Meditating to make the pain go away

Tue, Jun 29, 2010, 01:00

Author Tim Parks overcame his scepticism to discover how meditation can help us cope with both physical and emotional ailments

IT’S A long way from urological appointments to a vipassana meditation hall. That’s the journey Booker-nominated novelist Tim Parks unwittingly set out on when he began to get mysterious pains in his pelvis.

The journey is fascinating to anybody interested in the mind/body connection and in the potential of meditation and relaxation to help us cope with physical as well as emotional ailments.

Parks tells the story of the journey in his new book Teach Us to Sit Still – A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing, published today by Harvill Secker.

Following the urological investigations, he was diagnosed with chronic pelvic pain, yet “examination of my organs showed nothing except pre- cancerous cells, which apparently is not unusual”, he says.

The effects were pervasive. “Discomfort formed a shell around me,” he writes in the book. Parks’s trips to urologists and other mainstream professionals failed to produce a solution to an increasingly painful and intrusive condition which was gradually becoming the focus of his life.

So far, so conventional. Then, on a trip to India, he attended a practitioner of ayurvedic medicine. Dr Hazan looked him in the eye and pronounced, “This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradictions in your character,” adding, “There is a tussle in your mind.”

Neither this, nor Hazan’s discourse on masturbation helped. Still, the remarks about a link between ill health and contradictions in the character suggested a new way of looking at health and illness.

That was quite a shift and may have opened Parks’s mind to unconventional ways of dealing with his apparently intractable problem.

So when an internet search uncovered a book called A Headache in the Pelvis, by David Wise and Rodney Anderson, of the Department of Urology at Stanford University, he was willing to give it a go.

The book advocated relaxation and what might be called a “turning towards” the symptom as the road to wellness. Relaxation included focusing on his breathing without words and letting his awareness rest on the areas of tension and stress in his body without actually attempting to relieve that stress, called paradoxical relaxation.

The effect was immediate as he brought his great stress into awareness, focusing on breathing and keeping his mind clear of words. The pain reduced straight away but did not leave him completely.

It took about three months to lower the levels of pain to such an extent they were no longer a problem, he says. By then, he was really no longer interested in the pain, a remarkable outcome for a man whose life had increasingly been dominated by this mysterious condition which had been so resistant to other treatments.

Relaxation, turning towards the symptom (in the sense of being willing to experience it) and focusing on breathing without having a conversation running in his mind are all similar to the Buddhist approach to pain though Parks doesn’t recall any mention of this in the Stanford book. It was his shiatsu therapist who pointed him in the direction of vipassana or insight meditation.

Parks went off on a five-day retreat, learned to sit and breathe for hours at a time, letting thoughts come and go without getting attached to them. It wasn’t enjoyable and he almost left halfway through. He had decided to sit cross-legged, possibly out of vanity, possibly to copy the others on the retreat. That brought plenty of pain and discomfort on its own. But though he was, literally, sorely tempted to leave, he held on.

Then, on the third day, the pain went, for a time, and he had turned a corner. On the fourth day he cried, again and again. Everyone who had ever mattered to him in his life crowded into his mind. The experience might be called psychotic, mystical, hallucinatory or any of a dozen other words depending on your point of view.

Still, it brought him to the realisation, as he stood beside the dead and the living, looking out across a valley, “that the roads to health and to death were one: to recover my health, fully, I must accept death as I had accepted the pain sitting cross-legged in the meditation room”.

When I suggested to him that not everybody who goes on retreats has such profound experiences, he agrees. “The people who went to retreats because they felt ready usually got something out of it. The people pushed there by friends or out of merest curiosity or New Age enthusiasm didn’t.”

He has been to retreats since and would go again though he is no starry-eyed enthusiast. One of the things that most impressed him about the Buddhist approach in the retreats was their complete lack of interest in proselytising. This approach was exemplified by an overweight retreat leader John Coleman who, in his colourless T-shirt, old slippers and shapeless pants, didn’t bother to try to look like any kind of guru and simply didn’t care whether people were disappointed or impressed.

Parks found Coleman’s approach extremely irritating, but in the end came to admire it and he is one of the people to whom he dedicates his book.

Today, the pains that had plagued him are long in the past. If they return, he meditates for longer than usual and they go. He doesn’t deny the existence of chronic pelvic pain syndrome – “millions of people have it” – but it now makes sense to him that stressing muscles over the years could be the cause of it and that very deep relaxation could be the answer.

Does he think other people with chronic pain should follow his path? “I’m always very hesitant to recommend things to people,” he replies. He suggests those who are interested read his book and then decide. And he recognised, he says, that a great many people just won’t look at this approach to health and illness. His mother believes yoga is “of the devil” and his brother, who had polio and has posture problems as a result, flatly rejects his suggestions that he try shiatsu massage.

Today, Manchester-born Parks is wrestling with a novel and wondering how his experiences of meditation will affect his writing. He is a successful novelist ( Europawas nominated for the Booker Prize in 1997) and author of books on many topics.

For people with chronic pelvic pain, this book is well worth a read. Living with chronic pain involves a journey in search of relief and Teach Us to Sit Stillsuggests that one stop on that journey should be the meditation hall – or at least recognition of the mind/body link as expressed by Wise and Anderson in A Headache in the Pelvis.

Teach Us to Sit Still – A Sceptics Search for Health and Healing, by Tim Parks is published by Harvill Secker