Thursday, 22 September 2011

"Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing," by Tim Parks

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I decided to seek this book out after seeing an advertising poster when we went on holiday to London.  I was - and I still am - feeling stressed, tired and rather run down.  It was the same feeling that compelled me to read "A Time to Keep Silence," about the Patrick Leigh Fermor's monastic retreats.   It is probably the height of vanity to quote yourself, but I don't think that I can describe how I have been feeling any better than I did then when I wrote that I felt as if I was "losing the war of attrition with modern life."

This state of mind meant that I was attracted to a book that might show me the path to silence and stillness.  This is not that book, but it was a very interesting read.  Tim Parks is also a writer of fiction - he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997 - but this work of non-fiction is the first that I have read by him.  As the book starts, Tim Parks has been struggling for years with mounting physical pain that is becoming unbearable.  His symptoms are thought to be prostate related and an operation is suggested, although medical tests prove to be inconclusive.  However, a book that he discovers on the internet - "A Headache in the Pelvis" - sets him on a path where he finds physical respite from his symptoms through meditation.

This is not a self-help book; it is far more interesting than that.  Tim Parks comes to the realisation that his writing and his relationship with language are closely intertwined with the health problems that he has been experiencing.  The book evolves into being an insight into the mind and body of a compulsive writer and linguist; someone whose focus has been on his mental life to the extent that he has neglected his body.  Through "A Headache in the Pelvis" he comes to realise that "the strange pains that [he] had been feeling had in some way to do with all those years sitting tensely, racking [his] brains over sheets of empty paper, building up hopes, rejoicing over some small achievement, over-reacting to setbacks and disappointments."  His mental activity is accompanied by physical tension; in the same way that a light-bulb gives off heat as a by-product, his over-active brain spills out into nervous kinetic energy such as jerking his knee up and down.  His mind and body are rarely still, and he is in conflict with himself.

Parks, who values highly his acuity with language, comes to realise that what he prizes is the very thing that his sabotaging him.  In filtering all his experiences through language - already mentally writing a review of a film while watching it, trying to describe a painting - he loses a sense of pleasure or fulfillment in the present moment.  The key to this realisation is thinking of the weeks he lost in mentally rehearsing and revising his Booker acceptance speech, only to lose out to Arundhati Roy.  This insight leads him to acknowledge that "words seem to take [him] away from the present moment."  Through the relaxation techniques he learns by reading "A Headache in the Pelvis" and attending meditation retreats, he finds freedom from the compulsion to verbalise every experience and comes to inhabit his own body with equanimity.

Tim Parks lives in Italy and works as a translator, and I came to realise that there is an element of translation in this book - but translation of physical sensation, body language, into words.  The relation between body and language is explored in this book: even as Tim Parks' mind rejects and rebels against the new age flummery spouted by some of the practitioners that he sees, his body responds to their treatments and therapies.  This is a book of paradoxes that somehow unify where they should clash.  This book charts Tim Parks' progression of escaping from language into his own body - but then has to render it back into language to communicate with the reader.  This shouldn't work, and the fact that it does is testament to his powers of description and mental agility.

One element of the experience he undergoes is visual, and the book is peppered with small images of things that engrossed him at the time.  One of these is a painting by Velazquez "Waterseller of Seville."  He is fascinated by the painting, and by the stillness of the hands meeting in the exchange of the glass of water.  This painting leads to a beautiful image of the exchange between author and reader "sharing words [...] like a glass of clear water on a hot summer afternoon."  It is a curious dichotomy that a book in which words are problematic also has passages of meditations on language that are quite beautiful and it seems, as the book closes, that Tim Parks has managed to reconcile his mind and body, language and physical sensation, in order to find respite from his pains.

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