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Self and Sacrifice: A Phenomenological Psychology of Sacred Pain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Ariel Glucklich
Georgetown University


In a previous article published in this journal, I discussed the relation between the neurological system and some culturally prescribed forms of self-inflicted pain. I showed that the way humans experience and communicate pain depends on the cybernetic features of the peripheral and central nervous system. The body-self, our sense of coherent and embodied agency, was also discussed in its relation to neural function—Ronald Melzack's “neurosignature.” These topics traced a basic epistemology of self-inflicted pain. I showed that an intentional manipulation of systemic neural features could result in states of “self-transcendence,” or effacement, to which many mystics have aspired. These dynamics take place beneath the level of consciousness. They constitute a neuropsychology. But what happens at the conscious level, in the awareness of the self-mutilator? How do the neurological processes translate into decisions to hurt oneself, and what are the consequences of such pain? These questions are the subject of the present work. The discussion now moves to the psychological level of the experience of pain, but it builds carefully on the neurocybernetics of the previous article. There will be no deus ex machina Self who becomes magically reborn through the ordeals of pain. For reasons that will become explicit shortly, I will adhere to the strict rules of phenomenology that regulated the first article. The subject who undergoes pain will only be discussed as an expansion of the body-self.

Research Articles
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1999

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67 However, some soldiers do inflict injuries on themselves in an intentional manner, usually to remove an extreme threat, or for similarly traumatic reasons. This is true for prisoners, slaves, even animals in captivity. The “intention” to commit self-mutilation has a neurological foundation in extreme distress.

68 This answer prevails in the literature on sacred pain. See bibliography in Glucklich, “Sacred Pain,” 391, n. 6.

69 This topic was discussed above in the context of transpersonal psychology.

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