Monday, 14 July 2014

Caffeine, Toxins, Vipassana and Tim Parks

Tim Parks in"Teach Us To Sit Still" describes the ways in which first relaxation and then meditation brought him relief from very unpleasant symptoms (pelvic pain) and associated anxieties. He manages to avoid drastic surgery, and he eventually does a 15-day course of meditation at a Vipassana centre. I haven't been to such a centre, but he writes in what I guess is a fair-minded as well as an engaging way about the process. He certainly reaches a new understanding of the relationship between mental states and physical symptoms. And he stops hurting.

After "Teach Us To Sit Still, Parks used his experiences to write a novel about young woman at a Vipassana centre. The novel's title is "Sex Is Forbidden." Which it is, along with an awful lot of other things, including an evening meal. (Tea and a piece of fruit only.) No intoxicants, and of course, no coffee, or other "toxins."

Both the central character of the novel, and Parks himself, came to the Vipassana Centre in dire straits. I expect that makes one readier to put up with things that would otherwise seem objectionable, worrying even, and for many people the rigour of the 15 days' isolation from the world no doubt works.

I have a big reservation about a central concept in the experience, as described on a Vipassana Centre's website: "purity." There is much emphasis on purifying the mind, and the body. 

It's not so much the rigour of the code that alienates me; fair enough, they are aiming at eliminating distractions and diversions, hence segregation of the sexes, no reading materials, mobile phones, etcetcetc. 

It's the idea that we can be purified, the emphasis on ridding the mind and the body of impurities, that doesn't work for me. Isn't that the old dualism, mind/body, pure/impure, the idea that a drive towards ridding ourselves of our beastly bits will make us good, holy, enlightened, better members of society.

I can't remember who it was who said that the difference between a medicine and a poison is the size of the dose. Anything can become a toxin if you take too much of it, perhaps even meditation; we can't spend our lives in the lotus posture. (I can't spend five minutes in it.) I don't accept there are pure and impure beings. We are mixed creatures, morally fallible, and I don't trust any kind of moral or physical absolutism.

Still, it worked for Tim Parks. Maybe if I was in a jam, I'd put up with ten days of rigid social and physical control. But it seems to me there are kinder meditation routines and retreats that can also result in awakening, "Insight, " "Seeing things as they truly are" (translations of "Vipassana").

(I should emphasise that "Vipassana" is a broad term for ancient Buddhist and pre-Buddhist techniques, and that the regime Parks describes is simply one interpretation and one methodology for delivering it via an intensive - to put it mildly - silent retreat.)

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