Seeking relief from chronic and debilitating pains that conventional medicine could not cure, critic Tim Parks finds himself, much to his own surprise, attending a meditation retreat that involves sitting in crossed-legged silence for twelve and more hours a day.
Although the retreat takes place in Italy, where Parks lives, the course leader, John Coleman, is an English-speaking former CIA operative who discovered Buddhism in the Far East. He practices a form of meditation called Vipassana, “seeing things as they really are,” and communicates with the sixty or so participants through a translator. Parks immediately doubts his decision to embark on this undertaking.
The routine at these retreats is that you eat breakfast at six thirty, after the wonderfully quiet early session, lunch at eleven, then just a piece of fruit late afternoon and nothing till the following morning. “A little hunger in the evening will do no harm,” the overweight Coleman smiled.
Every other afternoon, for an hour, there was a so-called “check-up.” In alphabetical order people were invited, four by four, to bring their cushions to the front, sit before the teacher and report on their progress. On the second day, almost everyone spoke of their pain with the sitting position, their difficulty eliminating their thoughts; many complained of a film playing out before their closed eyes, some old drama rehearsed a thousand times with no solution, as when a ghost appears again and again in the same place in the same clothes – an ex-husband, a dead sister – makes the same gestures and is gone, then back. Never there, never not there.
“I’m in a loop,” one man said. He found it distressing. “I have a big decision to take when I get home, I just can’t get it out of my mind, I see the conversation over and over.”
People couldn’t identify the place on their lips where breath met skin. When they did identify it, they couldn’t focus their attention there, they lost it. “It must be my moustache,” one man thought. He would shave it. Perhaps they felt the breath going out, but not the breath coming in. Or they could feel it in their nose, but not on their lip. Why was it so important to feel the breath on the upper lip?
“I have a pain in my shoulder, from an accident a few years ago.”
“I keep getting this fierce headache right behind my eyes, it won’t go away.”
“My feet are on fire.”
“I’ve got period cramps.”
To all these people, sitting cross-legged on their cushions before him, Coleman, enthroned in his armchair, gave the same advice. “You must say, doesn’t matter, pain, pain, not my pain. You must say thoughts, thoughts, doesn’t matter, not my thoughts.”
He smiled and settled his bulk.
I felt rage.
Given my place in the alphabet, I knew I wouldn’t be invited to present myself to the grand old man until the third day. Try as I might to eliminate the mental chatter from my mind, I began to go over and over what I planned to say. I would mention my surprise that while I had no problem meditating at home, here I was experiencing all kinds of pains. Why? I sat up straight at home, here my back collapsed. Did he have any advice beyond, pain, pain, not my pain?
I thought of all kinds of attractive ways of phrasing this little speech, ways that would make it clear that I was neither an absolute beginner nor a practiced meditator. I would say something different from the others. And of course I would speak in English, as Coleman did, rather than going through his lousy translator. Perhaps I could take the opportunity to offer my own translation services.
Then I was angry with myself. What was this, a theatre? A TV show? I remembered how, on being told I was on the Booker Prize shortlist, I had been unable to stop a modest acceptance speech from playing itself over and over in my mind for weeks before the event. Literally for weeks this acceptance speech had driven me crazy. From the moment of the phone call telling me I was on the list to the moment of the announcement that someone else had won, my acceptance speech refused to stop accepting the prize in my head. Each time with some tiny addition, some precious new flourish. The experience was simultaneously infuriating and immensely gratifying. It really was such a clever, ironic, modest speech. People would not be impressed immediately, I thought. They would just think what a nice ordinary guy I was. Only later would they see what a clever speech it had been. Then they would think me doubly clever, and doubly modest for not having wished to impose my full cleverness on them immediately, but with delayed effect, like those fertilizer sticks you put in the ground that dissolve slowly for months.
On and on this speech performed itself for me, on and on and on. And now I was doing the same thing for Coleman. At every new pain and ache and itch that arose, every sound that irritated and interrupted, I revised my little speech. I polished my speech, shortened my speech, lengthened my speech. Which was insane. At least for the Booker there was an audience. Would have been an audience. T.V.! If I’d won. Here there were just sixty people living in silence, trying in silence to achieve some better relationship with themselves, with existence. What could it possibly matter how I came across to them? They didn’t care about me. I didn’t care about them. And then, how can it ever truly matter how one comes across? What on earth could anyone care about a Booker acceptance speech? For Christ’s sake! And then, I had known from the beginning that I couldn’t win the Booker with the novel I had written. My chances were not six to one but six million to one. It was a miracle they had put me on the list with such an angry book that had sentences more than two pages long. They’d never let it win. So preparing my acceptance speech was doubly ridiculous. At least here I was bound to get a hearing. From sixty people. The speech would happen.
Or maybe not. Because now it occurred to me that what I must do was ask to be excused from saying anything. That was the solution. Then I could stop playing the speech over and over in my mind. I might simply announce: “Please, Mr. Coleman, I would rather say nothing.” Or, “Teacher, I wish to take refuge in the Noble Silence.” That was good. Then pe ple would know that I did not want to draw attention to myself. Perhaps I would speak in Italian, so my fellow meditators weren’t obliged to marvel at my being English. Except there was my accent, of course. There is always something that gives you away. Then they would be obliged to marvel how well I spoke Italian. Despite the slight accent. And of course I would immediately translate what I had said into English so that Coleman wouldn”t have to hear my carefully chosen words from his incompetent translator.
“I would rather say nothing, if that’s allowed,” I would say, in Italian. Or even better, I could approach Coleman in the corridor before tomorrow and, murmuring softly, ask if he could avoid calling me out to the front. Certainly people could hardly say I was looking for attention if I stayed sitting when the others went up to talk.
Or could they?
It was simply maddening how insistently this meaningless chatter ground away in my head those first three days of the retreat. Perhaps I should confess, I thought, when I was called out to the front, that I had wasted hours and hours of this precious meditation time with self-regarding thoughts about what I should say when called out to the front, thoughts entirely directed to the effect of my performance on the audience rather than an honest comment on the way my meditation was going. Badly, needless to say. Should I be confessional? Or would that have even more effect?
Of course I then imagined writing about this meaningless chatter and how brilliantly I could deconstruct myself, or someone like me (very like me), in a novel perhaps. I could very cleverly show how useless I was. Should I write a novel or should I make it non-fiction? Which would seem more necessary ? And if I wrote non-fiction, should I perhaps use a third person, as Coetzee had in Boyhood and Youth, or accept the slithery candour of the first person like everyone else? Those are strange books that Coetzee wrote. They make you feel uneasy.
It went on and on. I hated it. I couldn’t find a way out. And the more my mind rattled on and on the harder it was to sit still. For long periods, as the hours ticked by, I felt I was swaying from side to side and must sooner or later crash to the floor. I began to look forward to it. Or fall on my nose. I was so hunched. It would be such a relief when I crashed on my nose and everyone would see how much I was suffering and then I could stop and take a rest, take a walk, go to bed, go home perhaps. There was now a stabbing pain right between the shoulders. It was ferocious. Stab, stab, stab. Bizarre lights and burning heat radiated out from it. How could I be in so much pain when I knew there was nothing at all wrong with me? What was I learning from all this, I wondered? Nothing. Nothing except that every single thought that rose to my mind was in some way self-regarding. No, in every way self-regarding. What I must say when I am finally called to the front, I decided, is that these three days of meditation have revealed to me that every thought I think is, in one way or another, an ugly, fatuous form of self-congratulation. Even what appears to be the most searing self-criticism is in fact self-congratulation. A man capable of seeing his worst side, you congratulate yourself. Was there no way out of this? How could I stop it, really stop it, forever? Without blowing my brains out.
“Gently return your attention to the breath crossing the point on the upper lip. The in breath crossing the point, the out breath crossing the point. Nama and Rupa, mind and material. Everything in the world, mind and material. Without identity.”
Tom Pax was called to the front with three other names.
So much for identity. The translator was misreading from his list of names. Pax I’m used to, but I hate it when I’m called Tom.
Knowing that Coleman always proceeded from left to right, I put down my cushion on the far right.
The first man admitted to panic attacks.
Coleman was silent. “Just concentrate on the breath,” he told him eventually. “And make an objective note of the fear.”
The second man confessed he kept falling asleep then waking himself up as his body slipped and slumped.
Like the disciples at Gethsemane, I thought, and thinking this was simultaneous with congratulating myself for the pertinent allusion, then wearily ticking myself off for another manifestation of self-regard.
“One does tend to get sleepy the first three days,” Coleman told him. “It will stop as we go on. Don’t be angry with yourself. Make an objective mental note – sleepiness – then return your concentration to the breath on your lips.”
In a late change of plan I decided I would simply say I was having a lot of pain and was finding it hard to concentrate. Nothing else. The most bland summary of what everyone else had said. I hoped that wouldn’t sound provocative. I hoped it wouldn’t sound anything at all.
I would say it in Italian. Speak in Italian, as if you were one of them.
What was the “as if” about?
Then the third man confessed that his main difficulty these last two days had been that he had kept thinking about what he would say, now, when he was called to the front. And Coleman laughed. Coleman laughed deep in his fat belly, a really hearty, rumbly, fat laugh, and said he had been wondering when somebody was going to own up to that. He was evidently much amused.
We had been set up.
“And now I’m saying something completely different from what I planned to say,” my companion lamented.
Coleman smiled. “So you lost the present for a future moment that didn’t even happen.”
That was my Booker story exactly.
“We never say what we plan to say, do we?” Coleman added kindly. “So why not just leave the words till the moment itself? Nothing is at stake here. You’re not being interviewed for a job.”
My turn next. Stay to plan, I decided. The new plan, that is. There is nothing worse than the penalty taker who decides at the last second to go for the other corner.
The fat man turned to me. There was a charisma about him. There was a merriment in his heavy features. Sunk in the flesh, the eyes were bright and young.
“Well, Tom Pax?”
I opened my mouth and nothing came out. It’s an experience I’ve had a thousand times in dreams, but never till now in life. I was voiceless. I was supposed to speak and I couldn’t say a word. Three or four times I tried. Nothing but air and pain in my throat.
Shaking his head, Coleman looked down on me from his armchair throne with a mixture of condescension and sympathy.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” I finally croaked. The words were barely audible.
He leaned slightly towards me. “Why don’t you go back to your place?” he said.
On the eighth morning of the retreat I had an appointment to see Coleman. If you needed advice, you could sign up for a fifteen-minute appointment with Coleman during the unguided meditation sessions on the seventh, eighth and ninth days.
Standing outside his door, I felt unexpectedly emotional. I had made a considerable effort over the last day or so not to plan a speech, or imagine the conversation, or even make a list of things to say. All the same, the meeting had begun to loom in my mind as something special. Outside his door I felt agitated. Something important was at stake. The feeling irritated me. I was an adult, canny, experienced and illusion free. Why on earth was I going to talk to a guru?
With impressive punctuality, the woman before me came out of the room together with the translator and I went in and sat down. Coleman smiled and asked me if I had got my voice back and I said, “Now we’ll see.”
“Bravo!” he laughed.
It was a small sitting room with two armchairs arranged face to face and the shutters half closed against the August sun. I asked him how come he was limping so badly and he explained that they had been moving him around a conference complex in Malaysia on an open golf buggy when the driver braked hard and he had fallen out of the buggy and broken his hip.
Coleman spent some minutes describing the accident and the hospital. He seemed oddly enthusiastic about it all. “The Malaysian nurses were wonderful!” Then he asked, “But how are you getting on?”
I told him the retreat had stirred up a lot of emotions and reflections.
I looked at him. He smiled at me. Not inviting, just waiting. The problem was, I said, that I didn’t see how one could go on living the same way one always had and incorporate this experience into that. I felt this discipline was demanding pride of place, demanding that my whole life change.
Even as I said these portentous things I appreciated that had someone like myself made this kind of declaration, this admission of weakness, to my mother and father in their evangelical heyday, they would have had him on his knees giving his heart to Jesus in no time at all. There would have been tears and prayers and rivers of emotion. Coleman raised a bushy eyebrow. After a long pause he said: “A lot of people get that idea into their heads.”
I was a little thrown. I waited but nothing more was forthcoming.
“Well,” I eventually said, “I’m being asked to look on life as an affliction, a source of suffering, and to learn not to want it, whereas, the truth is I find the whole thing very beautiful. Living. These hills, the people here. I’m very attached to it all. Perhaps that’s why I don’t see how Vipassana is compatible. With the way I live, I mean. I keep feeling I’m being asked to say goodbye to life.”
Coleman was attentive, pleasant, distant. Again, after a pause, he said, “Concentrate on anicca, get to know anicca.”
This did begin to sound like, “Get to know our Lord Jesus.” I felt annoyed. I could play mute as well as anyone, I decided. I wouldn’t say anything else till he started taking the interview seriously.
We watched each other. He seemed to understand my decision and instead of prolonging the silence asked, “What do you do for a living?”
“I teach translation. And write books.”
“How interesting. What kind of books?”
He sat smiling at me. I waited. Then I realized he was smiling because he knew I was waiting for him to ask another question about my books, so that I could talk about them. And he wasn’t going to.
“I mean,” I said hurriedly, “I wonder how one can square writing, desiring success, with Vipassana. I’ve been wondering if I should stop.”
“Oh.” He frowned and sighed. “You know, lots of people come to these retreats and get it into their heads they should retire to a monastery or something. I can’t see why.”
I was beginning to find the encounter galling. “Well, monks don’t write books, do they? The two things are evidently incompatible.”
Again the slow smile. “Monks don’t do lots of things. Who said you have to be a monk?”
“The fact is, more than anything else, words seem to take me away from the present moment. I’m never really here. Always word-mongering. I feel a lot of what’s wrong with my life comes from words.”
He always waited a while before replying.
“We’re speaking now,” he eventually said. “We’re using words now. It’s quite pleasant, isn’t it? Maybe useful.”
“It’s different with books.”
The way he watched made you feel that despite his eighty and more years, he was focused on you, he cared. Then the answers were offhand.
“But books are wonderful things.” He chuckled. “I even wrote one myself way back.”
I had seen a copy on the table outside the meditation room.
“It’s not a very good book, I don’t think, but an effective way of communicating a lot of information to a large number of people.”
Realizing I would get nowhere, I said abruptly, “Mr. Coleman, perhaps you could help me with a smaller thing. I have trouble sitting up straight when I’m meditating. Especially here. At home I seem to manage. Here my back just collapses. I keep feeling I’m going to keel over.”
Coleman reflected, or appeared to. Perhaps it was the merest performance.
“I used to have a lot of problems sitting up straight,” he said.
“But what can I do?”
He breathed deeply. “I wonder why you want to sit up straight.”
“Well, because it would be more comfortable, for a start, better for my back. I’d breathe better.”
He seemed unconvinced. “I wouldn’t do anything about it.”
“It does seem a fair thing to want, though.”
He looked out of the window. Perhaps he was going senile. He was losing touch.
“Sure.” He turned back to me. “Everybody would prefer to sit up straight, yes.” He waited. “You know, sometimes, when things don’t happen for us, it’s because we want them too much.”
I was silent.
“Anicca,” he said. “Concentrate on anicca.” He leaned forward and offered me his hand. “It would be interesting to go on talking, but I only have fifteen minutes per person.”
So that was it! I shook his hand, smiled daggers and went to the door in a fury. I had demeaned myself coming to talk to a guru and he had barely acknowledged my existence. So much for acquiring wisdom. As I left, an elderly man was waiting to come in. Coleman was running to schedule.
I stood in the stone corridor. It had recently been renovated and whitewashed but the Gothic arches round the doorways still kept their antique feel. The window at the far end was a square of brilliant light around the dark candle of a cypress outside. I went to look. The hills were ablaze with dusty sunshine. Down on the lawn, smoking and sunning herself on a deckchair, was a pretty young woman I’d caught Coleman talking to the first days of the retreat. She was taking time out. Join her, I decided. The hell with it.
Downstairs, approaching the main entrance, I stopped. The old bastard had called my bluff. He had been right to suspect my reasons for wanting to sit up straight. I wanted to prove I could do it, to myself and others. Exhibitionism. Perhaps he was right about the writing too. Maybe the real change would be to stop trying to impress myself with all this talk of drastic changes. “A lot of people get that idea into their heads,” he had said. And: “I used to have problems sitting up straight myself.” You and I are alike and like the others too, he was saying. Don’t look for some special relationship with me because you’re a tortured writer. He’d been very polite, I thought. He wasn’t proselytizing, he wasn’t out to recruit disciples. I returned to the meditation room, closed my eyes and waited for the breath to declare itself on my upper lip.
Read Sitting Still I, in which Parks makes his first forays into the mental life of physical pain
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
Photo: Il Convento di Sandetole