Retreat is not the escape a young meditator expects
Sex Is Forbidden: A Novel
By Tim Parks
Arcade Publishing, 2013
304 pp.; $24.95 cloth
While sitting a traditional Vipassana retreat at an ancient hillside monastery in Italy, the British author Tim Parks found himself unable to silence the internal monologue of his mind. Inevitably, his self-mocking thoughts turned from sitting to writing:
Of course I then imagined writing about this meaningless chatter and how brilliantly I could deconstruct myself, or someone like me (very like me), in a novel perhaps. I could very cleverly show how useless I was. Should I write a novel or should I make it nonfiction? Which would seem more necessary?
Happily for us, he eventually decided to do both. In 2010, he published the memoir Teach Us to Sit Still, an enthralling account of his experience with chronic pain and his path from there to meditating at the Italian monastery. Then, in 2012, he mined these experiences once again, this time creating a more lighthearted work, the novel Sex Is Forbidden. Widely acclaimed last year in Britain, this funny and often poignant tale of aching ankles and moments of bliss has now come to the United States.
Sex Is Forbidden follows the spiritual exploits of Beth Marriot, a young English woman who arrived at the fictional Dasgupta Institute nine months ago and never left. She now works as a volunteer server in an endless series of 10-day retreats for an ever-shifting community of a hundred or so guests. The men and women are strictly segregated, but at first Beth doesn’t much mind because “it’s mostly gloomy, gangly boys or older blokes shambling about with their heads bowed over their paunches.”
Slowly, we learn what brought Beth to Dasgupta. She was a musician with a struggling rock band and may have been on her way to some success. She was also juggling at least two boyfriends, one who desperately wanted to get married and one who very much did not. (Naturally, she preferred the noncommittal paramour.) And then something happened in France, along the shore, but even her wandering mind appears reluctant to return there. After all that, a rigidly enforced break from men may be just what she needs.
There are many beautiful moments in the novel that will ring true for anyone who has sat retreats in the myriad centers that now dot rural America and Europe. Parks notes the way everyone comes into the meditation hall “snuffling and fidgeting and coughing,” and how those same sounds that drive you crazy can later become soothing and welcome. After a while, Parks writes, even someone “constantly blowing her nose” can make you “feel protected and humbled.”
Parks manages to fully inhabit the character of Beth, and the authenticity of her voice throughout is one of the novel’s great joys. Through her, Parks perfectly captures the tensions that often arise between residents and visitors at places like these, the staff unable to avoid alternately “liking and hating people you’re only going to see for 10 days.” “Sometimes the meditators get on my nerves,” Beth admits, “so proud of their big Dasgupta experience, their vows and visions.” And yet at other times she loves being around them. “The more you don’t talk to the stranger beside you,” she concludes, “the closer you feel to her.”
But before long, the restless and reckless Beth begins breaking the rules and sneaking over to the men’s quarters, where she discovers that one of the male meditators is surreptitiously keeping a diary. (Writing at the retreats is also forbidden.) This middle-aged skeptic appears to be something of a stand-in for Parks, and excerpts from the diary often echo sentiments from Parks’s own memoir. Both, for example, rebel against Buddhist numerology, quoting the “three refuges, four noble truths, five precepts, seven stages of purification, eightfold path to enlightenment, ten perfections” in nearly identical terms. (Parks calls this “drivel” in his memoir, while the diarist calls it “crap.”)
Readers steeped in modern Vipassana lore will enjoy trying to tease out fact from fiction in the novel. The eponymous teacher Dasgupta appears to be modeled on Satya Narayan Goenka, the Burmese-Indian Vipassana teacher who passed away in late September 2013. The fictional Dasgupta sits “on his armchair in his white suit” in the taped lectures played for students, looking like a member of the “Bombay Rotary in the sixties”—a plausible (if impertinent) portrait of the renowned real-life meditation master. The retreats in Sex Is Forbidden also follow Goenka’s 10-day program and incorporate similar methods and terminology. Parks doesn’t seem to have studied with Goenka himself, but his memoir describes his retreat with the late John Coleman, a Goenka disciple, who may be the model for Harper, resident director of the Dasgupta Institute in the novel. Although Harper appears at first to be “too ordinary and boring” to run a meditation center, looking “like a council employee who’s lost his swivel chair . . . and found they’d put a zafu there instead,” Beth eventually sees another side to him, acknowledging that “there’s a deep calm behind the nerdishness.” It’s the same way Parks sees Coleman: as “a strange mix of blandness, serenity, and shrewdness.”
Toward the middle of Sex Is Forbidden, Beth steals one of the diarist’s notebooks. Here the book begins to drag slightly as Parks quotes long excerpts of the purloined prose. “Yeah, wow, yawn,” Beth comments after one passage. “This is another bit I could have written myself.” Many readers may be inclined to agree. But the story soon returns to Beth and again picks up steam. She stops volunteering in the kitchen in order to meditate full-time, and we sense that her stay at Dasgupta is quickly reaching a turning point. Exactly how she ends the retreat, and what she chooses to do next, form the book’s wholly satisfying conclusion.
“We soon stop thinking about most of the things that happen to us,” a teacher explains to Beth late in the novel. “And this can be true of the memories that torment you too.”
Can Beth find a way to leave behind the tragedies big and small that led her to this quirky institute? Parks, like his fictional character Beth and so many fellow practitioners in the real world, came to meditation searching for an escape. We may never quite find that escape, but like Beth we often manage to find something. Parks’s entertaining and enlightening novel helps us to remember what that something is.
Tricycle contributing editor Dan Zigmond is a writer, manager, and Zen priest living in California.