Tim Parks on meditation’s pros and cons: ‘This is more than medicine’

I came to the practice of breathing relaxation out of desperation. It was 2008. A book had suggested that the constant abdominal pain and urinary problems I had been experiencing were due to chronically tense muscles in the pelvic floor. I needed to learn deep relaxation. The book gave instructions for achieving this, but warned me it was hard to do alone. At the time I didn’t connect the practice with mindfulness or meditation, about which I was extremely sceptical. I was hardly confident about this approach either. On the other hand, my problems had been going on for years and official medicine had got me exactly nowhere. Anything was worth a whirl.

I decided that if I was going to try it, I should do it seriously. The book stressed the need to use prime time, when one was most wakeful, to be persistent, not to succumb to disappointment, not to over-react to success etc. For the most part, I followed the instructions to the letter. At the second session I got the first faint, fleeting but far from imperceptible relief from pain. That kept me going. Above all, I soon began to find it fascinating in itself. A new world of mental and physical, or rather mental/physical experience opened up. In the end, over about 18 months, and with many setbacks, the pains retreated to an occasional background murmur.

Is it difficult? Immensely. Being simultaneously immobile, wakeful and wordless is an experience that runs contrary to all our habits, and for which there is no model in our culture, nothing we can visualise, no narrative we can follow. And in stillness, especially at the beginning, all kinds of unexpected pains and odd mental experiences can occur. Some of my first sessions were tumultuous, excruciating. Others deadly dull. Yet I always sensed that both tumult and dullness were cathartic. I came away from the sessions in better shape.

Is it dangerous? Some six months into this a friend convinced me that what I was doing was meditation, and that if I wanted to learn to do it properly, I should try a meditation retreat. After a year’s hesitation I signed up for five days of Vipassana, a Buddhist tradition. You live in silence, eat in silence and meditate up to 10 hours a day in the most disciplined fashion.

Here I can imagine some people running into trouble, particularly on the 11-day courses that I later attended. But then it has always been known that intense meditation can have adverse effects on those who come to it in a fragile state. However, the staff at such retreats are experienced in these matters. Instruction is simple, practical. People are warned to discuss any mental health issues, marital dramas or personal crises before starting. They are also advised that all kinds of disturbing thoughts and pains may emerge. And in my case they did. I went through a few unspeakably difficult afternoons. Yet it always felt that it was worth it, that it was happening in a framework that made sense. I was always glad I stayed, and more optimistic and cheerful afterwards.

But let me offer my own warning. People come to mindfulness, meditation, whatever we want to call it, with the notion that this is another tool they can use to improve their lives, to get well, concentrate better, and so on. It doesn’t work so tamely. Rather, the meditation will tend to change your perception of what your goals were. Not for nothing is it bound up with a “religious” credo.

Not that you will turn Buddhist, vegetarian and pacifist overnight. But after a couple of years of regular meditation, even without any Buddhist instruction, even without really thinking about it, Buddhist attitudes will begin to make more sense. This is altogether more than a medicine. I restrict myself to an hour every day in the very early morning.

An extract from Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks

I lay back and took a deep breath. I had Dr David Wise’s book in my hand. It was open at the heading “Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia Breathing in Preparation for Paradoxical Relaxation”.

Daunting. But I was eager to put it to the test. Now.

The “paradox” in paradoxical relaxation was soon explained: having stretched out on the bed and got yourself calm, you focus on some tension in your body and don’t try to relax it. Just concentrate on it. Let it be. That way, eventually, it will relax itself.

OK, I’ll try, I thought.

Or rather, not try.

I’ll try not to try.

However, before doing that, Dr Wise insisted, I must first get into a state of “respiratory sinus arrhythmia breathing”. Basically, the idea was to align the heartbeat with the breathing so that the pulse was a little faster on inhalation than exhalation. Six deep abdominal breaths a minute was optimum.

I had never really figured out what abdominal breaths were.

There was no way I could do this. The whole rigmarole reminded me of Beckett’s Molloy calculating his farts per minute over 24 hours. How could anyone begin to relax while checking his pulse?

Discouraged, I put the book down.

Perhaps I should say here that the one previous experience I’d had of breathing techniques had been an amusing fiasco. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we had attended classes that were supposed to help mothers deal with the pain of childbirth. The doctor was a charming eccentric in his late 60s who had us sit down, eyes closed, on straight-backed wooden chairs and began to intone in a sonorously hypnotic voice: “Everyone say to themselves, I am calm, I am relaxed.”

I found it hard not to burst out laughing.

After about the third lesson, the man took me aside, as if needing to unburden himself: “Signor Parks, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a person as completely unable to relax as yourself.”

Remembering this occasion now, I couldn’t help seeing that it corroborated Dr Wise’s the theory that my troubles had to do with excessive, unrelenting tension. So perhaps I should at least try the relaxation technique, even if I couldn’t do the breathing routine beforehand.

I lay on my bed. I placed pillows under my knees, as instructed. I took a deep breath.


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 disoriented.

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 had spoken of them being spread out, palms up, but this felt weird. 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.

I was supposed to be paying attention, to tension.

Attention, tension!

But not verbalising.

Don’t verbalise.

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.

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 that my body, inside, was roomy.

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, to move.

And the pain. The pain in my pelvis, for which I had sought a cure for years, was a fire smouldering 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 realised 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 difficulty when I was writing was not to come up with thoughts, but to give them direction and economy.

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.

So where was this famous tension I was supposed to be full of?

No sign of it.

Perhaps Dr Wise was right that there was no point in trying this on your own. Again and again his book made the double gesture of first explaining very carefully to you how to get well, then warning that the procedure he recommended is far too complex for you to undertake on your own. What he called paradoxical relaxation was harder than learning the piano, he insisted. Hence impossible without a teacher. This was not, or not only, I realised now, to lure you to his clinic, but out of a genuine, control freak’s anxiety that if he, Dr Wise, wasn’t there in person, there was no way you, Tim Parks, would get things right.

If you couldn’t find any tension, he said at one point, try contracting a muscle for a moment, then let it go.

I tensed the muscle above one knee. The one that jerked. And relaxed it.



Then my mind latched on to a glow. Yes, there was definitely a low glow, a buzz from the muscle. It was quite pleasant. Concentrate on it. There.

And I started to congratulate myself. I’m getting the hang of it already. Well done, Tim!

• This is an edited extract from Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks, published by Harvill Secker. Buy it for £7.99 from guardianbookshop.co.uk

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.