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.

Writing Process? What Writing Process?

I’ve been amazed by the generosity of other writers during this journey to becoming a published author. At every stage there has been a helping hand, an understanding voice and a lift, or in some cases a shove, to the next level. And after publication there has been the same generosity of spirit; other writers willing to spruik my book, to sing its praises and to let the world know. Thank you

Why am I amazed? When I was a musician I helped other songwriters and musos. We were a family. In my life in radio I’ve given advice when asked to those who wanted to work in this form of media. I’m always happy to give what I have in the way of knowledge, connections and practical experience.

Sexdrugsmeditation-20I’ve been a member of a writing group for years and the support of those women has been immeasurable. But when I stepped into the world of publishing I was in unknown territory. That’s why the generosity has amazed me. I’m an old hand at being a singer/songwriter and experienced in the realm of radio but I felt newborn and vulnerable in the world of publishing.

That’s why I’m delighted to take part in this writer’s blog chain. Passing on this generosity of spirit and highlighting other authors in a world that needs to know about great writing.

SusannaI have been tagged by the wonderful and effusive Susanna Freymark whose debut novel Losing February has been described with the same adjective as my memoir. “Brave.” We met at the yearly soiree that our agent throws in Sydney. I was new and shy. Susanna was a beacon of joy and laughter. I was drawn like the proverbial moth. Since then I’ve interviewed her for the ABC and shared a couple of panels with her at The Byron Bay Writers Festival. She continues to be a joy. Susanna is in the process of editing her second novel and you can read about her ongoing writing adventure here.

And now to the questions I must answer about my writing.

So . . . what am I working on now?

I’m not. There, that was a surprise wasn’t it. I refuse to work. I’m in a mind to relax. To read. To reinvigorate. My memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation was released last April. My next manuscript is with my publisher after getting the thumbs up from my agent. Right now I’m tired. I need to rest. I’m inspired by the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt and his holy minimalism. Arvo spends time in reflection and meditation to gain inspiration for his next composition. I’m not comparing myself to his beatific brilliance but I resonate with his need to retreat, to be still, to be, before moving on to the next project. This year for me is a year of slow transformation. I know what my next project is and I have a notebook of scribbled lines and ideas which I add to on an ad hoc basis but to tell you the truth I’ve never written anything like this before. My publisher has expressed interest in what really is little more than a title at this stage. I will write it but it needs to evolve. I need to evolve to meet it. For the first time I’m not in a hurry. I’m not anxious. It will come. I will be ready. In some ways I’m already there. (You’ll have an “aha moment” when the title is revealed.)

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

My work is inspired, like Arvo Pärt’s, by meditation. My first memoir is about how meditation saved my job, changed my life and helped me find a husband. It might sound a bit woo-woo but it’s real and it’s funny and it’s “brave.” My second memoir is about the truth of the happy ending. Meditation helped me survive some of the toughest years of my life – the early years of my marriage. We’re still married and our marriage gets stronger all the time. This second book is about relationships. Big stuff, sometimes heavy stuff, but also funny stuff and very, very, “brave” stuff.

I’ve also written a novel that my agent tells me doesn’t work but I haven’t given up on it. It too was inspired by meditation. The story and the protagonist came to me at one of the silent ten-day meditation retreats I insist on doing. Meditation is a creative process. You can’t stop your mind that’s for sure. But when you slow it down some very interesting things pop up.

Why do I write about what I do?

When I used to read self-help books I would skip over the theory and never do the exercises at the end of each chapter. Instead I would head straight to the case studies. These are the stories of transformation that we all love so much; the Hero’s Journey, the overcoming of obstacles, the realisations that lead to change. When it became apparent that my life had changed through meditation I thought perhaps someone might like to read my story. Turns out they would.

I also love fiction because I get to play. I get to make stuff up. I have plans for a lot more fiction after the next book and more resting. Watch this space.

How does my writing process work?

I have no idea. Honestly. It’s always different. It always changes. I’m not methodical. I’m not a plotter. There are times when I write every night after work and every weekend. I’ve gone years without holidays because every scrap of leave has been spent writing or going on those silent ten-day meditation retreats. I saved up my money and took six months leave without pay, worked with a manuscript assessor and a mentor – all for a novel that doesn’t work, allegedly. But boy, oh boy, did I learn a lot about writing. The one constant has been meditation. Meditation breaks down the barrier between the conscious and the subconscious. It gets to the juice, the real driving force. We think our minds are in charge. They’re not. Meditation allows us to access the real deal, the source of all the action, love, fear and truth. As I mentioned at the moment I’m having a rest from writing. Vital for rejuvenation. Some say you must write every day. I say not so. Forget the musts. Find out what works for you. Everyday is creative whether you write or not. I’d rather have some time to stretch and rest and play and then return to writing with love than to feel duty bound to chain myself to a desk everyday. Besides I have a very exacting day job. Sometimes I need some space.

Now it’s my turn to spread the love by introducing you to two writers.

walter Walter Mason writes a whole different kind of travel book. Spiritual, humorous, honest and intriguing. If you haven’t yet read Destination Saigon or Destination Cambodia you will fall in love with him too when you do. Walter is tireless in his promotion of other writers. He is an inspiration. I’ve interviewed him for my program on the ABC, I’ve written a blog for his Universal Heart Book Club and he’s featured my book in his own blog. He is a generous and loving soul. Irresistible. Follow his adventures here and check out The Universal Heart Book Club as well.

blue mileKim Swivel writes as Kim Kelly and her latest novel The Blue Mile will be released in May. She tells a great story and weaves so much history into her novels that I find them fascinating. I’ve learnt things about Australia that I never knew and I’ve learnt them the best way – by being entertained. It’s a great mix. I’ve also interviewed her and found her delightful, humble and quietly determined. You can find out more about Kim here.

Check out their blogs for more about them and their writing process. Read their books and keep reading. It’s fun, inspiring and sometimes even life changing.

 

How I Became a Blogger for The Huffington Post

huffpostHere I am, a woman from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a long, long way from New York City where The Huffington Post is based. So how did I become a blogger for HuffPost?

To tell you the truth it was totally unexpected.

I knew Arianna Huffington was a huge fan of meditation and I just happen to have written a book about how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. I thought perhaps she might like to read my book,  and if she enjoyed it she might tell her friends about it.

I tracked down her email address, it wasn’t hard, and after she had finished her holiday digital detox I sent her an email. This is what it said:

Hi Arianna

Welcome back to the plugged-in world.
 
I’d love to send you a copy of my meditation memoir. I think you might enjoy it. It’s about how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. Plus I’m told it’s very funny.  It’s published in Australia by Pan Macmillan.
 
“Bracingly honest, funny and rewarding, this is a book you can’t put down.” Sydney Morning Herald.
 
It is available as an e-book but I’d like to give you a book made out of paper – it is recycled paper 🙂
 
What’s the best address to send it to?
 
Thanks for your time, I appreciate it.
 
Warm regards
Mary-Lou Stephens
Did I expect to hear back from her? Not really. She’s a very busy woman with way too many emails to read I’m sure. But I hoped someone might get back to me with an address.
To my great surprise and delight, less than 2 weeks later this email appeared in my Inbox.

Mary-Lou, many thanks for thinking of us. We would love to feature your voice on HuffPost about your meditation memoir. I’m ccing our Third Metric editor Carolyn Gregoire as well as our Books editor Zoe to follow up. All the best, Arianna

Very quickly afterwards this email chimed in:

Thanks so much for reaching out, Mary-Lou. We’d be thrilled to feature your voice on the page. All we need to get started is a first blog (typically 500-1,000 words), along with a headshot and a bio, all in one email. Please let me know if you have any questions, and feel free to send a copy of the book to the below address. Best, Carolyn

So I did as requested, emailed my bio, headshot and a sample blog.  Within a day I was accepted into the fold at The Huffington Post, set up with my blogger’s toolkit, and my first blog was up on their site shortly afterwards.
The whole experience was miraculous, unexpected, joyful and welcoming. I was amazed at the warmth and promptness of their responses. But I guess when you have the boss suggesting that something should happen, it happens.
So there you have it, I wasn’t looking to become a blogger for The Huffington Post but here I am. And I’m thrilled. Thank you Arianna, thank you Caroline, thank you everyone at HuffPost for making miracles happen.

 

TEDxNoosa

tedxOn April 4th I’ll be one of a wonderful line-up of speakers at TEDxNoosa this year.  TEDxNoosa is a one day event held at The J in Noosa Junction. It is a fully catered for event and doors open at 8am. It is a jam packed day with 18 speakers presenting over 4 sessions, an Innovation Alley, interactive art, displays and even a space workshop. We highly recommend you come ready with an appetite to ponder and meet a very diverse audience throughout the day. This is unallocated seating to give you the opportunity to interact with different people throughout the day. The program guide will be sent to ticket holders prior to the event.

Go here to find out more http://tedxnoosa.com

The Power of Miracles

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Many years ago I was head-hunted to start up a new radio station in a major regional market. It was exciting, thrilling and ultimately exhausting. After almost a year I was at breaking point. After each frantic and demanding 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. Fortunately I had a wonderful mentor, he even looked a bit like Yoda. He suggested I read a particular book.

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 by Chin-Ning Chiu is based on a story Carl Jung used to tell about the power of miracles. In this story a village has been in drought for many years. The people have tried everything 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.

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, the heart is dead”. I set about reviving my heart and replenishing my soul. Day after day in the darkness of early morning, I sat, breathed and gave my heart and mind a place to rest.

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 at the time, but by spending this time in meditation and reflection I was slowing down enough to allow the angel of good fortune catch up.

It took a lot longer than the Rainmaker’s four days but it did happen. Miracles occurred, unexpected miracles that remain and continue to unfold to this day. And to this day I continue to meditate, allowing the angel of good fortune to catch up as often as possible.

 

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.)