Meditation rescued me from misanthropy

Religion is an easy target for atheists, but, as Tim Parks discovered, there’s no escaping that ther

The atheist is an embattled soul. If we think of those proud to proselytise their atheism today - Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins - we find that they are above all polemicists, wearily prolonging a juvenile rebellion. Popes and fundamentalists are their sustenance. And vice versa.Without the quarrel, both parties might be obliged to move on.

My own atheist period lasted the time it took to escape an evangelical family. My father, an Anglican clergyman, had become involved in the charismatic movement. There were exorcisms and a delirium of tongues and prophesies. In the event, it was such a relief to escape into the world of cold reason that the loss of eternal life seemed a small price to pay. For three decades, I have avoided all futile discussion of the existence of God and the place of man in the universe. The only religious ceremonies I attend are weddings and funerals. Last year, when, over the coffin of a friend's son, the priest announced that the boy was gazing down on us from paradise, it was evident that not a single mourner could take comfort from these ill-chosen words. The old formulas no longer suit.

But life is long and so much of it lies outside the highly verbal environment in which atheists and believers assert their divisive identities. There is also the silence when walking through fields in twilight, or sitting beside a sleeping child; there is the dismay as ageing parents decline; the mad pleasures of physical intimacy; sickness, déjà vu, dreams. Comes the moment when you are no longer afraid to turn and look at all that lies beyond the metalled rails of career and consumerism. In summer 2008, I amazed myself by signing up for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat with the ageing American teacher John Coleman.

I went for health reasons. So I told myself. For some years, an inexplicable condition had walled me up in chronic stomach pains and urinary embarrassments. The medical profession prospected operations to bladder, prostate and intestines, prescribed powerful medications and batteries of intrusive tests. Which turned up nothing. Eventually, and very gradually, I found relief in breathing exercises and shiatsu. It was the shiatsu practitioner who pointed out that the breathing exercises were in fact a form of meditation. Not a word I cared for. "You should go to a Vipassana retreat," he said. When I objected that this smacked of Buddhism, he laughed. "Just go for the physical benefits."

I looked it up on the internet: "Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. It is a universal remedy for universal problems." "Universal" and "remedy", I thought, were words that, when put together, could only epitomise wishful thinking. Purification, on the other hand, was a concept I couldn't begin to understand and hence a goal I could hardly desire. As for seeing things as they are, I knew that this meditation was done with the eyes closed.

The retreat was in a monastery-turned-conference centre. After registration, one had an hour to chat before taking a vow of silence. The 70-strong group was a mixed bag: men and women, young and old, New Age and no, posh and rough. As we drank tea together, I found this person was credulous, another sceptical, this boy yearning for mystical experience, that man frightened of losing his mind. When a girl expressed doubts about her ability to sit cross-legged for 12 hours a day, a haggard man in his forties remarked that "the position" was not the problem. It seemed there was a problem, but it was not "the position".

What then? Not money. These retreats cost nothing. At most, one pays modestly for food and board. In return, you are expected to rise at 4am for a 4.30am start, to accept simple vegetarian food and only two meals a day, to keep silent throughout - in short, to live a monkish life. And to learn this meditation method.

For the first three and a half days, you are instructed to do nothing but sit cross-legged and focus on the breath as it crosses the upper lip entering and leaving the nose. When the sitting position is painful, you are to observe it without thinking of it as your pain; when wayward thoughts disturb your concentration, you are to take note but not attribute them to yourself.

By the evening of day two, I had had enough. Feet, ankles, knees, thighs and hips were weld­ed together in a scorching pyre from which my curved trunk rose like the torso of some broken martyr. Round this carnage, thoughts flitted and circled like bats in smoke.

It would be impossible to convey how many thoughts arose, or how systematically they blocked all my attempts to focus on my breathing. Had my mobile phone not been removed on arrival, I would have called my shiatsu man and told him what I thought about the "physical benefits".

Yet I didn't leave. I was as much enthralled as appalled. Sitting still, in silence, I found that an astonishing exposure to my thought pro­cesses was going on. How interminably words dragged one away from the here and now of sensation! How tiresomely self-regarding and self-dramatising the thoughts they formed were. In compensation, there was a growing sense of community with those sitting quietly around me hour after hour, some in deep trouble, as I was, fidgeting and sighing and rearranging their mats and cushions, others seraphically still, beautifully erect and fresh. I wanted to be like them.

On the afternoon of day four, Vipassana proper begins. Having learned to focus and free itself from words, the mind detaches from the breath to move slowly through the body from head to toe and back, exploring every sensation, every absence of sensation.

I had just discovered that when one did manage to fuse mind and flesh in the touch of the breath on the lip, the sense of well-being was immediate, the muscles relaxed, the sitting position became not only possible, but pleasant. Moving away from this to explore the body was like stepping from a cool balcony into a burning house. I would never have imagined that the body could provide so much essentially meaningless pain. Nor that I would have been willing to put up with it.

Coleman became important now. His son­orous voice clicked in and out of the silence to guide us round our bodies with a calm and deeply reassuring charisma. "Let go," he commanded when we arrived at a point of tension. "Just let go." Towards day seven, I began to get, very fleetingly, a sense of the whole body flowing together in a state of serene, liquid energy. I had stopped waiting for each hour to end.

But the real surprise of the retreat came with the last meditation before the silence was ended - the "metta bhavana", or meditation of loving kindness. Outside the meditation hall, moving around the grounds, I had noticed as the days went by that the natural world was intensely present to me in a way that was unusual and moving. The absence of input was allowing for a simple sense of pleasure in being here.

When the old man began the metta bhavana, I found an unexpected generosity welling up in me. There is no point in denying it: Tim Parks is a misanthropist, interminably critical of his fellow man. Yet here I was, feeling something suspiciously like love, or St Paul's charity. It rose from depths I knew nothing of. And to tap in to it, I hadn't had to surrender my reason to any belief structure. Just by putting the chatter aside and reinhabiting my body, I had experienced a big shift of feeling. My shiatsu man, I realised now, must have known all along, being a holist, that one can't just take the physical benefits without undergoing a change of heart.

When the atheists take religion to task for its absurd beliefs or for the damage it has done, we have no choice but to agree. They could hardly have an easier target. Yet the intimations that lie behind religions remain and are not going to go away because someone has written a book denying God. They are part of our reality. How we respond to those feelings, individually and collectively, will very largely define the kind of community we become. One can only hope that they do not crystallise in divisive creeds.

“Teach Us To Sit Still" by Tim Parks is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

Getty/Julia Rampen
Show Hide image

View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496