A must-read for anyone challenged by pain, either acute or chronic, and perhaps especially valuable for sceptics of complementary approaches to health.
Tim Parks has lived the life of the mind; a successful writer, author of over twenty books with his novel, Europa, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Teach Us to Sit Still is a personal memoir that begins with debilitating illness and a realisation that he is only really aware of his body when it starts to become a serious nuisance to him. He endures a range of painful prostate symptoms but examinations and tests fail to find anything wrong.
Much of the entertainment and comedy of the book is that Parks is the most reluctant convert to a healthier way of life. It is not a holistic process of ‘tuning in’ – Parks is far too rationalist for that – rather, his mind, full of information from the internet, issues diktats and ultimatums to the body, which unsurprisingly doesn’t respond. Change happens slowly as he accepts that his body is rigid with tension and the tentative experiments that desperation drives him to start to help. On a visit to India he consults an Ayurveda doctor who tells him, ‘This is a problem you will never get over until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.’
Through his exploration he discovers how tense he is , and how to relax; that while he has accepted pain into his life his illness has now been ‘cut down to size, emptied of fear and menace.’ He writes, ‘What self-respecting illness would allow you to halt its hitherto inexorable advance with a few deep breaths?
‘ I felt sure that the worst was behind me and this conviction altered my state of mind and the texture of each passing day. ‘More than that, I wasn’t even interested in the pains any more. Or not for themselves. I was learning to go towards them rather than pull away, to feel them fully as I lay with eyes closed….. Instead of seeing the future as a life sentence to be served in a narrower and narrower cell, I was looking forward to adventure and exploration.
‘In the space of a few weeks, then, the mystery of this ugly, wearying condition had given way to the positive and inviting mystery of the body, the same body that I had hitherto studiously ignored. This new mystery was something that opened out rather than closing in….’
Parks is as sceptical about religion as he is about alternative medicine. Nevertheless he movingly describes attending a ten-day Vipassana retreat run by the Buddhist teacher, John Coleman. There he experiences the pain of sitting, boredom, the mind going into overdrive, rebelliousness – ‘fat, old Coleman is mad’ he decides at one point – but also deep silent connection with other participants and moments where, beyond language, every object and detail has unique spaciousness and clarity.
His story is a wonderful account of a healing where seemingly random choices made in desperation turn out to be a path to better health. Part of that journey is a record of the nagging difficulty of living with pain on a daily basis, of family life with its rhythm both of normality and what is left unsaid, and the often surreal task of coping with hospital procedures and bureaucracy. Throughout it all, in this honest and intelligent book, Parks remains an unrepentant sceptic.