Saturday, July 08, 2017

Still life

One aspect of Vipassana still bothered him, indeed had come to bother him more and more, to the point where he was now ready to stop meditating. "What does it mean, " he asked, "when they say the thoughts are not my thoughts? What can that mean? How can the thoughts not be my thoughts?"
I don't like Tim Parks.

I attended an event several years ago where he was reading, and I overheard him saying things — not publicly, but to an individual — that rubbed me the wrong way. He struck me as a man of tremendous ego. On this basis, I have refused to read his novels, and I read his columns in the New York Review of Books aggressively and antagonistically — I love to hate them and find fault with them wherever I can.

All of which makes it particularly puzzling that I should be drawn to pick up Calm, and that I should find it so satisfying.

There I was, restless and wandering the gift shops of the Tate Modern, and there were lined up all the pretty Vintage Minis, and I suddenly had to have one, I had to have a pretty little book as a souvenir, a book that was Art, and Modern, and Summer, and Britain.

And I picked them up, one by one, to see what they were about. These are slim volumes that excerpt previously published work.

But this vacation was not about love, desire, or drinking, not even motherhood or summer. I almost left with that itch to buy a book unscratched, when Calm caught my eye. Striped shades of purple. Calm. An antidote to my restlessness. By an author I dislike. A paradox like a zen koan. My own little book of calm.

(Weirdly, Calm is the book repeatedly recommended to me by the "which Vintage Mini do you need in your life?" quiz, even when I switch up my responses.)

Calm is an extract from Teach Us to Sit Still, in which the sceptical Parks attends a Buddhist meditation retreat.

Why did I think I could learn something about calm, achieve some kind of calm, via the reflections of an aging white male academic? His pains are not my pains, physical or emotional. His teachings cannot be my lessons.
Attachment with aversion was a new idea to me. But I sensed at once what he meant. It was like when I read an author I despised because I despised him, because I enjoyed thinking what a scandal it was that this man was a celebrity. Or when I kept complaining about a colleague at the university because my identity was intensified by my opposition to him. Or when I listened to the radio outside Ruggero's study in order to loathe it. Did I attach to pain in the same way? Scratching sores. Was it possible that this grand showdown with myself that I had planned and been denied actually had to do with the pain I was now experiencing? The showdown was taking place without my realising it was the showdown.
I may not have learned anything, but I found a calm satisfaction in this book. Something about the relationship between the ineffable and the tangible, inner and outer, stillness and life. Thematically in keeping with what had brought me to this book, the Giacometti exhibition I'd viewed at the Tate Modern — the problem of achieving maximal expression through a minimum of means.

Calm lends itself well to introspection, examining how we think about thought and how we transform wordlessness into words. Parks's reflections only confirm how vast his ego is, but I admire his honesty. And as much as I enjoyed this read, I confess I don't intend to read any more Parks ever.

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