Internal Family Systems (IFS) is gaining recognition as a valuable tool in therapy and self-help, yet its profound ability to heal trauma and foster personal and spiritual growth is still underappreciated. Particularly overlooked is its effectiveness not just in facilitating Self-realization, but in empowering individuals to consistently live as their true Self.
This last point is crucial, because it's one thing to get a glimpse of your true Self while sitting comfortably at home or on retreat as a great spiritual teacher guides you inward. It's quite another to think, connect, and create from Self while being confronted with problems, uncertainty, and suffering in the world.
Even great spiritual teachers struggle to live as their true Self, which is why it's sadly not uncommon for them to abuse their power. Those who don't abuse their power often lead lives of relative seclusion. My guess is that these teachers too might struggle to live as their true Self if they were more engaged in the world. For example, the revered Tibetan monk Mingyur Rinpoche once left the seclusion of his monastery to begin a wandering retreat through India. He nearly had a panic attack the moment he stepped out the gate.
I think the reason it's hard for great spiritual teachers to live as their true Self, let alone for their students to, is because most spiritual teachings are relatively ineffective at addressing the wounds and conditioning of our minds. Buddhist teachings, for example, aim to help us purify our minds from negative states and help us cultivate positive ones. This approach, while it can be beneficial, spiritually bypasses the real problem. The real problem is that the mind is not a single thing, but rather a collection of parts or sub-personalities. And ignoring, vilifying, or attempting to purify our minds and its parts, as Buddhist and many other spiritual teachings suggest, won't reliably lead to deep healing and deconditioning, because our parts won't let go of their trauma and conditioned roles until they know that it's safe to. And our parts won't feel safe if we do not connect with them, understand them, and help them from a place of compassion.
Thankfully compassion is not something we need to cultivate. Compassion is a natural quality of our true Self. IFS provides simple techniques for accessing Self along with a structured process for connecting with and understanding our parts from this compassionate and curious space.
A crucial step of the IFS process is revisiting traumatic memories and feeling at least some of the pain our parts have been holding.1 So it can be tempting to dismiss IFS in favor of other spiritual strategies that bypass trauma.2 But if you take the idea that parts are like people seriously, doing anything but compassionately relating with them is cruel. We know that ignoring, vilifying, or trying to purify our external family, especially the members who are wounded, is wrong. So why do this to our internal family?
One brilliant innovation of IFS is that our wounded parts will usually agree to at least partially contain their pain when asked to so that it's much easier for us to be with them fully.
One spiritual strategy I tried for several years was using non-dual teachings to recognize my Self, rest there, and allow my mind to naturally realign with the non-dual understanding with time. As Rupert Spira says, just as the stains on a rag will naturally dissolve with time as it sits in warm soapy water, the mind will naturally realign with the non-dual understanding as you rest in being. Maybe a part of me was being impatient, but the realignment progress seemed relatively slow. Especially when I could use IFS to go directly to the stains and scrub them clean.