Back to Blog

Awareness and Somatic Illness


Subjectively, illness of any sort does not begin with some external or internal cause – some object such as a virus or cancerous cell. Nor does it even necessarily begin with some well-defined experiential symptom such as a localised pain. Instead it begins with an ill-defined awareness of ‘not feeling ourselves’. It is this awareness of ‘not feeling ourselves’ that is accompanied by worries and experienced as a sense of ‘dis-ease’. And whilst it is common knowledge that illness can ‘change’ people, what medicine ignores is that the very essence of illness has to do with identity - every symptom being subjectively experienced both as an altered state of consciousness and as an altered sense of self. If ignored, the ill-defined awareness of ‘not feeling ourselves’ can grow and take the form of a more localised well-defined symptom. ‘Scientific’ medicine then seeks objective causes and cures for such symptoms. Yet it implicitly retains a subjective element. This is not just because it relies partly on patients’ subjective accounts of their symptoms but also because ‘cure’ – indeed ‘health’ as such - is understood not just as an absence, or successful elimination or amelioration of symptoms but also as a restored sense of identity - ‘feeling ourselves’ again.

The entire medical understanding of illness and the entire relationship of patient and physician rests on an unspoken agreement to seek something other than self (whether an organic cause, traumatic event, or a diagnostically labelled ‘disorder’) to explain the patient’s sense of dis-ease, their awareness of not feeling themselves. The basic principle of medicine – ‘The Medical Principle’ - is based not on fact but on (a) the dogmatic belief that illness has no intrinsic meaning for the individual and (b) the military metaphor of ‘fighting’ its causes rather than seeking its meaning. In contrast The Awareness Principle offers an approach to illness which begins where it actually begins – the sense of ‘dis-ease’ which accompanies the awareness of ‘not feeling ourselves’. Yet instead of denying meaning to this inwardly felt dis-ease - merely labelling it as a medical disease or disorder and seeking causes for it in something other than self - The Practice of Awareness encourages the patient to fully affirm the awareness of not feeling themselves as soon as it emerges, and to both understand and transform it into a quite different awareness – the awareness of feeling another self. This can both prevent the ill-defined dis-ease of not feeling oneself from developing into well-defined disease symptoms, or alternatively allow those very symptoms to be experienced in a different way – not simply as an altered mental or physical state but as an altered state of consciousness and with it an altered bodily sense of self.

By fully affirming this altered sense of self, we let the essential dis-ease of not feeling ourselves achieve its true and most meaningful purpose - that of allowing us to feel another self - one we hitherto feared to be aware of or to recognise as part of our self as a whole - our ‘soul’. And by letting another self express itself in our thoughts and emotions and finding ways to body it in our overall demeanour or ‘body language’, we remove the need to repress or medicalise our bodily sense of that self. For then that self will no longer feel forced to express itself through bodily symptoms or through behaviours regarded as forms of ‘mental’ disorder.

We do not ‘have’ a body. We body ‘our-selves’. Our bodies are but the embodiment of the particular way in which we are bodying ourselves – and the particular selves we are bodying. Being aware of an emotion or any aspect of our self-experience and bodying it in our demeanour is not the same as ‘somatising’ it through physical symptoms or giving it free reign to emotionally determine our behaviour. Someone who cannot allow themselves to frown with anger, adopt an aggressive bearing or give an angry or aggressive look to someone – thus silently embodying that anger through their demeanour - is more likely to enact their anger in their behaviour, expressing it in harsh or hurtful words or deeds. Thus someone who cannot allow themselves to be fully aware of their anger and feel it in their bodies - to be angry – is more likely to ‘get’ angry. It is only because we are not taught, like good actors, to first of all inwardly feel the selves that find expression in the different ‘parts’ they act out – without in anyway judging them - that we ourselves may feel forced to act those parts in real life, or feel a strong fear of doing so. The reason that the actor Anthony Hopkins could so effectively play the gruesome figure of Hannibal Lecter – without becoming or acting like him in real life - is not because he distanced himself as a person from the part he played but because he deliberately sought, found and felt the self within him that could fully identify with Hannibal.

People fear to fully feel any ‘other selves’ that they judge as ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’ in some way – for example mad, violent, sadistic, weak or suicidal selves. The fear is that if they allowed themselves to be more aware of these selves and feel them more fully, they would become mad, violent, sadistic, weak, suicidal etc. In reality it is those who fear to feel such selves within themselves who are more likely to end up impulsively ‘acting out’ these selves in their behaviour. Thus a self that feels violent only actually acts in a violent way through the body if its violence is not fully felt in a bodily way. Actual bodily violence results from a fear of violent feelings, and is essentially a last-ditch attempt to evacuate violent feelings from one’s body rather than fully feeling them with and within one’s body. Bodily enactment of feared emotions, impulses, states and selves replaces a fuller awareness of those emotions, impulses, states and selves. That is a great paradox, for were we to allow ourselves greater awareness, that very awareness would free us from those aspects of our bodily self-experience that we fear.

For paradoxically, awareness of our bodies is not itself anything bodily but is a bodiless or body-free awareness. Similarly the awareness of our minds is not itself anything ‘mental’ but is a mind-free awareness. The same basic precept of The Awareness Principle applies to all aspects of our self-experience – including our thoughts, feelings, fears, sensations, impulses, illnesses and sickness symptoms. Just as the awareness of a thought is not itself a thought, and is something essentially thought-free, so also is the awareness of an emotion, sensation, urge or impulse something essentially free of emotions, sensations, urges or impulses. There is nothing sick or ill about the awareness of a symptom or the awareness of feeling ill. Similarly, the awareness of a fear is not itself something fearful but is essentially a ‘neutral’ or fear-free awareness. And just as the awareness of our bodies is nothing bodily, so is the awareness of a particular self not something that binds us to that self – or to any self.

It is only because we do not allow ourselves to be more aware of other selves and the bodily states that express them that we can neither free ourselves from them – recognising that the very awareness of them is distinct and free from them - nor fully affirm and body these selves as valid ways of feeling ourselves. The suffering associated with illness arises because, instead of affirming the selves we feel when we are ill, however ‘foreign’ they may feel to our usual sense of self, we feel ‘possessed’ or plagued by them - whether in the form of somatic illness or uncontrolled emotions, thoughts, inner voices or behaviours. At the same time we see the cause of such symptoms as something essentially other than self - whether another person, a ‘malign spirit’ or a ‘foreign body’ such as a virus, toxin or cancerous cell. Not feeling ourselves, we blame our illness on this ‘other’. In this way we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to become aware of another self within us, and to both face and overcome our fears of it through that very awareness.

The Awareness Principle allows us to affirm our most elementary experience of illness as an awareness - an awareness of feeling our own bodies or minds as having become something ‘foreign’ to us, no longer fitting our previous sense of identity or self. The Medical Principle blames illness on ‘foreign bodies’. Yet this is just the same as blaming the ills of society on foreigners – rather than seeing them as a new and healthy element of the social body, whose values can help make it more balanced and ‘whole’. If we seek the causes of illness in ‘foreign bodies’, and seek to chemically or surgically root them out or ‘eliminate’ them we are acting like xenophobes or little Hitlers. Worse still, we are actively encouraging that which feels foreign to us – either within our own soul or within society - to take the malignant form of either illness or social ills. The Nazi state was a Medical State - one in which The Medical Principle was applied to all social problems, all of which were seen by Hitler as ‘diseases’ of the social ‘body’ or ‘Volk’, and blamed on racially foreign, impure or genetically unfit bodies – in particular Jews, Gypsies and the mentally or physically ‘handicapped’. The ‘Final Solution’ to social ills was seen as a medical one - the clinical annihilation of all people and ideas seen as detrimental to the health of the social body. Yet like German rocket scientists, German Nazi physicians, eugenicists, psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies played a key role in the development of today’s ‘genetic’ medicine and pharmaceutical drug therapies. Nazi social ‘health fascism’ is reflected today in the growth of state-imposed health regulations and treatment ‘regimes’. Those who seek alternative forms of healing in ‘complementary’ medicine on the other hand, do not realise that these are as much based on The Medical Principle and a ‘Medical Model’ of illness as orthodox medicine. Which is why not only vegetarianism or vehement anti-smoking campaigns, but also the promotion of exercise, herbal and homoeopathic remedies were as much a part of Nazi ideology as they are a part of today’s health fads and ‘health fascism’. The only truly alternative medicine is one whose basic principle – The Awareness Principle – challenges The Medical Principle and ‘The Medical Model’ of illness as such.