IFS and Nonduality

13 December 2023

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is, it seems, the fastest growing psychological model and therapeutic mode in North America right now.  It is exploding in popularity in the last few years, which is a very good thing: it is the most comprehensive and useful model of the human psyche that I have seen. (How popular is it? The past 2 years (2022, 2023) you have had to enter a lottery just to get a chance to get into one of the certified, Level 1 trainings!) There are a few notable features of IFS that make it unique. It acknowledges both the multiplicity of the human psyche, but also the essential core being that has power to integrate and heal. And like any good theory, it happens to not omit any of our previous understanding of the mind, yet amalgamates those concepts into a simple and elegant and enormously useful idea. 

In many ways, IFS is poised to be the framework for the next wave of therapy, as it can be seamless with a nondual perspective.  It is inherently spiritually integrated, just like ACT which is basically a psychological translation of core Buddhist ideas. 

In IFS, we acknowledge that who you think you are – your personality and mind – is not a monolithic singularity, but more accurately is a system composed of parts that have different functions.  Just like saying that your body is more accurately seen as a system of organs that work together for a single function, what you call “I” is more aptly a system of parts that work together to create a cohesive sense of self.  You might have managerial parts, protective parts, reactive parts, hurt and hidden parts – and they all might have wildly divergent, even conflicting agendas and motivations and relationships to each other.  To map this out and understand one’s system may be the best way we have ever had to know and work with the complex mental system that we call a human being. 

If there is any sense of singularity in the psyche, IFS speaks about all our parts occurring within the space of our essential core being – this irreducible, loving nature that, like the air in the room, holds all the parts of the room with openness.  The model of IFS proposes that every person has their own ‘Self energy’ that is unique and individual and is like a source star to the solar system of parts move within its light. 

It is a very useful model, but it fails in one important way which limits it in a way that is similar to all the other psychologies:  it omits the nondual, essentially connected nature of our Self. 

Here is the shift that could make IFS a profoundly integrated model, and which I suspect we will embrace as time goes on:  we might come to see that the ‘Self energy’ is impersonal – meaning, there is no individual Self at the core of each system, any more than there is an isolated or truly independent sun in a solar system.  At the core of the system, the irreducible source and space that holds all parts – is empty. As empty as the core of the atom.  That is precisely why it can hold the diverse multiplicity of our humanity.

We all know that our sun – as much as we historically pretended it was anchored and alone – is in fact soaring through space on its own galactic orbit; part of yet another vast system.  After the planets have run their course and have been absorbed back into the sun, it too (or whatever is left of the collapsed white dwarf star) will fall back into a more universal core. 

We must be like this, too.  The microcosm is the macrocosm. 

The doorway to our highest potential of psychological healing is to know that the essential space of being at the core of every person – that is the space that holds all our parts – is a universal and non-personal potential.  It is buddha-nature, it is brahman, it is for lack of a better word, God.  What IFS calls, “Self-Energy” is the quality of the divine nature that is our fundamental substrate of being. In the IFS system, it names the qualities of Self-Energy – such as compassion, care, curiosity, love. What it ought to make clear is that there is no Self, there are only the qualities of pure being.  It does not make any sense that this would be considered individual and separate, and it is merely the vestige of our profoundly separatist beliefs that it be considered so.

Ultimately, any identity is a part.

When we start to realize that our essential nature is impersonal, we can then understand why Self-energy is truly healing to our parts:  because parts are merely aspects of the universal mind that are identified and therefore stuck in a sense of separation.  Self heals with love because Love is the recognition of our non-separation.  To not see this is to limit the healing capacity in your system, just like every old psychological modality. 

Indeed, the IFS terminology of Self may need to be revised.  It can be confusing to speak of Self, but to know it as a universal and impersonal essence.  But it is problematic either way.  The Buddhists avoid the use of the word Self, acknowledging that buddha nature is empty and impersonal.  But this can make it feel very out of reach and confusing, particularly to Westerners.  But then, calling it Self is problematic because it then feels like there is something individual, and human about what we are pointing towards.  It is the classic challenge between the theistic and spiritual, the psychological and the divine.  It’s all just a confusion of words.  How can I use the word God without you thinking of something outside of you?  How can I use the word Self without you thinking of something personal? 

That’s why the nondual teaching can be so useful, since much of it dispenses with these words and tries to find less categorical words to point the nature of our being – like simply awareness, or knowing, or pure being.  Whatever it is, it is the same in me as it is in you, and the same in us as it is in the trees and the cars and the bugs and stars.   

By embracing the impersonal nature of our essential being, we can get profoundly clear in our psychological work, because we start to see that instead of there being a core Self to you that has whatever personal characteristics you feel are irreducible, we start to realize that any idea that we see in us is automatically not the essential Self.  This is the spiritual practice of ‘neti, neti’ (not this, not this, from the advaita Vedanta tradition).  Your essential Self is the empty space to which all ideas and identities occur; it is not an identity itself.  If you think that it is, then that is just another “part” of the system that, if seen wholly, will be disidentified and result in greater expansion and liberation and awakening. 

This must be so: as I point out to my clients daily – the very act of seeing an idea or quality in you, means that there is now one who sees and one that is seen.  Who is the one that is seen?  And what is it that does the seeing? Keep following that towards your most fundamental self.  Anything that you can see or note or name in your awareness is not the essential awareness itself.  It’s the same as noting that anything you can point to in the room, is obviously not the space of the room, but an object within it.  A huge portion of our growth – arguably the entirety of the internal facing path – is of a constantly refined sifting of what is, and what is not, your actual, authentic Self. 

Unfortunately, most of us at some point just stop the distillation of our ideas, and unconsciously become fixed with a certain identity. We do not know that identity is fluid. It is never truly fixed, even when we hold onto it for an entire lifetime.  There is always a silent core, an infinite space in which it all happens, and when we see more and more clearly that it is merely the adherence to identity that creates our suffering; we tip the scales from being afraid of losing whatever we think of as our self, to being thrilled to lose as much self as possible.  Every loss of identity is a freedom for the soul. 

The loss of an identity is not a death, but a release of limitation. 

If all identification is gone, you have not become less of anything, nor dead, nor motionless.  Quite the contrary:  you have become empty of obstruction, and the very source of creativity and love. 

As a psychotherapist, I’m always wondering about how my clients are identified. What is their sense of self adhered to/ dependant upon? If we can find their most core identity, we can see their most core wound. The more you heal and grow, the harder it gets to see.  There is a never-ending cascade of increasingly subtle identification that happens, and it can get very difficult because it almost always becomes an identification with ‘spiritual’ ideas and identities that are profoundly defended by the system from being seen, as they feel too threatening. 

That’s really the only problem:  we are identified, and we consciously, and then unconsciously believe that to lose our identity is to die. 

We do not realize that the only thing that can die, is an identity; and every identity is merely an idea.  What is left after the idea of you has ended?  The mystics and sages have given us an example.  What happens when the idea of self ends, but the body remains?

What is left is beauty, truth, love, and our eternal real nature.  Everything else is chaff. 

When we start to taste this, have glimpses of it, and bring this into a therapeutic context, my experience is that it can support and accelerate all of our healing and integration.  We are no longer working with a candle, but with the sun.  What we previously felt as resistances are now seen as lovable defenses of a previous idea of self. 

To bring this back to the IFS conversation, we now know our Self as not merely personal but universal source of healing, which means that our parts can sense this and release their burdens. And here is the other key: all burdens are merely identifications with untrue ideas.  A burden, which is the IFS language for a psychological wound, is always just the eternal mind getting fused with a false idea.

Psychological healing, just like spiritual insight, is at it’s deepest level, always about identification.

All wounding, therefore, is also about identification.

When we meet identification with clear understanding, it unravels naturally.  It is effortless. 

It is effortless because God does not need to exert itself in order to love. Our true nature is already present within confusion.  Parts only seem separate.  Beings only seem separate.

How could any of this be truly separate and distinct? Nothing needs to change but our perception. 



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