Wednesday June 13, 2007


The last couple of days have not been much fun. Three nights ago I was feeling a bit under the weather, and felt the first throb of some kind of infection at the back of my mouth. By two days ago, my face had swelled up on the right hand side, and after a painful night of very little sleep, with only Gilber Ryle’s The Concept of Mind to occupy me, yesterday I made an appointment to see the doctor who prescribed antibiotics and told me to get myself to a dentist. It seems I have an impacted tooth which has become infected. Nasty. My dental appointment is later this morning.

Anyway, as I was nursing the pain at 3am the night before last, I thought back to what I had written in my recently submitted PhD thesis about pain. The passage was in a section where I am calling into question the self-evidence of experience (the same section from which I drew my earlier post on what attention lays bare ). Here’s the extract:

But it is not at all clear, if one looks closely at one’s own experience, that these supposedly self-evident truths about consciousness are as self-evident as they seem. We could begin with the problem of self-evidence itself, taking the example of pain, one of the most apparently self-evident of experiences. Even here, when one looks at the experience, it is far more puzzling than first appears to be the case. Experiencing a pain, I might say to myself, ‘I have a pain’. Here I have a simple, self-evident, story. I, the subject, am victim to a pain. In telling this story, I theorise the subject as a thing upon which pains can act, and the pain as an agent which acts upon the subject. When I look more attentively and ask whether this apparent self-evidence is well-founded, the situation seems more complex. Indeed, the more closely I look, the more it seems to me (because, in this realm of flickering shadows and twilight, this supposed realm of self-evidence, there is, it seems, only seeming and no certainty) that the pain is, in fact, not one thing. It shifts, it changes. It moves. It comes and goes. Is it one pain or many? A whole army of pains? I do not know. Neither, for that matter, is this subject that is supposedly experiencing the pain clearly presented in evidence. Where does it reside? Does the pain reside in the subject? Is it external to the subject and impinging upon it? Does the subject reside in the pain? This subject, this self, seems to dissolve away the more I look for it. And, for that matter, who is the subject who is doing all this looking? Is it the same subject as the subject who is in pain, a bifurcated subject, a second subject?

So there I was, in considerable pain, thinking OK, smartypants, you obviously weren’t in pain when you wrote that passage were you? What’s happened to all your cool philosophical reason now? After all, this is a pain, and it bloody well hurts!

But then I started to look a bit more closely. I noticed that the sensations were indeed (or, I should say, are indeed, as the pain is still there) shifting and multiple, that they did not remain the same. I noticed also how, around these sensations, various thoughts and fears and anxieties were twining themselves: what if it gets worse? How will I survive if it just goes on? I noticed how I succubmed to a series of metaphors of illness and pain: illness as an ‘attack’ upon the body’s fortress; pain as an affront to the one who feels it; even – I confess – pain as some kind of cosmic punishment (if I’d only gone to the dentist earlier, then I might have avoided it). And seeing all of this, at least at moments, the experience seemed to shift. The pain was no longer a personal affront. For moments – and I mean for moments – I could notice the sensations without taking them personally. This is happening. Here. Now. That is all.

That is not to say that I’ve been relishing this unwelcome set of events. Thankfully the pain was not so bad last night. The antibiotics are beginning to kick in. I’m dosed up on painkillers. After all, there’s no need to suffer if you don’t have to. If pain can be diminished, then by all means diminish it. And yet, although unwelcome, I cannot deny that the experience has been an instructive one. But enough of such lofty reflections. Onwards, to the dentist.

# · Anthony

I find in such moments of crisis that the tendency of the mind to harden its sense of self and other, and to reach out for the same old stories, and the same old refuges, becomes much stronger. So full marks to you for having the presence to stand back and observe what sounds like a rather unpleasant experience! You are, of course, quite right about the multiple, shifting nature of pain, and indeed all sensation.

Your point that if pain can be diminished, then diminish it, is pretty much unarguable in relation to physical pain. But what about other kinds of pain? Say, emotional or existential pain? I find a couple of glasses of wine can dull that kind of pain very nicely…at least in the short term. But something tells me there is a better way, spiritually speaking, of dealing with it. Why should I not just get rid of it? What do you reckon?

Good luck with the dentist!

# · Richard

I love that: “Smartypants, you obviously weren’t in pain when you wrote that passage were you”!

It certainly seems true that the mind’s contribution of anxiety adds to suffering. For example in the situation of a pain that is felt to be increasing, the mind will busy itself extrapolating from this perception to some truly fearful outcome – even if that imagined outcome never arrives (or can’t arrive). In fact I wonder if there is not a natural limiter on pain whereby as the intensity of the pain grows the experiencing self is progressively extinguished and overshadowed. Ultimately the agony is left without a knowing subject: un-cognized, like the proverbial tree in the deserted forest that makes no sound as it falls.

But is there a symmetry in Nature between pain and suffering on the one hand and pleasure and happiness on the other? Or does the Devil “get all the best tunes” as it were?

As I see it pain and suffering are more real and concrete than their correlates of pleasure and happiness. The latter have that kind of fragile, will-o’-the-wisp nature that steals away from you as you try to grasp them. On the other hand pain and suffering present themselves as altogether more substantial and less deniable. Given the way that they force themselves upon you and outstay their welcome their reality seems altogether more robust. Or perhaps I just have a depressive nature?

Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles