Bats in Smoke

Emily Gould

  • Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks
    Vintage, 335 pp, £8.99, July 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 954888 1
  • The Server by Tim Parks
    Harvill Secker, 288 pp, £16.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 84655 577 0

At some point in his mid-forties, the novelist Tim Parks developed a terrible pain, near-constant and located in embarrassing places: his lower abdomen and crotch. ‘I had quite a repertoire of pains at this point: a general smouldering tension throughout the abdomen, a sharp jab in the perineum, an electric shock darting down the inside of the thighs, an ache in the small of the back, a shivery twinge in the penis itself.’ He eventually overcame his chronic ache by practising Buddhist Vipassana meditation, but his memoir’s first 215 pages are devoted to the agonising specifics, complete with diagrams, of his futile search for a medical diagnosis. He tries repeatedly to ignore the pain and go on with his ordinary life, even as his mysterious condition prevents him from thinking for very long about anything other than the ‘lump of hot lava’ in his belly.

As Parks describes an endless string of doctors’ visits and wrong turns, his reading and writing give him perspective – some useful, some not – on his condition. Every book he reviews turns out to be somehow pertinent to his lava-lump: Thomas Hardy suffered from unexplained pelvic pains too, as did Benito Mussolini. Writing an introduction to Vitaliano Brancati’s Il bell’Antonio, a novel about a gorgeous young man whose impotence has something to do with Italy’s descent into fascism, Parks says he was tempted to ‘aestheticise’ his condition, to take it as a ‘puzzle to contemplate’ that might explain his whole life, as it would if he were the hero of a novel. But he’s looking for the answer in the wrong place, and so are the doctors who test him for various prostate conditions. The books he’s reading are not actually all about pain, and his prostate is normal.

The book that finally helps him solve his problem is a self-help volume he learns about during his predawn scrolling through pelvic-pain message boards. Called A Headache in the Pelvis, it explains that all his symptoms can be attributed to chronic clenching of the muscles of the pelvic floor, and prescribes a practice of ‘paradoxical relaxation’, a programme of silent, stationary deep breathing and single-pointed focusing on the pain that sounds suspiciously like non-Western medicine. It works, and Parks has a glimpse of his own inner landscape, like ‘Doctor Who’s Tardis: small on the outside, spacious when you went in’. The mysterious pains start to disappear for brief intervals and then, gradually, as Parks continues his paradoxical relaxation practice, retreat almost completely. But he has a disturbing sense that they haven’t gone far, imagining them as wolves prowling just outside the glow of the fire. One night he dreams he’s trying to untangle a stiffly knotted vine that has grown around a railing; he becomes so frustrated by the task’s seeming impossibility that he wants to cut the plant down. This is the catalyst for his next step: he checks himself into a week-long silent meditation retreat in the Alps.

The retreat centre, in a farmhouse high in the hills north of Milan, is a place of ironclad rules and rhythms: there’s to be no speaking, no leaving the grounds, no sexual activity or use of intoxicants, and no reading or writing. Participants are required to get up each morning before dawn, and sit in meditation for two hours. Then a Spartan breakfast is served, followed by more meditation, then lunch, then more meditation, then sleep: a total of ten or twelve hours a day of seated stillness. Parks is sceptical and unsure; he avoids finding out what Vipassana meditation is until just before setting off. ‘Vipassana,’ the internet tells him, ‘means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation.’ It is, he’s told, a universal remedy, but he’s not convinced: ‘“Universal” and “remedy”, I thought, are two words that when put together can only epitomise wishful thinking, unless we are talking about a bullet in the brain.’

Sitting with his spine erect for hours at a time is physically difficult for him, and quieting his babbling mind – a writer’s mind, as he says, alive to detail and inclined to analysis at all times – is impossible at first. ‘After half an hour toes, feet, ankles, knees, thighs and hips welded together in a scorching pyre from which my curved trunk rose like the torso of some broken martyr. Round this carnage, thoughts flitted like bats in smoke.’ He thinks that ‘reflection comes at the expense of being,’ then congratulates himself on the idea, then worries he won’t remember it without being able to write it down, then seethes at himself for having any thoughts at all.

And then, at last, the breakthrough occurs. Parks teasingly warns that meditation by its nature defies description. But Vipassana involves contemplating sensation as it flows throughout the body, and Parks describes the varieties of unexpected sensation with care. When he suddenly becomes aware of the skin of his temples it feels like ‘the lively sparkle of freshly poured soda water’. As one by one all the parts of the body come to fullest life, Parks feels good. By the final session of the retreat, he has experienced ‘three warm showers’ of buzzing, glowing sensations of drenching warmth. He considers it a baptism. It’s the first time we’ve heard him describe anything more pleasant than the absence of pain. But how, after experiencing the bliss of a truly unexamined moment, can he go back to work without losing everything he’s gained? He’s found out that being a writer – at least, the way he’s been doing it, sitting disembodied for most of his waking life – is bad for one’s brain, body and soul. It might also cause a terrible pain deep in your crotch.

He decides to go on a second retreat. This one is not idyllic. The facility, a former monastery in the Tuscan hills, is large and charmless, the weather is hot and muggy, the meditation teacher an American whose advanced age and sloppy body annoy Parks from the moment they meet: ‘Coleman was on his last legs, shuffling, pushing eighty, fat, sometimes fatuous.’ Coleman’s platitudinous sayings ring distractingly false, the Olympics are on TV, and several nuns are cheering audibly in another room during the meditation sessions. Suddenly, the inner silence Parks had been cultivating, with no small amount of self-congratulation, is nowhere to be found. Then he’s told that on the fourth day of the week of silence he’s allowed to ask the teacher a question, a privilege that comes to seem like a homework assignment and sends him into a tailspin of obsessive thought.

Sitting in painful non-meditation for hours, he rehearses what he’ll say when his turn to speak comes, rewriting his question in his mind over and over even though he wants more than anything to stop thinking about it altogether. This reminds him of 1997, when his novel Europa was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and he was unable to stop an acceptance speech from forming in his mind and then polishing itself, day after day, week after week, even though he suspected his book was too odd and prickly to appeal to the judges and that he had almost no chance of winning. He wants to ask a question and get an answer but he also wants to be acknowledged as someone special – a writer, a thinker – and his question needs to reveal all of this. He knows this is a foolish desire and hates himself for having it, but can’t stop wanting. He considers not asking anything, then rehearses how, exactly, he’ll say nothing: ‘Please, Mr Coleman, I would rather say nothing.’ Or: ‘“Teacher, I wish to take refuge in the Noble Silence.” That was good.’ Then he debates whether when he declines his opportunity to ask a question he should do so in English – more impressive but possibly too attention-getting – or in Italian, which will, inevitably, be accented but still very good, and will also invite admiration. Then he imagines writing about his struggle, possibly in a novel. He decides to confess that he has spent days rehearsing the moment of his confession, wasting ‘hours of this precious meditation time with self-regarding thoughts’. In revealing his specialness in this way he will also be asking a genuine question, because his problem as a meditator and to some extent as a person is that he can’t seem to turn off the self-presenting side of his brain. And for these reasons the question is sure to be a hit, a Booker Prize-quality question.

Finally the fourth day arrives, and the supplicants are called before the teacher in groups of four. Knowing that the teacher asks from left to right, Parks sits in the last spot, still deliberating and mentally rephrasing his perfect question. As the first two supplicants ask their questions, he is still rehearsing. And then he hears the third man’s confession: the man’s problem, he tells the teacher, is that for the past two days he has been thinking about what he would ask when called to the front. The teacher laughs uproariously: ‘So you lost the present for a future moment that didn’t even happen.’ And then it’s Parks’s turn, and he’s struck dumb. He gasps and grasps for a humiliating minute, until the teacher dismisses him. Instead of impressing everyone with his wit, or his ability to speak both English and Italian, or his self-knowledge and wry outsider’s sensibility, he’s failed to say anything at all.

The danger of delving into any spiritual practice may be that absolutely everything can start to seem as if it contains an important spiritual lesson. In this barrage of meaningful moments, though, there’s occasionally one that really could explain everything. In the next chapter, Parks returns to the question of the Booker Prize he should have won. Even Salman Rushdie thought so: ‘He frowned and said if it was him he would be furious; he would be throwing chairs round and complaining.’ But the fix was in for Arundhati Roy: ‘The book was charming, it was already a bestseller, it was from India, it was about poor children who suffer abuse but make good, the author was beautiful without being too young.’ If the person writing this doesn’t sound like he’s achieved inner peace – well, he hasn’t. How, Parks wonders, even as he snipes, will he ever reconcile the meditative calm he has found with his writing? Or with ‘writing, hoping, fighting’, as he puts it, because for him they are still synonymous.

By the time he returns from the retreat and sits back down at his desk at home, Parks finds that his attitude to work has changed again. At first he can’t do anything – the old paths are blocked – but then he shifts into a calmer mode: ‘slow and careful and very clear in my mind, freed from the usual turmoil and compulsion’. Writing seems less like a battle to be won. Perhaps it’s more of a business of ‘sharing words with the reader like a glass of clear water on a hot summer afternoon’. Perhaps he should be ‘forgetting the sounding brass of Grub Street, the tinkling cymbals of the Booker, the Nobel’. He remembers the dream of the tangled vine, and for the first time he thinks the trick might be to find some compromise between untangling the vine and chopping it down entirely. ‘I wonder if it’s not just a question of pruning down the tangled wisteria of one’s ego year by year, retreat after retreat, not I, not I, not I.’

Non-attachment to the self: this, the primary goal of life according to Eastern philosophy, is a hard thing to achieve under any circumstances, for anyone, but it is especially hard for a person who has spent his life cultivating the self, feeding it knowledge, exploring it, and for whom all of life’s rewards have come as a consequence of putting that self into public view. That is: for a writer in particular, non-attachment to the self is a tall order. It’s hard not to think, sometimes, when struggling to sit still for even five minutes before a yoga class, that the true benefits of enlightenment will only ever be available to people called Summer and Dewberry, and that even they won’t be able to appreciate them fully.

Is the sceptical Parks converted to the way of non-attachment? Not really, nor does he exactly pretend that he is. Like most people who find themselves led by circumstance to explore the shelves you’d find in a patchouli-scented bookstore, he takes what he can use from the Eastern traditions, acknowledges that he’s barely scratched the surface, and then moves on. This has to be OK: few who go in for yoga or meditation take things to their logical conclusion and become lamas or ascetics. Meditation caused the pain in Parks’s crotch to go away. What more can a person ask? He is grateful. But no one is paying him to meditate all day. Short of renouncing the world entirely, he has no choice but to get back to work.

And yet it yields a kind of bad conscience, this sort of mixed lifestyle, which is a lifestyle that many people, Western and Eastern both, practise these days. However attentively students may listen to the five minutes of homilies that begin their yoga classes, the chances are they won’t leave the class wholly converted. When they break from their ego-driven lives to attempt bouts of immersion in selflessness, there will always be a conflict. It’s the sort of thing you could write a novel about.

The Server is the first novel of Parks’s post-Vipassana period. Young Beth Marriot has come to the Dasgupta Institute in rural England as a student and stayed on as a volunteer, cleaning and cooking and meditating, and avoiding her life. We see the institute through Beth’s rambling stream of hyper-consciousness, and in the same way learn bits and pieces about whatever she is running away from. Gradually, a picture emerges from the fragments: Beth was a singer whose sweet, insipid boyfriend was a member of her band. Pregnant by an older, caddish lover, she semi-suicidally took a swim in rough ocean waters and ended up in a coma. The circumstances of her accident, which might have killed the companion who tried to save her, emerge gradually as Beth moves through the routines of the institute, trying to clear her mind and avoid remembering. In the meantime she develops an obsession with a middle-aged man who has come on retreat to the institute and whose diary she discovers and reads; his struggles with a cruel wife, a younger lover and a damaged daughter spark her imagination and lead her away from her meditation and back towards her old habits. Eventually, the diarist catches Beth reading his sad secret book. Will they leave their newfound virtue behind and sneak off to a nearby pub?

It’s a slim conflict for a 300-page novel, and there are perhaps a few too many pages about Beth’s breasts, from Beth’s point of view. She mentions getting into trouble for not wearing a bra – ‘they were right. You could see the nipples’ – and notices that a fellow server is ‘gawping down my cleavage’. Recalling that her lover had once called her ‘a gaggle a giggle a gurgle a google a google of tits’, she says: ‘I always preferred bikini tops. I don’t need support. Just to hide the nipples. Drove him nuts. To his nuts.’ This kind of thing might be intended to establish her credibility as a female narrator but I would like to see the male-narrated novel that spends this much time describing the reaction of the narrator’s private parts to every passing breeze and change in temperature. Still, when Parks leaves Beth’s breasts alone, he delivers an impressive amount of meditative micro-detail, as Beth’s questing mind catalogues the details of her inner and outer world while she sits and tries to empty herself. These are the aspects of meditation that would have been too much for a memoir, but find a home here: the texture of the vat of bland curry or porridge and its congealed edges, and how ravenously you crave it nonetheless during the long stretches of time that it’s not on offer; the whiff of a communal bathroom shared by a lot of people who are all eating the same starchy vegetarian diet. The inner state of the retreat-goer is there, too: the intense rivalries and affections, the weird private theories about the gurus in charge. Beth is especially interested in the elusive meditation leader Mi Nu Wai, whose sexless beauty reproaches and tantalises her. Her irritation at sneezers, coughers, shifter-arounders and farters will be familiar to anyone with any experience of group meditation. Parks describes the fraught feelings generated whenever a crowd of people gather who are determined to be on their best behaviour at all times. It doesn’t matter that they are being coached non-stop to let go of the drive to outdo each other at being good; as Parks makes clear in his memoir, the process of being coached will always lead some people to want to show their coaches just how well they’re learning.

But Beth isn’t trying to prove her essential goodness to the people around her so much as trying to prove it to herself. She has never availed herself of the opportunity, available to everyone at the institute, to ask Mi Nu a question, though she thinks of potential questions constantly. For her, the problem isn’t choosing the perfect phrasing so much as sifting through the noise of her thoughts and figuring out what it is she wants to know. But Mi Nu can’t tell her whether the man who tried to save her from drowning died; she could find out by using her mobile phone, but it’s in a locker she isn’t allowed to open until she’s decided to leave the institute for good.

Teach Us to Sit Still and The Server address the same problem – how to escape the prison of your mind without giving up on what it is that makes you you – but the latter does so with a neat inversion: Beth only silences her chattering brain when she begins to take an interest in someone else’s trouble, as we do when we read novels. It is easier, after all, to imagine a solution to a problem when you can persuade yourself that the problem is someone else’s. ‘Your pain is a door. Go through it,’ she writes in the older man’s diary. She never asks the guru a question, except in her dreams, but she does give some useful advice to the diarist about how to solve his problems with his wife and daughter. As to her own enlightenment, she eventually arrives at a workable compromise: ‘I meditate for an hour in the mornings,’ she says in a tidy epilogue, ‘if I didn’t drink too much the night before.’