Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing - by Tim Parks

Every illness is a narrative. What matters is the version you tell yourself.

You're becoming a creature of the night, I thought, climbing the stairs again. You and the dog. Sometimes, I rather liked this feeling of making the small hours present, being around when no one else was. My mental life was changing. In bed, I could lie and think about what I was writing. I had learned not to worry about sleep; it always came. Thoughts were richer and more bizarre in the night, rarely useful if remembered in the morning, but more pleasurable. Almost a sensual pleasure.

‘You will never overcome this problem, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.'

I reflected that most people feel ashamed if told their problem is psychosomatic. They feel accused, guilty. It's acceptable to have a sick body, that's not your fault, but not a sick mind. The mind is you, the body is only yours.

When a sufferer's complaint is one with his psychology you can never say that the cause is just this or just that, as you might with a virus or an infection: you can't say, oh, it's the overwork, or the long-term cross-cultural tension, or some trauma from his childhood, or this or that difficult relationship. No, a condition like this is a unique amalgam with a history all its own; it's an enigma to pore over, and so, in a way, not unlike a work of art. Something to contemplate, over time. A puzzle without a solution.

What a physical wreck I discovered myself to be! What a bundle of twitchy nerves, poor posture and bad habits. The tension I had initially struggled to locate, eyes closed in the dark, complacently convinced that I was not tense, turned out to be everywhere in every moment. Not an inch of me, not a sinew or muscle, that didn't clang with tension, constantly. No sooner had I stumbled on the tiniest corner of it, clenching and unclenching a muscle at random, than it reared up and overwhelmed me. I was nothing but tension.

To be out of touch with your body is to be out of love with your neighbour.

Life is so much longer than any of our enthusiasms, I thought. To every wave its undertow.

So I sat, still in some pain but no longer angry. And the less I was angry the less I was in pain. At times the position began to feel comfortable, even beautiful, the way it invited stillness: the legs locked, the back anchored, the hands quietly joined, and the mind too seemed to have been quietened by the position. Everything came from having accepted that one really was here for the whole five days, from truly not wishing for the time to hurry by, truly not wanting to be back at one's computer writing it all down. How right they had been to forbid us pens and paper!

I was struck, glancing in the mirror, by this obvious thought: that the two selves that had shouted their separateness on waking that morning almost a year ago were my daily life on the one hand and the ambitions that had always taken precedence over that life on the other. I had always made a very sharp distinction between the business of being here in the flesh, and the project of achieving something, becoming someone, writing books, winning prizes, accruing respect. The second had always taken precedence over the first. How else can one ever get anywhere in life? That was why I had been so challenged when Dr Wise warned me that I must put my painful and embarrassing condition at the centre of my ‘project'. What he had meant, I saw now, was that the real project was always mortality.

‘Life presents itself first and foremost as a task. We take no pleasure in it except when we are striving after something.'

‘Who can ever feel at ease when he cares about the world's praise and admiration?' Jakob von Gunten again.

The more we threaten thought and language with silence, or simply seek to demote them in our lives from the ludicrous pedestal on which our culture and background have placed them, then the more fertile, in their need to justify and assert themselves, they become. Reflection is never more exciting than when reflecting on the damage reflection does, language never more seductive than when acknowledging its unreality.

Superficially, the Vipassana process is not unlike the autogenous training that I failed at so abjectly in my early thirties, or indeed Dr Wise's paradoxical relaxation. One is to contemplate sensation as it flows and ebbs throughout the body. The difference lies in the intensity and thoroughness of the exploration and the attitude with which it is undertaken. One renounces any objective beyond the contemplation itself. You are not here in order to relax, or to overcome pain, or to resolve a health problem – the experience is not subordinated to a higher goal – you are here to be here, side by side with the infinitely nuanced flux of sensation in the body.

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. Every thought.

I had been laughing at Beckett, I realised, ever since I was an adolescent, because these ideas were forbidden. My Anglican parents would never have countenanced such a vision of life. The blandness of the Anglican sermon always ended in optimism: the risen Christ, redemption, renewed commitment, the promise of glory. All my life I had associated blandness with Christian conformity, socialist optimism, complacency; and hence, vice versa, pessimism with non-conformity, intellectual acuity, liberation from coercive fairy tale into unpleasant truth.

‘Always ask yourselves,' guru Coleman said to us during one of his evening talks, ‘in what way am I contributing to my own suffering?' If you can do nothing about it, don't torment yourself.

I haven't made much progress with my meditation since that retreat last summer. Perhaps you need more than an hour a day to break new ground with Vipassana. All the same there comes a point, where, entering fully into the moment, entirely focused and concentrated, you do indeed cross a border and leave all pain, physical and mental, behind; you move into a kind of bliss. Then, and this is the odd thing, you can go back and forth across that border, at will, with the tiniest mental shift. Bliss . . . pain . . . bliss . . . pain . . . bliss . . . pain. The reflection that one has achieved bliss is the return to pain. The elimination of the reflection is the return to bliss. You cannot be there and congratulate yourself on having arrived.

If I think back to when I started, I see there was a desire for extraordinary experience, for waves of cosmic healing. One lived torn between a determination to be reasonable, pragmatic, scientific, true to one's culture, and a desire to transcend reason, to escape from pragmatism and science. The two attitudes called to each other, like old sparring partners. One was always on edge. So, at the Vipassana retreats, the first-time meditators are hungry for drama, for an encounter with their demons, submission to a guru. We all want to add another episode to the narrative of our selves, the yarn we are constantly spinning of our dealings with the world. This is why so many go to India, I suppose, to do no more than sit on a cushion, eyes closed. They hope the exotic location, the guru's robes and foreign voice will add intensity to the tale. But as words and thought are eased out of the mind, so the self weakens. There is no narrative to feed it. When the words are gone, whether you are in Verona or Varanasi hardly matters. Whether it is morning or evening, whether you are young or old, man or woman, poor or rich isn't, in the silence, in the darkness, in the stillness, so important. Like ghosts, angels, gods, ‘self', it turns out, is an idea we invented, a story we tell ourselves. It needs language to survive. The words create meaning, the meaning purpose, the purpose narrative. But here, for a little while, there is no story, no rhetoric, no deceit. Here is silence and acceptance; the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning. Intensely aware, of the flesh, the breath, the blood, consciousness allows the ‘I' to slip away.