Book Profile: Sacred Pain

a review of Ariel Glucklich,Sacred Pain. Oxford University Press, 2001.278pp. $21.00. ISBN: 0195132548

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Perri Druen
York College of Pennsylvania


    Pain can be "medicine, a test, a rite of passage, or an alchemical agent of inner transformation" (210) and therefore sought with great passion.

  1. In conversation with a friend who had long suffered phantom pain and who was aghast at the notion that any sane person would seek pain, Ariel Glucklich began to formulate a compelling thesis about what he calls sacred pain. The centerpiece of his thesis is the contrast between the modern (perhaps mostly Western) view of pain as something to be avoided, treated, or escaped at all costs; and the traditional or religious view that pain can be desirable and a vehicle for communing with the spiritual world. Specifically, he proposes that pain has a unique relation to identity. The distinction between the modern and traditional view of pain hinges on the desirability of eliminating versus fortifying the self. In both cases, pain is seen as something that can disrupt or fracture the self: "...pain weakens the individual's feeling of being a discrete agent; it make the 'body-self' transparent..." (207).

  2. For a modern person, a rupture in the self is to be avoided as it would make it more difficult for the person to find meaning in life, and, thus, pain is also to be avoided. For a mystic or traditional seeker, a break in or emptying of the self is the path to spiritual connection, and thus, pain is to be sought. In Glucklich's words: "pain creates an embodied 'absence' and makes way for a new and greater 'presence'." (207). Evidence for this compelling thesis comes from disciplines as far ranging as social and Gestalt psychology, anthropology, history, religion, and neuroscience. Such examples as rites of passage (typically publicly endured pain embedded in culture), self-mutilation (pain administered privately and usually experienced as releasing), and inquisition torture (pain explicitly inflicted to cast out sin) made the fine theoretical points come alive. Perhaps the most crucial component of the book was the proposal and provision of support for a mechanism, in this case neurological, which could account for the effects of pain on spiritual connection and identity. "The more irritation one applies to the body in the form of pain, the less output the central nervous system generates from the areas that regulate the signals on which a sense of self relies." (207).

  3. As a scholarly work, the book is a very fine accomplishment. Dr. Glucklich clearly outlined the scope of the argument, properly circumscribing the boundaries of coverage. He provided a wealth of information from high quality resource materials, including both fantastic case studies and fascinating research evidence. Importantly, he clearly elucidated and carefully avoided glossing over the thorny details from the vast array of disciplines addressed. For example, the discussion of the biological foundation of emotions was appropriately reflective of the state of the field. On the other hand, the ponderous wading through the theoretical and empirical minutia will certainly appeal only to sophisticated readers (particularly those whose disciplines are represented), and not at all to the average person, especially one who may be trying to find a way to cope with chronic pain. Glucklich does acknowledge that his work was not aimed at providing relief or release to those with pain.

  4. The work may be novel enough, perhaps even controversial enough, though, to prompt further advances. His book may be a starting point for future discussions of the interrelationships among pain, perspective on pain, the self, and seeking the sacred. For example, people in pain, even in a culture that views pain as an ultimate evil, may be able to translate some of the insights from this work to transform pain into their ally. Further discussion may productively address why some people choose pain as their vehicle to reach union with the sacred over other methods, and whether those methods lead successfully to the same ends. The importance of consciously desiring a spiritual experience and having the belief that pain can help achieve the experience should be investigated. The relation of self and pain may even be applied to other contexts. It may be possible, for instance, to apply these notions to understanding the self-hurting of those with autism. Finally, critics may well wonder whether modern notions of pain can be bridged to, and in fact, if they really are so distinct from the traditional. After all, "No pain, No gain!" is a championed slogan used to motivate or console those moving to achieve some valued goal. However, an evolution of this trite aphorism (also in rhyme) may be something closer to "Pain is a train" that can take you places, even to a transcendent, higher realm of being.


Perri Druen is Associate Professor of Psychology at York College of Pennsylvania, having obtained her Ph.D. in Social Psychology and Personality from the University of Louisville. She has published several articles and made numerous presentations of her work on identity development, coping, and close relationships.

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