Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic’s Search for Health and Healing
by Tim Parks
Rodale, 322 pp., $25.99
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks….
—T.S. Eliot, “Ash-Wednesday”
In 1971, forty-year-old Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert of Harvard University, published one of the most widely read and influential “wisdom” books of the twentieth century, whose message is, more or less, wholly contained in its imperative title—Remember, Be Here Now. In his earlier incarnation as Alpert, the author had had teaching and research positions in psychology at Stanford and Berkeley as well as Harvard, where he’d been a collaborator and close friend of Timothy Leary; in 1963 both Alpert and Leary were dismissed from Harvard as a consequence of their controversial laboratory experiments, which included undergraduates, with LSD and other psychedelic drugs. Following a spiritual pilgrimage to India in 1967, about which he writes in Remember, Be Here Now, Alpert was given the name “Ram Dass” (“servant of Lord Rama”) by his Indian guru, launching him upon a lifetime of charismatic “spiritual leadership.”
It isn’t irrelevant to note that along with his elite academic credentials, Richard Alpert was the son of a wealthy Jewish lawyer named George Alpert, not only president of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad but a founder of Brandeis University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. What more symbolic repudiation of an entire way of life—ambitious, materialist, competitive, highly “successful”—than Alpert’s rejection of his identity and his establishing of himself, in the spiritually impoverished decade following the end of the Vietnam War, as “Baba Ram Dass,” the most mystical of American countercultural leaders?
Tim Parks’s engagingly intimate and often very funny Teach Us to Sit Still, a memoir of the British author’s journey from debilitating and depressing pain to spiritual “enlightenment” in 2006, covers much of the psychological terrain of Remember, Be Here Now and comes to a virtually identical conclusion about the need to experience “things as they are,” while making no mention of the 1971 book at all—a suggestion that “wisdom” books don’t cross borders readily. Ram Dass continues, according to his website, to pursue a “panoramic array of spiritual methods and practices from potent ancient wisdom traditions,” and he works with the Love Serve Remember Foundation and other groups organized to continue his teachings.
Parks, a quintessentially “literary intellectual,” could hardly seem more different. He has written fourteen well-received novels, seven works of nonfiction, including books on Italian soccer and Medici Florence, and numerous reviews in the London Review of Books and in these pages; he is a distinguished translator of such books as Roberto Calasso’s Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and novels by Moravia, Calvino, and Tabucchi and teaches translation at the Independent University …