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

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

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Amit Vyas
Reviewed by Amit Vyas
Summary: Middle aged man seeks relief from physical anxiety. Much more insightful and enjoyable than it sounds!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099548881

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Self-help books are pretty polarising when you think about it. I mean, would you tell somebody that you were reading a self-help book if you had no idea how they were going to react? On the one hand there must be people who devour these kinds of books one after the other, searching for that mystical formula that will bring about profound inner change. At the other end of the scale are readers that steer well clear of self-help or anything else that isn't rational and based on proper scientific research and evidence. Entrenched views are what makes this title an interesting proposition. A sceptic's search for health and healing which alludes to meditation? Surely much more interesting than a new age guru who already believes wholeheartedly that their insights will transform YOUR life and enrich their bank balance. I want to know how the sceptic was convinced, not the guy who entered the room wearing healing crystals.

Teach Us To Sit Still is not a self help book in the usual sense. Its an intimate account of a man in his fifties struggling against the depressing reality that his body is breaking down and that pain and sleeplessness are now unwelcome guests in his life. Parks is candid about a level of reality that we normally hide from everybody else except our doctors. The everyday battles with our malfunctioning bodies are largely kept private. In the early going every detail concerning his nightly trips to the bathroom is agonised over and obsessively trawling for medical information online becomes part of this nocturnal purgatory.

The writer struggles to make connections between the illness and other parts of his life. A painting seems to hold an obscure message. Writing as a career choice is questioned, Do I write stories, because I have such a weak grip on the story of my own life? he asks himself. Medical problems, the author notes, tend to make everything else relate back to the illness somehow. A phrase in a medical text on prostatitis strikes a powerful chord with the idea that sufferers tend to be 'worrisome, dissatisfied individuals,' alluding to a connection between mind and body. Does one suffer an illness becuase one is worrisome and dissatisfied or does one naturally become that way through suffering an illness?

Interesting connections are made between Parks' relationship with his father and his suffering. In seeking to lay bare the story of his life, reading this book is like being privy to the case files of a patient undergoing psychoanalysis. The material is exploratory, an extended period of musing. It invites us to make our own individual reflections. More food for thought than a manual on better living. It's also more engaging than it sounds, thanks to a good dose of detached humour and to Parks' talent for making connections with artists and other historical figures. I learned a few interesting facts about Mussolini and Coleridge along the way.

The dilemna of whether or not to go under the surgeon's knife is perhaps the underlying question driving the soul searching. Having an operation is not a guarantee that the pains will go away. A breakthrough of sorts occurs when a medical text book entitled A Headache in the Pelvis urges the author to try dynamic relaxation exercises. He comes to realise that his body is nothing but tension.

It is not until two thirds of the way into the book that the author finds himself at a Vipassana meditation retreat. Stolidly refusing to entertain any form of Bhuddist thought or anything that smacks of empty piety, he is there to learn how to relax and become free of pain. The process and the struggles are laid bare. Parks never loses his scepticism but wonderful things start to happen once the mind is brought to stillness.

The last third of the book is immensely satisfying because there was a long journey from illness to Vipassana meditation via western medicine. The book would not have the same resonance had it started with the author commencing meditation in the first chapter. Its precisely because we get to know Parks as an intelligent, solid, middle class Brit, that his shifts in perspective are deeply felt and difficult to dismiss. This is not one of those happily ever after stories where meditation 'saves' the author or causes him to renounce his worldly possessions and move to Tibet. After taking up meditation the author is a little more awake to the present moment and possessed of a little more equanimity. Then life goes on.

I'd like to thank the publishers for providing a copy to the Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might like to try One Hundred Names For Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing by Diane Ackerman.

Buy Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks at Amazon.co.uk.

Buy Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks at Amazon.com.


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