I must give a hearty “thank you” to Ian Darling for telling me about Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks after I read The Miracle of Mindfulness. When you read a book like Thich Nhat Hahn’s on meditation and he is telling you how good it is and how it will change your life it is easy to dismiss it because of course this Buddhist monk is going to say that. To then read a book like Parks’s, a personal story that leads him kicking and screaming to meditation where he discovers that it really does work, it makes you pause and think.
Parks’s story begins when he was 51 and tired of suffering from severe pains and trips to the bathroom 5-6 times a night, something that he has been experiencing for years and keeps getting worse. Parks lives and teaches in Verona, Italy and happened to have a good friend who is a top urologist in the country. His friend diagnosed him with prostatitis and referred him for tests and consults with top doctors. Through test after test and scan after scan, all the doctors said that if he weren’t having such pain they would say there was nothing wrong with him. The suggested treatment was an invasive and painful surgery that may or may not work, though all the doctors assured him it would. Parks rightly hesitated.
On a trip to India for a conference he decided to visit an Ayurvedic doctor on the spur of the moment. The doctor told him he could give him all kinds of herbs and recommend all sorts of expensive supplements but none of them would work and he would never be cured until he confronted the “profound contradiction” in his character. “There is a tussle in your mind,” the doctor told him. Parks left kicking himself for wasting his time. But he could not get over this idea of there being a tussle in his mind.
On the internet he discovered a place in California that treated men with problems like his. They had a book. Parks ordered the book. Basically, their theory was that his condition was muscle-related, that his body was so full of tension that the muscles around his prostate could not relax. Treatment was an hour of “paradoxical relaxation” and regular prostate massage. Parks decided even though he didn’t feel tense, he’d give the relaxation a go since he had nothing to lose.
“Paradoxical relaxation” is pretty much meditation done laying down. The paradox is that once you are comfortable, you are supposed to focus on an area of your body that feels tense but not try to relax it. Only by not relaxing the tension will the tension go away. And there was to be no verbalization, no talking to yourself in your head, just an empty mind and focus.
Parks was surprised when he quickly learned that the body he thought was not tense at all was nothing but tense. His first few efforts ended up giving him moments of increased pain. But he kept at it and after a few more tries had a moment when something let go and he felt a warm wave wash through him. He was so excited by this that he immediately ruined the moment. But he had made progress. Eventually he had pain-free hours during his day but he still had to get up frequently during the night.
He visited a Shiatsu massage specialist. The massages caused pain but also relieved pain. His masseuse eventually recommended Parks try Vipassana meditation. Parks was reluctant but realized that he had gone as far as he could with his paradoxical relaxation so he signed up for a weekend retreat.
In Vipassana meditation you begin by focusing your attention on feeling your breath move across the top of your lip, in and out. You aren’t supposed to think. You are supposed to sit completely still. Parks quickly discovers how very hard this is. Even with his paradoxical relaxation he had supreme difficulty not thinking, not verbalizing, now it was even harder. But there were exquisite moments when it would all come together and he would feel so calm, relaxed and completely free of pain. After two years and regular meditation, he found himself cured. He still had to get up during the night but only twice a night instead of 5-6 times.
Throughout the book he keeps going back and mulling over what the tussle in his mind could be, and he discovers there are a number of unresolved issues with his parents, especially his father, with his writing and his ambition. At one point he even decides he needed to give up writing entirely but when he told the leader of the retreat he was on when he came to this conclusion, the man just laughed at him and said he had it all wrong.
Eventually he figures it out. He realizes that holding on so tight to language, to words, the “I” that language asks us to create is the problem. Meditating helped him let that go, helped him get out of his head and into his body, gave him a sense of wholeness and calm and taught him that there is pleasure in letting the self disappear.
Of course everyone will have different reasons for meditating and derive different benefits, but Parks’s experience is encouraging and uplifting. He makes you believe that if he could do it, everyone reading his book certainly can do it too.