Teach Us to Sit Still is the thought-provoking and entertaining story of Tim Parks ªÆ quest to overcome ill health. Suffering a crippling condition which nobody could explain or relieve, and having endured endless tests and investigations, he confronts hard truths about the relationship between the mind and the body, the hectic modern world and his life as a writer. Following a fruitless journey through the conventional medical system he finds solace in a prescription of breathing exercises that eventually leads him to take up meditation - the very last place Parks expected or wanted to find answers. Meantime, he is drawn to consider the effects of illness on the work of other writers, the role of religions in shaping our sense of self, and the influence of sport and art in our attitudes to health and well-being. This intimate, captivating and honest description of a man ªÆs journey through illness may help many more - and especially men, who are notoriously shy of these matters - through their healing.
335pp, 128mm x 196mm, Paperback, illus in b&w, 2010
So why did you come? I demanded of myself in bed. Surely you didn't really believe this experiment would help you stand up straight. Who cared about standing up straight, anyway? Why had I chosen to give the business of posture such symbolic force?
Oddly, it now appeared that there was a gap between my actually being here, in this remote valley, sharing a room with two younger men (one snoring steadily), and some moment in the past when, presumably, I had had my good reasons for signing up to five days of Vipassana meditation.
Had I thought of it as penitence?
No. Since age fifteen I have refused to think of myself as a sinner.
I stayed awake for some time, got up to go to the bathroom, returned, listened to the man snoring, put in my earplugs, turned to the wall.
'You were looking for a showdown with yourself,' I muttered. That was it. A showdown with this tangled self, these tussling selves. You decided that without that showdown the pains would soon be back. Or other pains.
What form would that showdown take? I had no idea. But I had been told that, sitting in silence for days, people do come to a new knowledge of themselves. That was the goal. Knowledge, confrontation. To plumb the source of my tensions and defuse them once and for all. Settle once and for all that 'tussle in the mind'.
* * * * *
Had I left the retreat after lunch on day three, I would never have 'meditated' again. On the evening of the second day two young men disappeared. I heard angry voices from the garden during the afternoon break and at the evening session they were gone. If I had left with them, I could have read a book, or gone running, or canoeing, or for a walk with Rita and the dog. Halfway through the third morning, another place was empty. The maestro spoke calmly of 'right effort, right concentration, right awareness'. 'If you experience pleasure in your meditation,' he said, 'do not attach to it with yearning. If you experience pain, do not attach to it with aversion.'
Attachment with aversion was a new idea to me. But I sensed at once what he meant. It was like when I read an author I despised because I despised him, because I enjoyed thinking what a scandal it was that this man was a celebrity. Or when I kept complaining about a colleague at the university because my identity was intensified by my opposition to him. Or when I listened to the radio outside Ruggero's study in order to loathe it. Did I attach to pain in the same way? Scratching sores. Was it possible that this grand showdown with myself that I had planned and been denied actually had to do with the pain I was now experiencing? The showdown was taking place without my realising it was the showdown. Why else would I continue to sit cross-legged, without a break, when others had chosen to remove to chairs from time to time?
This form of meditation where you concentrate entirely on the breath was called Anapana, we were told, and merely preparatory to Vipassana, which was something quite different and more challenging. Only when the mind had been tamed and tied down to the breath crossing the lip, like a dog to a chain, could we progress. That would be the fourth day. I knew I wouldn't be ready. But on the third evening, towards the end of the last session, something happened. In the midst of the usual fierce pains, with a strange naturalness and inevitability, my consciousness at last fused with my upper lip: the breath, the lip, the mind, these apparently incompatible entities did, in fact, fit together, flow together, were one. I was my lip bathed in soft breath. At once the breathing that had been irregular and forced subsided to a light caress passing back and forth across the skin, a soft rising and falling breathed, not by me it seemed, but by my whole body, by the air outside my body, by everything around me. Then, as if at the touch of a switch, the scalding rigidity tensing thighs and hips dissolved. In a moment, the lower body sank into suppleness. Where there had been formless pain, I became aware of thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet. A strange heat was being forced downward through them. My bare feet were cold but a hot pain was passing out pleasantly through the soles.
The experience could not have been more unexpected. Or more welcome. I was immediately anxious it must end at once, anxious that some malignant thought would rise up to cancel it out. Don't think, Tim. Do not think! Do not give yourself commands not to think! Silence! I focused on that breath that now seemed so strangely detached from me, or rather that I was just a small part of, as if the boundaries that routinely separated me from the world that was not me had blurred. And after perhaps a minute - but there is no measuring time in these circumstances - like a prisoner released from a yoke, my back, which had been cramped and bent, rose gently upright and was straight. As it did so, I was aware of each of the muscles that quietly lifted it. I felt how natural the erect position was. I felt blessed.
From 'Teach Us To Sit Still', © 2011 by Tim Parks, published by Vintage.