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Lions Roar : March 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2012 51 Does meditation work? The first place to look is our own lives. MARGOT SAMMURTOK talks to four people who say it’s made all the difference. Tim Parks Author MILAN, ITALY “EVERY ILLNESS is a narrative,” says prolific British author Tim Parks, a dedicated skeptic who was stricken with mysterious chronic pain in his forties. “What matters is the version you tell yourself.” Raised in a strict evangelical Anglican household where the only permitted reading material was the Bible, and his mother and minister father sometimes spoke in tongues, Parks and his siblings were expected to be discreet, ambitious, and successful. So when he rejected religion in his teens and declared he was going to study literature, it created conflict within his family and fodder for his novels, one of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. As it happened, it also created fodder for the chronic ill- ness that was to come. When the pains began in his pelvic area, Parks was not only a successful author, translator, and professor at Universita IULM in Milan, Italy, he was a husband, father of three, and an expert whitewater kayaker. He was busy, big time busy. So he ignored the pains, hoping they would go away. They got worse. “I was really afraid of all the joy going out of life,” he says. Western medicine yielded little insight and no relief. Then, “just when the medical profession had given up on me and I on it, just when I seemed to be walled up in a life sentence of chronic pain,” Parks says, he heard of breathing exercises designed to reduce tension in the muscles of the pelvic floor. The practical yet para- doxical instruction to breathe into the tension didn’t make sense to him, but “there was a huge relief.” Relief, but not a cure. The suffering continued. In India on business, skeptical mind fully engaged, he hap- pened across an ayurvedic doctor who said he could help with the symptoms. But Parks would have to face his inner conflicts and make profound changes before his pain would go away. “This new experience of my body,” he says, “and of the relation- ship of body and mind, was suddenly much more interesting than my illness, to which my mind had become very attached.” Intrigued, Parks went on a five-day vipassana meditation retreat. He sat with his pain and emotional turmoil. He devel- oped a daily meditation practice, attended longer retreats, gained greater insight—and, astonishingly, his pain gradually disappeared. In his latest book, his twenty-first, Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skep- tic’s Search for Health and Healing, he recounts the journey that took him far beyond his imaginings as he ferreted out the root of his suf- fering, a journey he says has had a profound effect on his life. He says the greatest change is an increased sense of calm. The experience “proved so exciting, so transforming, physically and mentally, that I began to think my illness had been a stroke of luck,” he says. Parks’ next book is a novel “about the struggle of egos seeking drama versus a desire to dissolve the self and the story in silence,” set in a vipassana meditation retreat. “I think many people’s interest in meditation is a need to escape the tyranny of a life narrative that has become destruc- tive,” he says. But escape, or transformation, only comes through making changes in one’s life. “It can be a slow, disturbing experi- ence. It’s a mistake to worry about this. I go on, observing.”