Understanding & Transcending Pain
Yoga as a Healing Art
Rolf Sovik, PsyD
June 19, 2017
As we have seen in previous posts, struggling with pain has side effects. It elevates stress levels, magnifies painful symptoms, and leads to fear and discouragement. The nature of pain is to escalate when we struggle against it. How can our relationship with pain and suffering become less of a fight?
The first step is to understand what pain really is, and the second step is to change our attitude toward pain. It’s not that the pain itself will necessarily cease—rather, our experience of the pain will change. Pain lessens its grip on us as soon as we are able to soften our own grip and stop clinging to it. This is liberating: it allows us to invest more of our time and effort into our spiritual pursuits, rather than being weighed down by physical, mental, and emotional suffering. Then we can begin to remerge the paths of yoga and healing.
The Nature of Pain
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.
Changing Our Attitude Toward Pain: 3 Steps
So how can we approach pain differently? Embracing new attitudes toward pain requires self-assessment and reflection, as well as patience. Here are a few ways we can start to change our attitude toward pain.
1. Accept pain. Realize it can be helpful in your search for enlightenment.
In The Healing Power of Mind, Tulku Thondup points out that healing and enlightenment are really different starting points on the same path. He offers guidance from the eighth-century teacher Shantideva: “Reversing the thought of the dislike of suffering is the foundation for turning suffering into the path of enlightenment.”
Shantideva’s thoughtful advice offers an alternative to what might otherwise emerge as hand-to-hand combat with pain. He says that once we can step back from the preconception that “pain is bad,” we are offered the opportunity to reshape ourselves. We can refine the way we speak to ourselves about our pain, gradually seeing more clearly what we need to do to heal. We may learn to listen more attentively to our own inner voice, drawing nearer to a place of clarity within. Whether we call that place our spiritual core, heart center, conscience, or inner light—it is there that we will find the intersection between enlightenment and healing.
2. Soften your grip. Don’t cling.
If we can balance our lives in such a way that we don’t cling too tightly to the pain or our resistance to pain, then we can transform our life. What prevents the mind from reaching forward is that we cling to the things we like, we cling to the struggle against the things we don’t like, and we cling to fears that perpetuate pain. We have a hard time letting go. That’s the nature of clinging. Learning to soften the way we hold onto these things frees us.
I was a cellist in my earlier life. Everybody who plays a cello, a violin, or a viola knows that you spend half your life in the beginning learning how to hold the bow with a soft grip. So the trick to learning to play is to soften the grip and let the weight of your arm and the weight of the bow do the work for you. The same applies to pain: when we soften our hold and stop clinging to pain, then we really start to progress toward our goal. The key lies in the combination of practice and letting go.
3. Rest the mind. Turn within. Find balance.
Returning to Shantideva’s advice: how can you work with your inner life and reverse the thought of the dislike of suffering? To begin, it is helpful to recall the successful ways in which you have resolved past difficulties in life. Use these past experiences to magnify confidence in yourself. In addition, return to any helpful advice given to you in the past. But the real trick lies in resting the mind in meditation, relaxation, and breath awareness, combined with acting and living in a more balanced way. This is how the power of yoga leads us past suffering toward enlightenment. There is unpredictability about the outcome of most things in life. But once we get on the path, life unfolds not only just in the way we expected it to, but in entirely unexpected (and beautiful) ways as well.
About the Teacher