What is pain? All of us experience pain—it’s part of being human, after all—but few of us rarely stop to think what pain is and why it has such a hold over us. The first step in transcending pain is to understand what it really is. This takes us beyond the realm of the experience of pain itself and helps us start to work with, and ultimately, transcend pain.
The ancient Sankhya school of Indian philosophy describes pain (duhkha) as threefold: The first type of pain is called adhyatmika—hurt that arises from within us. In Sanskrit, adhyatmika means “arising” (adhi) from the “self” (atman). Adhyatmika pains can be physical; they can also be emotional and mental conflicts, such as worry, fear, and anxiety. They result from unconscious habits and imbalances that we all have and, because they deal with our own mind, can be the most difficult to identify clearly and work with.
The second type of pain is adhibhautika—the pain arising from our relationship with others (bhautika is related to bhuta, which means “living beings”). Those others may be close to us in our own families or they may be quite distant from us. A financial crisis on another continent, for example, could have an impact on our bank account, which causes us sorrow. Most of the time, however, adhibhautika pains arise from encounters with people we intimately know—family, friends, and coworkers whose personal interests conflict with our own.
Finally, we have adhidaivika (daivika is related to the Sanskrit word deva, bright being). In this case it means “bright cosmos.” So any pain arising from a force of nature—earthquakes, hurricanes, storms of all kinds, things that are bigger than us and beyond our control—is adhidaivika duhkha. This discomfort could be minor (disappointment because our baseball game was rained out) or major (property damage or injury, or worse, due to a tornado).
You can glimpse more about the nature of pain by looking at two Sanskrit terms: heya and duhkha (Yoga Sutra 2:16). As the Yoga Sutra goes on to explain, heya means “that which is to be avoided, abandoned, rejected”—an apt description of pain. The other word, duhkha, can be divided into two parts: duh and kha. Kha means “space.” It implies any sort of empty space, from small to immense. Kha also describes the space found in the hub of a wheel, around the central axle. Duh means “to torment or to afflict.” When the words duh and kha are joined, they signify the pain or affliction of a space—physical, psychological, or spiritual. Thus duhkha might refer to the pain of an earache, of losing a race, of divorce, or of fighting in a war that we know is unfair. What we have to remember is that pain is essentially a psychological event, unfolding in an inner realm of likes and dislikes.