Monday, January 31, 2011

Off And Running Monday: Tim Parks' TEACH US TO SIT STILL

The above cover of Tim Parks' memoir is the upcoming American first hardcover edition, not the British paperback edition which has been out long enough to gather many solid reviews:

“A searingly honest, viscerally vivid, darkly comic self-examination of the connections between writing, personality and health. Once I started reading it, I didn’t want to stop.” --David Lodge

“Tim Parks is a cool, sceptical observer of the human condition and Teach Us to Sit Still – a quest for relief from chronic pain that begins with relearning how to breathe and ends in something close to spiritual transformation – deserves to be taken with the utmost seriousness.”---J.M. Coetzee

“In a world dominated by cheap self-revelation and quack self-help, I suspect that Teach us to Sit Still may be the real thing: a work of genuine consolation that shows the way out of the dark wood in which everyone, at some time or another, will inevitably find themselves lost.”---Will Self, The Times

This is my first book by Tim Parks, although I knew that his Europa was short-listed for the Booker Prize and I've read both Ka and The Marriage of Cadmus And Harmony which he translated.  I once read a piece by him which dissed Cormac McCarthy and some other noted American authors.  I doubted that he had closely read the books he was denouncing, and it seemed to me that he was simply complaining about the American influence in British letters.

After shaking the faith of his fathers early on, Parks was always equally derisive of any "new-age" or eastern-oriented fads and ideas.  Then he developed a pain in his pelvis that medical doctors could not cure and, in desperation and only skeptically, he began to listen to some people with alternative ideas.  Eventually, he found something that worked for him, he says, through meditation and concentration on the breath.

Parks found this procedure in a book by two American doctors entitled A Headache in the Pelvis: A New Understanding and Treatment for Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndromes.  Once he found this, he became a seeker and a believer in a greater spiritual enlightenment, especially in the relationship between body, mind and spirit:

"Above all it never occurred to me that an illness might challenge my deepest assumptions, oblige me to rethink the primacy I have always given to language and the life of the mind. Texting, mailing, chatting, blogging, our modern minds devour our flesh. That is the conclusion long illness brought me to. We have become cerebral vampires preying on our own life-blood. Even in the gym, or out running, our lives are all in the head, at the expense of our bodies."

Those are words worth pondering, to remind us daily of what, in the rush and tumult of daily existence, we tend to forget.  I don't for a minute think that Tim Parks has found all of his answers, but at least he is on the road.

Tim Parks' bodily exercise of choice has been canoeing; mine has been running--or rather, easy jogging, because I learned long ago that running causes too many injuries.  Runners run for a great variety of reasons.  There is social running, running for health, then there is running for competitive glory, trophies, and personal bests.

For me, running with my wife, for decades now, has always been a social, fun run for cardio-vascular fitness and weight control.  We try our best to run or walk together every day.  Going out on an occasional run alone is a chance to mull things over, and usually that means drawing connections to a book I have just read, rereading it in my mind.  But sometimes a run is for peace and quiet and then it often coincides with meditation.  There is a way to quiet the chattering monkey mind, through practice and concentration on the breath.

Your way may not be anything like my way, nor Tim Parks' way.  That isn't important.  What's important is that you find your own way.

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