Seeking Sacred Pain

(part of a manuscript-in-progress)


Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.

   Elaine Scarry[i]

"When pain transgresses the limits, it becomes medicine."

— Mizra Asadullah Ghalib

Gradations sharpen inside the taboo: Some cut from pain, others for show. Hating on cutters—r at least these cutter-erformers—ries to draw a boundary between authentic and fabricated pain, as if we weren’t all some complicated mix of wounds we can’t let go of and wounds we can’t help, as if choice itself weren’t always some complicated mix of intrinsic character and agency. How much do we choose to feel anything?

— Leslie Jamison[ii]


In the medical industrial complex, in mainstream narratives around mental health and from a psychiatric lens, cutting, BDSM and body modification (including tattoos, piercings and implants) are not often acknowledged as appropriate tools for healing. Pathologization and the medicalization of trauma survivors, complicated by being queer, trans and/ or gender non-conforming, profoundly shapes the acceptability of what some consider healing practices. But drawing pleasure, inspiration and self-awareness from these places of vulnerability, utilizing the parts of ourselves that others may deem sick, broken, perverted or wrong sounds really beautiful to me. When it comes to body modification, cutting, to self- mutilation, to self-harm, to ultimately, the erotic pleasure, connection and knowledge that can burst out of the wound and out of the wounded, pathologization often outweighs the potential for personal understanding and power. It’s a physical translation for something that often can’t be put into words.

In the full expanse of a lifetime, pain is unavoidable— every single person will experience a form of it, whether physical, emotional or spiritual. (Though I also believe that these delineations of pain, as if they are separate, is inaccurate—all kinds of pain is weaving in and out of each other.)  And all pain is real— there is no such thing as imagined pain. Anyone ‘presenting’ clinically with pain— physical, psychic, or some combination is in pain.[i] Sometimes it will be constant or sometimes so sharp, too much to bear if unattended to. But pain is also a teacher, a point of reference, a mirror.

Marilee Strong, in her book A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain, does her best to shock the reader with blunt truths, with what she names as deranged and grotesque, as she shares part of an interview with a cutter: I cut secondarily for the pain, primarily for the blood," he says. "Watching the blood pour out makes me feel clean, purified. It's almost religious, in a way. It feels like something bad or dirty is leaving with the blood, so the more blood spilled, the better." He likes to make patterns with the blood on paper towels. Sometimes he even tastes it. "It looks so beautiful coming out I just have to taste it," he says.[iii]

And yet, this desire to inflict harm on the self is ancient; it has roots in religious and spiritual practices throughout history. In Ariel Gluklich’s book Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, pain is offered as a change in bodystate and seeking it is part and parcel of spiritual evolution, often promising ecstacy, access to God(s) and Goddess(es), immortality andpurity.[iv] Gluklich explores hundreds of religious and spiritual traditions that are rooted in experiencing pain, but I’m particularly interested in how she writes about how pain has differing effects on the self depending on whether it’s disintegrative or integrative, which she also notes could be a bit reductive. Disintegrative pain is described as often being isolating, disruptive and deeply impacting a sense of well-being and sense of self in the world—it’s punitive-- whereas integrative pain can strengthen, assert, is connective between self and the world and is often described as healing. Gluklich also makes it clear description of pain is extremely context-sensitive. The same pain can be either punitive or transforming. However, she goes on to say that the aversive disintegrative type of pain can be transformed into integrative pain.[v] Through this lens, though reductive, I draw easy connections between trauma as disintegrative pain, on physical, emotional and spiritual levels, the pain that rips us out of one world and into another and some of what I explore in this thesis moves to bring us back to integrate this pain.

In doing research on pain and the body, I was re-introduced to artists and writers who located the body of their work in their actual bodies. 

Transgender erotic and cultural non-fiction writer Pat Califia writes about cutting for erotic pleasure and responsibility in his pieceSharp Shiny Things” from his book Speaking Sex to Power: The Politics of Queer Sex: A scar can be a beautiful gift, a permanent mark that releases negative energy and permanently changes someone’s relationship to their body for the better. It can also be a source of continual aggravation, embarrassment, and resentment. And it binds the two of you together, as long as it lives, because there is no way that somebody can look at a scar without thinking of the person who made it… Once made, a cut cannot be undone. Slice wisely, or not at all.[ix]

In his piece “Polemic of Blood, extreme body-focused queer performance artist Ron Athey dives right into the places where pathologization is most assuredly determined by those outside his experience— the doctors, the institutions; he draws connections between tattoos and marking loss on the body in the face of addiction, queerness and HIV/AIDS: Why was it so important to spend the little money I made on ink if I was dying? Because it felt empowering. Because I had a dream that I faced a spirit twin, and our tattoos were finished and we were levitating. Because I still felt healthy and horny. The blood, you could say, was coursing... So I just owned another way of looking at my work, that my identity and my experience is written on the body, whether or not the piece is “about” that. My mother. Addiction. AIDS. Faggotry. And, in whatever costume, the queer body.[x]

Gloria Anzaldúa, Chicana queer, feminist and cultural theorist, likens writing to the marking of a needle on skin, reminds us of the potential for transformation in the puncture: I get deep down into the place where it’s rooted in my skin and pluck away at it, playing it like a musical instrument—the fingers pressing, making the pain worse before it can get better. Then out it comes. No more discomfort, no more ambivalence. Until another needle pierces the skin. That’s what writing is for me, an endless cycle of making it worse, making it better, but always making meaning out of the experience, whatever it may be.[xi]

Chris Abani, Nigerian and American writer, simplifies it for us, roots us in loss, takes us back to Derrida: Jacques Derrida writes about this desire we all have to mark loss, to record memory physically. Derrida argues that it is not that we desire to mark the moment of trauma, of the wound, but rather that we often need to and want to record the moment just before it...Marks made as talismans against loss.[xii]

And back to Leslie Jamison and wound dwelling: Wounds suggest sex and aperture: A wound marks the threshold between interior and exterior; it marks where a body has been penetrated. Wounds suggest that the skin has been opened—hat privacy is violated in the making of the wound, a rift in the skin, and by the act of peering into it.[xiii]

Marks, whether visual art or words or a tattoo or a really hard fuck are tools to work against loss, against forgetting; forever searching for the moment just before it: a translation from disintegrative to integrative.

In thinking about the boundary between pleasure and pain I think about violence and how, depending on context and whether or not consent is present, the wound that blooms in skin can take on an erotic charge. To put this differently, attending to wounding, breaking skin and injuring bodies, along with their erotics, impels clearer confrontation with embodiment[xiv]. Seeking out physical and emotional pain, as in BDSM or even martyrdom in religious traditions is yet another way to be in and learn from the body.

I’m thinking about that point right at the intersection of pain & pleasure—how we can’t know either without knowing the other. But there can be a feeling of disorientation when we hold in one hand—pleasure & joy and in the other hand— loss & grief. This containing of multitudes in us is what it means to be alive and yet, it is not easy. Still, I’m wanting to move into this idea of trying to access pleasure and joy while simultaneously moving through the loss and grief and pain of (often ongoing) trauma. These days this not only feels necessary, it also feels like perhaps there is just no way around it, the holding of all at once.

For me, and I know for so many of us, healing as an idea is both empty and loaded. We all know, on such an intimate level, it’s hard to access “Healing” with a capital H. And yet, our bodies, at a cellular level, are always shifting, growing and healing-- our nervous systems, our organs, our bones always regenerating and mending. 

I think about the long history of pain and violence in so many of our families (perhaps maybe in all families), how this history shapes our lineage and our lives. I’m reminded of a line from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna- Samarainha: "(h)ow the story of my family kept speaking in me." How hard it can be to shake this history, or unlearn it and how necessary it can feel at times to bear witness to it while also seeking accountability, especially when people who have harmed us are our family members with their own trauma histories who might be very unable to hear and hold our pain.

And so holding all of this in my mind, I return to the ways we mark these losses, pains, violences. We turn to words, artistic practices, a transmutation of the grief living deeply in our bones.

There is something incredibly intimate and vulnerable about a mark a cut a wound, most especially when it is consensual and chosen— a private intimacy made shamelessly public. As Jamison states above, it marks the threshold between interior and exterior, the private and the public. Or as Elaine Scarry says (t)his dissolution of the boundary between inside and outside gives rise to a fourth aspect of the felt experience of physical pain, an almost obscene conflation of public and private. It brings with it all the solitude of absolute privacy with none of its possibility of its safety.[xv]

(Don’t make us bear witness.)

(Don’t be a wound.)

Some days all I need to remember is that, as Arianne Zwartjes says “healing from wounds actually changes us” and that’s the reality. And maybe, some days, settling into the changes is ok and enough. 


"Medical Industrial Complex" attributed to Mia Mingus 

[i] Sarah Coakley, Pain and Its Transformations

[i] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain

[ii] Leslie Jamison, The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain

[iii] Marlee Strong, A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain

[iv] Ariel Gluklich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul

[v] Ariel Gluklich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul

[vi]  "Bloody performance draws criticism: Walker member complains to public health officials," Mary Abbe, Minneapolis Star Tribune March 24, 1994 page 1A

[vii] Chris Burden art listing, http://www.gagosian.com/artists/chris-burden/

[viii] Chris Burden art listing, http://www.virtualvenice.info/visual/burden.htm

[ix] Pat Califia, Sharp Shiny Things from Speaking Sex to Power: The Politics of Queer Sex

[x] Ron Athey, Polemic of Blood

[xi] Gloria Azaldua’s piece in Lee Gutkin’s book Hurricanes and Carnivals: Essays by Chicanos, Pochos, Pachucos, Mexicanos, and Expatriates,

[xii] Chris Abani, Painting the Body of Loss and Love in the Proximity of an Aesthetic

[xiii] Leslie Jamison, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain

[xiv] Jeff Hearn and Viv Burr, Violence and the Body: The Erotics of Wounding

[xv] Biressi, Anita. “Above as Below”: Body Trauma as Spectacle in Social/ Media Space quoting Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain