Self-Help Interview: “The More I Observe My Thoughts, The More I Realize How Funny They Are”

Contributor: Mary-Lou Stephens, author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

Mollie: What are a few of your foundational spiritual beliefs?

Mary-Lou: When I was growing up my parents were heavily involved with the Charismatic Christian movement—lots of speaking in tongues and prophesying, healing and excitement. As a child I was very much wrapped up in that world … a world where God was love but also any negative feelings or misgivings were pushed away and ignored. If you felt bad, clearly you weren’t praying hard enough. As a teenager I felt bad all the time and so became increasingly disenchanted with those that were reaching to heaven but ignoring what was going on at their feet.
In twelve-step programs I was told I could believe in a God of my own understanding. God could be a color, the sun, the wind or anything I wanted, just as long as God was a power greater than myself. This was liberating. Slowly, and with a few missteps, I developed a relationship with a God of my own understanding, one that had nothing to do with religion or other people’s beliefs. This God was a God I could rely on, lean on, talk to, be reassured by. I didn’t have to be good for this God to love me. I didn’t have to do penance or chant the right prayers or go to church. This God loved me just as I was, no matter what I did … but living a life of good thoughts and actions helped me love and live with myself.

These days, God just is. God is in everything, everywhere—a benign, loving presence. This gives me a sense of peace.

Mollie: What are the specific spiritual practices that you prefer (i.e., journaling, meditation, etc.)?

Mary-Lou: I used to use specific techniques—journaling, meditating at a set time for a set amount of time and the like—but now acceptance, witnessing my thoughts and meditation are all part of my day. I don’t put them in specific time slots. It’s more like breathing. It just is without me having to do anything.

Mollie: What do you mean by witnessing your thoughts?

Mary-Lou: I observe my thoughts and decide whether or not to engage with them. This is a benefit of meditation. In meditation I don’t try to stop my thoughts (impossible!). Instead, I watch them as they do their crazy dance. The more I observe my thoughts, the more I realize how funny they are. And to think they used to rule my world. No wonder I was so unhappy. I believed what I was thinking was true when most of it is just reaction and craving. Life is a lot more peaceful now and although peace and happiness might have been my goal when I first started meditating I don’t think about goals at all anymore. So many goals are counter-productive.

Mollie: Do you practice acceptance of what is in a conscious way with the goal of greater inner peace?

Mary-Lou: I practice acceptance every day. It gets easier as I get older, perhaps because I’ve just had more practice. I don’t practice acceptance with any goal in mind. I practice it because it’s easier than any alternative I’ve found … and I’ve tried quite a few: ranting and railing, pushing the river, complaining, playing the victim, playing the star, being a martyr … none of these proved very successful. Acceptance is a much more peaceful way to be. It’s not a goal, it just is.

Mollie: When and how did you begin this practice? How has it affected your life?

Mary-Lou: I first learned about acceptance in twelve-step programs. The Serenity Prayer was a revelation to me. I always thought it was my job to change other people, places and things. When I discovered the only thing I could change was myself I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from me. I didn’t have to be responsible for all that stuff I thought I was responsible for; in fact, I couldn’t be responsible for it and didn’t have any business trying to be. I just let it all go. This gave me incredible freedom. As my meditation practice grew and became stronger, so did my ability to be a witness to what was going on around me without my having to buy into it. Being able to witness my own thoughts was an amazing breakthrough. I am not my thoughts … which is just as well because they’re crazy!

Mollie: Can you offer any advice to people who would like to learn how to be more accepting of hardship and to use it to their benefit?

Mary-Lou: Don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame your karma. Things just happen. Most times it has nothing to do with you. It’s horrible and it’s hard but it’s not personal. God, the Universe or karma are not out to get you. Learn the lesson and move on. Also, don’t expect to get over hurts or grief quickly. You won’t. And some things will be with you for the rest of your life. Once I learnt to accept that, I was a lot more peaceful. I used to think I had to rise above the bad, forgive everything and everyone, not have any negative thoughts, blah, blah, blah. Now I know I’m not perfect and I don’t expect to be. Some feelings stick with us for a reason—as a warning or as a blessing. Many situations I’ve been through have helped me to relate to others better. They’ve also been beneficial when offering a shoulder or an ear.

Mary Lou

To learn more about Stephens and her work, see:

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8 comments

  1. Great interview questions. I enjoy reading other people’s experience with meditation. It’s my favorite subject! This was a great reminder to be the observer of one’s thoughts.

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