This post is by no means meant to function as a substitute for psychotherapy. But consider it as an adaptation of Dr. Richard Schwartz’s psychotherapeutic model applied to an exercise you can try in a Yin Yoga or Meditative practice.
As I mentioned in the conversation on my podcast with Dr. Richard Schwartz (founder of Internal Family Systems), there is a common list of difficult mind states in Buddhist and yogic literature known as the hindrances or the nivaranas. These challenging mind states often make practice difficult, and more often than not, when a yogi or yogini encounters them, the meditator will quickly try to get past or beyond them. The traditional list mentioned in early Buddhism is: Desire, Aversion, Restlessness/Worry, Sleepiness, and Doubt. Keep in mind that this is simply a short list, a “cheat sheet” for commonly-encountered difficulties in practice.
Whenever I would share with my therapist and mentor, Jack Engler, that I was working a lot in my practice with one or several of these hindrances, he would inevitably say, “Sounds like a part of you is calling for some attention.” At first, I didn’t like this comment. It felt infantilizing, like he was suggesting that I go have a kindergarten-level conversation with an immature part of me, potentially over cookies and milk. But after engaging with the recommended inner dialogues that Jack guided me through, I could no longer deny the very real value in developing greater familiarity and open dialogue with these various characters of my inner world.
What I will share here is the process that I learned from Jack Engler, and it’s one that I still use frequently to this day if and when a part of me is beginning to act out or engage in a kind of behavior that is generating more cacophony in my life than harmony. But what follows is by no means meant to function as a substitute for psychotherapy. Please consider it an adaptation of Dr. Richard Schwartz’s psychotherapeutic model applied to an exercise you can try in a Yin Yoga or Meditative practice.
Here’s how it works:
During a period of practice, whether it be during a Yin Yoga practice, or a period of seated meditation, once I’m reasonably settled and collected, I will ask the inner-assembly of part-selves or sub-parts if any of them would like to speak with me. For me, in the beginning, this felt like a descent into insanity the first few times I did it. Having a conscious conversation with a sub-personality can feel almost as ridiculous as openly talking to yourself out loud. It feels weird and creepy. But the more I thought about it, I realized the difference between consciously talking to oneself and unconsciously talking to oneself (which is the norm for the vast majority of waking experience) is one of semantics, and I realized that a conscious conversation is probably an improvement.
Sometimes a part of me will immediately volunteer to have a dialogue with the core Self in me. And at other times, I have to wait for an experience of conflict to crop up during the formal practice before I become aware that a part of me is looking for some attention.
Either way, once I establish that a part of me is looking for attention – usually through the experience of distress or agitation – I then engage with the following process.
First and foremost, from the beginning, I wholeheartedly welcome this part to join me in a dialogue. This process works best when the welcome is sincere and genuine. If I open to a part of me with grudging resistance, the process tends to be less effective. So as you welcome this part into dialogue with you, please try to remember, this is literally a part of you. It’s a part of you that evolved and took shape at a particular point in time in your life. It developed a very specific strategy and role to keep you safe, protected and well. Only now, it’s role and strategy for safety and wellbeing are no longer optimal. So even though this part means you well, it will have an outdated or limited strategy for achieving your wellness. But we all need to understand these parts mean us well. And that they’ve been trying to protect us for a long time. So begin by warmly welcoming this voice of yourself into your practice.
Once, I establish that the part feels welcomed, I then try to communicate to the part that first and foremost my primary intention is to simply hear what it has to say. “I’m here to listen,” is something I might silently repeat a few times to make sure the part hears my intention of goodwill.
And this next bit is an important step in this process. When you invite a part to dialogue with you, it’s equally important for you – as core self – to ask the other parts of your being to sit back and listen to your dialogue with this specific part. Failing to ask your other parts to effectively “sit out and listen in.” This can create a bit of a “pile up” where other parts may listen to your dialogue and get triggered and then they may jump in and derail the conversation that you were having with this specific part. So asking the other members of the inner-committee to sit quietly by and listen is hugely important. You can even tell the other parts that after you check in with this specific part, you’ll come back to them and ask if they have anything else to contribute or share. But once you secure a commitment from the other parts to listen with you as you dialogue with this specific part, you can proceed to the stage of inquiry with this particular part.
At the stage of inquiry, the dialogue turns to getting to know and understand this part more. I often ask my parts any or all of these questions. I ask these questions slowly, giving lots of space and time for the part to respond.
- “What’s your name?”
- “How long have you been a part of my life?”
- “Do you remember the circumstances that you were born into?”
- “What role do you feel that you play in my life?”
- “How do you feel about that role?”
- “Is there something that you would like to tell me?”
- “Is there something you’re concerned about that I’m not seeing?”
The point here is to enter into an open conversation with the part about how it sees its role in your life. Getting a sense of its history, its roles, how it views its role – all of this is important information to help establish a caring connection with this part. From caring connection, you – as core self – are in a better position to collaborate with this part to harmonize its role in your life, integrating it with all your other parts.
In the beginning of engaging with this approach, it may be difficult to remember these specific questions, so I would recommend becoming very familiar with this outline and list of questions before beginning this inner part-work. And for some it might be a good idea to print this sheet out to keep near your practice space for quick glances, if necessary.
This brings me to the next step in the process – that of collaborating with the part to collaboratively reassign its role. Oftentimes, the part will have developed or evolved at a particular point in your life, often in those early years of childhood, when you were vulnerable and fragile. This part may have developed a strategy of protecting you at that time; it served a vital function in terms of your safety back then, but now, this role is no longer functional, adaptive or helpful.
So, once you’ve had a chance to let the part describe how it sees its role in your life, then you – as core self – can now begin to function like the ‘conductor of the symphony’ encouraging/directing/leading this part towards a better role. I often think of this stage as where I’m facilitating the promotion of the part from an unpleasant duty they begrudgingly perform to something of an elevated position in my inner cabinet. The idea here is to constructively collaborate with this part to help reassign its role to be in harmony and in alignment with your core self, and, in a sense, to shed or outgrow it’s old role which has now become disruptive, if not counter-productive. Once I’ve asked the part to share with me how it views its role in my self ecosystem, I will ask it if it would be open to considering a new role. If yes, then we collaboratively pursue the new role. If not, however, if the part is for whatever reason resistant to taking on a new role, I might ask it to keep its current role but to amend the intensity of its role. Let’s say I have a part that is getting really angry at inappropriate times, I might ask it to send me a flare of distress so that we can have a conversation, then and there, instead perpetuating a cycle whereby the part acts out because it feels dismissed or unheard.
The basic idea is to negotiate the part’s maladaptive role into a more integrated and adaptive role in your life.
Here’s a real life example from my inner world. I have a part that likes to procrastinate. Whether it’s researching for a podcast, recording an episode, or writing for a project, I have a procrastinator part that will find endless reasons to make one more cup of tea, to tidy up a bit more, to get some exercise before writing… the list goes on and on. In dialoguing with this part, one of the things that has emerged through my conversations with him is that he worries that I’ll get so absorbed in my work that I’ll lose touch with reality around me. Historically he’s seen this happen, and he’s measured the costs this kind of work-absorption will extract. So he holds a view that it’s better to delay the work than to get so absorbed in the work that I lose touch. In my negotiations, we’ve come to the agreement that when I enter into a stretch of work, I’ll punctuate that work with scheduled break times of ten minutes. So after 40 minutes of intense work, say, I’ll take a 10 minute break. During the break, I’ll sometimes check in with this part and make sure that he feels OK. But in general, just this negotiation with the part up front is enough to facilitate a smoother operation of the day. And my work and productivity flow more smoothly without the inner-friction from this well-meaning part.
Once I come to an agreement with the part that I’m working, and I feel that they are on board with their new role. I make sure to thank them for their time in speaking with me. I let the part know that he or she can speak to me whenever they see the need, and I assure them that I will be available. And once those assurances have been given, I then ask if any of my other parts have any concerns or if there’s anything else they’d like to bring to my attention. If I have the time, sometimes I will address their relevant concerns then and there, and sometimes, I make a note to come back to these concerns in another period of practice.
But in this way, by periodically checking in with these parts in my practice, this tends to promote a greater harmonization of their energies, leading to less frequent periods of internal conflict amongst them. And the inverse seems true as well: if I go for a stretch of neglecting to check in with these parts, this becomes a set-up for more intra-personal and inter-personal conflicts.
I don’t have a clever acronym for this process yet. Welcome, Listen, Inquire, Collaborate, Assure. And in a way, I don’t want the process to get over-simplified or reduced to a glib formula. Perhaps it’s better to think of it as a suggested framework from which to start, but one that can be creatively developed, altered and expanded in ways that make intuitive sense to you – the core Self engaged within the process.
If you try these suggestions, consider sharing some of your experiences in the comments below.