When a Writer Meditates (quite incidentally includes a cure for writer’s block)

I’ve recently returned from a ten-day silent meditation retreat at the Queensland Vipassana Centre. Another one? Yep. It was the eighth time I’ve sat in silence for days on end, trying to meditate. I say ‘trying’ because usually I spend the first four or five days with a head whirling full of unstoppable thoughts and stories. This time it was no different. Over the ten days I came up with the ending for the latest novel I’m writing, the outline, beginning, plot and ending for the next one and the next two after that. I also came up with changes to an unpublished manuscript I still have great hopes for.

On the fifth or sixth Vipassana I did a few years ago I was having trouble stopping my mind from coming up with story ideas and it was causing me some angst so I went to have a chat with the Assistant Teacher. (Yes, it’s a silent retreat but you are able to ask questions about your meditation troubles to the Assitant Teacher who conducts ‘interviews’ at 12 noon most days.)

‘Oh, you’re a writer,’ she said. ‘I have a special technique for writers.’

‘Really, what’s that?’ I hoped it might involve pen and paper and a special place in which to write down all the spectacular story ideas I was having, each of which was bound to be a best seller.

‘Put your writer in a separate compartment in your mind, give her a typewriter, not a computer because she’ll only surf the internet, but a typewriter. Then let her go for it while you get on with your meditation.’

‘So, I compartmentalise my writer in my mind. What if she tries to break out and take over?’

‘Kindly but firmly insist that she goes back into her writing room and leaves you in peace so you can meditate.’

‘But what if I want to know what she’s writing?’ My writer could be coming up with brilliant ideas, more sure-fire bestsellers. I’d never know what they were about. It was a worry.

‘Then that’s when you have to master your own mind, observe the breath, observe sensations. Do not let her distract you.’

‘Right.’

It was a great idea in theory but my meditation practice is far from perfect.

So on this most recent meditation retreat I tried to tuck my writer away yet again but she absolutely refused. She wanted to play and came up with endless ideas which she told me in such an entertaining way that I couldn’t resist. A couple of times I said to her, ‘That’s enough. Go back to your room and type all these novels up. Stop telling them to me, I need to meditate now. I need to observe the breath, observe sensations and I can’t with you yapping away with all your oh so clever ideas and notions.’

She didn’t listen to me, she never does. So instead I gratefully received her idea for the ending of this latest novel. (It had been bothering me because I wanted a happy ending and there are not many happy endings in the area about which I’m writing.) But her idea was sweet and sad, melancholy and funny. It’s a total fantasy, but still it is a lovely ending. I also gratefully received all her ideas for the next umpteenth novels and patiently waited for her to slow down, which I knew she would do, eventually.

Sure enough at the end of day four her voice became softer and sometime on day five she floated off, popping back only occasionally to make sure I was still breathing. (I was and observing the breath while I did so.)

I won’t say that for the next five days I meditated perfectly. (I mentioned I’m not a perfect meditator but we aim for progress not perfection don’t we and some progress was made.) But my mind did become quieter and I even had moments when I could observe the breath and observe sensations without any other thoughts in my head. (Not many moments, but some.)

And now? Can I remember anything she told me over the course of those chatty days? Yes, thank goodness. You see, my writer does come up with good ideas and then, while I’m trying to meditate, she repeats them to me over and over and over again. And then a couple more times for good measure.

I don’t have writer’s block but if you do, I know the sure-fire cure for it. A ten-day silent meditation retreat. Meditating for over eleven hours a day. No reading, no writing, no talking, not even looking at another person is permitted. No distractions at all. Except your own head. I promise you, your writer will have a field day.

 

 

Scrabble Divas Rule

It makes friends of strangers, enemies of friends and binds like-minded souls in a pleasure that cannot be experienced by the uninitiated. Scrabble.

Those who have never owned a well-worn Scrabble set and a much-thumbed Scrabble dictionary may scoff, but the pain and the pleasure of Scrabble cannot be beaten.

Like most people, I’d played as a child, enjoyed it at the time but moved on. That was until I met the Scrabble Queen. I was living in a small country town and she took me under her wing. Every Sunday afternoon I would go around to her place and she would wipe the board with me. Month after month this went on. But as I watched and I learned, she passed on her skills to me and I became powerful. The day I beat her I became worthy of the title of the Scrabble Princess.

The legend grew and people would travel to that small town to take on the Scrabble Queen and the Scrabble Princess. One cocky Sydney journalist thought he would have his way with us using his vast knowledge of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. But no.

He left a defeated man, his tail between his legs and our laughter ringing in his ears.

I moved to a bigger town and kept my skills a secret for some time. Sometimes it is best to watch and wait.

Eventually, I found a worthy opponent.

Once again every Sunday we would meet and while her boyfriend cooked us dinner we’d hit the triple scores with everything we had. I taught her tricks I’d learned from the Scrabble Queen and before too long she became a Scrabble Diva to beat the best of them.

Once again I moved on, my Scrabble destiny not quite complete.

It took a while to find an opponent brave enough or foolish enough to take me on. This time I took pity on a poor little Scrabble Tadpole. She reminded me of myself in my younger days. I passed on the skills that had been taught to me by the Scrabble Queen and eventually I bestowed upon her the honour of her very own Scrabble set. But if you challenge her, beware, she has the training of many generations of Scrabble Mistresses. She may toy with you for a while but eventually, she’ll hit you with a seven-letter word on a triple word score that will blow your mind.

These days I play online. I keep in contact with the many Scrabble goddesses I’ve met along the way and we battle it out with each other, thanks to the glory of the internet. But whenever we do get the chance to catch up in person, the Scrabble board gets dusted off and it’s game on. Nothing can beat the clatter of the tiles on their wooden stands, the scribbled scores mounting ever higher on a hastily found piece of paper and the satisfaction of stealing that triple word score, quite literally, from under your opponent’s nose.

Scrabble on!

The Miserable Joy of Eeyore

I’m a year older than I was last week. There’s something about having a birthday that always reminds me of Eeyore. After all, what’s a birthday? Here today, gone tomorrow, as he would say.

Eeyore has always been my favourite of the Winnie-the-Pooh characters. With such lines as, “Good morning Little Piglet. If it is a good morning. Which I doubt. Not that it much matters”, how could you not love him?

On his birthday Eeyore is sardonic, witty and urbane but most of all he is miserable. Eeyore makes us all feel better on our birthdays. He takes on all the pain of ever feeling forgotten or abandoned on what’s supposed to be our special day. He makes even the most monumental loser feel good. No matter how bad things get they’ll always be worse for Eeyore. And that’s a form of comfort.

When I was a kid I was always jealous of my sister’s toy Eeyore. It was a home-made job way before merchandising came to be the market force it is these days. It had character and was well-loved. From an early age my sister and I both knew that Eeyore was the only one who saw the world as it was but still found something worthwhile in it. Even better he expressed his pessimism in no uncertain terms to anyone who’d listen and they still loved him. But most of all he was funny.

I once met a man who used to size people up by finding out who their favourite Winnie-the-Pooh character was. To him it was a reflection of how people viewed the world. Pooh types were optimistic, undemanding and simplistic. Piglets were insecure, needy and eager to please. Owls were quirky, odd and kind of interesting. Tiggers were arrogant and immature. Kangas were often nurses, caring but tired. Roos were wishy-washy. And Rabbit? Who on earth would choose Rabbit as their favourite character? You’d have to be perverse.

Very occasionally you’ll find someone who cites Christopher Robin as their favourite. According to his theory, it shows someone with a marked lack of imagination or a male going through a mid-life crisis.

But when you find another Eeyore you know you’ve found a soul mate. It takes a special type of person to love and appreciate an old grey donkey who pretty much keeps to himself in a damp corner of the 100 Acre Wood.

“I might have known’, said Eeyore. “After all, I have my friends. Somebody spoke to me only yesterday. And it was last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said ‘Bother!’ The Social Round. Always something going on.”

Thanks Eeyore.

The Book of Love

variation-of-books-in-library

Recently I had a major eureka moment. I discovered how love works. I should really keep the details to myself and write a best-seller about it. And that’s a clue as to how this discovery was made. Books. Best-sellers, biographies, histories, romances and horror stories.

I went to a charity book sale, just out of curiosity. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular but I do love books. To tell you the truth when I got there I was a bit overwhelmed; so many books, rows and rows of boxes upon boxes of books. I didn’t know where to start, so I just browsed.

I picked up a couple of books, had a look at them and then put them back. I wasn’t really interested. I picked up a book I knew a friend would love but still nothing for me.

Then I started looking seriously and methodically. I walked up one aisle and down the next looking at each box of books as I went. I found a book that I really should read, a book that would be good for me, a book that would look impressive in my bookcase.  And I chose another book that was uplifting and inspirational, I knew because it said so on the cover.

But still, nothing that excited me.

Then I saw it. I couldn’t believe my eyes or my luck. A book by my favourite author, a book I didn’t even know I was looking for until I found it. And then I knew why I’d come to the book sale. It was purely to find that book. It was fate. The book and I were meant for each other.

That’s how love works.

You don’t know what it is until you find it. You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing and then suddenly everything becomes clear.

Occasionally you’ll find a great boyfriend for a friend while you remain single. You choose the person you think you should be with, or someone your mother thinks would be good for you, or someone whose cover looks impressive, but none of them really excite you. Plus you’ve got to sort through a lot of stuff that you don’t want first. 

But when love does arrive, it’s totally unexpected and totally wonderful.

So, when I got home did I curl up in bed with my miraculous discovery? No. I put it on the shelf and started reading the book I thought I should read because it would be good for me.

Books may be meant for the shelf but I think I still have a few things to learn about love.

Photo via Glen Noble via Visualhunt

My Writing Space

My Writing SpaceWhen I first started writing I had to have absolute privacy and absolute quiet. I was extremely self-conscious about what I was doing. There was no way I could write in a cafe. I had to be somewhere where I wouldn’t be interrupted. Door closed writing. Through the years I’ve become a little more relaxed. I’ve had more practice and that makes it easier to write wherever I am. Some of my second book How To Stay Married was even written on the couch with The Hubby beside me.

I still prefer privacy though and these photos are of my writing space in the spare room. IMG_1426Yes there’s a bed in there in case I need a good lie down after a vigorous writing session. The Hubby and I have a signal when I don’t want to be disturbed, not even for a cup of tea. You see that beautiful hand-made felt chain of flowers hanging on my desk lamp? I put that on the door knob of my writing room to serve as a warning beacon. ‘Do not come in on pain of death.’ I feel like a teenager with a Keep Out sign on my door but without the confidence of being able to write freely my ability to get the words down on the page can often be inhibited.

IMG_1425There are some treasures that surround me in here. Pebbles from the beach at Findhorn in Scotland, a little Eeyore (my favourite character from Winnie the Pooh), photos of my dad, my wedding and my former life as a singer/songwriter, a wooden writer’s organiser from The Hubby and various angels, hearts and paperweights given by friends. Oh, and copies of my books, reminding me that I can indeed write an entire book, look I’ve done it twice and that’s just the published ones.

I hope you can see how filthy the windows are. Proof that I’m not a procrastinator. IMG_1427I have friends who’ve cleaned their entire house and even the shed rather than sit down and write. Not me. But I am a very slow writer. I do a lot of pondering. It astounds me how slow I am. However I get the job done in the end.

Mary-Lou Stephens studied acting and played in bands before she got a proper job – in radio. Her memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation was published by Pan Macmillan in 2013. It tells the story of how she changed her life, saved her job and found a husband, all with the help of meditation. The sequel, How To Stay Married, is the truth about the happy ending. 

Mary-Lou is now writing fiction in her own special slow and pondering way.

Get your free copy of Mary-Lou’s  7 Tips For Your Best Relationship Ever 

*** This post was first written for Word Farm. Check it out and while you’re there why not give Word Farm a Like.  (PS My desk is now a lot messier 🙂 )

Fear of Commitment. It Can Feel as Though It’s Real. It Isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Can Bury Me Anywhere Because I Won’t Be There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Disposed of where?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

Can’t Meditate? Try Joyful Resting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.

3 Ways Meditation Will Make You a Better Writer

Sex, Drugs and Meditation

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.

Must of us live a life of fear and reaction. We do too much in order to impress, or hide so no one will expect anything of us. 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? Not quite yet.

1. Meditation clears the mind clutter and allows your creativity to blossom.

When all the whys, wherefores, he said, she said, he did, she did, blame, reaction and catastrophising is done, creativity is free to roam with characters, stories and adventures that are pure imagination, often not of this world. It’s fascinating and freeing to allow yourself to follow where creativity leads. Meditation breaks down that very thin membrane between the conscious and the subconscious. And let’s face it, the subconscious is where all the interesting stuff happens.

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  suffering, be liberated from all misery. Stop reacting and resenting. Stop being so afraid. 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.

2. Meditation gives you the kind of detachment a writer needs.

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’s not selfishness, it’s just knowing that what ever the problem or drama is, it will pass without you 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.

3. Meditation allows you to write with courage and honesty. To stop judging.

With the loving detachment that meditation brings you’re better able to step aside and let the story glow and burn without the temptation of modifying it to make yourself look better. Judgement is a hinderance to life and to creativity. It carries the weight of expectation. Impossible to meet. The more I meditate the less I judge myself and my work. Other people may judge. They will think what they like. It’s none of my business. Besides, what they think will change. Everything does.

I have returned to the meditation centre seven times. Seven times I have spent ten days sitting 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. It is the art of creation.

This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post and then was picked Up by The Brazil Post. Yes, I’ve been translated into Portuguese. How cool.

Why Acting Like a Toddler Is a Great Idea

toddler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.