Essential Books for Authors: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

I know I really love a book when I have to read it with a pen and paper nearby, and by that measure Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit is one of my favourite books of the year. I filled up foolscap pages with notes and ideas and new ways of doing things, and I know that any creative person who reads this will do the same. The dynamic, legendary and prolific Tharp is a true powerhouse, and this book lays out some of her creative systems. It is absolute gold.

When traditions cross-pollinate there is often some very interesting results, and so it is with this book.  To have a dancer and choreographer giving advice to writers, poets and painters is quite unique, and this uniqueness makes the book all the better. Tharp has some truly original ways of cultivating, recording and maintaining her creative power, and she lays them all out in this book. If you are looking to be inspired, or remaining inspired, The Creative Habit is essential reading.

 She talks about distractions and fears, those two great enemies of the creative person, and ways we might recognise them, put them aside and defeat them. Because in Tharp's world it's all about perspiration. Dancers are used to discipline and hard work, and she doesn't really have much sympathy for creative people who aren't actually doing the work.

Twyla Tharp - photo credit Atlanta Magazine

 We are all surrounded by pictures and images, and Tharp suggests we actually put them to creative use. We should go through those files, those scrapbooks, those scattered paper memories that clutter up our work spaces. Creative inspiration lies everywhere around us, and in this book she explains how we can use rituals, enthusiasm and the creative work and histories of others to tap into t hat inspiration and start producing works of value and interest to others.

Here are 6 pieces of advice I gathered from The Creative Habit that I think you could put into operation immediately:

1. Keep working after a disaster - been rejected, or had to abandon a project? Got a bad review for something you did. Have a cry, suck it up, and get straight to work on the next project. Don't let weeks or even days pass before you start to use your creativity. Often this moment of frustration, heartache and uncertainty is the perfect moment to create something brilliant. Get working.

2. "Build your own validation squad" - have a group of people whose knowledge, taste and wisdom you admire, and run your work by them. Ask them to be honest always, and never get emotional with their responses or try to argue. Don't be such a loner, and stop hiding your work. Share it with your consultative committee and see what they might think.

3. Write a "Creative Autobiography" - she gives a whole list of stimulating questions in the book to help you record the things that have stimulated you and caused you to become a creative person. Spend some time doing this and go back to it occasionally. If you find yourself stuck, or lacking confidence in your talents and abilities, this little biography helps you situate yourself once more in the root causes of your work.

4. Ask your friends what's inspiring them and try new things - ever been looking for ideas, answers and inspiration everywhere and keep drawing blanks? Tharp describes how in the midst of her own, self-directed, research for a new piece of choreography she became lost, frustrated and blocked. Nothing she looked at was right. Then a friend suggested she listen to a piece of music she didn't know and voila! She found the perfect solution. We are often too self-protective, too certain of o ur tastes and prejudices. Trust the instincts of your friends and be open to new influences and opportunities. Actively seek to learn from others.

5. Have creative goals and put them in writing - this works at a number of levels. First it makes concrete your next project/s. And it also stops you from imagining a million different projects at once. One you keep a list you will see that you can't do everything in a year and you will start to pare back and concentrate. But you do need to be ambitious and you do need to constantly challenge and extend yourself. Write down those goals and stick them right above your desk and look at them every day. They're MEANT to make you feel guilty.

6. Work out the "spine" of the work - it's ok to be totally po-mo and be recording impressions, incidents and realisations as they happen. Heck, that's the way I write, mostly. But establish a spine, a central set of circumstances and motifs, a storyline, if you will, and keep coming back to it. It will stop you getting distracted and keep your eye on the main game. Be as creative, wild and spontaneous as you like. But build it all on a strong spine which will keep your work upright and all together.

The Creative Habit is the collected wisdom of a lifetime of creating dance and theatre, written by a woman who has reached the top of her profession. I can't think of anyone more qualified to be giving advice about the creative life. And as you would expect from someone who actually makes a living from their creativity, she is brutally honest about the problems and downfalls as well as the good stuff. The whole latter part of the book is about what to do when things go wrong, and God knows that's something I have been needing to read.

She teaches that creative possibility lurks in us all:

"I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations...They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them."
Tharp goes on to urge people to cultivate their memory, to deliberately try to remember things, and to constantly draw on, and create with, the memories they most cherish. Creativity, she says, is about connecting all the myriad things that crop up in our minds and our lives. Each of us has an utterly unique set of experiences, and we should rely on the dynamic chemistry of our own set of memories. We should also follow the example of those who came before us and see what we can learn through imitation. As she says, "get busy copying." What starts out as a copy normally gets twisted into something completely our own.

After reading The Creative Habit you will come away a new writer and a new person. You will start filling up boxes with ideas and raw materials for new projects. And you will, I am certain, be renewed by a new and different energy that comes totally out of left field. Just get the book.

Read my plan for a fabulous 2014 in the January issue of New Dawn Magazine

I am rather excited about the latest issue of New Dawn magazine, which looks like this:

As well as being jam-packed full of fascinating stories by other people (including an article on angels, the always-fascinating Richard Smoley on gods, devils and demiurges and a fantastic piece by Matthew Levi Stevens on William Burroughs), there are also a couple of pieces by me that I am very proud of.

First up there is my guide to beginning the New Year with New Thought, in which I provide 8 tips to creating a truly fabulous 2014 using advice from some of the great masters of New Thought, including Charles Fillmore, Michael Bernard Beckwith and H. Emilie Cady. And in case you are wondering whether I walk my talk, I will also be using this as my growth guide for the year.

Michael Bernard Beckwith - one of the people who inspired my guide to 2014

Then there's my review of Mitch Horowitz's simply fantastic One Simple Idea, a great history of New Thought and positive thinking which demonstrates a true knowledge of the philosophical and religious tradition.

After that, my review of Stephanie Dowrick's great book on prayer, Heaven on Earth.

And finally, a very thoughtful review of my own new book Destination Cambodia, written by Reg Little!

What a fun-filled magazine!
It will be in Newsagents on January 1, so reserve your copy now, or rush in and get it as soon as you can. It is filled with good reading.

You can read all about New Dawn magazine here.

Ready to unlock your creativity?

A confession: I have never made it all the way through The Artist's Way.

I absolutely adore the first four chapters, but it is always around then that my enthusiasm begins to flounder and I put it aside, thinking I'll get back to it later. And then a year goes by and I have to start all over again. Multiply this cycle by about ten.
It has always been my fantasy to study the book with a group, and to use the positive peer pressure to keep on going and to find out exactly where the process might take me.
If you don't know what The Artist's Way is, it is perhaps the most seminal self-help guide to creativity ever written. Since it was first released in the 1990s, artists, writers, composers and performers all over the world have held it up as the most formative influence in  their creative lives. I can name a half dozen successful creative people who got through a difficult patch in their lives through applying the program laid out in this book.
Two elements of The Artist's Way program have become so well-known that the concept of them has transcended the book and moved into the general popular discourse. These are the ideas of the morning pages - sitting down first thing each morning and free-writing three pages in your journal without censorship; and the artist's date - taking yourself somewhere once a week all on your own in order to inspire your curiosity and creative expression.

But there is so much more wisdom in the book, and my friend Rosamund Burton is offering a 12 week Artist's Way course with Phoenix Rising Books in Glebe in order to open it up.

Such courses are rarely offered in Sydney, so you really should  take this opportunity to spoil yourself and enrol. It sounds like tremendous fun, and it should offer some genuinely transformative moments.

 The Artist’s Way
Unlock Your Creativity in 12 Weeks
Phoenix Rising Books | 31A Glebe Point Road |
Glebe NSW 2037
Mon 10 Feb to Mon 5 May 2014, 6–8pm
$290.00 | Earlybird rate up to 10 Jan $260.00
To book or for more information:
Email service[at sign]
or phone 02 9566 2157
Participants need to have their own copy of The Artist’s Way by JuliaCameron. The course is limited to 12 people.

Course leader: Rosamund Burton is an author and freelance journalist who has also worked as an actress. Her own path has been inspired by The Artist’s Way, which she credits for helping her to move through many creative blocks and pursue her passion to write. For more information go to

The Artist’s Way course, based on Julia Cameron’s book of the same name, takes you on a powerful personal journey to help you move beyond your creative blocks. Tackle procrastination, self-doubt and your
inner critic, as well as beliefs about lack of time and worries about money. Using practical tools, including the daily writing of ‘morning pages’ and a weekly ‘artist’s date’, discover your path to greater creativity and allow it to blossom.
Creativity is innate in every one of us. Packed with insights and inspiration this course offers the opportunity to discover how to effectively express and channel your creativity. At times it may be challenging, but it also has the potential to deeply transform you.

The Observant Writer

Stephanie Dowrick hard at work signing the fruits of her creative observation

“Writers are observers of life. They see things others don’t see. They listen when others don’t.”
Sharron Stockhausen, 20 Things Every Successful Writer Knows

I grew up in a time and in a place where it wasn’t polite to stare. If something awkward or embarrassing was happening to another person we were to look away as though it wasn’t happening and never, ever speak of it. Once, as children, my sister and I observed a plump middle-aged woman fall over in a yoga class, and we laughed about it for hours, repeating the details of the scene constantly to each other. When my mother discovered the source of our jollity we were soundly chastised. “And how would you feel if that was your mother other people were laughing about?” she asked.

But I am going to urge you to go against my dear mother’s just and true reservations. As writers we are kind of obliged to stare. Stare and ask questions. Stare, ask questions and write it all down when we get home.
That is our job, gentle manners be damned. These days someone toppling over in the middle of Reverse Warrior Pose would be grist for my authorly mill. I wouldn’t, as testament to my mother’s training, laugh out loud, but I would probably go and talk to the poor clumsy victim afterwards and then write it all up so that other people might laugh about it. Names and places changed, of course.

Michael Hyatt advises us to start with “Wow!” Can we honestly say that what we have written will make someone sit up and say it? Wow comes from really having an eye for the quirky, the small, the things that make life what it is and that make our writing truly come alive. It’s hard to be Wow when writing about sunsets, oceans or distant clouds. It is far easier to be interesting when identifying the things only you have noticed and seen as worthy of comment. The writer’s job is to make people remember things they had secretly known all along. Nothing is better than making the reader declare, “Yes! That is so true!”

Let’s work on doing that today – producing something that is absolutely filled with life. Listen closely to the way people really talk and see how you can re-create it on the page. Listen to their peculiar stories, their oddball ways of viewing life. Listen where others don’t – I am often intrigued by the details of rambles and rants that most others instinctively dismiss or avoid. I find rich pickings, for example, in the junk mail that finds its way into my letter box. It reveals to me an amazing word that I would otherwise know nothing of. Brazilian cults that distribute free vials of anointing oil, cramming schools active in four languages, diet-rich-quick schemes and a sad and affecting lost pet rabbit. Any of those things could find a place in a story, an article or a novel.

Too often I see writers who are just scraping by, who are writing stuff but not with any life or sense of enthusiasm. Stop that! The reason we write is because it makes us feel creative, special and alive. Put all of those qualities into what you write, each and every sentence. Be alive to what you experience each and every day, see it all with new eyes. One of the things I often ask my writing students to do is to write about their morning as though they were visiting a foreign country and it was all strange and new to them. This reveals to them the richness of the everyday, and it can also expose how much they have been missing about the wonder of their own lives. We take too much for granted. Spend a day as a journalist in your own life and discover just how many stories and note-worthy details pop up.

And most importantly, get out of the house. Creativity guru Julia Cameron has for decades advocated “The Artist’s Date” during which you take yourself, all alone, to a place or event that you think will stimulate your creative faculties. It needn’t be elaborate or expensive. Once I took a short bus trip to stand outside a locked church that had always intrigued me. I walked around it, noting its details. It came alive in my imagination because I was devoting time and energy to really observing it, imagining what it must be like inside.

Creativity guru Julia Cameron

Get to know new people, force yourself to be in new situations. Never, ever give in to the temptation to just spend a night at home. Be with other writers, too. Their ideas, their enthusiasm, can be immensely inspiring.

 Learn from one another, collaborate, open yourself up to their vision of the world. People who really live life are always filled with stories. Be one of those people.

I originally published this article in the October 2013 edition of FreeXpresSion.
You can buy Sharron Stockhausen's ebook here - it is excellent and I really recommend it.  

My most listened to songs of 2013

Well, I have listed my most inspirational books and my favourite albums of the year, so all that's left is to let you know what songs are the most played on my itunes list. This is always where reality calls - the hard evidence of what it was I listened to over and over again during the course of the year. It's always potentially embarrassing, but also quite illuminating, so here goes: the songs I listened to most in 2013, according to itunes:

1. (65 plays) Carolyn's Fingers by the Cocteau Twins - I am a child of the 80s, and the distinctive sound of the Cocteau Twins is always something that brings that most glamorous decade to mind. This is one of their more upbeat, fun numbers. Have a listen - if you don't know the Cocteau Twins I think you'll like it.

2. (61 plays) The Only Way Out by Cliff Richard - LOL - didn't I say this would quickly get embarrassing? But the fact is I love 80s/90s Cliff, and this is an intriguing song, for many reasons. Ostensibly about a gal he likes, it is quite clearly about God and contains a healthy metaphysical message: The only way out is the only way in and it's you. They actually use this as a hymn at a Spiritualist Church I go to sometimes.

3. (56 plays) I'll be Waiting by Adele - I know everyone loves her now and that she's totally mainstream, but she is still fabulous, and this is a killer song. Brings out my inner drag queen.

4. (55 plays) Out With Her by The Blow Monkeys - Not everyone remembers The Blow Monkeys, but they were a truly wonderful 80s band, ultra-stylish and smooth. This is laid-back easy-listening funk at its best, and it always makes me feel good.

5. (55 plays) Half a Minute by Matt Bianco - Some 80s bossa nova groove. Gets me jiggling when I sit down to write every day.

6. (53 plays) Mama Never Knew by Boy George - This is Boy George's sleek New York sound from 1988 and the brilliantly smooth album Tense Nervous Headache (best title ever). Torchy, bluesy and kind of touching, I have always loved this song.

Best Albums of 2013

I've collected my best reads of the year, so here is my selection of this year's best music. No apologies for them being slightly retro, reasonably quirky and terribly camp.

1. If I Want To by Jasmine Rae - Modern Australian country with soulful twist, I have loved all of Jasmine's albums. But this one marks a profound shift into a more mature and funky style, and the songs are exquisite. One of Australia's most talented people.

2. This is What I Do by Boy George - His first full studio album in years, this marks a return to the soulful, bluesy music that he's always been good at, complete with opaque, bitter lyrics and a constant interest in love, rejection and God. George's voice is sounding better than ever, and anyone who has heard this album has come away saying, "Wow - he really is amazing." The first single, King of Everything, is probably my song of the year.

3. A by Agnetha Faltskog - The famous recluse comes out of retirement to release a stunning album perfecty pitched to her fans. Agnetha has always been an awesome talent and a great legend. Now she is also, officially, a diva. Let's hope there are many more albums to come.

4. Kensal Road by Kate Ceberano - This has been a terrific year for Australian music, and I always look forward to a new Kate Ceberano release. The striking cover image, which was put up as posters all across innner-city cafes, is enough to sell the album all on its own - Kate grows more beautiful with each passing year. This album is quirky and varied, and Kate is in fine voice. I feel like I have a long way to go with this one - it is music with tremendous depth.

5. Swing by Renee Geyer - The grand old lady of Australian soul and funk releases an album of big band music and it is HOT! Way better than anyone had a right to expect, Swing shows Renee, a stellar talent by any measure, move into a Faithfull-esque gravel that renders these songs intimately sexy and even, occasionally, moving. Please, Renee, let's have much more in the coming years. Truly amazing.

6. Closer to the Truth by Cher - Speaking of divas that never disappoint, Cher has released a new album which has her looking 15 years younger than she did during the last one and sounding fine. It's all here - hi NRG, super-camp dance hits (of course, the first single Woman's World had a drag version out that was even more popular than the official music video) and Cher sounding better than ever. This woman simply cannot record a dud song - the moment that incredibly distinctve voice tackles something it becomes a gem. I have had so much fun with this album. Perfect party music.

Beams Falling - a new book in 2014 from Australian crime writer P M Newton

I live in Cabramatta, one of the most vibrant, fascinating and multicultural areas in Sydney. It's no secret that I love this place, and I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else. I can have all the fantastic food I want, I can visit a different Buddhist temple every day of the week and never double up, and I can hang out in cafes sipping avocado shake or cafe sua da till the cows come home.

Of course, Cabramatta has had a tricky past, and in the time I have lived her (more than ten years now) I have seen its fortunes wax and wane. But there is no escaping the fact that it is one of Sydney's cultural powerhouses.

I am terribly excited to announce that my pal, the crime writer P M Newton, has a new novel coming out next year (published by Penguin) that is set in the tough streets of Cabramatta in the early 1990s. And P M Newton knows those streets well - she was a police officer here during those years.

P M Newton

The book is called Beams Falling (can anyone identify the source of this beautiful title?) and that's just about all I can say at this stage.

Oh, and it's due for a March 2014 release. The cover has been unveiled, and it references the cover design of her previous book The Old School, which was set in Bankstown.

I love Sydney writing, and am always interested to see how it is represented in books.

I seem to remember that, back in the day, Marele Day wrote a crime novel set in Cabramatta. Does anyone know of any other mentions of Cabramatta in Australian fiction?

You can read my chat with P M Newton recently at the Tom Keneally Centre at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts here.

Essential Books for Authors: Platform by Michael Hyatt

This is the book that I have been recommending to all authors, bloggers and creatives for over a year now. I think it is, quite simply, the most valuable read there is, and I don't think any writer can possibly move ahead without instituting at least some of the advice available in its pages.

In fact, I normally tell people that if they simply instituted six pieces of advice from this book their career would take off.

So what is it and why am I raving about it so much?

Platform is Michael Hyatt's manifesto for creating an on-line platform and getting yourself heard and known.

Hyatt knows what he's talking about. He is a successful publisher, speaker, blogger and author all on his own, and his own example is the best illustration of every piece of advice in this book.

Since reading this I have also become a dedicated listener to his wonderful podcast 'This is Your Life'.

Michael Hyatt

Platform is not a book for sitting back with in a cosy chair and having a laid-back read. It is intensely practical, and needs to be read with a pencil and notebook at the ready. I found myself turning the corner down on almost every single page till it became quite ridiculous and I realised I had to start reading all over again with a definite purpose in mind and my journal ready to record exactly how I was going to put Hyatt’s ideas into practice.

Divided up into sensible and necessary steps along the journey to creating a platform, this book is most practical, inspiring and common-sense guide I have probably ever read.

It has caused me to be a little less gentle and patient with new writers, as well. As Hyatt points out, there is almost no point any more in pursuing a writing career if you aren't at the same time creating a public platform from which to recruit readers and interest peers and publishers. It is that simple and that crucial.

The blog, of course, is the key to anyone’s platform and in this book Hyatt offers a huge number of ideas and systems to make your blog better and more manageable, Of particular interest to me was the section on maintaining a list of blog post ideas - I plan to put this into operation in 2014.

So what are the six pieces of advice from Platform that all authors and wannabe authors should put into operation immediately?

1. Get your own domain name, and get it now.
2. Create your own blog
3. Get on Twitter and get active.
4. Write blog posts quickly and when the mood takes you - take advantage of inspiration
5. Train yourself in public speaking and start looking for public speaking opportunities.
6. Build a tribe of people who love you and are enthusiastic about what you are doing. Give as much back to your tribe as they give to you. Create around you a community of supportive people, and aim to be the most supportive member of that community.

Get Platform now and read it before the New Year. If you start reading it and putting Hyatt's advice into action you will start noticing results straight away.

Read another review of Platform here.

Michael Hyatt was named one of the 30 best male bloggers in the world. See the full list here.

Read an interview with Michael Hyatt here.

Hear/read Michael Hyatt himself explain why you need a platform to succeed, here.

Walter Mason's holiday reading

Let's face it, I don't really have a holiday coming up. Like most writers, I am pretty much working constantly. But I DO realise that it's the holiday season, and I do have some special reading lined up. Besides, I was inspired by the recent email from the NSW Writers' Centre, which told us what its staff were planning on reading for the holidays, and I found it absolutely fascinating. So here's what I plan to tackle over Christmas and the Australian Summer:

Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney's Chinese by Shirley Fitzgerald - This was actually a gift, but it looks utterly fascinating, and it is a topic that has always intrigued me.

Diary of a Taxi Driver by Cai Mingjie - I bought this when I was in Singapore this year, but I never got around to reading it. I am always so interested to read about occupations rarely dealt with in literature. This guy has a PhD!

Ghosts of the Empire by Justin Sheedy - A brand new release from a very old pal.

Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf by David Madsen - Another gift, the description of this novel on the back cover makes it irresistable. A perverted historical religious novel set in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The One Minute Millionaire by Mark Victor Hansen - Has been recommended to me by so many people. Who knows, maybe after I've finished this one I WILL be able to take a proper holiday?

Tales of Old Bangkok by Chris Burslem - Another one to help me pretend I am on holiday. This looks great - excerpts from old Thai newspapers that reveal what life was once like in this most sensational city.

E-Publishing Survival - a 2014 course coming up at NSW Writers' Centre

A few weeks ago I was part of an e-publishing seminar at the NSW Writers' Centre, and I saw first-hand how much interest there is in people writing, creating and distributing their own e-books. Indeed, it is something I encourage the people who study creative writing with me to do. Stop waiting for the publishers to come to you. Become your own publisher!

NSW Writers' Centre

So I note with interest a course coming up in 2014 at the NSW Writers' Centre - E-Publishing Survival, being taught by David Henley.

This looks like a must-do course for any serious, unpublished author living in or near Sydney. The information will be invaluable and I am sure it will be an incredibly inspiring course.

Here are the details. Can I say that I have nothing to do with this course or its content, and that I profit in no way from promoting it. I do, however, occasionally work for the NSW Writers' Centre, and I am a member. But I simply think this course will be an excellent way to spend your time and money, and I know that many new writers read this blog:

E-Publishing Survival

Who: David Henley
When: 6 x Tuesday evenings: 4, 11, 18, 25 March; 1, 8 April, 6:30pm-9:30pm
Cost: Full Price: $660; Member: $460; Conc Member: $395

This course is for beginners, but students must be comfortable with using the internet and providing online portals with personal and financial information.

They said it would be easy. They said all you had to do was write the book. They never told you about the thousand and one things that need to get done to get your work out into the world.

From making an ebook of your own, through to choosing your distribution strategy and the financial implications of each; from metadata to social media; this course can help you get from whatever stage you are at now through to publication. Find a pathway through the multitude of choices you have to make in the development, production and promotion of your book.

In the last decade the world of publishing has altered dramatically. With the right tools anyone in the world can make their text accessible. The rise of the internet and the development of handheld devices have rocked a centuries old model. Authors and publishers alike are faced with a new frontier.

This course will introduce participants to the nitty-gritty of the world of e-publishing, from desktop to Amazon, iBooks, Google and more. With a focus on the details and impediments that often hold authors up, to building an online audience and getting noticed.

    Traditional publishing model versus new publishing model
    An overview of the digital marketplace for books
    Dissecting the ebook
    Making an ebook from scratch
    Microsoft Word, Pages, Scrivener
    Checking an ebook
    Fixing problems
    Designing a cover and other visual assets
    Digital distribution
    Taxes and Income
    Your web presence
    Social media
    Marketing and advertising

Over six sessions David Henley – published author, self publisher and producer at Seizure – will take a different weekly focus and offer one-on-one training, guidance and exercises individualised for each participant.

By the end of the six weeks participants should have successfully published their work online.

About the tutor

David Henley has been working in Australian publishing for over ten years and has walked the road of self-publishing before, as well as taken dozens of books through to publication. He is one of the founders of Xou Creative that provides production services to publishers large, small and independent and is the producer at Seizure, a volunteer run publishing movement. David has previously taught courses and seminars for the NSW Society of Editors, the University of Technology, Sydney, and the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

More info and online booking here.

Sister Jayanti's guide to long-lasting happiness

Sister Jayanti teaching in Sydney

This week I was fortunate enough to hear the wonderful Sister Jayanti live in Sydney. Sister Jayanti is one of the leaders of the Brahma Kumaris movement and their NGO Representative to the United Nations. She is also a beautiful, softly spoken and gentle soul and being in her presence is to know real calm and love. Here is my own summary of the message of Sister Jayanti's talk:

1. Care for the soul - our soul is a being of light, and perhaps our true being. It is impossible to describe in words, but many of us sense the presence of this extraordinary experience of being. It is our sacred element, and the more we recognise it and attend to its needs, the more it will manifest in our lives, thoughts and actions.

2. Meditate - food, drink and relationships all bring us brief moments of happiness, but a sustained meditation practice brings us a deep and true happiness. Sister Jayanti teaches a soul-conscious meditation. When we meditate we are fully engaged with our life and being, and it helps to strengthen and purify our everyday thoughts. It helps us to cultivate the mental power to more consciously choose the thoughts that run our lives.

3. Master your mind - see above. We spend a lot of time conquering our bodies and many of our more destructive urges. But at some point we give in and allow our minds free reign. So we rarely structure our leisure time, our conversations with friends and colleagues etc. If we can master the senses and the self we can more fully live our own most treasured values. Stop betraying yourself.

4. Build the energy that is carrying us upwards  - most people have a moral compass that tells them what thoughts and activites are helpful and conducive to a better life and what are more destructive. Consciously try to build on that positive energy, the energy we intuit lifts us upwards. Choose the better response, and take the opportunity to be the better person. We all give in to those negative and destructive impulses. It's time we strengthened our best selves. 

5. Become more aware of positive values - we have all experienced goodness, love and kindness. Become more conscious of those actions in others, and actively praise and encourage those actions when we see them. Further, seek to copy those same actions in your own life. Look for the goodness in the world around you, and help those people who are doing good. Then do good yourself.

6. Show some appreciation and gratitude - acknowledging the help of others and being more consciously grateful for it makes us inordinately happier. Complain less and praise more. Keep a list of things you are grateful for and reflect on them often. Go out of your way just a bit to show kindness to others.

I was lucky enough to have my copy of Sister Jayanti's book God's Healing Power signed by the author herself. It was a wonderful moment to meet her and look into her eyes. Check out the book here.

Susan Murphy Roshi's guide to being fully present now

On the weekend I spent the day with Susan Murphy Roshi at the Where to from Now? Event in Berry. Susan is a Zen Master and one of Australia's senior spiritual teachers, and it was a wonderful gift to be able to listen to her up close and personal. The following little practical guide is my own summary of Murphy Roshi's talk:

1. Stay on the same page - in the age of internet browsing we are used to clicking on the next link and moving on to the next page, often without even finishing the page we are on. We can lose whole hours this way, and it creates an inner restlessness. Let's try reading one page at a time and not giving in to the urge to click on that tantalisingly highlighted next word.

2. Meditate deeply - in meditation we realise that there is no separation, that there is no difference between us and the eternity of the Earth. We are the solar system. How can we ever be bored when we consider something like that.

3. Study Zen - Murphy Roshi talked about her moments of childhood awareness, when she experienced a full knowledge of her limitlessness. Zen practice put her back in touch with these childhood moments, when she had a realisation of other worlds. Such realisations are beyond words and beyond explanation. We need some kind of discipline and some kind of framework in which to experience them.

4. Open your mind up to other traditions - Susan spoke of the recent pronouncements of Pope Francis, and how they have inspired her. Just because we practice in, and are dedicated to, one particular spiritual tradition doesn't mean that we can't find useful things in other traditions.

5. Don't just gnash your teeth - moaning and whingeing about the state of the world is not fruitful and is not good for us. Act on your own conscience, and don't give in to indifference. We must actively encourage our leaders to change. We are all in this together.

6. We all bear the responsibility for love - the cultivation of compassion in our world should rest evenly on the shoulders of us all. Meditation helps us realise that we are never separate from the world or from other people. The universe is part of us, and we are part of it. Stay open to the possibilities of spreading love and doing good.

Zen Roshi Dr Susan Murphy is the founding teacher of Zen Open Circle.You can read an article by her in the Huffington Post here.

Nancy in a hot climate

I have just received the 1991 Folio Society edition of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. because I am a Mitfordophile. I adore all things belonging to that least idle aristocratic family, but my principal adoration is for Nancy, the oldest sister and, I don’t think anyone would disagree, the greatest talent.

Cover of the Folio Soc. ed. of Love in a Cold Climate

Like most things in my middle age, this particular passion began when I was a teenager. I happened to be idly flicking through the channels one afternoon when I was thirteen and I chanced upon the 1980s Thames Television production of Love in a Cold Climate (starring Judi Dench) and was instantly absorbed into a high-camp aristocratic world that I had previously known nothing about. It was an episode featuring Cedric, the Queer Canadian cousin who enters the frumpy world of Lady Montdore and transforms her into a glamour queen, principally through the application of rouge. It was the stage in my life when I was looking for anything even remotely gay, and I burned the show’s name and the original author into my memory (I was watching at my cousin’s house) until I  got home, where I jotted it down and kept it as a holy relic, hoping someday that I might be able to read this new, most favourite, novel.

As it happened, my small-town library had The Pursuit of Love, and later when I went to Townsville I found, in Mary Who? Bookshop, a slim paperback copy of Love in a Cold Climate, and my world would never be the same. This was 1985 or 1986, and though there must have been plenty of Mitford fans in the world at this stage, I hadn’t met or heard of any. I pieced together something of a family history, both from Nancy’s autobiographical novels and the mentions I found in other books. I believe there may even have been a brief article The Face magazine which helped me fill in some gaps.

It wasn’t till the early 90s, though, that Mitford-mania really hit its stride. Suddenly every single member of the Mitford family was being re-issued or written about. Earlier books that had been rarities (such as David Pryce-Jonesbiography of Unity) suddenly became expensive rare books. Vanity Fair commented on the hysteria surrounding the Mitfords. Letters, diaries, family histories, obscure biographical details – anything related to the Sisters Mitford became interesting.

Though the beautiful and stylish Nancy had died in the 70s, most of the others were still alive – Decca a contented old Communist in California, Diana patrician and terrifying in the South of France and Debo living quietly with her chickens, one of the richest women in England as Duchess of Devonshire. When the first two died (Debo is still going strong) I felt it as a personal loss.

Somewhere along the way I lost that original paperback edition of Love in a Cold Climate. It may be that it fell apart – I must have read it 20 or more times in the first two years I owned it. Its cover was pink and unsuitably girlish, so I had to hide it from my father, who always disapproved of my reading matter. But I always acknowledge Nancy’s enormous influence on my life. I use her as my measure of literary success, and I have always wanted to write with her lightness, her freshness and her sense of fun. 

In recent years there has been something of a resurgence in Mitford-mania. This year saw the release of a self-help bok called The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life, and a new biography of Unity, that most intriguing of the sisters. We have also had reissues of some of Nancy's earlier and (perhaps deservedly) more obscure novels and Diana's excellent books. Penguin seem to be perpetually re-releasing the Nancy Mitford novels in new chick-lit covers.

There's a great Twitter channel called @Mitfordmania which is well worth following
A more in-depth look at Diana Mosley here 

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