For the postscript to the personal experience that inspired this post, check out:
As you might notice, if there is one thing I’m good at, it’s mining suffering for gold!
This essay was composed for the SageWoman issue called “Enchantment.” It appears that I wrote it between October 2004 and January 2005. When we think of “enchantment,” we imagine some sort of sensuous spell that places us temporarily in bliss. However, the kind of enchantment contemplated here, is that of its opposite, pain. Personal pain. Suffering — and how we strive to conceal it, even — especially — from ourselves. Stretching from my own case out to the philosopher Kant, and out further to the cosmos, I aim to include it all, us all, in a willing embrace of our common human predicament.
The Enchantment of Our Suffering (2005)
by Ann Kreilkamp
I lie in bed, curled around my belly, awareness sucked into the dense black hole that has taken me over and invaded my chest, swallowed my heart and solar plexus. It is a dark night outside, even darker inside me. I gasp for air and my mind flies out. “Up, up and away!” mind seeks to escape this endless nightmare, this obliteration, this flesh pulverized and compressed to its original traumatic imprint.
“Original traumatic imprint?” you ask. “You mean pain? What pain do you have?” To this I wonder, “Does it matter?” Does it really matter my particular pain? I spent so many decades deconstructing why I hurt that it bores me. “I don’t want to get stuck there. I am not stuck there! I want it over and done!” And yet — not. Years and years ago that original trauma burned into me and into my psyche like a brand.
The original trauma fractured my being. It froze me in place and left a lifelong scar. Catholics say that we arrive wounded and marked with an “original sin” that only baptism eradicates. I say that you cannot get rid of it, that it follows you like a shadow. I tell you my story, of an innocence hurt and crushed. Each of us, if we look within long and deeply enough, re-enters that original trauma. The pain started in childhood. Or at birth. Or in the womb. Or in another life. Or even before that. How do you go back to the beginning and not further back?
Curled on the bed around my own personal black hole, sucked down into my original traumatic imprint, suddenly “I,” that is, my mind, escapes my body. Whoosh! Just like that! Mind flies free for a nanosecond. Then, snap! Shut! — mind traps itself in its own machinations.
Inside mind’s instantly self-constructed cage, mind reels with questions. “Why pain? Don’t want pain. Get rid of pain. So what happened? Got to figure it out.” Mind goes back over, slows down the sequence, looks at it frame by frame. “Where did we split off? Which part his, what mine? Will astrology explain the situation, transits to our charts, aspects between them?” Buzz, buzz, busy bee mind flashes astrological charts on the wall of imagination, obsessively cross-references, pours over details.
Mind utterly absorbs this task, fixing, trying to solve this problem. Mind’s trick — ignore the body and what it feels. That usually works. Think! Get busy with something else, some project in the outside world. Or, if body insists, if the pain overwhelms, then, as a last resort, fill mind with ideas, lots of ideas, ideas that rush in from all directions.
My mind is edgy, nervy, relentlessly churning and turning. On this endless, sleepless night my mind compels me to deconstruct the origins of an abrupt and terrifying break with my new partner who arrived recently from California. For 30 years I have addressed interpersonal issues with laser-sharp mental analysis. I take pride in my capacity to telescope in on an emotional problem and dissolve it so that I — so that we — can go on. But it’s not working. Not this time. And perhaps it never did. Perhaps what worked in my relationships worked despite my mental prowess, not because of it.
Zack thinks that I need not mention him. He considers his presence incidental, that this has little to do with him personally. He is right, yet I disagree. My pain does not surface except within the context of this relationship. It simmers just below — always just below. I only pretend that my pain goes away, or that I have finally solved or dissolved it. In this relationship, my armor thins. I become vulnerable. Pain leaks out; pain floods my awareness and overwhelms me. Any break in the relationship triggers old stuff; the thin skins that cover old injuries rip open, expose other, deeper injuries.
A new, intimate relationship stirs up old emotions. Who knows where new pain starts and old pain ends? Sometimes old pain simply obscures and confuses. Our relationship wants to go one way, gets sidetracked, twists into patterns made long ago to avoid or to re-enact old pain. Confusion descends, veers into mistrust. Expectation sours, in a heartbeat, from hope to despair. Communication deteriorates into static, and static threatens to escalate, to obliterate, to overcome and drown out. So while this article is about me and my process, its context feels inextricably interpersonal.
“What? How could this be?” Mind instantly realizes its impotence in the face of Zack’s implacable resistance. Recognition cracks mind’s façade. Suddenly, in the deep and dark of this night, very soon after mind’s sudden flight from body to fixate on what went wrong, by the grace of the Goddess another part of me wakes up and, in an eureka moment, notices — small mind has gone berserk.
So my process now includes two separate awarenesses. First, the usual small, chattering — and sometimes berserk — ego mind. Second, an awareness more spacious and non-judgmental — the Fair Witness. Fair Witness functions as an impartial ally that views both my behavior and my internal process as if from above, clearly and with equanimity. Indeed, Fair Witness calms me; without Fair Witness, Small Mind would have ruined my life decades ago, spiraling down into chronic pain, to depression, to hopelessness and into despair.
Seconds after Small Mind’s escape from my body, thanks to the objective observation of Fair Witness, Small Mind drops back into body, where it clings like a burr to black hole’s ceaseless swirling, swirling down into nothingness-at-the-core, the death-in-life that the small “I” wants to do anything, anything, to avoid, to get away from, to deny. But it cannot. Committed now — Small Mind plunges deep and relinquishes control, despite my fear and antipathy. Why the shift? Because suddenly Small Mind finds itself welcomed into the arms of yet another awareness, another “I.”
Here, then, a third awareness, again separate from each of the other two awarenesses (Small Mind, Fair Witness), the one I call Big Mind. In the presence of Big Mind, Small Mind gives way, no contest, no struggle. Big Mind encompasses my entire being; Big Mind includes Fair Witness and Small Mind, as well as my pain and my body. Big Mind serves as compass and guide to my life’s direction. Each time I experience crippling pain, Big Mind reminds me to “move awareness into the pain, into the very center of the pain, and remain there no matter how much it hurts, or how long it takes, until the pain moves.” Big Mind knows the only way out is through.
To move through, I must center my small-minded awareness deep inside that chaotic-feeling black hole of abandonment and desolation and, while there, become one with my breath and its cyclical filling and releasing. Like lapping waves that pulverize rocks into sand, sooner or later my breath gradually permeates the dense, leaden black hole — and usually much later. I struggle to stay with the process no matter how long it takes — this subtle, ever so gentle rhythm of the breath surrounds and then calms; it rocks in and out, in and out, encouraging Small Mind not to fly out of body and lets body gradually relax pain’s relentless grip.
The swell and subsiding of my breath, if long and slow and balanced, not jerky or tense, lightens the swirling back hole inside me. When I hold my breath, or when my breath runs shallow and short, then the situation worsens and sometimes panic sets in. But when I have the courage, and the faith, and the trust, to settle into my breath, to begin to breathe naturally, then my breath gradually lengthens and my internal storm gradually clears.
So I breathe. I breathe into the pain. No matter how long it takes, I keep breathing. No matter how many times small ego mind flies off into chatter, I attempt to patiently breathe my mind back down into hell. To be here, right here, right now, no matter how claustrophobic, or how awful. Breathe. Breathe again. And again.
It may seem that pain occupies too much of my existence. Why not ignore, avoid, or numb myself, pretend it isn’t there? Should I? Should we? Can you sense a huge, horrible, heavy hole in the very center of your being? We reach in and think we find nothing there. We encounter something empty, like a vacuum, no there there. (No wonder so many of us fear dying. For if the body decays, and nothing survives it, then death seems indeed the end.)
To me, the concept at the core of existence, the nothing that is something — the awful emptiness, the thing that seems to us not there — is ubiquitous, and comes with a long cultural history. The philosopher Immanuel Kant first identified it in the 19thcentury, and called it the ding-an-sich, or “thing-in-itself.” Kant claimed that the ding-an-sich is Reality itself, but that we lack awareness of it, because we cannot know Reality directly. (Then how did he know that he cannot know? — you might ask.) Instead, Kant said we view Reality through an inborn perceptual framework that conceals Reality’s true nature.
In Kant’s view, we never know reality itself, confined as we are to mere appearances. We still find this idea, for example, in the academic field of linguistics. MIT’s Noam Chomsky says that each of us has an innate, inborn grammatical structure inside our heads that determines how we learn particular languages. Chomsky’s “transformational grammar” implies categories of perception common to us all that dictate the way we see and interact with the world. We cannot know the world outside us, the world “out there” or whether it has the structure that we think it has, says Chomsky. That is, both Kant and Chomsky wrote of a common, hard-wired and unchangeable perception of an unreachable, unknowable Reality.
I prefer, instead, to invert Kant’s ding-an-sich, the Reality that we cannot know, and turn it inward. I prefer to explore how our cultural framework constructs and constricts our view of our own inner sanctum and encourages us not to seek ourselves there, if at all. Kant states that we can never know Reality because our inborn framework blinds and forever separates us from it. In my view, in order to understand ourselves, as individuals and as a society, we need to move beyond surface appearances and to plumb the something deep inside us that cries out for our attention. In other words, I see Ka nt’s ding-an-sichas inside us—and until and unless we explore our true nature, we feel it as a hideous, empty black hole at our very core that we try like hell to avoid.
Kant discovered the internal structure of the western mind. He described the underpinnings of our cultural strategy to cope with the daily fears and tremors of modern life while ignoring or denying our inner life. But such systematic denial of Self gradually closes us down. The child’s natural wonder glazes over as the perceptual apparatus of the culture takes over and locks in. Sooner or later, the focus only on appearances means that we lose our souls, get stripped of hope, until only the persona remains. When we live from the outside in, the personality may appear to thrive, but the inside withers. This is a huge loss.
I join Thoreau, Emerson, Rousseau and others who claim that we can tune into and stay in touch with Reality, with ourselves, with our True Nature; that this fundamental sense of self has crusted over, a result of cultural conditioning. As I meditate on the symbols that imbue events with meaning, I notice that the veils that cover my own original nature gradually thin through time. My sense of this slow, natural attunement comes from close attention to my own experience over the past three decades and as a Ph.D. philosopher turned astrologer who connects what happens in the heavens with what happens to me, and to others. I seek the inner space and resonance of a roomful of Buddhists, chanting.
“But what,” you ask, “does all this have to do with me, my life — or your pain, for that matter?” I answer that we tend to limit our attention to our daily affairs. It strikes me how, like busy little bees, we scurry about with heads down, caught in whatever miniscule situation. We seem to have lost the daily, lived sense that we are all in this life together. We seem to have lost our wonder — at the extraordinary fact of Life on Earth, at the Life our home planet enjoys in relation to its solar system neighbors, at Life from the point of view of this Milky Way galaxy and beyond. Billions of bright stars wink at us every night, as if to let us in on a giant cosmic joke, and we, in our advanced, entranced state of chronic distraction, refuse to look up!
That is, we turn away from the stars. The word disaster comes from the Greek words “dis” (away) and “aster” (star), to turn away from the stars. Of course, I am not the first to say that we ignore the larger order to our peril. When we blind ourselves to all but small, myopic concerns, then the width and depth of our concerns exactly fits within the small ego mind and we lose track of our destiny. The starry night sky above reflects hidden treasure down below. I am a star. You are a star. Each of us is a star in our own right, unique and irreplaceable, designed to shine.
Our denial of the larger reality at the core of our own body and feelings — and, of course, if we deny our feelings, pain will break through first — has been so much a part of our western cultural conditioning that it actually seems right, good and “natural.” But it doesn’t work forever. Sooner or later pain overtakes us, more often than not in some form of chronic disease. From that time on, we have no choice: pain becomes our partner in a slow agonizing dance towards either death, or more rarely, transformed life.
And of course, our lives, no matter how long, eventually end. Must the contemplation of our own death be painful? Western culture thinks so — thus the often Herculean efforts to prolong life for even the very, very old and avoidance of thoughts of self and death. In our culture, “disease,” dis-ease — that condition of being ill-at-ease and not knowing how our physical and/or mental symptoms mirror and stem from our spiritual distress — has gone on so long that it moves from the spirit and mind and infects the body. We regard illness as something to fix, a problem to solve. We see illness as our enemy, something that attacks us from the outside (viral or bacterial) or inside (like defective DNA or a chemical imbalance), in any case, something separate from our real selves. Small Mind grapples with disease, fights it, does battle with it, and wins — or loses. It doesn’t matter.
We could work with our chronic individual and cultural ill-at-ease in another way, a way not so violent, a way that begins with an acknowledgement of the body’s condition as a reflection of the condition of our larger being, a way that attunes mind and spirit to feelings within the body, and therefore, with surrender to the pain that lies deep within and must surface before it can release.
“Ah, release!” You say. “If I can actually rid myself of pain this way, then maybe I can face my pain and even embrace it.” Let me say that I, too, wish for an end to suffering. However, in decades of experience with my own hidden, inner pain, I always encounter more; always more pain seeks to surface. At this point, I sense that my pain belongs not just to me, but to us; it is ours, forever ours. For as I surrender to my most vulnerable feelings, the walls that divide me from others thin and dissolve. Indeed, if everyone’s personal pain is an aspect of a single phenomenon, then what makes us curl up in despair, we share with others. Our Oneness as a species we know first in our agony.
I have but one need, to slow down to hear the whisperings of sacred, inner reality despite a fast-track, centrifugal world. I have but one directive, no matter how many times or how often small mind flies off, that I spiral back to full awareness of the present moment. In this painful birthing into a larger universe, I step into the hush, the hum, the blessing — of a mysterious living presence. My center is not empty, but full — spacious, expanding, and alive. I am not alone here. I am absorbed into it. And so are you.
Kant’s unknown Reality, his ding-an-sich, lives deep inside me and deep inside you. You are here, too, with me and all the rest of us, once again one and not separated out. From afar it feels fearful because we do not sense the small “I”. Up closer, once we overcome our fear, it feels better — small “I” has been happily enveloped, absorbed, into the embrace of the ocean of being.