Tag Archives: Vipassana

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.”

 

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.

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.

Personal or personally? Your choice.

It’s the little things. The little things that make a day gloomy. The little things that brighten it again. The rainbow in the grey and drizzly clouds. Clean sheets to slide into after a tiring day. The dog leaning in for a pat, eyes full of love, even though you know she’s just dug up the silver beet. Again.

Many little annoying things throughout the day can make it seem as though the world is Smiley coffeeagainst us. One annoying incident can be ignored. Two and we might become irritable. Three and that’s it, we know that everyone and everything is out to get us. The best advice I’ve been given in these situations is not to take it personally. Because it’s not personal. It just is. Once we take something personally though, everything becomes loaded with meaning, with emotion, and with blame and resentment. Don’t you feel tired just thinking about it? Nurture your mind, reclaim your energy and your smile by not taking stuff personally. No one’s out to get you, and even if they are, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do them. So no matter what’s happened, it’s not personal.

Instead of fretting about those little things that don’t mean anything anyway, why not spend some time getting personal? If you stop taking things personally you’ll have more time to spend with yourself and with other people. Take some time out to breathe, to stretch, to skip, to smile. One of the quickest ways to get personal with yourself is with meditation. If you want to find out what you’re really thinking, try to stop thinking! But all the experts agree as little as ten minutes of meditation a day can make a huge difference to all kinds of health and emotional issues. Nurture your soul with a little meditation.

There are some who think that the answer to all of life’s problems is a nice cup of tea. Whether it’s the extended process of brewing up a spicy chai on a cool winter’s night, or simply boiling the kettle for a quick and simple green tea, the whole process is imbued with anticipation and delight. And the end result is a sip, a sigh, a smack of the lips. The little things that add up to an experience. A small experience that’s true, just a little thing, and the easiest way to nurture body, mind and soul.

 

Ten Insights into Sex, Drugs and Meditation

From an interview with Beauty and Lace.

You have had quite a varied career Mary-Lou, what made you want to write a book?Sexdrugsmeditation-pile 2

When I traveled overseas some years ago people asked to see my photographs when I got back. I had only taken twelve and they were on a disposable camera. A friend pointed out that photography clearly wasn’t my thing and suggested I write about my trip instead. I did. That resulted in being asked to write a weekly column for the local newspaper which in turn led to writing short stories and a novel. The instigation for this memoir came from reading self-help books. I always loved the case studies where people transformed their lives. I realised my life was one big case study and that people might like to read about it.

Can you tell us a little about ‘Sex, Drugs & Meditation’?

I didn’t go to a ten day silent meditation retreat because I was happy. I went because my life needed to change. Sex, Drugs and Meditation is told within the framework of that ten day meditation retreat. During those ten days I confronted the demons of my past; drugs, alcohol, food and religion…. and the demons in my mind; paranoia, self-loathing, fear and rage. I relived my time spent in Twelve Step programs, my years at acting school, the joy and heartbreak of my former life as a musician and the journey that led me to work in radio.

For ten days and nights I battled with my memories, mistakes and fantasies. The long hours spent meditating resulted in excruciating physical pain.

Facing the pain, accepting it and overcoming it enabled me to understand, on every level, the basic tenet of the meditation technique – everything changes.

When I left the meditation centre I knew I had changed. What surprised me was that within 2 weeks something so wonderful and completely unexpected showed up in my life that even I, the great doubter, had to believe again in life and in love.

What would you say was the catalyst for changing your life?

I’ve had many changes in my life. The catalyst for giving up drugs was the death of my father when I was in my twenties. I realised for the first time that I wasn’t immortal and as I was going to die anyway, why rush into it.
The catalyst for doing the meditation retreat that changed my life was my work. My dream job had become a nightmare. My new boss made my working life hell. I knew he wouldn’t change. I knew the company I worked for wouldn’t change. If I was to keep the job I loved, there was only one thing I could change. Myself.

What was the most enlightening lesson you took from your 10 day meditation retreat?

I had many realisations at the retreat; why I’d always had trouble with relationships, why I’d always resented my bosses, and why I’d always felt like a victim. But the biggest realisation was that I create my own misery by the way I choose to think – always churning over the past, always worrying about the future, and if there’s nothing to worry about I invent things to worry about! I make myself miserable for no good reason. I learnt how to stop creating misery in my life and let the joy in instead.

Music, Radio, Writing – how closely do you think the three are related?

I love radio. It combines all my skills into one. When I played in bands I used to play music and talk in between. When I first started in radio I used to play music and talk in between. Perfect. These days I work in a talk radio format and there’s a lot of writing involved. I love to write introductions and teases that will interest people and hook our listeners.b&w performance 1 1995

I wrote songs for years and sometimes I would marvel as to where they came from. It was as if a muse had delivered them to me.

Writing prose can be like that too. And then there are other songs and writing that take endless rewrites and much changing around until they are ready for the world. But all three – music, radio and writing are best when they connect to the heart of the listener or reader. To me that’s what it is all about – connection.

Different readers will take different things from your book, but if you had to pick just one thing what would you want readers to take away from Sex, Drugs & Meditation?

That we create our own misery and that meditation can help us realise that and change it.

How does your life to date compare to what you had planned for it as an adolescent?

My life as an adolescent was not a happy one. I pretended all the time to be someone I wasn’t. The only time I was happy was when I was acting in school plays or singing in the choir but I never thought they could be career options. I did at one stage want to be an archeologist which is amusing in hindsight given that with this memoir I am, in a very different way, digging up the past.

What’s been the most satisfying stop on your career journey up until now?

My journey into working in radio was truly amazing. After many years of banging my head against walls as a singer/songwriter, once I decided to get into radio all the doors opened. It was incredible. I describe those events in my memoir.
And I must say, landing a publishing deal after years of writing was a real gift.

What’s next for Mary-Lou Stephens?photo-11

I continue to work full-time in radio and when I’m not at work I am writing the sequel to this memoir. Sex, Drugs and Meditation has a happy ending. My next book is the truth about the happily-ever-after.

What does being a woman mean to you?

I have worked in mostly male dominated areas, the music industry and radio. I had an epiphany when I was 36. For once I wasn’t wearing jeans and for some reason was painting my toe nails. I was suddenly struck by the thought that I was a woman. I realised that I had been living my life as if I were a seventeen year old boy; no responsibilities, playing and living all over the county, shooting the breeze with the blokes, going to the footy.
It made me take stock of what was important to me – being a token bloke or being the real me, a 36 year old woman. I stopped trying to impress the men and started exploring what was important to me. Being a woman means being equal but different. Taking pride in those differences instead of trying to deny them.

Thanks for your time Mary-Lou.

Why you must rest…

Woodford-14

Blaise Pascal was a clever man. He was a mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher. He also worked out the solution to all our problems. Incredible when you discover he lived almost four hundred years ago. This Renaissance man from the seventeenth century had the answer to every single thing that plagues us today. And what is that answer?

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Some call it meditation, others call it contemplation, but the ability to spend time with ourselves in silence is something that is very rare these days. There are so many distractions.

My favourite Australian philosopher Michael Leunig reached much the same conclusion. In the Curly Pyjama Letters Mr Curly says to his friend Vasco:

“It is worth doing nothing and it is worth having a rest. In spite of all the difficulty it may cause, you MUST rest Vasco – otherwise you will become RESTLESS!”

mr Curly

And there you have it. Two great minds, centuries apart, coming to the same conclusion in their own way. Peace, quiet and rest are necessary. Otherwise we become anxious, restless, dissatisfied and stressed. We become exhausted, drained, depleted and sick.

For myself, meditation is the solution I choose. Sitting quietly in a room alone has unexpectedly been the source of my greatest creativity and my greatest healing. The mind is an amazing thing when left to its own devices, without the constant overstimulation that bombards us every day. When my mind stills from the relentless inane everyday chatter, when it stops milling over the nuance of every interaction and action of my past, when it ceases worrying about possible future events that may never happen, then the glory of its creativity can blossom. It arises from a space that is usually crowded out by the noise and busyness of the world outside my quiet room. When I give my mind the space and time to just be, it rewards me with treasures from the deep.

Sitting quietly in a room alone has also given me a range of healing. The physical benefits of meditation are well documented; lower blood pressure, less pain and it is the only thing that has been proved to help with auto-immune diseases. Also the emotional healing I’ve gained from meditation has changed my life, my work and my relationships.

We simply must rest, sit quietly in a room alone, to be, to create and to heal.

This post originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of Holistic Bliss Magazine

 

If You Love Someone, Set Yourself Free

This article was published by The Elephant Journal on 21/4/2012

 

It was love at first sight—that clench of the guts, wallop in the heart, stars in the eyes kind of love.

Handsome, talented, funny and creative—how could such a man want to be with me? But he did and I was in a haze of happiness. With his dark lashes and hypnotic eyes, he Woodford-22seemed to be surrounded by a halo of light. Or so I thought. I resisted the drugs at first but heroin kept my illusions in place and him in the state in which he preferred to exist. And still I thought he was the most delicious creature on the planet.

Denial is the strongest glue there is.

Our relationship imploded in a fury of betrayal and lies when, while I was away at my father’s funeral, he had sex with his ex-girlfriend. I was shattered, mad with grief, left with no trust in men or myself. The terror of being hurt and the fear of not being able to rely on my own judgement meant that relationships had no chance of surviving. I swung between looking for love and running away from it—an endless tug of war.

I found relief from this insanity during the time I spent in Twelve Step programs recovering from my addictions to drugs, alcohol and food. I worked those twelve steps many times and shed my skin in therapists’ rooms, yet relationships remained elusive and transitory.

My friends began to get married while I continued my pattern of short-stay serial monogamy. One of these friends suggested I try The List to manifest my perfect man. I had to write down everything; his physical appearance, his work, his interests, the things we’d do together. I wrote pages of intense descriptions, hopes and dreams. Then I had to hone it down to the essentials—my “Top Ten.” Next I had to sleep with The List under my pillow and burn it at the next full moon. Ridiculous. But I did it. Nothing happened. Instead, I began avoiding my friend because of her questioning looks and my own sense of failure.

My love-life might have been a source of continual disappointment, but my working life blossomed. I began a whole new career in radio and after some time landed the job of my dreams. Unfortunately, the dream didn’t last. With the arrival of a new boss, my job turned into a nightmare.  Thanks to my years in Twelve Step programs I knew I couldn’t change him, and I knew I couldn’t change the company I worked for. If I was to keep the job I loved, I had to change the only thing I could—myself.

Ten days of silent meditation was the solution I chose. During those ten days, I was forced to confront the demons of my past and the monsters in my mind. On day seven I was shocked when that old wound of betrayal showed up with the same intensity as it had when it first happened. Had all that therapy been for nothing? I hadn’t worked through it—I had just suppressed it.

That night I had a dream. I was walking through a spacious room. White gauze curtains hung from the ceiling. On a huge bed was the man I had loved, naked with a young woman I’d never seen before. The familiar pangs of betrayal and heartbreak flooded through my body. The woman saw me and approached,

“You think he’s yours. You think he belongs to you. But he’s mine now.”

It was then I noticed her skin was pierced with large, heavy hooks. I realized the same hooks were embedded in my chest and legs, their barbs puncturing my body.

She sneered at me, ‘He never belonged to you.’

Her words hit me like a slap. She was right—he had never belonged to me…he was never mine. He had only ever belonged to himself.  And as he had never belonged to me, all the hurt and pain I had felt was a lie. My body began to vibrate with pricks of energy. All the betrayal, anger, jealousy and fear flowed out of my body to be replaced with joy. He had never belonged to me. There was no reason to go through the torture I had put myself through. He was never mine. The hooks fell from my body. They left no marks and caused no pain. He had never belonged to me. The hooks were gone. I was free.

I awoke from the dream smiling. Nobody owns anyone. Love is a choice, not a commandment. We are all free.

I realized I had never had a real relationship. Not one where I was present. I’d always been afraid, enmeshed, hooked in, jealous and obsessive. Terrified of being abandoned but also terrified of anyone getting too close. But if I don’t belong to anyone and no one belongs to me, I am free. They are free.

After the meditation retreat was over, my challenges at work remained.

But at a dinner party a week later, despite all my best efforts and worst habits, I met the man I would marry.