Heal Thy Self: Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine

black and white two hands in prayer form

Perhaps our real work, whether offering or seeking care, is to recognize that the healing relationship – the field upon which patient and practitioner meet – is, to use the words of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, a ‘self-mirroring mystery’ – the embodiment of a singular human activity that raises essential questions about self, other, and what it means to heal thy self. – Saki Santorelli

Have you ever read a book that has impacted you so much, it changed you for good? Heal Thy Self is that book to me. I picked it up (more like it picked me) at the time I needed healing for myself the most, recovering from a chronic illness and dealing with the loss of my father.

In this book, Saki shows us how to introduce mindfulness into a healing relationship, so that both patients and caregivers begin to acknowledge that we are all wounded and we are all whole.

Here are the lessons to learn from Heal Thy Self:

The Wounded Healer

Each of us is a living myth encompassing both the woundedness of Chiron and the innate capacity to take advantage of adversity and be transformed.

A little backstory: In mythology, Chiron is a wise centaur who was struck with a poisoned arrow and the wound would never fully heal. Despite being greatly skilled at healing others, he was unable to completely heal himself. Being immortal, Chiron lives forever with this wound as the archetypal wounded healer. Chiron passed on his wisdom and trained thousands of students. It is said that it was through one of the students’ lineage that Hippocrates learned the art and science of medicine.

chiron what is mindfulness mbsr

Each of us embodies this wounded healer archetype. We acquire wounds from painful experiences in life. But we can use these wounds to our advantage and be transformed, not only ourselves but also the people in our lives.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you,” as Rumi poetically put it. The wound can be the source of our enlightenment, our healing, and the transformation of brokenness into wholeness.

In my experience, the passing away of my father was that wound, which seems to never fully heal. But it is also the wound that became the catalyst for healing my chronic illness. Being so, it has led me to a greater purpose of becoming a healing agent for others as well.


It is an act of love. Our willingness to see, to hold ourselves closely just as we are, while being this way with another, is a revealing and deeply healing expression of care. An embodiment of compassion. Whether offering or seeking help, we are all wounded and we are all whole.

Mindfulness is more than a meditation practice. It is an act of love. It is willingly looking at our wounds with compassion. If we can look within ourselves this way, aware of being wounded yet becoming whole, it becomes a healing expression – that of unconditional love.


Yet in our differences we are drawn together around a common intention: to learn to care for ourselves and be alive to our living; to look deeply into our own lives and to do so collectively. In this way we are actually companions. In the East this intentional companionship is called ‘sangha’.

We are all fighting our own battles, so to speak, different for each and every one. In this knowing, we also find our similarity, a binding element that makes us companions on the same journey of healing thy self.

This is how we manifest the spirit of sangha – to both recognize our interdependence and know that the work must be done individually.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Zen master, says that the essence of sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony, and love. It is like a family where there is a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.

Sangha is a collective healing energy in which we can take refuge in when we find that our suffering is too much to bear on our own.


We, and the person before us, are always more than that which appears. Despite the embodied evidence of stress, illness, pain, or suffering in another, and without the slightest denial of this reality, maybe our essential work is to meet another within this crucible of temporal conditions while simultaneously relating to them as nothing less than a localized embodiment of the divine. Our willingness to relate with another in this way is fundamentally healing.

“The awesomeness in me honors the awesomeness in you.”

Whoo! Just typing those words exhilarates me, like it activates something in me, a healing energy. How did you feel while reading them?

“I bow down to the Divine in you.”

We don’t necessarily have to bow down to every person we meet. What’s more important is the meaning behind the gesture, to see the divinity beyond our frail humanness.

This divinity is the fragment of God within us. We are all extensions of the Source of Well-Being.

To paraphrase a lesson from A Course in Miracles, sickness has nothing to do with the body, but with the mind that creates the sickness.

It is a mind that perceives that we are a human body having a spiritual experience, instead of a spiritual body having a human experience. The spiritual body is our soul.

I understand the difficulty of believing this notion because we are led to believe what only our eyes can see; what the physical senses can grasp. So all we see is the physical manifestation of the sickness. But that’s all it is – a physical manifestation.

For healing to occur, we MUST take a shift in perception: from fear to love, from body to soul, from humanity to divinity. And this requires practice, choosing to see ourselves and others in the image and likeness of God.


Shattered But Still Whole

All of us hunger to be seen in this way. This is the source of our blossoming. It begins internally with the development of care for ourselves, no matter what our role, condition, or predicament. Later it starts to spill over and flower in our relationships with others. This is the true essence of education, the essence of mindfulness – to draw forth that which already is – rather than imagining that we must fill others or be filled from some outside source in order to be complete.

The essence of mindfulness: Education, which has the root word “educe”, meaning to draw forth or bring out, as something potential or latent.

But instead, what do we insist to do: Indoctrination. We bring in limiting beliefs based on fearful thinking. And in spite of our good intentions, we do it unconsciously because of our lack of awareness.

Here is where the practice of mindfulness can help us, to make us aware of our latent ability to heal ourselves; to bring out the healer in us.

We can accomplish that by, first and foremost, becoming aware of our thinking pattern and then by checking in with ourselves if it promotes our well-being or not.

what is mindfulness

The Devil’s Sooty Brother

The story is clear about this: to find our way home we must go down. We are asked to move underground, to examine in fine detail the unwanted aspects of ourselves. Each of us is asked to go down into this underworld, into the darkness, to face our fears, to acknowledge and “own” all aspects of self, and in this way to be renewed.

This is a short story about a soldier who suddenly lost meaning and purpose in life, and ended up “dealing with the devil”. For seven years, he worked for the devil doing hell chores. After all the dirty works, he was rewarded handsomely. Besides a great fortune, he was married to the King’s daughter, which eventually afforded him to inherit the kingdom.

Healing thy self will make us come face-to-face with our demons, thy shadows, thy darkness, and thy fears – everything we are trying to run away from. But we can only try for so long because the truth is we cannot run away from thy self.

This is necessary. If love heals, we cannot only love our heavenly attributes. Sickness is a call for healing, fear is a call for love, and therefore it is those sick parts of thy self we fear that call the most for our loving attention.

If we can muster the courage to do this, then we too will be rewarded by our own kingdom – our true Self and everything else that will be added unto us.

Saki closes the chapter with such poignancy: “If we refuse this journey, we may never play the music of our own lives. We might never sing the song that is only ours to sing. What a tragedy would this be. For the world needs your tune, remains incomplete without it, and waits, endlessly patient, for your voicing of your song.”


Experiment in the living laboratory of your life with what might happen if you spent less time constructing an imagined state of stability and learned instead to ride the waves of your life.

Saki suggests a practice of working with uncertainty, rather than avoiding it because perhaps there is no such thing as solid ground. And much of life is lost in trying to create such a fictitious place. To do so would be exhausting and unsatisfying.

Being in the healthcare profession and attending to patients for more than 20 years, Saki observed that people with medical conditions ranging from life-threatening to chronically sick begin learning how to dance with uncertainty, using it as a ground for the discovery of unforeseen possibility.

He adds, “Perhaps for all of us there is a treasure waiting to be found within the vast net of our lives usually referred to as uncertainty!”


Born of fear and self-dissatisfaction, it is a trap and subtle form of manipulation… Do you know this place? Can you sense the insatiable hollowness, the catapulting desire to fill this void? The virtual impossibility and exhaustion inherent in this struggle to do good and be needed. Much of health “caring” is based on this sense of helplessness.

This is an eye-opener. Often, we go blind in giving of help that disempowers others, which is detrimental to anyone’s well-being.

I’ve experienced this firsthand. After being diagnosed with a chronic illness, I became heavily dependent on seeking professional help, in effect making myself helpless over my condition. It wasn’t until I learned on my own how to heal naturally. It moved me from a place of helplessness to that of empowerment.

There is much to be reviewed in this patient-practitioner relationship if we are to foster a healing environment.


What is slowly splintered and cracked open is our sense of personal identification that inhibits the free flow of love. What we call ‘self’, and what therefore gives rise to the ‘other’. The problem lies simply in imaging that “my” self is independent, separate from the rest.

If we can dive into the root of all our suffering, we’ll get to the bottom line of separation – our sense of personal identification with the ego, our false self.

Put into the context of health and from a layman’s perspective, cancer is the result of abnormal growth of a cell that considers itself separate from the entire body of an organism. It was benign at first, has no sense of self. To validate its existence, it started seeking self-nourishment and thought it has to compete with everyone else for sustenance. This goes on and the once harmless cell will turn malignant, inhibiting the free flow of nourishment from the rest. Dis-ease now takes over the body.

Can you also picture how it relates to us as members of the entire human race? Can we still re-member who we really are?


Surrender is suspect for many of us. It triggers fear of loss, of resignation, passivity, and giving up. It is not any of these. Surrender calls for moving in close. Giving up something dear to us. It is painful and it is necessary. Our fear is that we will be lost forever. But ‘who’ and ‘what’ will be lost are arbitrary conceptions of the fear-filled mind. What is lost is falseness and separation. Surrendering is moving into the center of what is, moving into the spaciousness existing behind thought and emotion.

This reminds me of Jesus saying “Into your hands, I commend my spirit” before dying on the cross. His words hold so much significance of surrender, a faithful entrusting to something greater than oneself.

His crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension figuratively narrate the healing journey we are embarking upon.

The most difficult, yet necessary part is the surrendering stage because our fearful mind thinks what follows is death – the end of life as we know it.

Yet surrender is not a giving up, but rather an acceptance of life.

We let go of our false identity, along with the false beliefs, so we can embrace who we really are, the truth. Surrender calls for the death of the old self, so a better version will be reborn of us, a resurrection. It calls for the ascension to higher consciousness, the awareness from the perspective of our Higher-Self.

Surrender is not the end. It may only be the beginning of healing thy self.

Heal Thy Self: Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine


PS: Thank you for taking the time to read. Tell me, what insight most resonated with you?

Let me know by leaving a comment below.
What's your AWE-HA moment?x


SAKI SANTORELLI is the director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Memorial Health Care; the director of Clinical and Educational Services in the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society; and an assistant professor in the Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

He has been active in the emerging fields of mind-body and integrative medicine for twenty years and is engaged in the development of a range of experiential, mindfulness-based professional education and development programs and in pioneering initiatives in medical education.


Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, MBSR

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