Saturday, 25 October 2014

Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks

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

As you probably have realised by now, I follow the Miracle Morning routine from the book of that name by Hal Elrod.  The first three elements of that routine are Silence; Affirmations and Visualisation.  Now I am a something of a sceptic, atheist, non-believer in the power of the Universe who thinks that The Secret is a scam.  However, I am also a big fan of that other sceptic, atheist Derren Brown, so I am a huge believer in the power of the mind.  Unfortunately I have great trouble doing nothing so the SAV part of my morning routine was suffering because I just want to get it out of the way to get on to the fun stuff of reading and writing.  I asked the Miracle Morning facebook community if they could recommend any books on mediation, visualisation etc for sceptics.  Many people in the Miracle Morning community are religious or spiritual people so a lot of the books they often recommend include some spiritual element which immediately puts me off.  However, my request yielded this result: Teach Us To Sit Still by Nick Parks.  So, I gave it a go. (Gotta love Kindle 1-click!)

Nick Parks is a well-established, Booker prize nominated fiction author, although I've never read any of his other books (will be adding them to my list now though!).  A few years ago he developed what appeared to be a prostrate condition and this book essentially describes, in graphic detail, his search for a cure or at least some relief from his pevic pain.  The first few chapters are quite painful reading. He endures a battery of invasive, excruciating and often embarrassing tests and procedures in an attempt to discover the source of his symptoms.  However, once they were all complete, and every usual diagnosis exhausted he was left with the option of an operation to cut one of the sphincters in his urethra (!) which may or may not have any effect, or to live with it.  Neither of those options particularly appeals to him.  The risks associated with the operation were such that it could well end up making his sympoms worse and living with it meant putting up with such severe pain that he couldn't sit down and had to go to the bathroom five or six times a night.

As he investigated his condition, he discovered in old research literature, that there was a tendency for this condition to affect men who were "restless, worrisome, dissatisfied individuals" (p.31).  The more he dug into the research the more he found other examples throughout history of men who might have suffered something similar and he began his quest for an answer.

The book is clearly the product of a talented writer.  As he searches for his possible cure, Parks explores the lives and works of Hardy, Velasquez, Bernhard, Gandhi and Hemingway amongst others.  He runs, tries herbal remedies, immerses himself in extreme kayaking and even visits an Ayurvedic doctor in India.  As well as being a writer Parks, who lives in Italy, also teaches translation at an Italian university and he vividly recounts his encounters with students.  As an autobiography, even without the medical quest, this is a fascinating autobiography.

Then Parks comes across an obscure American book called, intriguingly, A Headache in the Pelvis by David Wise. By this time Parks has exhausted conventional medicine which declares that, apart from his symptoms, there is nothing wrong with him.  By now he is willing to try anything.  The Wise book suggests that a myriad of pelvic pain symptoms, of which Parks' fit quite neatly, are in fact caused by tension in the pelvic floor muscles.  Given how much research Parks has done up to this point it is surprising that this is the first time that he has come across any mention of pelvic floor muscles.  Parks is intrigued.  Unfortunately much of the treatment Wise recommends involves visiting his clinic in America and undergoing an intensive course of (expensive) treatment which Parks is not in a position to do.  However, Wise also recommends something called Paradoxical Relaxation, which turns out to be a form of meditation.  Although, again, Wise recommends that this is not something to be undertaken on your own, he does describe the process, so Parks, despite his scepticism, decides he has nothing to lose and begins his own programme of daily hour long mediation sessions.

At first, Parks finds this incredibly difficult.  He has acknowledged that he is a 'restless, worrisome, dissatisfied individual' and as a writer he finds it very difficult to switch off the words in his head.  But, all credit to him, he persists and, for the first time in two years, starts to get some relief from his symptoms.  He takes an important step in acknowledging that his symptoms are not hypochondria or 'made-up' but that they are pschosomatic in the sense that they are caused by they way he tenses when stressed which has in itself become habitual. The Paradoxical Relaxation is by no means a miracle cure but it provides sufficient relief for Parks to start to take meditation seriously.  He sees benefits in other areas of his life and decides to push the concept even further by going on a Vipassan mediation retreat.

Parks description of the retreat, and a second longer one he attends, is fascinating.  Despite his continued success with the relaxation he still has an atheist, sceptic attitude towards Buddhist philosophy.  But he persists, follows the instructions, carries out the activities (or non-activities).  We are treated to the inner war going on between the side of him willing to give it a go and the side that believes it is all arrant nonsense. This battle is both entertaining to the reader, but also enlightening, especially to me with my own conflict on the benefits of Silence, Affirmations and Visualisations.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that Parks is now a meditation afficianado and largely pain and symptom free without having to have had the horrendous operation.  I haven't yet embraced the silence fully, but as a sceptic with a history of pelvic pain and disorders, Parks has certainly made me reconsider the benefits of meditation.  More importantly he has made me realise that even though so many proponents of the practice like to 'dress it up' with a spiritual dimension, the techniques themselves are all about the body and the mind working together and attempting to break down that 'extraordinary mismatch between the creatures we are and the way we live' (p.2). So, I don't do spiritual but I definitely do Primal. When I look on these techniques as ways to reconnect with my evolutionary health and well-being then the conflict with my rational mind and my resistance to them disappears.

I'm expecting my next few reviews to have a primal focus as today I am signing up to do the Primal Blueprint Expert Certification course.  Wish me luck!

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