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 I also came up with changes to an unpublished manuscript I still have great hopes for.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

 

 

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.

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.)

 

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.

 

The 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.

You are loved. You are beautiful.

Yes, Highly Creative People Hear Voices—& It’s Normal. ~ Mary-Lou Stephens

elephant journal

Via on Jun 26, 2013

Source: via Gina on Pinterest

When I was a kid I heard voices.

The low murmuring ones frightened me. They were dark and powerful. I could never understand what they were saying but they scared me.

The other voices were light, like a breeze rippling through my mind. I liked them. Sometimes the light and dark voices had conversations but it was in a language I didn’t understand. I remember sitting on the toilet listening to them—they liked small spaces. That’s when they talked the most. I liked small spaces too.

Especially ones where you could lock the door.

I don’t remember when they left. Perhaps I was possessed by spirits and they were blasted out by the power of the Holy Spirit at the charismatic Christian rallies I went to with my parents when I was a teenager. Slain in the spirit, talking in tongues, the voices in my head couldn’t compete. They packed up shop and went off to find some other vulnerable, lonely kid.

The voices were long gone by the time I got to therapy, so I never mentioned them. But when I was living in Sydney and heavily involved with 12 Step programs for my various addictions, I became a Lifeline telephone counsellor. At one of the training sessions the subject of hearing voices came up. Afterwards, I had a private word to the lecturer about the voices I’d heard when I was a child.

“Are you a creative person?” he asked.

“Yes. I write songs and play in bands.”

“Well, that explains it.”

“How?”

“Clearly you’re not schizophrenic or delusional,” he said.

“One theory that I particularly like, and I think pertains to you, is that highly creative people, as well as those we’d think of as geniuses, hear voices. These voices can be the source of creativity or a precursor of creativity. I’d see them as a gift.”

He was a gift. The perfect person to ask the question I’d never been game to ask before. I was afraid that I would be thought mad. Instead, he considered me to be a creative genius.

I do still hear voices from time to time but now when they speak I understand them perfectly. A few years ago, I had a voice that would ask me a question. It was always the same question and always asked in a loving way.

“Are you happy?” the voice would ask.

My answer was always “Yes.”

After the latest 10 day silent meditation retreat I went to earlier this year, I brought a new voice home with me. When I’m on the edge of sleep and when I first wake up, the voice says,

“You are loved.”

This voice has stayed with me in the months since the retreat and I hope it stays forever. Sometimes, even during the day, I will hear it say, “I love you.” At the end of my daily meditation it is often there, “You are loved.”

Another voice spoke to me just last weekend. It said something shocking, something so radical, I was rocked to my core. I was walking, on my way to visit a friend, the warm sun on my back, a gentle breeze blowing through my hair. Out of nowhere this new voice said,

“You are beautiful.”

I was stunned. Those are three words I would never say to myself.  The three words I most often say are, “You are fat” or “You are stupid.” Never, “You are beautiful.” But I heard those words, “You are beautiful” and I thought, “Yes. Yes I am.”

Where are these loving voices coming from? A gift of my meditation practice? Is it that the persona I have built in an effort to protect myself is no longer needed?

Am I finally allowing the truth in? I am loved. I am beautiful.

I arrived at my friend’s house and she opened the door. “You are beautiful,” she said.

Without a moment’s hesitation I replied, “Yes. Yes I am.”