Illness as an Awareness

Every feeling, symptom, mental or physical state, together with our overall sense of self or ‘self-state’ is not just something we are aware of. Its meaning lies in the fact that it is itself an awareness of something. Thus a muscular tension, for example in the form of a tension headache, though we only be aware of it as a bodily tension, may itself embody an awareness of a particular tension in our lives, relationships or place of work.

Just as a person whose family has been made homeless or wiped out in a war has good reasons for feeling ‘sick’ or ‘depressed’, so do all feelings and symptoms have good reasons. They are not just programmed or mechanical physiological reactions to or ‘effects’ of external or internal ‘causes’. Simply to label feelings as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, to describe ourselves as ‘well’ or ‘unwell’, or to call the way we feel as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, is to deny the inherent meaning of all feelings – as an awareness of something beyond themselves. Symptoms of illness, like dream symbols, are a form of condensed awareness. Their inherently positive value and meaning lies in helping us to become more directly aware of what it is that they themselves are a condensed or embodied awareness of. Thus digestive problems are a condensed embodied awareness of an aspect of our lives or lived experience of the world we find difficult to ‘stomach’ or ‘digest’.

Even though illness is often or mainly experienced through localised bodily symptoms (including ‘mental’ states such as a sense of confusion localised in our heads), every such symptom is also and always accompanied by a state of consciousness or ‘mood’ that pervades our entire body and in this way also affects our entire bodily sense of self. This bodily sense of self or ‘self-state’ is itself an undifferentiated awareness of what may be many different aspects of our overall life world that are difficult or uncomfortable, distressing or disturbing for us – thus giving rise to a general sense of ‘dis-ease’. That is why, in order to find meaning in the overall bodily sense of ‘unwellness’ or ‘dis-ease’ that accompanies a specific illness, it is necessary first to experience it as a self-state. This means giving awareness to how any state of discomfort or dis-ease, however localised, imparts a specific overall tone, texture and colour to our subjectively felt body or ‘lived body’ as a whole – in this way lending also a specific tone and colour to our bodily sense of self or ‘body identity’ and to our experienced or lived world as a whole.

To pass from an experience of illness as ‘not feeling ourselves’ to one of ‘feeling another self’ – a distinct self or ‘self-state’ – means experiencing this distinct bodily sense of self. The ‘other self’ we experience through illness however is, by definition, an experienced self – a self we are aware of. Our self as a whole or ‘soul’ on the other hand, is not essentially any experienced self, symptom, state of consciousness or ‘self-state’, but rather the very awareness of experiencing it. To avoid becoming unconsciously identified with the self-states and symptoms of dis-ease, it is necessary to identify with that ‘whole self’ which is nothing but this awareness – the experiencing self rather than any experienced self. Only within the awareness that is this self – our ‘awareness self’ – can we in turn feel and affirm every particular feeling and self we experience or are aware of. We are as much aware of our self as a whole – our soul – as we are aware of our body as a whole. Yet the ‘body’ of our whole self or soul – our awareness self – is not just our physical body but our entire life world. For it is an awareness that embraces everything and ‘every-body’ in our world, from our immediate present reality and relationships to our past and future – and ultimately the entire universe.

The second step in healing ourselves through awareness is therefore to experience each and every localised bodily sensation or symptom, no matter how subtle, as an awareness of some specific aspect of our larger body – of our life world. Thus by giving more awareness to a localised muscular tension we can experience it as an awareness of a specific tension in our life world. Through a meditational process of giving awareness to each and every localised bodily feeling or sensation of dis-ease – no matter how subtle, and by making sure we attend to each and every region of our body in the process – we can come to experience each of these feelings and sensations as an awareness of some aspect of our larger body or life world. Through this process we are literally putting ourselves together – ‘re-membering’ and making whole that larger body that is our life world as a whole. By simply granting awareness to each region of our bodies and each sensation or feeling of dis-ease or discomfort we experience within it, our overall sense of dis-ease and overall ‘self-state’ will automatically begin to alter. For we will feel ever-more pervaded, lightened and healed by that very self which is the awareness we grant to our overall self-state – our body, self and our life world as a whole.

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