I wish I was a psychopath.

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-blow flyimmune 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…

Digital Heaven

And now, along with the cassettes from years gone by, my extensive collection of CDs, the collection I valued so highly I had it listed separately in my contents insurance, has been 2012-12-27 09.12.55dispersed. Lugged to the charity shop in boxes and bags to be picked over by bargain hunting music lovers. And what joys they will find there. A collection of memories, adventures, passion and heartbreak.

Was a time when CDs were essential to my world. The CD player at home was always in a whirl. The stacker in my car was always stuffed. When The Hubby told me he was thinking of buying me an iPod for my birthday a few years ago, I told him not to. I would never use it. He bought it for me anyway. I never used it.

But everything changes. He vowed he would always read real books, that he loved the heft, the smell, the reality of them. Now our bookshelves are denuded and he reads from a device. I still read books made from paper and glue but for how long I wonder?

We bought ourselves a new stereo. A tiny thing, with a dock for my iPod. It is also capable of playing digital and online radio stations. I spent hours loading my CD collection into my computer ready for transfer to the iPod I said I would never use. And when all my CDs were loaded and all my musical memories were nothing more than bits and bytes in my computer, I gave them away. All except a few old friends; Sigur Ros, Harry Manx, Frank Sinatra. I hang on to them just in case the world of binary code comes crashing down. We have a universe inside my iPod now, so much music in such a tiny space. A Tardis of sound. But do I use it?

When tuning in to online radio stations I found one that both The Hubby and I like. And now, when we press the button on the remote control, that’s what starts playing and that’s where we stay. My iPod sits in its dock and waits, all the music I have ever owned inside its silver shell. The internet radio station plays on. My iPod gathers dust. I am, if nothing else, a woman of my word.

Death of the Cassette

This is a piece I wrote a few years ago. It’s a pre-cursor to my next blog. 

I’m sitting on my bed surrounded by the past. Little plastic boxes full of memories, love andcassettes pain. Today I hauled the last of the cassettes out of my car. I finally came to the realisation if I wanted a car with a CD player then I’d better get one installed because I’d be waiting a long time for a new car with a CD player already in place.

However my transition to the 21st century means that I’m left with a whole lot of my life recorded on cassette that I don’t have a place for anymore. So I sit on my bed and decide what to discard and what to keep.

Amongst the cassettes I had in my car was the first compilation tape I was ever given. Harry made me a Joni Mitchell tape that I still treasure to this day. I was 20. I’d never heard of Joni Mitchell. Harry was 11 years older than me and introduced me to a lot of music that my peers weren’t listening to. Jazz, blues and Joni. His handwriting has faded and my memory of him too, but my love for Joni has lasted.

Since then I’ve had many boyfriends and potential boyfriends that delighted in making me tapes they thought I’d like, that they liked, or perhaps that they thought would impress me into liking them. It seemed to be part of the courting process back then, many of my friends received compilation tapes from their beaux too. It was kind of delightful to know that they’d gone to so much trouble. That they had been thinking about you with every choice they made. That they’d be wondering and hoping what you’d be thinking and feeling with each song. Once I was listening to one of these tapes for the first time, in my car naturally, and had to pull over. There was a song right at the end of side two that expressed all the longing, all the dreams and desires of the person who’d given it to me so clearly that I was shocked into incapacity. I sat there and cried. I was amazed that he would expose his feelings in this way. The meaning was so clear but I knew that I could never respond in the way he hoped. I played that song over and over until the tears stopped and I was able to drive on.

Gone now, a little cassette death. Consigned to magnetic heaven as I move into a digital world.

Media release!!!

SEX DRUGS AND MEDITATION  Front cover

by Mary-Lou Stephens

Publication date: April 2013

Wickedly humorous and beautifully told, Sex, Drugs and Meditation is Eat Pray Love meets Judith Lucy. 

It is the true story of a woman with a talent for self-sabotage who learns to sit still, shut up and start living – and loving. 

Miraculously, Mary-Lou Stephens has just made it into her forties. With the aid of therapy and NA/AA she has overcome a tricky childhood (youngest of six kids, evangelical parents); drama school; drug and alcohol addiction; the lure of performing in late night gigs; and her spectacularly poor taste in men. She has landed a dream job as a broadcaster for the ABC. Life is looking good. Except that Mary-Lou has a new boss, a psychopath in a suit.

Determined to avoid MORE therapy, and desperate to cope with an increasingly toxic work environment, Mary-Lou signs up for a ten-day meditation retreat that requires total silence, endless hours of sitting cross-legged, and a food-as-fuel kind of a diet (i.e. basic). For a woman who talks for a living, is rarely still and cooks for comfort, this was never going to be an easy ask.

About the author: Mary-Lou was born and raised in Tasmania. She studied acting at The Victorian College of the Arts and played in bands in Melbourne and Sydney before she got a proper job – in radio. Mary-Lou kicked off her radio career at 2TM in Tamworth. She was lured away to help start up a brand new station in Townsville where she was the Breakfast co-host, Music Director, Assistant Program Director and very tired a lot of the time. Since joining the team at ABC Coast FM Mary-Lou has been the Music Director as well as presenting every shift ever invented including, Drive, Afternoons and Evenings. She lives on the Sunshine Coast with her husband, their dog and a hive of killer native bees.

For media enquiries including review copies and interview time please contact Laura Norton / Pan Macmillan Publicity – E: laura.norton@macmillan.com.au P: (02) 9285 9149 M: 0414 832 504

Me, my, mine = misery.

I have spent a lot of time meditating. Guided meditations, breath meditations, visualised lone plantmeditations. I’ve imagined pyramids with coloured steps, stared at candles until my vision blurred and spent hours in silent agony at Vipassana retreats. It was at Vipassana that I became familiar with the teaching of the Buddha. Not that I was expecting to. I was told that Vipassana was just a meditation technique, pure and simple. And it is. But at the ten day retreat where it is taught, every evening there is the Teacher’s Discourse which involves a lot of  Buddhist theory.

During one of these discourses I heard a theory that I’d heard in various forms before – that the idea of self is a delusion, that there is no I, no me, no mine. The teacher explained that any attachment to the delusion of I, me, mine only leads to misery. In the past I have reacted badly to this theory. I want there to be an I. I want things to be mine. I like owning stuff. And I like there being a demarkation between you and me. I believe that’s called having boundaries. I spent most of my thirties being told that having healthy boundaries was a good thing.

So where does that leave me when it comes to relationships? Friendships? Am I supposed to have boundaries? Or am I supposed to merge with the eternal we, the group consciousness? Is it possible to be in a relationship if we are all one? The teacher has a wife so I guess it must be okay.

The important thing for me to remember is that if there is no mine then no one belongs to me. I don’t own anyone, no one owns me. We are all free. Thinking I have owned people, that somehow they belong to me, has only caused me misery and heartbreak. There is liberation in letting go of that illusion, there is bliss in relinquishing ownership. Nobody owns anybody else. Love is a choice, not a commandment.

In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

I like that. It says to me that even if we are one, we can still be separate. There is space between us to experience the joy of heaven. The best of both worlds.

 

This blog first appeared as a column in the February 2013 edition of Holistic Bliss

The Australian Good Weekend Magazine

Lost in prayer

Wilderness years … the author, aged eight, with her mother.

Wilderness years … the author, aged eight, with her mother. Photo: courtesy of Mary-Lou Stephens

When seeking her mother’s attention, Mary-Lou Stephens had to compete with five siblings – as well as a higher power.

My mother was an early riser, out of necessity more than desire. With six demanding children, it was the only quiet time she could wrest from her noisy days. No wonder she turned to religion. Sometimes, as a child, I would shuffle sleepily down the hallway, in what seemed the dead of night, and watch her huddled by the heater, a cup of tea by her side and a book of Bible readings in her hand. Her early-morning study. Bathed in the glow of the heater and the shallow light of the standard lamp, it was as if she floated on an island of peace. I would creep back to bed, not wanting to shatter that illusion.

My mother wanted eight children, my father only four. Six was a compromise, I suppose – three boys, three girls – but my mother never liked to compromise. A miscarriage before I was born and another after meant she did conceive eight souls. Perhaps in her early-morning prayers she whispered to the unborn two, her other babies.

The older and more uncontrollable her brood grew, the more radical my mother’s religion became. Not content with the local parish church, Bible study and good works, she became involved with the Charismatic movement. Speaking in tongues, healing, being slain in the spirit – this became the new vocabulary of her religious life.

When I was a child, I told her how I’d dreamt I was on a beach with a group of people. The sea sucked back on itself, exposing miles of ocean floor. Everyone around me began praising the Lord, much like my mother did at any given opportunity. It was the end of the world and they knew it. They embraced it. They were the chosen ones. A huge rumble vibrated through the sand and, on the horizon, a massive wall of water headed towards us. The Lord-praisers danced and sang in happiness.

“That’s all I remember,” I said to my mum.

She stopped getting breakfast ready and, for the first time in a long time, I had her full attention.

“Praise the Lord,” she said. “You’re a prophet.”

It was a vision from God and He had chosen her child. She took me to her strange meetings and told her friends I was a prophet, but when no other dreams emerged and no further prophecies eventuated, she withdrew the bright light of her attention. I was left in the dark again.

One counsellor told me that growing up with a mother like mine was the same as growing up with an alcoholic parent. Never knowing what to expect, too ashamed to bring friends home, knowing that my mother was different but not knowing why.

And then there was my older brother, who spouted Adolf Hitler’s speeches off by heart and had a Nazi flag in his bedroom. He was 10 years older than me, a terrifying stranger. My next oldest brother once tried to hit my mother with a frying pan, and my oldest sister would often take to my mother with flailing hands and scratching nails. I tried to get my mother’s attention but to no avail.

My closest sister in age to me was a chronic asthmatic, and between disease and disarray, there was no time or space for me. But there was time for other people’s babies. My mother took them in and looked after them, even though she showed no interest in looking after me. Why did she stop loving me? Why did she lose all interest in me? I was only eight, I couldn’t work it out. And because I couldn’t work it out, I thought it must have been my fault. I must have been bad.

My mother was obsessed with strangers’ babies once she could have no more of her own, and I was too old to be treated like one. My siblings were totally uninterested in my welfare and battling to survive themselves in a madhouse. I survived the only way I could. Feral and filthy. Stealing and lying. My sister told me my scalp was yellow because my hair was never washed. My teeth were furry from lack of brushing. Food was my only comfort, my only company. I became obese and my parents either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

All the while my mother praised the Lord, babbling in languages no one understood, and reached her arms to the heavens, ignoring what was going on at her feet.

For his part, my father appeared to be the epitome of patience. In reality, however, he would avoid the awkward or confrontational in the hope it would pass by and resolve itself without him having to participate.

Eventually, he realised my mother’s religious zeal was not a temporary situation to be disregarded until it passed, so he went to a Billy Graham Crusade at the North Hobart Football Oval and got himself saved. He was never as enthusiastic about praising the Lord or breaking into tongues at unexpected moments as my mother, but he went with her to the meetings and rallies.

In our teenage years, my asthmatic sister, always Dad’s favourite, joined in, too. She discovered, as did I, that the best chance of any attention from our parents was to play on the same team. Our older brothers and sisters had fled the nest by this stage. That left the four of us, clapping our hands and singing in tongues. My mother would be swept away in religious ecstasy and my sister, father and I went along for the ride.

Naturally, I never told anyone at school that I sang in tongues with thousands of others at pep rallies. I never mentioned the bellowing preacher who put his hands on my head to slay me in the spirit. I fell down because I thought I should, and then lay on the floor, breathing in the dust and the smell of cheap carpet, feeling cheated. Why was everyone else around me feeling the rapture when all I felt was cranky?

I tried my best to fit in but I felt like a hypocrite. I was told to pray harder. If you’re miserable, pray harder. If you’re in pain, pray harder. If you’re sick, pray harder. If you’re unhappy, it’s your own fault – you’re not praying hard enough. There was no room for confusion or doubt. No room for the fat teenager I had become. Everyone was perfect. Everybody was deliriously happy. Praise the Lord.

When I tried to leave the Charismatic church in my late teens, my mother refused to acknowledge it. “You’re a Christian, darling, and you’ll always be a Christian.” She smiled her tight little smile. My mother owned my spirituality, or so she thought. And at the time I thought so, too. It was all I had ever known.


Edited extract from 
Sex, Drugs and Meditation, published by Pan Macmillan.

As voices take flight

photo: joefutrelle
photo: joefutrelle

This time, after the teaching of metta, as the teacher and his wife go singing off into the distance, I smile. No yearning, no bittersweet melancholy. Only happiness. Yes, they are going where I can’t follow, but I am on my own path – it’s under my feet, meandering into the distance, shaded with overhanging trees. It’s solid, welcoming, real. I sense the wonders, awe, troubles and joy ahead. I am on the path. My path. And they are on theirs as their voices grow fainter and fade away until one of the assistant teachers finally switches off the CD.

The assistant teachers sit for a moment longer then make their way from the meditation hall. The new students eagerly head for the door. I know they will be greeted by a sign, in its own frame, hung from the post directly outside. It will tell them that Noble Silence is lifted. After nine and a half days they are free to talk again. I continue to sit in meditation. Smiling. I am in no hurry. I am not in pain. Love, compassion, goodwill to all beings.

When I finally leave the hall the new students, like little birds, have scattered to chirp excitedly to each other, bursting with stories of pain and triumph, hell and freedom. I walk silently to my room. I’m not ready to speak and know the dangers of speaking too much, too soon. Outside my window two old students greet each other. They talk of anxieties, fears, endless running minds, heads aflame with thoughts. They talk of wanting to leave, of not sleeping, of only wanting to sleep, of good days and bad.

And as for me? What will I say when I finally let my voice take flight? Yes, I had pain. Yes, I did endless head miles. Yes, I felt as though there was a tangle of fat pythons inside my head, squirming and pushing against my skull. But in the end, the meditation took over. Eventually my busy, exhausting mind tired of it’s own stories. It would flick through the choices available, like DVDs on a shelf, and realise it had seen them all before, too many times. Then it would slow, let go, and finally, finally, let me do the work I was here to do. Observe the breath, observe sensations, remember the truth of impermanence. Awareness and equanimity. One step on the path and then another, sometimes shuffling, sometimes skipping, and sometimes doing an about-face when the pain bit back.

The teacher’s words still ring in my head; Liberate yourself from the bondages of craving, aversion, delusion, illusion and enjoy real peace, real harmony, real happiness. But now, finally, it’s time to hear words from my own lips. This time I choose the path leading to the dining hall and lunch, to join the other voices; gliding, swooping, diving and soaring.

 

Almost home

With a heavy thud the Express Post bag hit the bottom of the mail box. An Express Post bag I had just hugged and even given a little kiss. My baby.

My baby is finally all grown up. She has gone through many stages and phases over the last edityears and has had many changes of clothes. She’s still a little under dressed, without a definitive title as yet and her cover still to come, but the things that really matter are complete; her heart, her soul, her spelling and punctuation. Her bravery and truth are undeniable and, even if I do say so myself, she is a bloody good read.

My baby is on her way. And as soon as she is christened and has her glad rags on, she will take on the world.

Oh you pretty things

In the process of decluttering, of clearing out the old and creating space for the new year, I found evidence of my previous life. What could I do but post it to Youtube? Isn’t that what every woman who’s spent most of her life performing in one way or another does?

This first one is from Good Morning Australia, March 1995. I’m the one in the middle.

Isn’t Bert a sweetie? And he hasn’t changed at all, unlike me!

The second one is from a long defunct TV show called It’s Country Today. Oh dear, I’m taking myself a bit too seriously in this clip I fear.

And I do believe that’s one of the Reyne brothers. Not a patch on Bert but has a certain charm nevertheless.

 

The true meaning of Boxing Day

Did you go shopping today? Did you get more stuff? The shopping centres were packed on Christmas Eve and packed again today. How much stuff do we need?

I’ve heard that we only use 20 per cent of what we own. We could give the other 80 per cent away and never miss it. I kind of think that’s true. I have my favourite clothes, favourite cook books, favourite mug, favourite bowl. There are only so many glasses I can drink of at any one time without making a mess. The rest of my stuff stays in the wardrobe or in the cupboard for most, if not all, of the time.

Instead of going to the Boxing Day sales, something that I’ve only done a couple of times, BoxesThe Hubby and I decided to put things into boxes instead. Things that we didn’t need, things we never used and things we will never use. Tomorrow I will drop these things off at the charity shop. Hopefully someone will need them and make good use them.

I thought we were turning Boxing Day on its head. I thought we were being revolutionary –  getting rid of stuff instead of getting stuff. But no. I looked up the origins of Boxing Day and what do you know? Boxing Day has its roots in ancient Rome and was called Saturnalia. It was a day in which the rich gave gifts to those who were not so rich. Later on the in England and Europe it was a day when the wealthy gave gifts to their servants.

And why is it called Boxing Day? There’s a link to the Feast of Saint Stephen, which falls on Boxing Day. The custom was to put offerings inside metal boxes left outside churches and this money was for the poor. In Britain tradesmen would receive Christmas boxes of money or presents as thanks. And employers would give their servants boxes of leftover food and perhaps gifts and money to take home to their families.

So it turns out that the history of Boxing Day is all about giving to those with less than ourselves. It’s not about receiving. It’s not about shopping. The Hubby and I aren’t being revolutionary at all. We’re keying into the original intention. The true meaning of Boxing Day. Mr & Mrs Stephens are upholding the tradition of the Feast of St Stephen and we did it without even realising. It’s all a bit spooky really.

Looking now at the boxes all packed and ready to be given to charity, at the empty spaces on our shelves, in our cupboards and in our wardrobe, I feel lighter. There’s more space and energy in our home. We were stuffed full of stuff. Now we are freer. It’s true – by giving, we receive.