Beautiful Work
A Meditation on Pain
Sharon Cameron
Duke University Press: Durham, 2000
121 pp.; $18.95 (cloth)

“Inside of pain is the whole world,” comments Sharon Cameron. To get inside pain—to move around freely in it, and to pay sustained attention to it—is the point of her confidently elliptical book. If pain is “the whole world,” then can it offer us an open pathway, and not the usual dead end?

At times Cameron, a literary scholar and critic who has written previously on Henry James and Emily Dickinson, chooses the right word with quiet pleasure. At other times she foregoes elegance for simpler language and the writing plainly expresses spiritual hesitation and struggle. And sometimes insights, disarmingly honest, interrupt her sentences.

Cameron’s book gives us Anna who, as a novice, undertakes three meditation retreats over a two-year period. She’s led to do so after visiting the desert, whose landscape’s demanding heat and clarity awe her, awakening her own wish to see things more clearly. Anna tells of her experiences while on retreat in a first-person voice that also muses on her childhood and on her current personal life.

We hear Anna’s thinking directly. We also overhear her conversations with Isaac, her mentor during retreat. We’re privy to her observations, hostile or admiring, of others on retreat with her. Like Isaac, we listen, too, as she reads aloud to him from her journal.

Nevertheless, in all of this the author successfully resists narrating “just a story.” Cameron’s writing, like Anna’s thinking, is knowingly fragmentary and naturally intuitive.

Isaac instructs Anna: “The narrative is immaterial. Storytelling has no function except to free your mind from the burden of remembering.” A few pages later, as if to confirm his words, a nameless, disembodied voice informs Anna, “you have all your life demeaned your life by making a story of it.” To herself Anna had admitted earlier, “I began to hunger for storylessness.” She mulled, “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, perhaps, when pain could be met without an armor of assumptions, even without the armor of a self.

In other words, a story can misrepresent a life’s meaning in order to protect the person who is living it. Anna’s account of herself must therefore seek and take another shape.

Although story is pretty much banished from the book, people and their circumstances cycle as motifs in Anna’s awareness. For example, her recurring point of reference in meditating on pain is an episode from her childhood: Anna’s grandmother tied her to a crib and then left the darkened room, locking the door. This bondage, lasting for two hours, convinced Anna that “anything except the pain was unbelievable.”

Pain represents a credo to her, albeit a credo neglected and misunderstood for much of her adulthood. As a consequence, she exhorts herself: “I want to know what pain is. I want to know what my pain is.”

While Anna’s chronicle of initiation into meditation maintains an intermittent focus on encountering pain anew, Cameron’s writing, deliberately fresh, sometimes slips into tediously overplayed recitations of Anna’s successive discoveries. As an observer of herself observing herself, Anna remarks, for instance, “I felt the sensation of silence in my left ear and noted �sound.’ Sound strengthened, turning into a high-pitched white vibration. I couldn’t tell whether the vibration was inside my mind or across the room. I noted: �not knowing.’” With this “noting technique” Cameron is being faithful to certain kinds of meditation instruction. However, on the page, when soliloquies like this one last too long, the quest for selfless sentience begins to sound like narcissism.

A measure of the book’s success, though, is the fact that Anna becomes less a character than a persuasive consciousness as one turns the pages. She doesn’t come across as fictional or otherwise contrived—not even as a possible authorial alter ego. Despite the details that identify her as Anna and only Anna, she gradually occupies the attention with a commanding neutral purity and transparency, as though the reader were looking through a window (the words themselves) which leads on to another view through a second window (her spirit). The exhilaration of reading and seeing in this way can feel levitational.

The poet Paul Valery once recommended, “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather.” Cameron’s book is like both feather and bird at different times: now bodiless and hovering, now directive and deciding.

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