Spiritual Foundation

A Path to Self.

Many people come in to IFS therapy or training with questions about Self.

In the IFS model, Self and Self-Energy are the agents of healing. We are assured that we all have them but when we look inside, we may not be so sure. What exactly is Self? What does it feel like to be “in Self?” How can we know when we’re there? How do we get there? Getting to know, trust and connect with Self is a big part of the foundational work in IFS.

To recognize Self, it can be helpful to start by recalling moments of inner calm and stability; times when despite outer conflict or chaos, you were able to keep your head, respond appropriately and even compassionately. Think of times of wonder and awe, connection to nature, beauty, music, art and to loved ones. Think of the energy of a creative spark, the excitement of discovery. Notice the feeling of compassion in your heart when you extend yourself to others with care and genuine concern. Hold a sleeping newborn, a warm puppy, a purring kitten. These point to what being in Self can feel like, and most people can relate to at least a few of them. Still, these can seem like random occurrences and not things we can necessarily count on. We want to know how to turn on, or get to, the state of mind/heart that IFS calls Self. In IFS, this is done in a step-wise process, first by creating trusting relationships between one’s parts and their own Self. When parts trust, they relax, and then the person can have awareness of their own calm, stable center of open heartedness: their Self. They can also be in this state while being able to hold their parts with whatever burdens those parts bring.

A parallel kind of process happens in mindfulness practices. You may be familiar with the open, alert, spacious state of mind that is experienced when all the chattering voices, the distractions, the brain fog and sleepiness, the aches, pain and itches– when they all finally quiet down and relax. You are simply there. There is a sense of confidence, completeness, and that nothing is lacking. All is well; everything is workable. Though not named as parts, the voices, distractions and such would be recognized in IFS as manifestations of parts. The instruction from mindfulness would be, when confronted with these, to welcome them, lean in to them, get to know them with kindness. They are manifestations of your mind, born of your experience. 

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Chogyam Trungpa described a path of mind training practices by which the spiritual warrior could find their way to this open, spacious state of mind. The Spiritual Warrior sits upright, in their place between heaven and earth. They occupy their spot with dignity, but also with openness. In that openness, you may feel as though all your protections have been stripped away, that you are exposed and vulnerable. You may experience what Trungpa calls the “tender heart of sadness,” through which you connect to the depths of human experience.

When a person says they are just no good at quieting their mind, they are testifying to the presence of noisy mental activities that resist attempts to block or ignore them. In IFS, we can see these as restive parts. They are behaving as they have learned to behave to protect the person or the system as a whole. 

© Barbara Wegener, MA, LPC

 1. In session, the therapist guides the client in extending Self-Energy to their parts. Self-Energy carries the qualities of care, curiosity, compassion, concern, creativity, connection– a healing energy that softens parts and opens their willingness to trust.

2. The revered Tibetan monk Milarepa, who lived in an isolated cave on nuts and thistles, was visited by the Mara, the god of destruction and death. When his students rushed to tell Milarepa the dreaded spirit was outside his cave, Milarepa dismissed them to prepare tea, and he invited Mara in to share tea with him.

3. Chogyam Trungpa, author of The Sacred Path of the Spiritual Warrior and founder of Naropa Institute.