Review: Teach Us To Sit Still – Tim Parks

Noted novelist and translator Tim Parks has departed from his usual themes to write this autobiographical account of his journey from a life dominated by acute pain to one where a reasonable equilibrium between body and soul enables him to live in relative comfort and healthy productivity.

Teach Us To Sit Still will be of great interest to anyone with a chronic medical condition which the doctors seem unable to cure, but also to anyone who is concerned about work/life balance and the long-term effects of ignoring the body’s needs.   I can’t say I’m in any either of those categories but I still found it a fascinating read.  But the book is not only about pain and a quest for healing, for Tim, being the writer and scholar that he is, digresses frequently into philosophical and literary themes which break up the stark accounts of medical processes.

Tim Parks developed a set of problems in the region of prostate, groin and pelvis which had a devastating effect on his life.   The first part of the book describes the medical explorations which he had to undergo in order to seek a diagnosis.   Any man reading the book is going to squirm with discomfort as Parks’ recounts the procedures carried out on him, some of which make root canal work sound like a head massage.   There are touches of humour, such as his account of the time he had to pee into a small plastic urinal called a “parrot”, while lying on his back (impossible for him – I can sympathise I’m sure), but generally this section is pretty grim.

I can only admire Tim for his candour in sharing with his readers the daily humiliations caused by his complaint – going to the loo six or seven times a night may be manageable at home, but not while sharing a room with fellow attendees of a conference.  Or the time he goes to the loo in a restaurant, and takes so long to pee that the timer on the light triggers leaving him in total darkness and unable to find his way out.  But nobody wants to hear a doctor say, “It has to hurt I’m afraid”, and there is pain in such quantities I found I had to skip quickly through some paragraphs.

Back home, Tim spends the nights drowsing between pees and sometimes firing up his laptop and to find out more and more about chronic pelvic pain – a dispiriting business, for it seems that many people share his problem and find that it is often caused by horrendous medical conditions, treatment for which often leaves you much less of a man than you were before.

Meanwhile the tests he undergoes all show that there is nothing wrong with him.  His relief at finding out that he does not after all have prostate cancer is tempered by having to go home to live with the condition, perhaps for ever.  However, such is Tim’s desparation, that he starts to investigate alternative forms of medicine, vistiing an Ayuverdic practioner who has interesting but bizarre things to say, and then finding a book by Doctor David Wise, A Headache in the Pelvis which seems to be a turning point in his journey towards recovery.

Dr Wise’s book has a radical approach:

Many of our patients are simply too busy to dedicate themselves to our treatment.  These people, men and women, were not yet suffering enough.  They still saw their pains as an irritating waste of time, a distraciton to put behind them as quickly as possible.  Hence there were drawn to accounts of their illness that saw a rapid colution in drugs or a surgical operation.  No personal energies need to expended. It could be paid for, hopefully by the State. We strongly advise these patients to accept these pains as the main curriculum of their lives.

The book goes on to describe a time-consuming method called “paradoxical relaxation”.   Tim describes his struggle to find an hour, in “the best period of the day”, to practice Dr Wise’s relaxation method, but his efforts are rewarded almost instantly by feelings of warmth and rolling waves of sensation in his belly.  Within a short time he starts to get his life back, and finds that his belly is calm and his bladder is comfortable.  He tries to understand what his happening and it seems to be something to do with relaxing the pelvic floor.  He realises that in fact his whole body is full of tension:

How could I ever have let myself arrive at this state? I brushed my teeth ferociously, as if I wanted to file them down. I yanked on my socks as if determined to thrust my toes right through them. I tied my shoes as if intent on snapping the laces.  When I pushed a command button, I did so as if it was my personal strenght that must send the lift to the sixth floor, or raise the door of the garage.  While I shaved I tensed my jaw, while I read I tensed my throat, while I ate I tensed my forehead . . .

A painful process of self-recognition indeed, and any reader must find something of value in Tim’s description of how a relentless drive can wreak havoc with the sense of well-being we experience at rare times of total relaxation.

In the last third of the book we read of Tim’s decision to take up Vipassana meditation.  He attends a meditation retreat and finds it an incredibly painful experience – the cross-legged posture with an unsupported back seems to be an essential part of the practice,

After half an hour toes, feet, ankles, knees, thighs and hips welded together in a scorching pyre from which my curved trunk rose like the torso of some broken martyr.

But Tim perseveres through the four days and finds remarkable effects which I won’t repeat here.  He goes for a longer retreat with led by a noted guru and struggles with further physical pain throughout the week, but finds the effects are even more remarkable.  At the end of the course, Tim finds that the meditation has left him with a new experience of daily life

Everything was intensely itself, source at once of fascination and indifference.  Scattered crumbs, splashed milk. I gazed at them.  As in a Cézanne, each object had been set free from the mesh of human interpretation.  A cup beside a slice of melon.  Absolutely themselves.  I say the words now – cup, melon – but my mind at the time was wordless.  The cup, the melon were things without words, not in rlation, not part of a sentence of a story. . . I looked at the young man across the table . . . he was holding a biscuit using a knife to smear it with pink jam.  It was too intense.  The jam was too pink.  The strong fingers too present.

On a personal note, many years ago now I attended a summer school of classical guitar and after a week of concentrated playing and listening, when it came time to leave the conference centre, I found an incredible sense of heightened awareness such that every colour seemed to be vibrating, the whole world fresh and new as though it had just been created.   This sort of thing seems to be a by-product of intense concentration, and while I am not suggesting that my week of guitar music equated to ten days of Vipisannic mediation, the effects were strangely similar to those Tim describes.

By the end of the book, it is evident that Tim has recovered from his chronic pelvic pain and has noticed other benefits too, such as improved posture, and a more balanced outlook.  It has been a long and tortuous journey and his readers have shared it with him.  I think most people would recognise the need for more centredness in their lives, and I think many readers would see how mediation practices could help them with niggling symptoms which inhabit the background of their lives, if not occupying a more dominant position.

Title:  Teach Us To Sit Still
Author:  Tim Parks
Publication:   Harvill Secker (1 July 2010), Paperback, 335 pages
ISBN:  9781846553998

15 thoughts on “Review: Teach Us To Sit Still – Tim Parks

  1. Interesting – and what a relief to learn that Tim Parks didn’t have prostate cancer after all [am so glad you revealed that, Tom!]. Living with painful chronic conditions is a constant test, and exhausting on all fronts. So it is great that such a clever and deeply reflective writer has discovered and described practical coping strategies.
    Don’t think there’s anything especially revelatory here, tho’. The heightened-but-relaxed sensations as a result of intense focus are what psychologists describe as ‘flow’ (ask any creative artist or dedicated craftsperson). ‘Flow’ is akin to meditation, ie total absorption in something outside oneself – and we could probably all benefit from, well, going with it a bit more …
    But do so wish authors would generally declare a moratorium on mining T S Eliot for their titles. In this instance, Parks linking his own sufferings with those in ‘Ash Wednesday’ is pushing it a bit!


    • Minnie – yes, Eliot is a great inspirer of book titles. But I don’t like this title. It sounds like a prayer, but Parks takes great pains to show us that he is a “sceptic”. Perhaps he is not as much a sceptic as he likes to think.


  2. Good for him for writing about it as his experience may give readers encouragement to seek alternate routes for therapy. It can’t all be pill-popping.

    Have you read any of his novels?


    • Thanks for visiting Guy – yes, I read one ages ago but can’t remember which one. He seems to have been pretty prolific and is almost bilingual in Italian/English – what an achievement that must be.


  3. I’ve read a lot of his early novels and some of his non-fiction. I’ve read Tongues of Flame (his first, good), Loving Roger (a whydunnit, I liked it a lot), Goodness (excellent as I recall) and the comic novels Cara Massamina and Mimi’s Ghost (both fun).

    I’ve also read Italian Neighbours and Italian Education. I should get back into him actually. I never read a Tim Parks novel I didn’t enjoy, somehow though I lost the habit. Curious and regrettable.


    • Guy – I think Tim Pears is pretty much an established literary author (shortlisted for Booker etc), although I don’t know him all that well.


  4. I’ve never heard of him BUT I found your review fascinating. (I probably don’t need to read the book now – but don’t tell the publisher that! – as I think I’ve got from your review the main message of the book. I loved his description of the intensity and tension with which he had been going about his life. It reminded me of my last few years at work. I loved my job but in the last years was managing some exhausting personalities. At the end of each week I’d rapid fire spew out verbal diarrhoea (to be a little tautologous!) in a rather heightened voice. I must have exhausted all around me. Not long after retiring I suddenly realised how relaxed I was – and the place I noticed it first was in my body and voice. It was a huge (albeit rather late) lesson in the physical impact of emotional/mental stress. I am retired but am also now doing yoga!! What bliss!

    PS You reply to Minnie but I don’t see her post? Has it disappeared?


    • Sue – thanks for the comment. I can still see Minnie’s post – its the first one. I wonder why its not visible to you. I’ve checked with a different browser and I can still see it. Strange.

      Yes, I don’t usually spoil a book, but all the other reviewers in newspapers have told the story, and in any case, most of it is on the back cover.

      Retirement definitely has brought me more relaxation too – its most noticeable in my driving!


  5. I’ve just finished this book, and thought it was excellent, if a touch overlong. One aspect of Parks which was interesting to me was his upbringing, and how this inspired his fevered drive in his career – he has published 21 books, and for the last decade has published almost every year. I also identified with the ruminative, worry-wart aspect of Parks’ personality, as well as his ‘problem’ of always having his mind running at a hundred miles a minute, filled with words and unable to rest.


    • John – “‘problem’ of always having his mind running at a hundred miles a minute, filled with words and unable to rest” – the state of the book blogger perhaps? We churn out words as fast as any journalist I am sure. I am sure you are right about his “fevered drive” – and it seems that this was a big contributor to his condition


  6. Ah Minnie’s, comment is there now … probably some little system burble. And, I hope you don’t think I was taking you to task re spoiling – that wasn’t my point at all. It was more that for some books a nice summary of the issues/message may be all I need in my time-poor state!

    In fact I have a bit of an issue about the “don’t spoil” thing because I like to think I’m not reviewing but reflecting, and it’s hard sometimes to do that without spoiling.


    • Sue – We are book bloggers not reviewers and will want to write about our experience of the book, not just a review – sometimes we will go further than a newspaper review. Readers beware! Thanks for visiting – I know about “time poor”!


  7. I see myself as reflecting rather than reviewing too, but even that’s a form of review ultimately.

    With the spoiler thing, I like to avoid them in part because I’m mostly talking about books that most people haven’t read and if what I write interests them it would be nice for them to have the chance be able to make the same discoveries that I did.

    I think it’s nice to warn of spoilers, particularly if the book depends heavily on plot or resolution of character arc or something like that. I don’t think it’s necessary to avoid them, that’s just my personal preference.

    Writing about all twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time without spoilers though was a challenge . By the time you get to volume 11, avoiding spoilers for what’s happened to characters since volume 1 is tricky stuff.


    • Max – thanks for the thoughts. So long as you put a spoiler warning on the review I don’t really see a problem with it. With the Parks book, its pretty much described in the publicity blurb anyway, which I feel give me permission to spoil! I think when you’re writing about a classic book or series such as DTTMOT there’s no harm in it – you need to discuss the plot and the outcome to make your articles complete. Thanks for visiting.


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