Monday, 20 June 2011

Book review: Teach Us to Sit Still

By Tim Parks
Published by Harvill Secker

In Teach Us to Sit Still - A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing, British novelist, essayist and translator Tim Parks describes his difficult path to wellbeing – both physical and mental.

Page by page, Parks details a long series of hospital tests and discussions with doctors and specialists both in Italy and in the UK, he takes us to India for a consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor and, after sleepless nights of Internet research, he shares his enthusiasm for finding a book that seems to promise an end to his pain.

The authors of this book, two Californian doctors, suggest that the discomfort in the pelvic area might be caused by muscle tension. Having found nothing wrong with his bladder or prostate – but still in excruciating pain - Parks is willing to believe this new possibility and the more he thinks about it, the more he realises that he’s been thinking too much his whole life. He’s hardly ever felt thoroughly relaxed.

He thus embarks on a journey of mental rediscovery. He starts a programme of breathing exercises in the comfort of his home. Still relatively sceptic about anything remotely “New Age”, he then goes on to see a shiatsu practitioner and, in the end, he gives in to meditation and joins those retreats that he had always sneered at.

It is a winding path of taking one step forward and three steps backwards but it is a path, nonetheless, that allows Parks to find a balance between the daily needs of his working and family life and the equally important necessities of his mind and body.

This book wasn’t quite what I was expecting but I extremely enjoyed it. Though I can see now that this was the most logical approach, I thought that Parks would concentrate on different kinds of alternative therapies without including his experience with Western medicine. I think I was sidetracked by the book cover!

A journey that starts in the middle wouldn’t be that much of a journey. And I feel almost guilty but I did find the description of the medical staff and their attitudes funny – despite, of course, sympathising with the fact that, in the grip of his pains, Parks might not have found them amusing at all. Perhaps I could have done with knowing less about the writer’s bowel movements and similar, rather intimate, details but, hey, writing is an intimate experience, right?

I had to chuckle and completely empathise with the account of Parks’s first attempts at meditation. Who hasn’t been sitting there, trying to empty their head of any thoughts and ending up having a silent but verbose fight with themselves to achieve that, only to fail? What makes this book such a pleasure to read is that Parks is not trying to show us the way, he doesn’t portray himself as an enlightened and holier-than-us person who we can only look up to. He’s simply sharing his experiences. It’s up to us if we want to learn something from them.

What I also wasn’t expecting – but then, I wasn’t familiar with Parks if not only by name – were his reflections and musings on authors, politicians, art and, generally, culture. A very educated man, Tim Parks is able to draw the most interesting conclusions and ask the most curious questions, linking subjects that you would not normally associate with each other, such as a painting by Velázquez and the prostate!


This book has the potential to teach a number of things. Sitting still is only one of them!

2 comments:

Patricia said...

I have read other Tim Parks books set in Italy. I was unaware of this one. It sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Brighton Blogger said...

Hi Patricia! This is his latest book and it doesn't focus on Italy at all. I guess it was impossible for him not to mention the country - since what he writes about was experienced while living there - but it is not relevant to the purpose of this book.