I just finished reading this book. It’s an autobiographical account of the author’s experience with chronic pain, and with medical practitioners who fail to come up with a clinical diagnosis or treatment for his mysterious condition.
Reading the first part of the book was an uncomfortable experience. Tim Parks provides a very graphic and personal account of the problems he is having with his prostate and urinary system. I found myself needing to go to the bathroom almost as often as he was, as my body kicked into some kind of psychosomatic empathy response!
In despair, Tim Parks puts his skepticism aside and explores a range of alternative therapies. He discovers a book on the internet by Doctor David Wise, called A Headache in the Pelvis. In this book, the author learns of an activity described as “paradoxical relaxation”. This is, in effect, a form of vipassana meditation, although the term meditation is not used until later in the book when Tim makes the connection and bravely signs up for a Vipassana Meditation Retreat.
This is the beginning of what is at first a very painful, but later a pain-free, new life. As well as providing him with a way to manage, and eventually banish his pain, meditation provides Tim with the opportunity to reconsider many aspects of his life.
One major part of his life that resonated strongly with me, was his relationship with words. He finds it hard to meditate, because his mind won’t stop talking; he can’t turn off the never-ending stream of words.
I hadn’t really seen a painting or a film (or a game of football, for that matter) until I had thought about it in words, or preferably talked about it, or better still written about it, in carefully organised, purposeful, self-regarding words. Then I possessed it. In this, I suppose, I was not unlike those unhappy people who haven’t really been on holiday unless they can show themselves the photos. The photos are the holiday, even when they’re on the beach, or in the bedroom. And if I never took a camera on holiday, it was only because I was doing the same with words. What mattered was not the experience itself, but the experience described. My notebook, my laptop. And when I wanted to understand something new, I bought the book, of course, or books. I taught myself, with a book. Like Manuel in Fawlty Towers – ‘I can speak English, I learn it from a book.’ When I travelled, there was a guidebook. I had faith in books. … One consequence of all this verbiage was that I never really appreciated that there could be hard mental work that did not involve words, work for which, on the contrary, words might prove an obstacle.
His meditation experience suddenly provids him with a level of insight into everyday things and their existence independent of words.
Everything was intensely itself, source at once of fascination and indifference. Scattered crumbs, splashed milk. I gazed at them. As in a Cézanne, each object had been set free from the mesh of human interpretation. A cup beside a slice of melon. Absolutely themselves. I say the words now – cup, melon – but my mind at the time was wordless. The cup, the melon were things without words, not in relation, not part of a sentence of a story. . . I looked at the young man across the table . . . he was holding a biscuit using a knife to smear it with pink jam. It was too intense. The jam was too pink. The strong fingers too present.
As well as exploring the nature of experience without words, the book highlights how so many of us live our daily lives with a stark lack of connection between our minds and our bodies, and how we tend to constantly live in the past or the future and completely ignore the here and now.
The book is beautifully written and includes many literary references and lovely words for the bibliophiles! I highly recommend it!