Teach us to Sit Still – it’s the real thing

Teach us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks, Harvill Secker, £12.99

Do I have to say this? Yes, I suppose I ought: Tim Parks‘s digressive memoir of his debilitating but ultimately life-affirming struggle with pelvic pain made me leak a few tears, guffaw a lot, and besides quietly instructing me in some fresh perspectives – on such matters as Samuel Beckett and Buddhism (and that’s only the Bs) – ultimately taught me an eminently practical lesson about coping with age and mortality. Must I utter the blurbish cliché? Why the hell not: Teach us to Sit Still made me laugh it made me cry and it made me seriously think about taking up Vipassana meditation.

I’ve been aware of Parks’s writing for a number of years, but apart from his Booker-shortlisted novel Europa – which I liked well enough – this is the only other book of his that I’ve attempted. An elegant essayist, who describes well the tortuous labyrinth of contemporary Italy – where he has lived for 30 years – his pieces crop up from time to time in the literary reviews and are notable for their air of quietly insistent rationalism. Parks is one of those writers whose prose seems always to be muttering the subtext: You and I, we understand each other perfectly, don’t we, and in so doing we can comprehend also this crazy world.

It’s the sort of confident comity that Orwell inspires in his readers, and it speaks to me of a very English empiricism: this is this – and don’t you forget it. It was no surprise to learn in this book that Parks is the son of a Church of England vicar (albeit one who tended towards the charismatic) and that while he may have rejected faith in miracles when he was a teenager, Parks retained the concomitant – and equally Anglican – faith in science (so long as it knows its limits). Like his parents, Parks had a deeply ingrained resistance to all crystal-dangling, Om-chanting and tableturning – indeed anything that smacks of mumbo jumbo.

Up until his early fifties, Parks’s very familiar brand of lapsed Anglicanism served him perfectly well. From his own luminous descriptions of kayaking and hill walking, we gain the impression of a man who was comfortable in his body, and while not exactly brimming over with job satisfaction – what ambitious writer is? – he nonetheless found his work lecturing on literary translation in Milan perfectly rewarding. From the asides he lets fall, we can gather that he is also a thoroughly married and familial man. And apart from an infection of the prostate gland that he had had in his twenties (and from which, against the odds, he had completely recovered), Parks enjoyed good health. Then came the deluge: to be precise, intense and searing pains throughout the pelvic area that yet remained curiously nonlocatable.

Accompanying this was the irritable bladder, the six-times-a-night micturition, the need to be constantly within range of a facility, the creeping impotence – all the panoply of mental and physical discomforts that zeroes in on the ageing human.

Good Cartesian that he was, and so viewing his body as a mechanism that should be fiddled back into functionality, Parks immediately hied himself to the doctors. His experience from then on was wearily familiar: the tests, and then more tests – blood, urine, semen – the breezily overconfident consultants, then the firm recommendation of radical surgery.

In Parks’s case this took the form of a procedure known as a Turps (Transurethral resection of prostate surgery), which is precisely what it sounds like: laser-burning one highway through the pesky gland, while suturing up another. The medics were so keen to begin blasting that when they had him in the stirrups for another test – a cystoscopy – one suggested that they just do the other procedure while they were at it. But Parks cried, no! And he was right to do so, because the cystoscopy revealed there was nothing wrong with his prostate, while punching the words “prostate pain” into Google conjured up 6,820,000 hits, many of which turned out to be the cris de coeur of post-Turps patients who were in more pain than ever.

Of course, while by no means Damascene, Parks had already started his conversion some time before while on a trip to India for a translation conference he had consulted an Ayurvedic doctor. Dismissive of the astro-babble surrounding the diagnosis offered, he nonetheless took note when the doctor’s wife observed ? apropos of Western mechanistic medicine ? “You only say psychosomatic … if you think the mind and body are ever separate.”

What’s most interesting about Parks’s journey back to health is that he convincingly portrays, from within, what it’s like to abandon an assumption – the mind-body dichotomy – that is itself, of necessity, ineffable.

True, there are digressions into the neurotic compulsions of Coleridge, the subtle velleities of Virginia Woolf’s characters, and the radiant verisimilitudes of Velazquez, but the main thrust of this book is towards a new kind of gestalt. Parks’s turnaround came courtesy of breathing exercises he read about in a book with the deliriously unappealing title: A Headache in the Pelvis. The authors stressed that the “paradoxical relaxation” aimed for could be achieved only under their own medical supervision, but Parks was desperate – and disciplined – enough to go it alone.

The relief from his chronic pain was dramatic: “Suddenly my belly drew a huge breath, absolutely unexpected, and a great warm wave flooded down my body from top to toe. I nearly drowned. Shocked and tensed, I sat up and opened my eyes. ‘What in God’s name was that?’.” It would be misrepresenting Parks if I portrayed him as going belly-up to his breathy belly – in fact, his journey back to health was circuitous, while throughout he retained his gentle but insistent scepticism – no credulous crystal-dangler he. Nevertheless, there was no gainsaying the intense effects of these breathing exercises or the even more intense ones when Parks begins Shiatsu massage – then the Big One: fullblown Vipassana meditation.

Here is an insistent scepticism – and an even more insistent humour. I think it’s this ability to crack a deadpan joke, whether discussing his bowel movements or the doughnut addiction of a doctor friend, that makes Parks’s descriptions of the romantic internal landscape of the meditational pupil – jagged peaks of ego lit by lightning, deluges of watery remorse – so compelling. There’s this, and his screamingly funny pen portrait of an overweight and slightly lecherous American guru who nonetheless – or perhaps because of this – is wholly authentic.

I’ve been interested in Buddhism for years, but I would say that Parks’s account of the transformations that occur to him when he goes first on a three and then on a ten-day silent meditation retreat is among the most convincing I’ve read. The realignment that Parks achieves is not some high-flown transcendence, but more akin to GK Chesterton’s credo that “even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits [is] extraordinary enough to be exciting”.

Then, towards the end of this elegant and rewarding book it began to bother me that I was enjoying Teach us to Sit Still quite as much as I was, simply because I was its ideal reader: another questing middle-aged writer with his own undelivered prize speeches (Parks digresses hilariously on the false humility of self-deprecating Booker prize-winners) and his own chronic pain. At the time of reading Parks’s book I was plagued by a torn ligament in my shoulder and, like the author, I am a stressed man who cannot find an hour in the day to sit down and breathe easily. The parallels don’t stop there: Parks grew up in Finchley, North London I was only a couple of miles away in East Finchley. True, I didn’t up sticks and move to Italy, and nor do I have the unusual mental diplopia – and again, Parks evokes this brilliantly – that comes with being bilingual.

And nor do I have Parks’s lightness of touch. It’s difficult to think of a memoir that manages to be at once as intrusive of its subject as a Turps laser, while still managing to leave the emotional tissue surrounding it entirely untouched so that while we hear of Parks’s wife and children, we never feel we have intruded on their lives.

But then, although I finished this book a few weeks ago and put it to one side, it has managed to stay with me, like an inverse corollary of the pain that it so marvellously evokes. In a world dominated by cheap self-revelation and quack self-help, I suspect that Teach us to Sit Still may be the real thing: a work of genuine consolation that shows the way out of the dark wood of middle age in which everyone, at some time or another, will inevitably find themselves lost.

This review originally appeared in the Times on 26 June 2010