Self-awareness is its own reward

I've written in this space before on the topic of how medical science's understanding of the human being is remarkably incomplete. Many of those posts have related self-awareness with the process of healing.

Is it really possible to cure disease by exploring subtler aspects of ourselves? If so, is that the ultimate benefit of self-awareness? Let's explore.

Exploring oneself through some form of introspection increases self-awareness. As self-awareness develops, we become more aware of our triggers and the reasons why we make the choices we make. Often, choosing to remain aware of these triggers also begins the process of defusing them, leading to better choices: better nutrition, movement, and rest--choices that are more in line with our wellbeing. This is the simplest and most obvious way in which self-awareness can lead to healing.

As self-awareness progresses and the journey into the mind deepens, stress and suppressed emotions start to make their way up and out. These interlopers introduced themselves to us long ago, but perhaps we didn't recognize or want to deal with them at the time. Their cathartic release can ease tension out of the mind and body. Back pain can improve. Headaches can improve. Irritability, anxiety, and depressed moods can improve. More healing occurs.

It can be just that simple, though there's nothing easy about seeing things that we may have filed away in the this-isn't-fun-and-I-don't-want-to-deal-with-it folder.

But self-awareness isn't just about releasing stress. In fact, releasing stress is actually a side effect of sustained introspection. As introspection progresses and self-awareness further expands, subtle subjective processes come to light. These subtler aspects of ourselves can unveil new mechanisms of healing.

For the most part, such subtle mechanisms have not been proven by science, primarily because they haven't been objectified enough to be recognized and adequately investigated. The more subtle a process, the more difficult it is to investigate.

Many scientists say there are no such subtle processes--no new self-directed mechanisms of healing waiting to be discovered. If we can't detect something, how could we possibly say it exists? They make a good point. Until enough people recognize such processes and codify them systematically, this will remain a point of contention, with a lot riding on the final answer. I explore a way to approach this problem in my book Michelangelo's Medicine.

What we do know is the body can heal itself from supposedly incurable conditions, including advanced cancer and heart disease. When this happens, we call it a miracle because we don't know how to initiate the healing process. It seems to just happen (although the evidence for reversing heart disease is strong enough that it is no longer in miracle territory).

Whether such cures are miracles or not, it goes without saying that there is a process by which the body is healing itself. And the very fact that we still have not understood those processes despite the brain power, technology, time, and money we pour into research suggests that those processes may be subtler than we imagine. We may be looking for apples when oranges are the answer. Self-awareness can shed light on this problem.

So far we've seen that self-awareness can help heal--often in mundane ways, and perhaps in unrecognized ways. Is that all? Is that the Big Deal with self-awareness?

No. Self-awareness is not ultimately about healing a physical or mental process, although those may happen. That's why there are many people who may be self-aware, but still have physical and mental afflictions. The one sure healing that self-awareness ultimately brings is that of a sense of completion, of wholeness.

At its core, self-awareness heals a case of mistaken identity. What I thought I once was--a person defined by and confined to a physical body and personality--is no longer a primary identity. The body doesn't go away, the personality doesn't disappear, and wings don't grow on your back, but any sense of lack fades away.

Healing is about being the whole you, not about curing parts of you. That's what self-awareness ultimately brings, and that's why self-awareness is its own reward.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is the author of Michelangelo's Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. He is the creator of Meditation Starter Kit and a course on The Three Bodies. He is a practicing emergency physician in the Washington, DC metro area.