In order to understand the nature of pain, Anna undertakes a meditation practice. We tend to think of pain as self-absorbing and exclusively our own ("my pain," "I am in pain"). In distinction, Sharon Cameron’s Anna comes to explore pain as common property, and as the basis for a radically reconceived selfhood. Resisting the limitations of memoir, Beautiful Work speaks from experience and simultaneously releases it from the closed shell of personal ownership. Outside of the not quite inevitable stories we tell about it, experience is less protected, less compromised, and more vivid than could be supposed.
Beautiful Work brings to bear the same interest in consciousness and intersubjectivity that characterizes Cameron’s other work.
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About the Author
Sharon Cameron is Kenan Professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University. Her previous books include Choosing Not Choosing: Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles; Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal, and Thinking in Henry James.
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A Meditation on Pain
By Sharon Cameron
Duke University PressCopyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Pain is original and pure. It is the first thing. Before language, before thought, and independent of circumstance. Pain is before injury. Arising from no fact, fortuitously.
To be competent to speak of pain is to speak of pain that isn't yours. This requires experiencing pain that is yours. Pain experienced as if it were your own.
I speak of the pain that has no cause. This is not to say there are no causes for pain. That would be absurd. But pain need have no cause.
I speak as much for my own sake as for yours. When I first made this discovery, it was like a smooth stone in my throat. Smooth, but unmistakable. Habit is a drug. Only when I speak do I become conscious again of the stone in my throat.
The stone is a mystery. It is great good to know of it. I also speak for that reason.
Of course I have come to see that the subject is larger than pain. But pain is how the subject was initially focused for me. I had no choice about that.
It is difficult to remember: "Pain isn't mine." But from this everything follows.
It seems that it might be possible to recover a time, prior to the stories that get attached to the pain, when the pain simply was. Before it was dreaded and hated, there was a time in my life very far back when pain was innocent of association, when it was neutral, like sunlight or like breath.
Nonetheless, with discipline one can recover, for periods of time, that first state. That is the work.
But what would be the motive? Why would one endeavor to recover just that? Pain is tied up in explanations, veiled by stories about the pain, buried in this and that history. The motive is to extricate the uncompounded thing, free it of entanglement, for the sake of looking at it. If my pain came to be like that, there might be a way to see it.
The stories one tells about pain are deep, are profound ones. Nothing is more legible than these stories. But something is left out of them. If there were no stories, there might be a moment of innocence. A moment before the burden of stories, and the belief in their causes and consequences. There were moments when it was not accurate to say in relation to pain "because of this" or "leading to that." These were only moments. But they were lucid moments. In these moments everything is free.
I know now after what has happened that there is a way to see below ideas, to see without ideas, or (since that is impossible) to see the exact place where the ideas intrude.
To see like that: simply because pain is that way.
I began to hunger for storylessness. Before experience had wrapped itself up in accounts.
Moments of such seeing have authority. It is not my authority. It is like bearing witness. I could not say witness to what. There was gravity to this. I had to pay attention. There would be meaning or there would not be meaning. Meaning would not come in expected forms. It might not come at all. Meaning was outside of the task.
I began to hunger for storylessness. But outside of a story pain didn't look like my own. It was the narrative of pain that I recognized as mine. I did not recognize the pain.
Outside of the story, it made no sense to say pain was mine. Pain was a dense sequence of rapidly occurring sensations. But even to say "Pain was this" or "It was that," to say "was a sequence of sensations," begins another story.
The story is a great solace. I was addicted to the story. Why put it in the past tense? Am addicted to the story. For if this and this happens, then that and the other will.
But if pain were only this burning, this twisting or chill! Pain before injury. Pain without cause. This taste, that hardness, that glimmer of light. When I saw pain in this fashion, saw it unfeatured—I could not even say it was "pain" I was seeing.
What if the word too were wrong? If the word too were subsequent? It is pain, but sunlight was in it. Sunlight and breath. Other facts might also add their names to what I saw was original.
But how to do it? How to see pain uncompounded? It would be like tearing down a house.
I would have to start with the foundation in order to determine whether the house was dangerous to work on. Was the house out of plumb?
I would most certainly have to discover the sequence of the house's construction in order to unbuild it.
I would need to learn what kind of frame and what kind of foundation, whether a stone-built house or a frame house. How the house was connected to the foundation. If the house were stable on the foundation.
In which systems was there failure? If the girder were rotted out, I must first support the floor joists from the bottom and then take the girder out. If the corner post were rotted, I would have to jack up the wall to bring it back to level in order to dismantle the house. So long as the house was unsound I couldn't dismantle it safely.
But once the house was stable, I could get to work. I would shovel off the roof shingles. Then I'd rip off the sheathing with my claw hammer. Then the trim boards, the soffit, and the fascia. There might be crown moldings, cornice details I would remove in pieces. Only then could I separate the rafters from the roof ridge.
But now the walls at the gable end of the house would need temporary support. How to brace the walls while taking down the house? How to keep the standing walls from caving in on me? How not to be destroyed by this work?
I could not unbuild the house.
Instead I left the house. I was homeless. I lived in the open.
* * *
Dharma was in the heat. After the three-mile climb up rocks from the creek; before the steep descent to Thunder River, I came to a valley. I felt the dharma of the heat's relentlessness. By its relentlessness, I recognized the presence of a law.
Grasses were there. They grew five feet back from the trail and were deep, rich green, and long, bent over themselves. There was violence in the insistence of the grasses on growing here. They were not the color of the cactus, or of the rocks, or of the flowers. They were not withered by the heat. They seemed part of another landscape—not the desert.
The grasses seemed to signify: abundance that thrives in spite of the heat. But as I walked, I saw the grasses, the flowers, the Utah century plant, each was ruled differently. The dharma of the heat was indiscriminate: what was lush and what was not lush here throve simultaneously.
Violence was in the indiscriminateness. There—in the canyon—at the bottom of the world, there was no principle. The blossoms of the cactus were fragile. But the stems of the cactus were rude and twisted. The grasses grew marvelously, other plants died slowly after a struggle. If the dharma were indiscriminate, how could it be lawful? The answer was hidden.
Violence was in the provocation to look for the logic. It was in the passion to look. I was compelled to look. But no matter how much empty sky there was when I looked up, the meaning was still above.
It was not down here.
The effort to distinguish between up and down was immaterial. I had walked for hours to get to the bottom of the canyon. This valley within the larger canyon which I reached by climbing up was also far from the top. The walls of this side canyon still rose above me to a plateau I couldn't see, and beyond that farther walls rose higher yet, out of sight.
Where I walked it was open. The openness was part of the dharma I could not penetrate. There was nothing to indicate that this object rather than that one was significant. A person could go crazy not knowing where to look. The openness imposed an obligation. I had to look at objects and past them, simultaneously. It was certain: no thing was an end. Behind this cactus there was another. A rock that stopped my eye one moment became trivial the next. I was obliged to grow indifferent even to a sight I loved. I had to see that the place on which I thought my eyes could rest, they could not rest.
Where I walked it was trackless. If I looked down at the path, I saw only the piece of trail where I was: definite, but incomplete. If I looked ahead, I saw an entire landscape, but I was outside of it. Ahead, everything was visible—the trail across the valley on flat ground, the grasses, the century plants—but it lacked depth. All I could count on was the heat, which I couldn't see. If here was where I had to stop, the heat would grind me into the dust on which I walked. The heat was beautiful: it had no outside.
The dharma is a path, a way, something I am walking in. (It was not a surface: it contained me.) But I could not recognize this path or say even, "This is where I am." Or "Later on I will be here." I could not think! I was dizzy, and I let my eyes go out of focus. The heat had a sound like the nada sound. Like the hum of bees.
I met a man with a pack and a walking stick who had lost his friends three days before. I hadn't seen them.
That morning I saw a rattlesnake asleep beside a boulder. The heat—the dharma—seemed more dangerous than the snake.
A breeze rose out of the heat. It was not a breeze that died down and started again, but was constantly the same. It did not come across the valley from a direction. I was hopeful, until I saw the breeze was only a lesser degree of heat.
It was heat in a different form. So even the breeze that was a relief was not a relief.
I walked on a path that was well marked. I walked in an open space. But I saw only this: Everything here was unalterable, the cactus, the flowers, the breeze, the grasses. The man would find his friends, or he would not. I saw: if I followed the dharma, I would lose myself.
* * *
Stories divide the world: the good from the bad, the chaotic from the ordered. Stories are intelligible. But dharma is not a story. Dharma is law. Why, then, tell this story? I do the best I can.
There was a girl who died by fire in her bed. Christa had brown eyes, blond hair bunched to either side of her head, and a worried look. She wore a green skirt with straps. Her white cotton blouse with short, puffed sleeves was starched. Christa, and also her sister, both died by fire in their beds.
When I slept over at Christa's house, I slept where Christa's sister slept. But I didn't die.
My mother told me Christa died. I stood in the kitchen by the Glenwood range. I looked at the linoleum floor. I thought about it. I disagreed. "No," I said, "Christa isn't dead."
When my mother's water broke, I saw it. I thought: "My mother is dying." Blood spilled over the yellow vinyl chair where she sat. The blood was brilliant against the vinyl and the bright brass upholstery tacks. I stood up across from her and clapped my hands. I said: "That's amazing: look at that."
No place I can go will make a difference, will change the things that require change. I knew this definitively. Nothing would be more absolute than this discovery.
There was pain on my mother's face as she turned it to the wall. While my father and my father's sister got a pot to catch the blood that streamed down the yellow chair, I had a chance to look. My mother's eyes were closed. I saw pain behind the lids and in the corners of the closed eyes. They thought my mother would bleed to death. They were happy. They were excited. They shouted orders to each other. My cousin's mother had died when my cousin was born.
In dharma Christa was always dead!
* * *
Each thing is ruled by one law, one dharma, but differently. And since I only see a piece of the law, I can't tell how it operates. If I got to Thunder River—as I did, and found my friends—what of the man who lost his friends? Nothing appears to follow. The conception of "following" is too small.
They told me: "The retreat is at a Chinese monastery. The monastery is in a former mental hospital." Two institutions—the monastery, the mental hospital—I have worked years to keep separate. The monastery in the mental hospital tests the efficacy of this long labor at distinction. At the City of Crystal Mind, where I went on retreat with Sister Dassaniya and Achan Sati, the monastery and the mental hospital were in fact in one place. We practiced meditation in a monastery that once was a mental hospital!
Master Hua was Chinese. We meditated for two weeks. Master Hua's monks and nuns practiced Ch'an, their form of meditation, a very long retreat, a retreat for life. A strict retreat: one meal a day, absolute obedience. And certain ascetic practices that seemed extreme: as penance, they burned lines into their flesh. I saw this on the foreheads of three nuns. I saw singed flesh along both inner forearms of a nun who came from Poland to practice meditation under Master Hua. Under Master Hua, monks and nuns sleep sitting up. The accomplished ones sleep on their feet—leaning against a wall—so if they die during their sleep they will end their lives in a posture of awareness. Master Hua showed me that I cannot see this with equanimity.
But awareness does not discriminate. It does not reflect what it likes better than what it does not like. Master Hua gives me grounds to watch consciousness operate impartially. But I see preferences. Preferences for what can be looked at and what cannot be looked at. I also see my attention going toward what isn't there and away from what is there. In dharma there is no liking and no not-liking, no agreement or nonagreement.
I put my broom down and get nearer to the stains. I cannot determine what they are. Women were in these rooms. If Master Hua burned these mattresses, I wouldn't have to clean them. I want to burn the mental hospital out of the monastery. I want to purify my heart in a place where there isn't evidence that purification is impossible.
What woman's blood? My mother's sister died, in labor, young because the doctor wouldn't operate. He didn't want to look at her blood. The doctor let her scream for three days. Then she died. But in my mother's case, five years after my mother's sister had been killed, the doctors determined they could cut into a body without scruple. My cousin was wastefully born.
Let's suppose it was not women in these rooms. Let's say it is semen on this mattress. In this room that I am cleaning, I see signs. I see evidence of sex, birth, and death. Whether it is a man who lay here, or a woman who lay here, or a man and a woman, it is still the same. They say to me: "Look at what is beyond birth and death."
Trese, my mother's dead sister's child, was wild. In the backyard, among the long, uncut grasses, Trese was a galloping horse. Her hair was red. It was the color of her mother's hair. Trese's hair streamed behind her. Trese neighed. She neighed and threw her body against the ground. There was a wire fence around the yard. Trese flung her body against the fence like a horse that wasn't trained. Trese screamed like the wild horses she loved. Trese galloped. She tried to free herself from her mother's body. She remembered her mother's body trying to free itself of her.
In dharma, Christa's death and Trese's life are the same.
I want one neutral room, one room without a history.
* * *
I'm curious about the locks—whether they're on the inside or the outside of the doors. Some doors in this place have no latches on the inside. All the rooms have slits that can be peered through. There are restraints where there shouldn't be and openings where there shouldn't be. I thought: This is not a normal place. Nowhere in these buildings is there privacy. No privacy for the monks, the nuns, or for the insane.
There are no bars on the windows of the building where we live. There are locks on both sides of the doors. But my door has no latch on the inside. I am a connoisseur of such detail.
I have come to this place because I want to work with pain. I want to know what pain is. I want to know what my pain is.
When Christa died, and Trese's mother died, I saw: there is no whole thing.
I saw all birth is a tearing pain. There is Trese's mother's death. There is Trese's separation from her mother. There is injustice that Trese will always know her mother as the loss of her mother. My pain is of these glittering facts.
Birth separated Trese from her mother. Death separated Trese and her mother. My pain is at death and birth. A stain marks the place where life is broken out of life.
Excerpted from Beautiful Work by Sharon Cameron. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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