Exhausted by years of fruitless attempts to treat a battery of abdominal pains and urinary disorders with conventional medicine, Tim Parks tries a relaxation cure described in a book discovered on the net. He has the impression he is clutching at straws.
More or less.
How strange, I thought, after the fourth or fifth theatrically deep breath, this closing oneself in one’s body, not to sleep or snooze, but to pay attention.
Attention to what? Eyes closed, I felt disorientated.
There was an itch at the corner of my mouth and I scratched it.
You’re not supposed to move, I remembered. Your hands must be still. But where?
Dr. Wise’s book advised spreading ones hands out, palms up, but this felt weird. Anyway, I was on my side of the bed, so one arm hung over the edge. I put them side by side on my abdomen.
Now there was an itch at the base of the ear. I tried to ignore it; it itched more fiercely. Wise hadn’t talked about itches.
I was supposed to be paying attention, to tension.
But not verbalizing.
I couldn’t feel any tension. Just the itch. Otherwise, what surprised me was a growing sense of space. Being very awake, inside myself, determined to pay attention to I didn’t know what, it was as if I were surrounded by a large expanse, though I couldn’t see it. I was alone in a strange, brooding landscape; under a low sky, I thought, damp hills perhaps, but invisible.
Absurdly, I remembered Doctor Who’s Tardis: small on the outside, spacious when you went in. If only I could open some inner eye I would find my body, inside, was roomy.
You are not supposed to be thinking.
Silence. Eyes closed.
Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord. That was the Bible somewhere.
It seemed Michelangelo had painted Zechariah with the face of the Pope in order to flatter him, the Pope that is. Of course, everybody knew that the whole Sistine Chapel was a complex coded message which—
You are supposed to be concentrating wordlessly and thoughtlessly on tension.
There was no tension.
That I could find.
The minutes passed. No, they didn’t pass. I had set the alarm on my phone for an hour hence, but there was no way I would last an hour like this. I had so much work to be getting on with! The itch at the top of my ear wouldn’t let up. My hands were eager to get at it, eager to move.
And the pain. The pain was a fire smoldering in mud, as in some hot volcanic land. Hot belly mud. It had become steadier than it used to be; less maverick, fewer fireworks, dour.
Dour dour dour.
The pain surged to the fore. It was strong. You deal with the pain by keeping in constant motion, I realized now. That was the truth. Even when I was still, I moved. My knee jerking. Scratching. My fist clenching and unclenching. That kept the pain at bay. And when my body was still my mind moved. My mind was in constant motion. All day every day. The thoughts jerked back and forward like the knee that twitched. The difficulty when I was writing was not to come up with thoughts, but to give them direction and economy.
Like a climber plant that must be pruned and tamed, pruned and tamed. Above all pruned.
You are supposed not to be thinking.
Or not supposed to be thinking.
Or supposed to be not thinking.
I moved the not. Language is always on the move.
Even when I slept I moved. To sleep I needed to be on one side with one knee pushed forward. Then I switched to the other side. Every time I went to the bathroom I turned myself, like meat on a griddle. And I switched my earplug from one ear to the other. I can’t bear having an earplug pressing the pillow.
I pulled the earplug out, turned over, put the earplug in. Six times a night.
In the silence, eyes closed, I remembered a documentary I’d seen years before about some kind of desert lizard that stopped its feet from burning on the hot Sahara sand by constantly and rapidly lifting and dropping the right front foot and back left foot, then the left front and back right. Alternately. They lifted and fell in the blink of an eyelid, almost too quick for the camera to see. A sort of purgatory, I had thought, when I saw the images.
Downstairs someone answered the phone. Even the best earplugs have their limits.
So where was this famous tension I was supposed to be full of?
No sign of it. Niente di niente di niente.
Perhaps Dr. Wise was right that there was no point in trying this on your own.
Should I give up?
If you couldn’t find any tension, he said at one point, try contracting a muscle for a moment, then let it go. There would be a residual tension you could recognize.
I wasn’t sure I saw the sense in all this. I had begun to feel that I’d be much more relaxed doing a spot of reading for an essay that was due.
The pain was growing stronger.
Drs. Wise and Anderson have developed an innovative clinical protocol that works, said the blurb.
You are here because of the pain.
Wise had said not to concentrate on the pain. I would be too eager to make it go away. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on it without trying to change it.
He was right.
Do not abandon hope until you have given these methods your most sincere effort. This signed by somebody who claimed to have recovered.
What was the word “sincere” doing there? Why would anyone be insincere about stuff like this? Was that “abandon hope” a deliberate allusion to Dante? Did the healed man—
I tensed the muscle above one knee. The one that jerked. And relaxed it.
Then my mind latched onto a glow. Yes, there was definitely a low glow, a buzz from the muscle. So that must be residual tension. It was quite pleasant. Concentrate on it, Wise said. No problem.
And I started to congratulate myself. I’m getting the hang of it already. Performed the old trick of matching words – “residual”– to experience – the glow of above the knee. Then fastened my mind onto it. Well done, Tim!
What did Wise mean, this was too demanding?
Already I’d lost it. The pain in my belly flared.
I did the trick again, contracted the muscle, let it go, found the tension again. Don’t think. Don’t congratulate yourself. Then the corresponding muscle on the other side began to sing too. Without my contracting it first.
I held on to the glow. This feeling. This feeling. This feeling. Instead of the tension dissolving, it grew. Quite suddenly and rapidly. Actually it grew enormously, grotesquely. All at once the muscles on my leg were bursting with tension. Damn. I’d have to move them. They were blazing.
Why hadn’t Wise mentioned this?
Other fires lit up around my body. Close by in my neck. Far away in a calf. Not fires, but flickerings of red heat in the dark expanse of the flesh. The backs of my hands smoldered. A muscle in my cheek sparked. The darkness that had seemed deserted was full of life. Goblins. Havoc.
I was shocked. This is me. Bonfires under a night sky. It was so strange. Then I was reminded of that scene in Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe where, desperately eager to find an enemy in the emptiness, scrutinizing the vast desert around the isolated fort, one of the soldiers starts to see campfires lighting up along the horizon. In just a few moments he has conjured the Tartar army into existence.
The Tartar Steppe, I remembered, was another book about mental paralysis, about wishing to move on and not being able to. Never finding the enemy.
The fires faded. I had lost them in the Tartar Steppe.
So the mind went back and forth, concentrating on tension, watching it flare and grow, losing it in wayward thoughts. It showed no signs of dissolving as Dr Wise had promised. Sometimes it was too intense. It would drive me mad. The mind turned elsewhere. I forced it back.
Then I noticed the pain in my stomach had gone.
Of course, it hadn’t gone. It was there, but as a shadow, a ghost of itself.
I was suspicious and went to investigate. It roared up.
But it had definitely gone, been gone, unnoticed, as it were.
For a little while. As though when I slept. But I hadn’t been sleeping. I’d been awake with these goblin fires in the dark and the pain had subsided.
Without waiting for the alarm to sound the hour, I jumped out of bed. The pain was back to normal.
“So?” my wife Rita asked.
“Interesting,” I told her.
Two things. However briefly, I had made the pain go away. Done it myself, with no drugs. Presumably it could be done again. Maybe for longer.
Second. My body was different from what I had imagined. The problem was: time.
“Many of our patients are simply too busy to dedicate themselves to our treatment,” Wise observed. These people, men and women, were not yet suffering enough. They still saw their pains as an irritating waste of time, a distraction to put behind them as quickly as possible. Hence they were drawn to accounts of their illness that saw a rapid solution in drugs, or a surgical operation. No personal energies need be expended. It could be paid for. Hopefully by the State.
This described my thinking, at least until very recently, with ominous accuracy.
“We strongly advise sufferers,” Wise went on, “to accept these pains as part of the main curriculum of their lives.”
The main curriculum!
Would I have to stop referring to my pains as “stupid”?
Wise’s position, a little pious-sounding to my ear, was that this chronic and worsening condition was trying to tell me something about myself, about the way I had been living, and I was supposed to listen. I would have to give my pains the time of day.
An hour, to be precise. Every day. At least for the first two or three months.
Where am I going to find an hour a day?
“But you have oceans of time,” Rita laughed. Having always complained that I am “too driven,” too interminably focused on my “precious work,” this was a big told-you-so opportunity for my wife. She was loving it.
“Aeons of time!” she insisted.
Rita was right. I was lucky. Aside from the university, no one was breathing down my neck. I wasn’t running a major multi-national, or standing for parliament, I wasn’t on piecework with an extended family to feed. All I had to do was to sacrifice an hour a day of writing. Turn down a few essay commissions.
The main curriculum of your life. No sooner had I read that phrase than I kept repeating it, mulling it over. Wise had scored a direct hit there. I saw at once that, far more than the time itself, the hour count, what was at stake here was a major principle. Instead of taking my work with me to hospital waiting rooms, dealing with my troubles as if I was getting the car fixed, my eye on my watch and my hand on my wallet, I would have to accept a radical shift of priorities.
The pain must be allowed to come on board and take equal status beside my writing, beside my family, as part of the core curriculum.
Six months previously I wouldn’t have been ready for this. Even now it galled.
OK, so, perhaps after lunch, I thought, an hour might be found, when I usually yawned my way through the papers online.
Or shortly before bedtime, when I leafed—
“To be effective you must give it your best period of the day,” Dr. Wise warned. “Otherwise you won’t have the attention and concentration required properly to relax the pelvic floor.”
Every time I turned to him, it seemed the good doctor had the measure of me. He closed my bolt-holes. I took a blanket and a couple of pillows to the office and made up the bed there.
Prime work time.
Again and again the hour would start with a feeling of time-wasting and humiliation. Why did it take me so long to settle down? I’d forgotten to remove my glasses. My watch. I’d forgotten to set the alarm. There was sleep in my eyes. My underwear felt tight. Take it off. Start again. Now the sheet – because I’d got between the sheets – was irritating my chin. My toes wanted to twitch. At this point I may as well abort. At this point it’s a lost cause.
But I lay still. “Your most sincere effort,” I remembered.
It came to me now how difficult it had always been for me to sit still, to be still in any way. “Sit still, Timothy!” My mother’s voice. I was squirming beside her on the pew. I couldn’t sit still through my father’s sermons. (Why is it always so tempting to imagine my troubles started with my father’s sermons?) Or even worse his long prayers. I hated prayers. I couldn’t sit still in church, couldn’t kneel still either. “Parks!” A piece of chalk whizzes past my cheek. That was school. “Stop fidgeting, boy. Sit still !” Happy days, when a teacher could throw chalk at a kid. What if he’d got me in the eye? Later in life it would be lectures, conferences, readings, faculty meetings. I couldn’t sit still to listen to my colleagues. I fidgeted through a fellow author’s reading. No doubt I’ve offended many. Parks isn’t listening. He’s drawing attention to himself. When I teach I have to move around. It’s essential. Otherwise everything dries up. I can’t teach sitting down. It’s fun in Italy, I’ve always thought, that you can gesticulate as you talk. You keep moving.
“By all means move a little in the first few minutes,” Dr. Wise conceded, “to make sure you are quite comfortable. But then we would advise you to try to stay absolutely still for the full period of your paradoxical relaxation.”
The first few minutes have passed now. However excruciating, I must lie still. I breathed deeply and remembered Eliot. “Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.”
Then after a while something would happen. A breath breathed itself and I slid down into that dark landscape of my body with its low sky and damp hills…
Read Sitting Still II: The Skeptic Meditates, the second of two Little Star excerpts from Teach Us To Still Still by Tim Parks
Order the English edition of Teach Us to Sit Still
Order Tim Parks’ other books (we particularly love Europa, Destiny, and Cleaver)
In London? Hear Tim Parks at the World Literature Weekend
Photos: Lizard, Shuttercock; Bonfires, Harriet Purkey