would all be killed. Though our government had sent missiles to intercept the threats there was no guarantee we wouldn’t be contaminated. I was part of a task force sent to secure a high-rise building. Our mission was to make it airtight so people could shelter there, safe from the chemicals. As we were making final preparations I was told our enemies had captured my mother and were holding her hostage in the basement of that very building. We were ordered to leave or else they would kill her. I rushed to rescue my mother and free her from the evil clutches of these doomsday merchants. Clearly I’ve watched too many action hero films. However, when I eventually found her she was free, happily walking in a park by the water. The sun was shining, children played. My mother was safe, the danger was gone.

When my mother was ill and first told me that all the months of chemotherapy she’d endured hadn’t made the slightest difference, that none of the chemical weapons they’d used on her had worked, I was devastated. Hearing she had, at most, six months to live left me incapacitated, only good for crying.

A long-held dream of my mother’s had been to see the colours and beauty of the wild flowers of Western Australia in the spring. She’d seen them on television and in magazines, but wanted to see the spectacle for herself. What really caused my heart to ache was the fact that, once the prognosis came through, her dream would never come true. But one day I had a growing realisation. Who’s to say she won’t? Who’s to say that she won’t be a part of those wild flowers? Who’s to say she won’t be in the warmth that causes them to blossom, in the breeze that blows over them, the rain that falls on them? Who’s to say she won’t be in the very soil that nurtures them?

Her life was abundant and blessed, a cornucopia of children, grand-children, friends, gardens, creativity, good works and the church. Hers was a life filled with learning, loving and informed conversations always touched with her wicked sense of humour. A life well lived and well loved. Why would anything change now?

Relationships: The Hero’s Journey

LoveDo you dream of finding the right person to spend your life with? Are you in a strong relationship already and want to keep it that way? Or perhaps your marriage is a little tarnished and you hope to make it shine again?

Relationships are always a mix; they’re woven from golden shining moments and niggling annoyances, big whack-you-over-the-head disasters and then, just when you were about to give up, a deep sense of tenderness, connection and certainty reminds you of why you fell in love in the first place.

Learning to navigate your way throughout this adventure, with its delights and debacles, is what provides the depth and authenticity of a long-term relationship. This is what makes it a relationship where, no matter what, your partner has your back and you would be quite safe doing a trust exercise — like the ones where you close your eyes, fold your arms across your chest and let yourself fall backwards knowing, absolutely, that the one you love will catch you. Every time. That kind of relationship is a rare and treasured thing.

Relationships that last are not easy. Getting to the place where you feel safe and happy is a journey. The Hero’s Journey, no less, where you surmount problems, even slay monsters and trek through epic wastelands to arrive at your destination transformed. In order to do so you have searched deep within yourself to find authentic answers and resounding truths. The journey you have taken and the lessons you have learned mark the way for other seekers to follow.

I came into my marriage with all my fears and insecurities piled up in boxes, stuffed into suitcases. In the early years of our relationship I added to the weight and size of them with my anxiety and paranoia. Fortunately I married an exceptional man. He takes responsibility for his emotions and actions and expects me to do the same. It’s constantly challenging, sometimes thrilling and often annoying. It has been excruciating at times. But it has been through learning what is mine and what is not, of finding the courage to let go of the things that no longer serve me and keeping the useful treasures only, that our marriage has become a place of freedom, space and light — and love.

Mary-Lou’s latest book How To Stay Married was released on her tenth wedding anniversary. 

How To Stay Married – Your Free Review Copy

How To Stay Married ebookDo you love free stuff? I know I do. Now’s your chance to get a free review copy of my new book How To Stay Married. Just click on the link to the right and we’ll get better acquainted. If you’re worried about giving me your email address please don’t be. I’m too lazy to spam anyone.

The review copy is just for the first 100 but don’t worry. Everyone will get my Seven Tips For a Happy Marriage (and one tip from my mum).

How to Stay Married will be available for sale from the 6th of November which just happens to be my 10th wedding anniversary. There were times I never thought we’d make it but here we are, The Hubby and I, happier than ever.

My first book Sex, Drugs and Meditation chronicled how meditation changed my life, savedSex, Drugs and Meditation Front cover my job and helped me find a husband. How To Stay Married, is the truth behind the happy ending; a journey from fear, resentment and financial devastation, to a place of love, joy and trust.

How to Stay Married takes us around the world; from the glitter and glare of Las Vegas to the sub-zero temperatures of the French Alps and the tropical heat of Thailand, all with cabin luggage only.

The discoveries I made about myself and my marriage are a modern day parable about learning to travel light in life, love and relationships.

I hope you love it and write a review on Amazon for me. Just a line or two will do.

Thank you so much for joining me on this journey.

Lots of love

Mary-Lou

Win a Copy Of Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

 

Sexdrugsmeditation-pile 2

The sequel to Sex, Drugs and Meditation is being released in a couple of weeks. How to Stay Married is the truth about the happy ending.

To celebrate I’m giving away a signed copy of Sex, Drugs and Meditation.  Hooray!

All you need to do is sign up for my Newsletter. The sign up form is just over there on the right.  I’ll pick  a winner at random in the next week and a signed copy of Sex, Drugs and Meditation will be on its way to you.

Good luck.

x

Mary-Lou

I Stopped Meditating: Here’s What Happened

This blog first appeared in the Huffington Post and has been the most popular blog I’ve written for them. Is it because we’d rather read about someone being human than being perfect?

Meditation flagsThis is a hard admission to make. After all I wrote a book about how meditation saved my job, changed my life and helped me find a husband. I’ve written columns and blogs about the countless benefits meditation brings. Meditation was a solid part of my life, like clockwork every morning. Even during the times when I was so busy I could only grant this life changing practice ten minutes at the most. So why did I stop?

Meditation is like a seedling. We plant it, nurture it and protect it from the things that want to destroy it like pests, bugs and disease. We take care of it and it grows. The roots anchor themselves into the soil. The stems grow stronger. The leaves reach for the sky. Our plant thrives. Meditation needs the same kind of tending. If we don’t nurture it, it will wither. The pests and bugs of other people’s needs and opinions will eat away at it. The crush of time poverty, the carelessness of “if I just skip a couple of days it won’t matter” will destroy it. In time all that’s left is a small indentation in the dry soil where our beautiful plant used to be.

I grew careless. Took it for granted. I was feeling great so what did it matter if I didn’t meditate for a couple of days. I thought the plant would stay healthy without me having to do anything. After all it was strong and I’d been taking care of it for years, surely I was entitled to a bit of a break. Days without meditating turned into weeks. It got to the stage where I’d almost forgotten about it. My morning routine changed and meditation was no longer a part of it.

I can’t remember when I stopped hearing the words “You are beautiful. You are loved.” These words came to me during a meditation retreat and stayed with me on a daily basis. They were a blessing; the first thing that came into my mind on waking, the last thought before I slept at night. Until I stopped meditating. That’s when the negative self talk returned. The aches and pains of life manifested in my body. Everything hurt and I was exhausted every day. I dragged myself to work and collapsed on the couch when I got home. Everything else fell away.

One day I woke up and my first thought was “I wish I was dead.” It shocked me out of my complacency. I wished I was dead because I was so tired I couldn’t cope with life, work, other people. I just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to rest.

That morning I walked past the spot where I used to meditate. Without thinking I settled myself down, crossed my legs and began to meditate. Back into the easy rhythm of observing my breath, observing my thoughts and letting them go. As I relaxed into something that used to be a familiar to me as smiling, I realized that here was my place of rest, here was my place of solitude. Meditation gave me exactly what I’d been craving so desperately; a place of nurturing, away from the clamors and demands of the world. A safe place to rest and come back to myself. In the silence I heard those words returning to me. “You are beautiful. You are loved.”

Fear of Commitment Can Feel Like It’s Real. It’s Not

commitmentCommitment. Why do so many of us find it so hard? I spent many of the early years of my marriage terrified. It was exhausting. Yes, some of our problems were real but there were concrete things we could (and did) do to handle them. It was the things I made up in my head that I had trouble dealing with. Dreadful things. I battled with the demons in my mind.

My fears caused continual mental anguish and even physical pain. They sent me down dark hallways and spine-tingling crevasses. And, in a way, that was the point. Fortunately, thanks to years of work in Twelve Step Programs, counselling and especially meditation, I knew that these fears were not real. Through meditation I had discovered just how addicted I was to feeling bad; to having all these emotions coursing through my body, putting me on edge. It was like a drug and I used it to feel alive even though it was killing me on many levels. I would make things up and then react to them as if they were real. Madness? Yes. But boy did I get a kick out of it.

Often I felt like a trapped animal. My partner was getting too close. It terrified me. And that’s the way I’d acted in many of my previous relationship. Fight or flight. Lashing out at those who got in my way. Yes, I had been hurt in the past –by other lovers, by my upbringing, by my friends –but this fear of commitment was irrational, mad, out of control terror. A base reaction. A lot of us think that when someone really gets to know us they won’t love us anymore. If that is the case, it’s far better they get to know you as soon as possible. Then if they can’t handle the truth at least you can move on quickly.

One of the fears that tormented me was the “but what if there’s someone better out there” kind. And, now I say, well, maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. You’re never going to be in a wonderful and loving relationship if that’s the way you approach it. I knew, deep in my heart that if I couldn’t be in a relationship with this man, I would never be able to make a relationship work with anyone, ever. He was very much in touch with himself and continued to do the work to clear his emotional baggage despite the constant setbacks we suffered. I had to show up and do the work too. I knew he would always support me in that.

But often I didn’t want to and acted like a spoilt brat. Sometimes, I must admit, I still do act like a spoiled brat. However these days I know the truth and the truth is where we always end up. We love each other. We are committed to each other on every level and it’s no longer terrifying.

Mary-Lou Stephens’  meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, is the  story of how meditation helped changed her life, save her job and find a husband. The sequel How To Stay Married will be released soon. It’s the truth about the happy ending.

Kill Your Darlings Part 4

I’ve finished the last draft of my next book. Not all the words I’ve written have made it into the next round. Instead of being in the book I’m turning my darlings into blog posts. Seems I can’t kill them after all.

You can bury me anywhere because I won’t be there

Mary statueYears later, after my brother died, his wife battled grief and guilt and the despair of two young daughters who no longer had a father. Among her many concerns was that she had no idea what to do with his ashes. Her youngest daughter needed a place to lay flowers for her daddy, but my sister-in-law was too exhausted by the last years of his life and his inevitable but cruel ending to arrange it. I asked if I could help. My brother had always been the bastion of family history; doing things as they should be done, upholding traditions.

I knew our grandfather’s ashes were in the war veterans’ section of the city cemetery and was pretty sure our grandmother’s and aunt’s ashes were somewhere in the same cemetery. If there was room with them I was sure that was what my brother would have wanted, surrounded by those he felt a kinship with and a shared sense of propriety and purpose. I made an appointment at the cemetery office. They were able to find Granny but there was no record of our aunt.

I was given a map and made my way to the rose garden. One slice of a circular bed was given to our grandmother but she was on her own. I could have sworn our aunt was supposed to be there with her.

I visited my mother and asked her. Poor old Mum, brittle and thin, the disease dissolving her substance like acid. Her face fell. “I’m sorry darling. I never picked up her ashes. I was so devastated after your father died, dealing with all that needed to be done. When my sister died I couldn’t face doing it all over again.”

I rang the Hobart Cemetery again. They searched through their records. They kept unclaimed ashes for a while, in some kind of archive, but eventually they were disposed of.

“Disposed of where?” I asked.

A sheepish young man told me they were scattered out the back of the office, in a small group of trees. My aunt’s ashes were mixed with those of strangers, fertilising the trees.

I told my mother. And also told her that I was arranging to have a plaque made for Aunty Deirdre to be placed in the same rose bed as Granny. Her ashes wouldn’t be there but at least she’d have some kind of memorial. I intended to pay for it myself, even after I discovered that tiny plinths and small plaques are very expensive.  Mum wouldn’t let me pay. It was the least she could do to assuage the guilt she had felt for all these years. Once my aunt’s plaque was organised we could go ahead with my brother’s.

And as for my Mum, what did she want? Her death was getting closer every day.

“Nothing darling. It doesn’t matter what you do with my ashes. I’ll be elsewhere.” She smiled, her thin face lighting up with hope and peace. She was on the way to getting her promotion.

Kill Your Darlings Part 3

I’ve finished the latest draft of my next book. Not all the words I’ve written have made it into the next round. Instead of being in the book I’m turning my darlings into blog posts. Seems I can’t kill them after all.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes at a meditation retreat here’s your chance.

Each evening, after the meditators had gone to bed, the servers would gather in the meditation hall and sit with assistant teacher. Some times we’d have to kick the more determined meditators out before we could do so. One night a male student, who had the habit of wearing earplugs and a meditation shawl over his head, was deep in meditation and nothing we did could snap him out of it. Touching is forbidden so no one could give him a shake. One of the male servers resorted to doing a strange little dance around him, hoping the vibration would bring him out of his meditation. When that didn’t work he leaned in as close as he could without touching the student and spoke in his loudest quiet voice, shouting also being forbidden. Eventually the student stirred, rose from his seated position and left the hall without acknowledging any of us.

Once we were alone we would talk through the days events and any problems that had come up with the work or with the students. It was here I discovered the truth of what happens behind the scenes in a meditation centre. The dramas and intrigues. While we were burrowed away in the kitchen the male and female managers were on the frontline dealing with all kinds of bizarre scenarios. One of the male students had been asked to leave because his behaviour was out of control. He’d pretended to go but the male manager had discovered he was still at the centre, hiding. One of the other students had been smuggling him food. Then there was the incident involving two female students who broke one of the precepts. They had found it impossible to abstain from all sexual activity. I was shocked. What was wrong with these students? They were here to meditate. In the one and only course I’d done I was a stickler for the rules. Even though I managed to break every one of them, I never meant to.

And then there were the insects. The centre was full of them and they dominated our nightly get togethers. “One of the students says he has an insect in his ear,” the male manager said one night.

“Is it really an insect, or is it sensations?” The assistant teacher asked. We were up to the stage in the meditation course where students were observing their sensations.

The male manager hesitated. “I’m not sure. But he insists an insect has crawled into his ear. He can hear it constantly.”

“Does anyone have a possible solution?” The assistant teacher looked around at our small group.

“You can shine a torch into his ear,” I said. “Most insects are attracted to the light. It will head towards the torch and come out of his ear.”

“Not all insects head towards the light,” one of my kitchen team said. “Some try to hide from it. The insect might head further into his ear.”

“Well, you can always do the oil in the ear trick,” I suggested.

“What’s that?”

“Get him to put his head to the side and fill his ear with oil. The insect will float to the top.” How I became such an expert on getting insects out of ears I’m not sure.

“Won’t the insect drown?” the assistant teacher asked.

“Yes, but…..” I stopped, realising I’d just suggested killing a living creature, something the first precept expressly forbids. The assistant teacher frowned at me. I was overcome with the urge to laugh. I bit the inside of my cheeks to stop myself from giggling like a naughty school girl. Oh dear. I would never make a good Buddhist.

Some of the other servers were bolder than me. The problem of ticks came up quite often. The centre grounds were full of them and students often came to us with a tick’s head buried in their skin, the tick’s body bloated with their blood. The question was how to remove the ticks without killing them. I’d spent a few heated moments the day before with a half-naked male student in the small alcove outside the kitchen. He had a tick on his torso, just below his armpit, and was desperate to have it removed. I was the only one around, all the other servers resting at that time. He stripped off his shirt and I had attempted to remove the tick with a piece of cotton wrapped around its neck. It was a tricky process and one I wasn’t sure was successful. I had dabbed the area with tea tree oil, hoped for the best and sent the very good-looking young male student on his way.

At the nightly servers’ meeting the discussion about the best way to remove a tick became quite involved. Smothering them with Vaseline may kill them through suffocation, tea tree oil would certainly mean their demise, using tweezers would snap off the head, killing them as well as harming the student. One of my kitchen servers became agitated. She’d suffered from multiple tick bites when she’d worked on an organic farm. This resulted in her becoming very ill and she was  incapacitated for eighteen months. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But if it comes down to me or the tick, the tick’s going to cop it.”

The female manager admitted to me later that she had no compunction about killing any of the thousands of mosquitoes that annoyed us everyday. “The way I see it,” she said. “Is if you believe in the Buddhist theory and we are reincarnated after we die, then I’m just giving the mosquito a quick promotion.”

 

Can’t Meditate? Try Joyful Resting

Madisonpic

By now I think we’ve got the message. Meditation is good for us and we really should do it. Everyone from Russell Brand to Rupert Murdoch is espousing its benefits.

But do we really need another “should” in our lives? And besides, who’s got the time to sit and contemplate their navels for 20 minutes a day? Between the kids, the job, the rush for the bus, the lunch eaten at the desk, the unread emails, the never ending to-do list and that little sliver of time that we have to ourselves where all we want to do is read one of the books on that ever-growing pile or catch the latest TV show that everyone’s been raving about, who on earth has time to meditate?

We might start off with good intentions and create a small space in our homes and lives to sit and breathe for 20 minutes a day, but as time goes on and life remains hectic that meditation time is the first thing to go. And fair enough, especially if we’ve turned it into just another dot point on our “must do because it’s good for me” list.

Or maybe we’ve tried to sit and meditate but our thought are so wild and crazy that we’ve given up and labelled ourselves as hopeless because we really don’t get this “still the mind” stuff.

Here’s something radical. Don’t meditate. Don’t even try. Give up on it entirely. Let go of the whole meditation schtick. Elle MacPherson might be really good at it, but you’re never going to look like her by meditating anyway, so it’s time to give something else a go.

Renate Ogilvie is a Buddhist psychotherapist who’s taught at Buddhist centers around the world for over 20 years. You think she’d be pretty good at meditation. Wrong. She confesses to not meditating regularly and really relates to those who find it hard to find time to do it. She knows it’s a crazy busy world we live in. Instead she suggests a kind of non-meditation. She calls it “joyful resting.” In joyful resting, we’re not after results. We’re not chasing after anything or any feeling. All we’re doing is resting. “It’s like dancing,” she says. “You don’t do it to arrive anywhere.” You do it because you enjoy it and who doesn’t enjoy resting even for just five minutes. And that’s the other thing. Joyful resting is to be done for only five to 10 minutes, no more. It’s never a chore. Never a time suck.

So how do you do this joyful resting thing? You can sit or lie down, have your eyes open or closed. Observe how your body feels but don’t judge it. It is what it is, that’s all. Observe what comes up in your mind. If you have a recurring thought allow it to be a recurring thought. There’s no need to change anything. Just relax. We are not responsible for the thoughts arising in our minds, we are not anger, resentment, fear. However we are responsible for what we do with them. In joyful resting we are not doing anything so let those thoughts and feelings fade and be replaced by joy. We are resting, we are doing nothing. Hooray! How wonderful. No expectation, no judging. What a luxury. Who wouldn’t want to do that at least once a day. And as it’s only for five to 10 minutes you can do it anywhere, anytime. You could even do it in a board meeting. You might enjoy the meeting more.

And what about those wild and crazy thoughts, the thoughts that make us think we can’t meditate? In joyful resting it’s like we’re on a warm and sunny beach. The ocean might be turbulent, the surf might be huge but we are safe on the beach enjoying the sunshine. We can observe that wild and crazy ocean but we don’t have to do anything about it. We can just relax. However if we decide to stop that joyful resting, walk towards the surf and jump in, well that’s a whole other story.

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. You can buy it here.

This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.