If one more person said to me “When one door closes another one opens,” I was going to throttle them. But you know what? They were right. For years I’d been playing in bands, touring and releasing CDs. I’d had a great time but I was getting nowhere. When my last band broke up I knew I couldn’t do it any more. I was heartbroken and exhausted and had no idea what to do next. My only tertiary qualification was a diploma in performing arts and, at the age of thirty-five with no skills other than acting and performing, a series of dead-end jobs was all I could envisage.
Weeks after the band’s last performance, I woke to the seven am news on my clock radio. Half asleep, I heard the Queen sending her condolences to the people of Tasmania. That’s how I found out about the Port Arthur massacre. In shock and grief I went home to Tasmania for the memorial service. There, quite coincidently, I met up with an acquaintance who was broadcasting the service for the ABC. He took me to lunch later that week. I told him about the band breaking up and, even though it seemed trivial in the context of the horror at Port Arthur, how lost I was.
He paused, looked at me and uttered one life-changing sentence. ‘Mary-Lou, you want to be in radio.’
I knew he was right. It was a pure light bulb moment. ‘I do,’ I said.‘But I didn’t realise that until right now. How did you know?’
‘Because I know radio and I know you,’ he said. ‘It’s a perfect match.’
It was true. I came alive when I was being interviewed in a radio studio. I loved the sense of performance. I’d performed all my life in one form or another. Radio condensed performance down to one person, one microphone, one listener. A pure connection.
Days later, through another friend, I found out about The Australian Film Television and Radio School and on my return to Sydney I was asked to present a program for a public radio station. Within a week of discovering my true vocation I was being offered a gig on air. The doors continued to fly open. With help and support, and after three rounds of auditions, I was accepted into AFTRS and less than a year later I landed my first professional job in radio.
I had always thought I’d be a famous singer/songwriter, and who knows, I may still be yet, but when I let go of that dream and dared to dream another, I discovered a whole new life of adventure, creativity and fulfillment.
My latest adventure is that of an author. My meditation memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation is published this month by Pan Macmillan.
Mary-Lou meditates her way to calm
by Rebecca A Rose for the ABC.
When Mary-Louise Stephens embarked on her first 10 day meditation retreat, colleagues were taking bets about how long she would last.
Now that she has just completed her 7th – and published a book on how it has changed her life – they are not so quick to scoff.
Above: Mary-Lou at an OB with Annette Hughes
The ABC Coast Presenter is a renowned chatterbox and not even she can believe how much she enjoys staying quiet for so long.
“To be silent – it was a relief!” she laughed.
“When I was forced to be silent I realised how worried I am of the impression I am making, by what I say, by my level of knowledge and interest and humour – how much I want to impress people and want them to like me.
“A lot of (what we) talk is about that.”
Her life has changed so much that she decided to write a book about the experience in the vein of ‘if I can do it, anyone can!’ Her memoir will be launched at Ariel Books in Paddington tomorrow night.
Sex, Drugs and Meditation is the story of how Mary-Lou went from heroin addict with a string of failed relationships behind her to happily married and serene, at one with her troubled past and optimistic about the future.
Meditating in silence for 11 hours a day over ten days, Mary-Lou had some amazing revelations about herself.
Practitioners of mindful meditation focus on being present in the moment – by concentrating on their breathing they hone in on their emotions.
“The difficulty is breaking down the walls between the conscious and subconscious.
“When you get into that state, all of the stuff that really drives you – not the stuff you think drives you, but the internal stuff – comes to the surface.”
The theory that we are the creators of our own misery rang true.
“What I was doing before this was to blame everyone else for my misery. I was blaming my boss, management, old boyfriends. If I had nothing to be miserable about I would make stuff up.”
It is not just the silence, but the physical constraints of trying to stay still and the emotional turmoil of turning the spotlight on yourself so intensely that make meditation retreats such a hardcore experience.
But that doesn’t mean that every thought is on a higher plane.
“Sometimes I let my mind have a holiday and do what it wants to do – I had bought a lotto ticket and was thinking about how I would spend the money,” she said.
“Or I would worry about the house burning down because i had left the iron on!
Mary-Lou’s book covers some hair-raising days from her youth, including an unhappy childhood and drug addiction. It has taken her many years to write as she struggled to be as honest as she had to about how far she has come.
“It is hard because people are going to know all these things about me. Yes, I used to take heroin and I used to steal. I am concerned in some ways – what will people here think of me?”
In the end, her transformation is the story and according to Mary-Lou that was the reason it had to be told.
She has taken ten weeks off to promote the book as well as write the follow up, which will explain the nitty gritty behind the ‘happily ever after’ ending of Sex, Drugs and Meditation.
author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born and raised in that part of Australia that’s often left off the map and in true Tasmanian style headed off to the big smoke as soon as it was a legal option. I hung out with drug dealers in Kings Cross until someone I knew was murdered. After that I ran back to Hobart to play bass in bands, it was safer.
For three years I studied acting at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne which helped me to realise that I preferred playing in bands. After years of being a singer/songwriter in Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney I retrained in radio at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Radio is perfect, it combines my performance skills with a love of music and gives my insatiable curiosity a valid outlet. And I get paid more than I ever did as an actor or a musician.
When I was twelve I wanted to be liked. I always felt like an outsider.
At eighteen I wanted to be Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers.
At thirty I wanted to be a famous and well paid singer/songwriter instead of an obscure poor one.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I thought I was immortal, that nothing could kill me; not drugs, not knives, not dark alleys at the back of the Cross.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
When I was in high school we studied Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before. It confounded, frustrated and astounded me. It stretched my heart and my mind.
Seeing The Stranglers at the State Theatre in Sydney in 1979. I turned to the punk next to me and asked “What’s that sound?” He sneered at me, he was a punk after all, and said, “That’s the bass guitar.” I decided in that moment that I would become a bass player. From being a bass player I became a song writer. The lyrics to three of my songs are in Sex, Drugs and Meditation.
Sigur Ros, from Iceland. Listening to their music is like being in a cathedral made of ice and vines. I have written whole scenes of my unpublished novel inspired by this band. Two of my main characters and thousands of other characters become entwined in the epic beauty of their songs.
I feel as though I’ve lived many lives already; as a bass player, an actor, a singer/songwriter, touring the country with bands. A friend of mine once asked me why all the good stuff happened to me, why I had such an interesting life while he was stuck in a small town in a small job. I told him it was because I said, “Yes.” Yes to adventures and opportunities and new experiences. I never had any money but I did what ever I wanted. I lived like a 17 year old boy with a driver’s licence and no responsibilities. When my last band broke up and I realised I was in fact a 36 year old woman, radio was there to embrace me.
After working in radio for a while I had enough money to go to the USA and visit the places where much of the music I loved was made. When I came back my friends asked to see the photos. I hardly had any. I’d only taken twelve on a disposable camera. A colleague at the ABC suggested I write about my travels instead. I haven’t stopped writing since.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
Mary-Lou’s dream job has become a nightmare. She knows Eliott Purvis, her young, ambitious, sociopathic boss, will not change. If Mary-Lou is to be free of the anguish and keep the job she loves, there is only one thing she can change. Herself.
Ten days of silent meditation is the solution she chooses. During these ten days Mary-Lou is forced to confront the demons of her past; drugs, alcohol, food and religion. She also has to deal with the demons in her mind; paranoia, self-hate, fear and murderous rage. She relives her time spent in Twelve Step programs, her years at acting school, the joy and heartbreak of her former life as a musician and the journey that led her to work in radio.
For ten days and nights she battles her memories, mistakes and fantasies. The rigours demanded by the long hours spent meditating result in excruciating physical pain. The overcoming of this pain enables her to understand, on every level, the basic tenet of the meditation technique – everything changes.
She is shocked when an old wound she thought had healed demands her complete attention. A relationship so wracked with obsession and betrayal it destroyed her ability to trust. Through the eleven hours of meditation a day she finally releases the resentment and blame and comes to a place of forgiveness.
When Mary-Lou returns to work the challenges remain, but she went to the meditation centre to change herself, not her job, and the results are surprising. At a dinner party a week later, despite all her best efforts and worst habits, Mary-Lou meets the man she will marry.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Sex, Drugs and Meditation is a story of transformation. It’s the story of a woman who is at breaking point and very close to losing all hope. I went and sat in pain and silence for ten days and things changed. I changed. I’d like people to recognise that there is hope, no matter how dark things seem. I’d like them to consider meditation as a possibility for creating that change. But more than anything I’d like them to enjoy a really good read and feel uplifted after they’ve turned the last page, knowing that anything is possible.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Anyone who finishes writing a book. So many people say they want to write a book, some may even start, but to those who start, stick with it and finish it – I admire you, even if you never get published.
As far as published writers are concerned this is a tough one for me. Books pass through my hands like water. I have a regular books and writing segment on ABC Local Radio and I read like a fiend. It’s important to me that I read the book before I interview the author, which I’m told is rare. I admire every author I interview because their lives are usually ones of tenacity and inspiration, hard slog and brilliance.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’d love to inspire people to know that change is possible. I’d like my books to give people hope as well as being a really great read. The book I’m writing at the moment is the sequel to Sex, Drugs and Meditation. It’s the truth about my happy ever after; the story of how I stayed married – against all odds. I’d love to see this book in print, as well as the novel I’ve written and the many others I have planned. Much as I love my work in radio, one of my ambitions is to make a living from writing.
I’m going to assume that most aspiring writers are already reading voraciously and writing compulsively, those being the basic building blocks of a writer. So my advice is to get yourself some writing buddies. People who will become your allies and your cheer squad. Friends who will give you honest feedback when you’re feeling strong and heap praise upon your writing when you’re feeling vulnerable.
A writing group who evolve together and whose bonds strengthen as the years go by. Writing can be lonely and people who don’t write often can’t understand why you won’t go out on Saturday because you have to write or why you spend so much time doing something that may never see the light of day. Your writing buddies will get it and they’ll get you.
Don’t be lonely, there’s no need to feel misunderstood. A small writing group of like-minded souls to encourage and to challenge your writing is the balm to soothe and sweeten this writing life.
Mary-Lou, thank you for playing.
Player Profile: Mary-Lou Stephens, author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation
by Clayton Wehner –
Mary-Lou Stephens, author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation
Tell us about your latest creation…
Sex, Drugs & Meditation is my meditation memoir. It’s the true story of a woman with a talent for self-sabotage who learns to sit still, shut up and start living – and loving.
Where are you from / where do you call home?
I was born and raised in Hobart, studied acting at The Victorian College of the Arts and played in bands in Melbourne and Sydney before I got a proper job – in radio. I’ve worked and played all over Australia but since discovering the Sunshine Coast I’ve been inclined to stay put.
I wanted to be an archaeologist. I had a desire to dig up the past, which ironically is what I’m doing now with my memoir.
What do you consider to be your best work? Why?
I love Sex, Drugs & Meditation. It’s a great story and it’s all true. There are lyrics to three of my songs in this book from my time as a singer/songwriter. The song about my father dying, “Strange Homecoming” took me two years to finish and just as long to be able to perform without crying. It still affects me to this day. My best work is my most honest work.
Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?
My writing space is the spare room. I have a big trestle table so that I can pile everything up and out of the way when people come to stay. I love it when my husband goes out or away because then I can take over the lounge room, slouch on the couch with my laptop, surrounded by notebooks and paper.
When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?
I have a regular books and writing segment on ABC Local Radio and I focus on Australian writers. I always aim to read the book before interviewing the author. It doesn’t matter what genre, or if it’s fiction or non-fiction, the books I enjoy reading are a good story well told.
What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?
I’m one of six children and we were raised on the C.S Lewis Narnia series, so much so that I gave one of my brothers the boxed set for a wedding present. We also had all the Beatrix Potter books and some of the recorded versions as well. Every Saturday morning we’d go to the library and I’d get out the Mary Plain books. The Magic Faraway Tree was a favourite as well. When I was in high school we studied Saul Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before. It confounded, frustrated and astounded me. It stretched my heart and my mind.
If you were a literary character, who would you be?
Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Beatrix Potter), making endless cups of tea surrounded by the smell of fresh laundry. Only trouble is I’m allergic to ironing. The ending of the book has a strange and bittersweet melancholy to it that I’ve always been attracted to. “Why, she’s nothing but a hedgehog.”
Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?
I love playing Scrabble. The only reason I joined Facebook was to play Scrabble with my interstate and overseas friends. And at the moment I’m playing my guitar a lot. It’s been a while since I used to play in bands and I need the practice. As well as talking about my book I’ll be playing the songs from it. I’d like it to be a pleasant experience for everyone.
What is your favourite food and favourite drink?
Anything with coconut in it is a firm favourite, my latest food fetish is coconut butter by the spoonful. Apart from water, tea is my favourite drink. There is a whole section of the pantry dedicated to it.
Who is your hero? Why?
Maggie Beer. She’s smart, hard working, creative and generous. Her work with Alzheimer’s Australia is admirable, as is her passion for improving the food in aged care facilities. Her food is delicious, her recipes always work and everyone feels as though she’s their friend even if they’ve never met her. I was lucky enough to meet her and she’s genuinely warm, engaging and funny. And she’s like the Queen, she doesn’t carry any money.
Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?
Screen time. I love reading but even so I find it hard to drag myself away from the lure of social media and the endless sticky strands of the web. I work in radio and that hunger for the immediate is ingrained in what I do but nothing gives me more pleasure than reading a book.
Website URL: http://maryloustephens.com.au/
Blog URL: http://maryloustephens.wordpre
Facebook Page URL: http://www.facebook.com/marylo
Twitter URL: https://twitter.com/MissyMaryL
When I sat my first 10 day Vipassana meditation course I wasn’t expecting the amount of theory that was dished out every night in the teacher’s discourses. The Introduction to the Technique, required reading before sitting the course, stated that Vipassana had nothing to do with organised religion or sectarianism. But what was taught in those evening sessions was clearly Buddhist doctrine; the Eightfold Noble Path, the Four Noble Truths, the Three Stages of Wisdom, the Four Elements, the Six Senses, the Four Aggregates of the Mind. I couldn’t keep up with it all. Fortunately the teacher told us it wasn’t necessary to. We were to experience the technique for ourselves, give it a try and see if it worked for us. Then perhaps later, if it did, we could delve more into its depths.
As part of delving into those depths, a few months later I visited The Chenrezig Institute in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Established in 1974 Chenrezig was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist centres in the Western World. It’s home to a Tibetan Lama and a community of monks and nuns.
After experiencing the Vipassana centre where there’s not so much as a stick of incense, no candles, no banners, no statues – nothing, Chenrezig was a shock with all its colour, prayer wheels and flags. When I went into the temple and was confronted with brightly painted devas, lotuses galore and prostrated monks I was astounded. From the ‘no distraction’ edict of Vipassana meditation to the garish busyness of Tibetan Buddhism, it was like visiting another dimension. All I could think was Buddhist monks must get really bored to have to invent all this stuff.
My next visit to Chenrezig was to interview a nun for my radio series Soul Train, in which I investigate different religions and faith-based organisations on the Sunshine Coast. I spent a wonderful hour talking with her, sitting in the shadow of an ornate stupa. She had been studying Buddhism for over twenty years yet she told me she had only scratched the surface of all the theory.
“It gets increasingly complicated,” she said.
Bored monks, I thought to myself again. Bored and making stuff up.
For my third and recent visit to Chenrezig I took my 13 year-old niece, her friend and my husband with me so they could experience it for themselves. The 13 year-olds took many photos and loved the fibre optic lotuses and the many faced statues. The Hubby, like myself, found the theory a needless distraction. But our opinions divided inside the stupa.
Stupas are the oldest forms of Buddhist architecture and they hold Buddhist relics and holy objects. Inside the big stupas are smaller stupas which people can buy to hold their loved one’s ashes. I was delighted to find little stupas in memory of not only people but their pets. There were cats and dogs mixed in with their owners and sometimes with a little stupa all to themselves. The Hubby left, retreating from the heady incense, piped music and Buddhist knickknacks, while I stayed, fascinated by these memorials to beloved animals. When I found a little stupa dedicated to two Belgian Shepherds I was sold.
We adopted our Belgian Shepherd from the RSPCA. She was six years old and had been abandoned. In the eighteen months since she became part of our family, we have discovered why she was abandoned. Anti-social, anxious and prone to biting other dogs. She loves us but no one else. We manage her behaviour, keeping her away from dogs and other people. Sometimes I wonder what goes on in her hyper-sensitive mind and whether she will ever find peace. Perhaps, years in the future, after she’s died from old age, I can put her ashes in a stupa and there, at last, she will be at rest.
It started with three simple stretches. Actually, let me back up a little. It started at A Chorus Line. As I watched the dancers on stage I was struck by the thought, “I’d like to have what they have. I’d like to be that lithe, that flexible.” Flexibility has never been my strong point, either physically or emotionally. A sports doctor once told me that my flexibility was the worst he’d ever encountered in a woman. He said it was bad even for a bloke! I’ve tried to do something about it in the past and ended up in tears, feeling like a two year old in a world she doesn’t understand.
Some days after A Chorus Line, when walking the dog, I saw a sign outside a house. A sign I had never seen before. It was for something called physio yoga. I wrote down the number and made an appointment. This is where the three simple stretches come in. At the appointment I told Sarah, the physiotherapist, that I would like my body to be more flexible, that I would love to become more aware of my body and I really wasn’t sure how. I also warned her that when I’d seen physios in the past, after I’d injured my knee and when I had a frozen shoulder, they just loaded me up with exercises that I’d resent having to do and would stop doing at the earliest opportunity. She suggested three simple stretches I could do everyday and that I come along to one of her physio yoga classes and see if it suited me. Easy. I could do that. And I did.
Three simple stretches everyday. And everyday my awareness of my body increased. I went to one of her classes and instead of feeling like a clumsy fat dolt as I had in past yoga classes, I felt looked after. She was a physio, I was her client, I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. I could relax. She has a Pilates reformer bed and I asked if I could have some sessions. She guided me through and I started being able to use it on my own. My body loves it; stretching, sliding, pressing and all with an incredible sense of support.
I have struggled with my weight from the age of eight. Sometimes fat, sometimes slim but always battling my own body. Through these three simple stretches and the things they have led to, I’ve realised that I’m like a child when it comes to my body. I need to be helped, guided, given gentle encouragement. Instead I have been a tyrant, abusive and cruel. Never aware. Just bossy and thoughtless. It was a revelation to me that I could have a greater connection with my body, not through food and diets, this fad or another, but through movement. Through gentle, supported, nourishing movement. Through three simple stretches.
If you’re in pain what are you going to do, pop a pill or do some mindfulness meditation? There’s a lot of research that shows you’re better off doing the latter. Apparently meditation is better for pain relief than pain relievers. These studies have been going on for over thirty years and are so well-respected that in some parts of Canada meditation training is covered by their provincial health plan for those referred by a physician. That in itself is an interesting concept, doctors suggesting their patients learn how to meditate. Is this an admission that the drugs don’t work?
In the UK doctors are being told to heavily reduce prescriptions of painkillers and sleeping pills because of concerns that patients are becoming addicted. Instead they’re being asked to consider alternative treatments. That’s where meditation comes in. All this research involving heat testing and brain scans is showing that just one hour of meditation training can result in about a 40% reduction in pain intensity. Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically reduce pain ratings by about 25%. Meditation appears to work by calming down the pain experiencing areas of the brain while at the same time boosting coping areas. Ah, the power of the mind.
Mindfulness meditation is all about being in the present moment; observing the breath, observing sensations in the body. It reduces worry about the past and future. Meditation is low-tech and low-cost and even the side-effects are beneficial. In one study statistically significant reductions were observed in negative body image, mood disturbance, anxiety and depression. Pain-related drug use decreased and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased.
In another study participants described achieving well-being during and after a meditation session that had immediate effects on mood elevation but also long-term effects on improved quality of life. Several themes were identified related to pain reduction, improved attention, improved sleep, and achieving well-being resulting from mindfulness meditation that suggest it has promising potential as a non-pharmacologic treatment of chronic pain.
And the latest study suggests meditation’s calming effect could help those with stress-related chronic inflammatory conditions such as bowel disease and asthma. I remember my own GP telling me years ago that the only thing that had been shown to be effective in the treatment of auto-immune diseases was meditation.
There is a saying: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. Most suffering, it seems to me, is the stuff we do in our heads; worrying about the future, churning over the past, never giving the present moment a chance. In mindfulness meditation the present moment is all important. Observing the breath, observing the sensations – including the pain – and knowing that this also will change. Sort out the pain from the suffering and almost miraculously most of the pain will disappear – well, according to studies, 40% of it at least.
Mindfulness. It’s been shown to alleviate stress, reduce anxiety, relieve drug and alcohol dependence, and my doctor told me it helps with all kinds of illness especially auto-immune disease. I’ve been practising mindfulness for years as part of my daily meditation but I’m still not very good at it.
Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. Not worrying about the future, not dwelling on the past. Being here, now, moment by moment. It’s not easy. My mind wanders all over the place. But when it does go meandering, I avoid beating myself up. I bring my awareness back to the present moment, mindfully, and start again. Many Eastern philosophies have used mindfulness techniques for millennia and Western psychology has taken to it with gusto.
When I was in Twelve Step programs one of my sponsors simplified it for me. One day when I was telling her about all my fears she said to me, “What is there for you to be fearful of? Right here, right now in this moment?”
My answer surprised me as much as her question. “Nothing.” If I keep my thoughts to the present moment what do I have to fear? Absolutely nothing.
Simple concept. Hard to achieve. But not if you’re a psychopath.
Recently I read this article by Kevin Dutton who’s a research psychologist. It was adapted from a piece he wrote called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. “What?” I hear you say. “Taking lessons from psychopaths? I don’t think so.” But it seems that I could take a few lessons in mindfulness from these violent maniacs myself. Kevin went to Broadmoor, the best-known high-security psychiatric hospital in England, to chat to a few of the inmates. What he found there amazed me.
One of the inmates, Leslie, told him; “The thing about fear, or the way I understand fear, I suppose—because, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really felt it—is that most of the time it’s completely unwarranted anyway. What is it they say? Ninety-nine percent of the things people worry about never happen. So what’s the point? I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything’s perfectly fine. So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”
Kevin writes: Leslie’s pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath’s rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as Larry, rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented—and at times can be stupendously beneficial.
And there you have it. A lesson in mindfulness from the most unlikely of sources. Perhaps it’s time to let my inner-psychopath off the leash, just a little. A little less fear, a little more joy. I just hope I don’t end up in Broadmoor. There, you see? I’ve done it again. Started worrying about the future. I wish I was a psychopath!
NB: I debated whether to use “I wish I was a psychopath” or “I wish I were a psychopath”. I did some research and I’m still not sure. “Were” is used in a state that has never existed and never will exist. “Was” is used in situations where the statement might once have been or could be a reality. But you can see which one I went with…