Book Review: Tim Parks’ Teach Us to Sit Still

Tim Parks’ guide to the fine art of sitting still, a re-discovered approach to the traditions and benefits of meditation

Parks, mastering the art of sitting still | Photo:

Western Minds, Eastern Ways

What do you expect a successful British author to do who experiences chronic pains? Keep a stiff upper lip, of course. That is exactly what Tim Parks had been practicing for a long time. Surrounded by friends who admired his bilingual career – the Parks’ had moved to Verona in Northern Italy many years ago – he had only let some doctors know about his condition: chronic spasms in his pelvis and the annoying need to get up frequently at night and go to the bathroom. They suggested contradictory strategies: Have surgery. Take this medication. Don’t have surgery. Try that new method.

Nothing seemed to make much sense, so he continued to suffer until, finally, he found a lead on the Internet that made all the difference. Someone pointed out a book by two Stanford physicians. Their sensible diagnosis from a distance impressed him, and he soon realized that what they were really advocating was meditation and massage but, as he said, “they probably could not say that explicitly without being ridiculed by their peers.”

What followed was a remarkable healing process that transformed Tim Parks’ life. We know because he decided to write about it. “About my own body,” as he remarks incredulously in the introduction to Teach Us to Sit Still. Parks has written accomplished novels – many translated into other languages, one, Europa, shortlisted for the Booker Prize – and non-fiction books – about Italy, the money of the Medici family, about adultery and translations – and he has in fact translated many Italian books into English, from Machiavelli to Moravia. But this was new territory for him.

The fact that he treats his own conversion to a basically non-Western view of health with skepticism and a dose of British (self-)irony makes the book all the more readable. This is not a propagandist who hawks the latest fad but a cautious man, already resigned to his fate, who slowly changes his life and thus, not incidentally, the life of his family. He describes the first steps into a new world, for example to the week-long meditation retreat somewhere in the Italian Alps that seems to be nothing but aching knees and growing hunger. He admits the setbacks that make him lose his temper – what am I doing here submitting myself to this massage while the radio next door blares away?! He details his preoccupation with his strictly religious upbringing that still haunts him and that he begins to see as a crucial reason for his stiffness and suffering. And he lets the reader join him on a journey that takes him from the diagnosis of prostatitis to a therapy consisting of “paradoxical relaxation.”

Technically speaking – and he does this quite a lot – he is introduced to the Buddhist meditative technique of Vipassana, which can be roughly translated as insight, clear-seeing awareness. But Parks is also a literary man and a professional writer who realizes the links and associations that emerge during his recovery. He compares his experiences to what he remembers from the writings of Thomas Bernhard and Thomas Hardy, S. T. Coleridge and Robert Walser, and he feels particularly drawn to the powerful descriptions of free-flowing energy in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. In a curious way, some of his own earlier writings about water, about oceans in his dreams, his adventures in a kayak foreshadow his nocturnal problems, as he comes to realize.

Teach Us to Sit Still is at its most powerful when Parks approaches the phase in meditation in which he is asked to do without words, concepts – without thinking. “Thou shalt not verbalize,” he keeps telling himself – and thus verbalizes exactly this paradox. He eventually manages to experience this apparent emptiness but admits that it is impossible to talk about it. Ineffable he calls this chapter: indescribable; a Western mind trying to approach Eastern ways.

The reader may use Parks’ self-portrait as a guide, a new way to look at him–or herself even without the specific diagnosis. One just should not expect mind-blowing changes. At the end of his journey, Parks basically slips back into his regular life, on a different plane perhaps and with occasional retreat weeks now part of his schedule, but still as himself. “It is a transformation of Gestalt,” he concluded in a private conversation, “and the more you practice, the less important the experience becomes. You learn to become indifferent.”


Tim Parks, Teach Us to Sit Still. A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing. Harvill Secker, London 2010. The German translation, Die Kunst stillzusitzen, by Kunstmann, München.

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