Ahamkara: Parts, Voices and Selves:
In yoga, whether in meditative posture, or a more dynamic one, we are tracking the ongoing flow of energy and information moving through various layers of embodiment. We begin with gross sensations such as tightness in a muscle, or restrictions in the breathing, and in time, asana practice opens us up to the more subtle sensation/perception/information flowing from cells tissues and organs as well.
In the next section of our explorations of the energy flows of the body/mind, we have come to the mental creations that are involved in the ‘sense of self’, the ‘I, me and mine’ thoughts. As mentioned in Mind: Part 1, the role of a mature ahamkara is to create a sense of self that can remain stable while it organizes the many layers and levels of mental life. This requires integration with the buddhi, the innate intelligence. This is not necessarily an easy process as, for most of us, the buddhi is lees than fully developed and this self sense morphs into a complex constellation of competing and limited ‘selves’, each claiming to be the true ‘I am’. As these are contructs of prakriti, they are inherently limited and impermanent and thus cannot be the ‘True Self’ or Purusha.
As we discover in mindfulness, where and how we pay attention greatly shapes this self sense and the development of these partial selves. Also, awakening simply allows attention to have a deeper and longer sense of just resting in ‘Now” /timelessness/drashtu svarupe/ Purusha. This resting in timelessness will gradually shift the self sense from the partial selves to “I am this (timelessness), the “True Self”. Then the True Self is both Unique and Universal and operates through the other ‘selves’ to bring creativity to the world.
Because we also inhabit the world of time, prakriti, or impermanence, as the Buddhists would say, we have and need these other ‘selves’ that appear and modify our energy, our behavior, our actions in the world. Some of these ‘selves’ are creative, compassionate and wise, and arise out of our deep connection to the fullness of the present moment, the True Self. We want to nurture these. Others are small-minded, self-centered, petty, and destructive. These sources of suffering are based upon trauma, habit and conditioning and can be modified through mindful attention and thoughtful practice, what Patanjali calls in I-2, ‘citta vrtti nirodha’, ‘resolving the dysfunctional mind states into healthy flow, or ‘citta prasadana‘ from I-33.
I have experience with two approaches to the exploration of these ‘selves’ which come from western psychotherapy. The first is known as “Internal Family Systems”, and was developed originally by Richard Schwartz. In brief, the IFS model postulates that the human mind often has numerous ‘sub personalities or selves, that are called ‘parts’, (implying that none are the ‘whole’ person). They are probably of different ages, with different skills, deficits, life experiences and desires. They are all valuable and necessary to the healthy functioning mind, but, for various reasons, often take on more problematic, conflicted or destructive roles.
Also, in IFS there is a “Self”. This Self is the seat of consciousness, is already and always highly integrated, and ideally is the CEO of the mind. Its role is to delegate authority and mediate disputes among the parts. The Self is not a part, but can be lost in the background noise of conflicted parts. Think of it as the integrated linking of Ahamkara and Buddhi, to use the yogic terminology. The role of IFS therapy is to help differentiate the Self from the parts, establish the “Self” at the center where it belongs, and help the ‘self identity’ remain grounded in the ‘Self’, rather than jumping from part to part. The centered ‘Self’ can then help resolve conflicts amongst the parts by giving each a voice to be heard and a role to play in the ongoing flow of mind activity.
According to IFS, when trauma upsets the mental/emotional system, polarization arises among the parts and they organize into warring factions, usually taking on extreme roles. These factions generally fall into three categories. The managers try to ‘maintain control of the confusion, usually by repressing the injured, wounded, unhappy parts. These unhappy parts, known as ‘exiles‘, are too painful for other voices to acknowledge, so they are kept ‘locked up’ in the unconscious. If any of the exiles ‘escape’ and start to demand attention, or take over, the ‘firefighters’ jump in and try to ‘extinguish’ the intensity of the exiles. They will try anything to dissipate the fire, including encouraging over-indulgences in drugs, alcohol, food or sex. Thus, although they seem to have the same goal as the managers, that is, keeping the exiles quiet, firefighters often operate by creating even more damage and suffering, leading to even stronger exiles, requiring more work from the managers. It is a vicious cycle of repression, explosion and suffering. Only reestablishing the ‘Self” can begin to restore order to the system. The role of the therapist is to help the client ‘differentiate the ‘Self’ from the parts, and then facilitate a dialogue between the Self and the various parts, to help sort out healthy roles.
The second pyscho-therapeutic approach that I have experienced is known as the ‘Big Mind’ process, an offshoot of “Voice Dialogue”, created by Hal and Sidra Stone. Big Mind comes from the insight of Zen Master Genpo Dennis Merzel, or Genpo Roshii, who met the Stones when they were brought in to help resolve some conflicts in the Zen center he was involved with. He later combined Voice Dialogue with Zen insight to expand the number of ‘voices’ available. In Big Mind, the word ‘voices’ is synonymous with ‘parts’ in IFS. They are the sub personalities of the psyche and can be dualistic or non-dualistic. You can see the obvious parallels to IFS in the voices. Some dualistic ones include the: protector, controller, seeker, doubt, anger, fear, the damaged self, victim, the wounded child, shame and the rejected one. The non dualistic voices can include Big Mind, Big Heart, Great Joy, Great Gratitude , Great Doubt, and the Master. These all arise from a grounded sense of Self as unbounded and free. Like in IFS, the dualistic voices have a key role to play, but need to be seen, heard and integrated into the ongoing flow. The Non-dualistic voices are responsible for this healing.
As you explore your own inner voices, you may find some that are familiar and some that have been hiding. Name them if you can and let them speak. Be observant and creative. Create voice collectives or sub systems that can work together harmoniously. If the exiles manage to escape surreptitiously and you find yourself reeling from the emotional shock waves, you have to find ground and some spaciousness. Then you (the Self) can negotiate.
Beginning: Related Links
1. Developing Mindful Awareness
2. Attending to the Breath
3. Orienting to Grounding and Lightness