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 I also came up with changes to an unpublished manuscript I still have great hopes for.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.

 

 

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Take Today For a Joyride – Here’s How.

IMG_5264Some lessons in life come from the most unexpected of places. When it comes to mindfulness you’d assume those lessons would come from Eastern philosophies or Western psychology. Mindfulness has become increasingly popular and there are many reasons why. It’s been shown to alleviate stress, reduce anxiety, relieve drug and alcohol dependence, and help with many types of illness including auto-immune diseases. 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. Simple. But not easy.

There’s a theory that there are only two motivating forces in life; love and fear. Love is desirable. Fear can really do some damage. So how can mindfulness help? A while ago I was telling a wiser person than myself about all my fears and how they were running my life. She asked 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 apparently not if you’re a psychopath.

Kevin Dutton is a research psychologist. He wrote a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. Kevin visited Broadmoor, the best-known high-security psychiatric hospital in England, to interview the inmates. What he found is surprising.

One of his interview subjects 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: “This 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 another inmate rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented–and at times can be stupendously beneficial.”

A lesson in mindfulness from the most unlikely of sources. Perhaps it’s time to let our inner-psychopaths off the leash just a little. Maybe not with ‘rapacious proclivity’ but a little less fear and a little more joyriding is bound to improve our quality of life. And to avoid ending up in Broadmoor it would be wise to add a lot of awareness and a big dollop of balance into the mix.

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

How To Stay Married – Book Launch

How to Stay Married 2Mary-Lou Stephen’s first book Sex, Drugs and Meditation told the story of how meditation changed her life, saved her job and helped her find a husband. How To Stay Married, is the truth behind the happy ending. How to Stay Married takes us around the world; from the glitter and glare of Las Vegas to the sub-zero temperatures of the French Alps and the tropical heat of Thailand, all with cabin luggage only. The discoveries Mary-Lou makes regarding herself and her marriage are a modern-day parable about learning to travel light in life, love and relationships.

While How to Stay Married isn’t your regular ‘how-to’ book, it is about creating the kind of relationship you want. This is the story of a marriage; a journey from fear, resentment and financial devastation, to a place of love, joy and trust.
Mary-Lou Stephens studied acting and played in bands before she got a proper job – in radio. She writes whenever she’s not behind the microphone or heading off to a meditation retreat.

Mary-Lou has garnered rave reviews for her memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation, the true story of how she changed her life, saved her job and found a husband, all with the help of meditation. She lives on the Sunshine Coast with that very same husband, their dog and a hive of killer native bees. Mary-Lou is a blogger for The Huffington Post, a columnist for Holistic Bliss and a regular at writing festivals and events. She is presenter for ABC Sunshine Coast and a wonderful friend of us all at Annie’s Books.

The Launch of  How to Stay Married
In conversation with Annie Gaffney

TUESDAY 24th MARCH – 6.00pm  

Annie’s Books on Peregian 8 Kingfisher Drive, Peregian Beach,
Queensland 4573 Australia

WINE & CHEESE – This is a free event, but notice of your intention to attend would be appreciated – (07) 5448 2053

Right or Happy? What Would You Choose?

2015-02-24-nARGUMENTlarge-thumbThe first time my husband and I argued it was terrifying. I thought it was the end of our relationship.

I’ve done a lot of meditation so during the argument I knew I should walk away, sit outside and observe my breath. It is a good tool, however it doesn’t solve anything. And in this case it just made my husband angrier.

“You just can’t hide away and meditate,” he said. “We have to talk about this.” I wished he’d go away so I could keep meditating. I was happy when I was meditating. I didn’t have to deal with anyone else and their points of view and their big voices. But unless I’m going to become a hermit (tempting at times), then I need to learn how to deal with disagreements.

What I’ve found? It really works to just listen to the other person. When my husband wants to vent I let him and I don’t take it personally. I usually know it has nothing to do with me. It’s his opinion and he’s entitled to have it. He might want to blame me for something, that’s okay. It might have been my fault, it might not have. If I’m able to observe my thoughts and emotions, to keep breathing and not get all caught up in the heat of the moment and keep listening, things usually go okay.

Arguments and disagreements are going to happen. They’re part of life. And the most important step to repairing them is to hear the other person’s perspective and to let them know you’re really listening. To respect their opinion. And naturally they need to do the same for you. We’re not being doormats here.

OK, so that’s what happens in an ideal world. What happens in the real world is that you get scared, upset, angry and most of all you want to be right, you want to win. When someone I respected, who was helping me sort through an issue, asked me, “Would your rather be right or be happy?” I said “Right of course. It’s important to be right. If I’m right then I am happy. I get the best of both worlds. I am right and I am happy.”

She looked at me as if I was an alien.

It’s taken me many years to work out that having to be right all the time was making me miserable and lonely. That most people don’t want friends who put more importance on being right than they do on being happy. Old grumpy-pants self-righteous me might have thought I was right. But it felt all wrong.

In an argument, take a breath, listen and ask yourself, “Would I rather be right or would I rather be happy?” Then, remember, that sometimes, you might prefer to be right, and that’s okay too.

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

Trust Your Truth, Even When It Doesn’t Match Your Beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Win a Copy of Sex, Drugs and Meditation

 

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

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

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

Good luck.

x

Mary-Lou

I Stopped Meditating: Here’s What Happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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