“Those parts of yourself that you do not accept will become hostile to you.”
~ Carl Jung
“My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.”
~ Anne Lamott
When people call to inquire about my MBSR class, they often say their main reason for wanting to take it is to feel more peaceful or relaxed. When I tell them those states of mind often increase eventually as a result of meditation practice, but that it’s far more likely that first they’ll have bouts of agitation, intense judgment, restlessness, self-doubt and anxiety, there’s usually a long silence on the other end.
Listen, I get it. We want to believe that if we work hard enough at it, an 8-week class will somehow un-do decades of habitual self-flagellation, perfectionism, stress and loneliness. It’s part of the instant gratification culture we’ve created and subconsciously buy into. Meditation is something you can do with a vengeance, with an extreme sport mentality and a mantra of “Serenity Now!” The problem is that, when approached this way, we set ourselves up for failure and the practice becomes one more form of self-flagellation, followed by guilt, disappointment and the like. Exactly the stuff we were hoping to escape.
By the time those brave souls who do sign up (and the unsuspecting people who take it just for fun) finish the class, they’ve discovered something that is at the very least interesting, and potentially life-altering. Alas, it’s not a result of my teaching skill or even the material our sage leader Jon Kabat-Zinn has provided, but through the age-old practice of meditation itself. They’ve experienced first-hand that they’re not alone up there in that vast space we call the mind. That, in addition to the neutral awareness that notices everything, there are other parts that are interpreting their experience of the world at any given moment, through filters that are not exactly neutral. We’re not talking about multiple personality disorder or spirit possession a la the movie Sybil, but different aspects of the same, average mind, which we might identify as “me.”
In his groundbreaking approach to psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems, Dr. Richard Schwartz says he’s noticed that in addition to the open awareness we all have access to (which he calls the Self) most people have an average of five to fifteen other “parts” they can clearly identify. For example, one part of us may be very confident and open to taking risks, while another part may be cautious or downright fearful. Another part may be accepting and open-minded, while still another part is judgmental and harshly critical. This is all very normal and most of us can relate to having these parts within ourselves, so what’s the big deal? In short, the best time to use this model of working with the mind is when we experience a stress or difficult issue and can’t figure out why we keep repeating the same old patterns of behavior that we know are hurtful to ourselves and others. As we begin to investigate, curiosity is an attitude that is essential in keeping us mentally grounded in the open awareness that is necessary to truly see clearly. How do I experience the myriad ways I have of relating to others and the things that happen to me?
When I discuss this with students, they have some creative ways of seeing it. Many people are visual, and can actually picture different people who represent the parts. For one student, her “perfectionist” part was a slightly older librarian with horn-rimmed glasses that hung from a chain around her neck. She carried a clipboard and checked things off when they were done properly. When the student took short-cuts, even with things that were not important to her, this part gave her “the look” of disapproval. Another student had a part he described as a “hippie beach bum.” It told him not to worry about anything, like paying his bills on time or meeting deadlines of any kind. This student had a high-powered job and was very successful at it, so this was quite a revelation to him and shed some light on why he was chronically just a little bit late for everything.
It’s also common to recognize different parts as having different tones of voice (male or female, pleasant or harsh, loud or soft) or as located visually outside of the body on different sides. This reminds me of the Flintstones cartoon, where when Fred was tempted by something, a sweet angel appeared on one shoulder, and a mischievous devil on the other, each offering their advice on what he should do. You may have experienced something similar the last time you thought about going to the gym, or having a second piece of cake.
Once we’ve identified a number of different parts, they form what Schwartz calls our Internal Family. As with our real families, most of our internal families have at least one real character who would cause us to slide slowly under the table were we to be seen with them in public. In my internal family, it’s most of them. I imagine that we’re all on a bus together, driving through life. Most days start out with my open awareness behind the wheel. The rest of my parts can be seen in the rear-view mirror, some quietly reading, others staring blankly out the window, at least two are vociferously arguing at all times, and one is always smoking and belligerently refusing to open his window. Without fail, something happens during the day that causes one of them to hijack my open awareness and careen the bus into the ditch of an old (not-so-helpful) habit of coping with stress.
One student saw her internal family as different characters sitting in the gallery of a courtroom, her open awareness as an unbiased judge in a black robe who did her best to let them know they would each be heard. Lastly, and one of my favorites, a student who was having trouble with this concept e-mailed me and wrote, “I think I get it now. I tried the exercise you recommended and I saw my open awareness as the lead singer in my life. It was all really great, until I turned around and saw the band.” You might think about your own internal family and see what comes to mind when you experience the curious open awareness that observes your experience, as well as some of the different parts that might be present.
It’s a common misconception that the goal of meditation is to purge the mind of all the unsavory characters so we can finally live in peace with the “good” parts of ourselves. We spend lots of time and energy erecting walls and other mental constructs to keep the “bad” parts out, when in fact, all members of our internal family have something to teach us and are essential to our growth and healing. The strategies of fear, shame, anger, and judgment that we use to keep those parts hidden are like the layers of clay that covered over the golden Buddha in Thailand. We believe they’re keeping us safe somehow, when in actuality they’re obscuring the shining, awakened heart that already lies within each of us.
There’s a sign at the Insight Meditation Society that reads simply: Allow Without Exception. What meditation can do is help to strengthen our benevolent awareness, the part of us that’s not moved by our outer circumstances or inner turmoil, and is thus uniquely qualified to allow the entirety of our parts to be heard with compassion, without exception.
If you’d like to learn more, you might consider joining us for a new year-long course beginning in September called Bringing Mindfulness to Life. Throughout the year we’ll explore this topic and others using meditation, other contemplative practices, movement, and journaling.