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