Teach Us to Sit Still seemed like an appropriate title for a book to read on the flight from London to Sydney a couple of weeks ago. The book, written by Tim Parks (a successful author who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel, Europa) turned out to be an even better choice than I had expected. The book provided me with a timely reminder of the benefits of Vipassana meditation. When I became too tired to read, I put on my eye mask and spent a couple of hours observing the sensations arise and pass away. That is something that I should do more regularly.
Tim has a delightfully dry sense of humour, which he has used to good effect in this book to tell the story of how he overcame severe pelvic pain that had made his life miserable. The medical profession was unable to find the cause of his problem, but Tim found that ‘paradoxical relaxation’ helped. This technique involves calmly identifying and observing tension without trying to relax it; the paradox is that the muscles eventually relax themselves.
Tim’s massage therapist told him that ‘paradoxical relaxation’ had some similarity to Vipassana meditation and he decided eventually to attend a Vipassana course. Although his immediate problem was cured, Tim felt that there was much work still to be done – predators ‘prowled the borders of the small haven of comfort’ he had staked out.
Tim approached Vipassana with irreverent scepticism, but this did not prevent the experience from having a profound impact. I want to focus here on the impact it had on his desire to continue to be a successful author.
At one point in his first meditation course, Tim is reflecting on the relationship between novels and life. He notes that the novels that ‘most accurately, intensely and wonderfully’ imagine life tend to keep us away from life: ‘If it is life we want, we put the book down’. This leads him to consider his own thought processes:
‘First the emotion, then the excited reflection on emotion, attempting to divert it from its initial function, to enroll it in my career project, to turn it into smartness and writing’.
During his second meditation course Tim accepts that the time has come to face up to ‘simply being here, instead of taking refuge in writing about being here’. He comes to consider the possibility that his former illness might be a consequence of his successful writing career:
‘Nor was it unthinkable that the strange pains I had been feeling had in some way to do with all those years sitting tensely, racking my brains over sheets of empty paper, building up hopes, rejoicing over some small achievement, overreacting to setbacks and disappointments. And it was true that if you placed yourself, or your attention, as it were beside these pains, if you just sat together with them and let them be, not reacting or wishing them away, they did in the end subside. Likewise the thoughts’ … .
The passage goes on with Tim acknowledging that he had sensed the first hints of equanimity. He concludes:
‘All you have to do now is stop writing … and you’ll have clinched it. You’ll have changed forever’.
When Tim tells the meditation teacher, John Coleman, that he is thinking of giving up his writing career, Coleman responds:
‘You know a lot of people come to these retreats and get it into their heads they should retire to a monastery or something. I can’t see why’.
Tim didn’t think that response was helpful; it didn’t resolve the conflict that he saw between word mongering and experiencing life.
So, how did Tim resolve that conflict? Well, he obviously didn’t stop writing. He has written a couple of other books since writing Teach Us to Sit Still, including the novel, Sex is Forbidden (first published as The Server). And some of the things he has written suggest that he still sees the potential for conflict. For example in an article entitled ‘The Chattering Mind’, for the NYR Blog, Tim suggests that modern authors are obsessed with mental suffering and impasse: ‘Slowly you get the feeling that only mental suffering and impasse confer dignity and nobility’.
I have just read Sex is Forbidden to see whether it sheds any light on the effect that meditation had on Tim’s writing. This novel tells the story, in first person, of a rather naughty young woman who has spent several months at a meditation institute both as a meditator and as a voluntary helper (server) following a traumatic experience. Despite segregation of sexes at the institute, the young woman almost ends up in another relationship with an older man, after she stumbles on his diary and reads it. The main character is likeable, the challenges facing her are interesting and the story-line seems plausible. At the end, however, I was left unsure of how well Tim had actually managed to capture what might be happening in the mind and emotions of the young woman. (I went looking for reviews by women, but the only review I found that attempted to deal with the issue was by an opinionated man.)
The relevant point, however, is that while this novel is focused on mental suffering it manages to end on a hopeful note. We know that while the main character is unlikely to live happily ever after, her chances of living a happy life have improved.
Tim made a similar point in an interview with Jan Wilm:
‘So has meditation changed my writing? I’m not sure. … What I am talking about in a lot of my books is this process whereby you get yourself into a position from which there is no way out. Which is also a way of saying, the whole way you’ve structured your mental life actually doesn’t fit the nature of reality, because when you carry on in the way your map tells you to, you always end in a place on the territory where there’s nowhere to go. A lot of life feels like that to me. The different thing about The Server—and I was quite surprised about this when I wrote the end of the novel—is that here there is a feeling that, if nothing else, that period in the meditation retreat has helped these two people to avoid one more catastrophe, one more dead end. And that the girl, if not the man, has maybe moved on ever so slightly. She is not stuck, she seems able to move forward. I was quite surprised by my optimism’.