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All parts are welcome ~ Loosening our identification in mindfulness meditation practice

27 March 2019 | , Timothea Goddard | Mindfulness Practice ,

Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures – Rilke

Most of us come to mindfulness practice to deal with something we don’t want.It may be anxiety or pain, or lack of direction, or a grief or depression. It may a sense of feeling out of control with our children or being unfulfilled professionally. It may be a dull sense of loneliness or a lack of connection in life.When these pains are present, it can be hard not to identify with them. They can be strong and tend to dominate our experience and relationships.

Mindfulness meditation offers us an evidence-based way to approach these kinds of pains. It offers a practice where “all parts are welcome” and we can learn how to explore and not identify so strongly with these aspects of our experience. If we bring a wise and heartfelt attention to them, we begin to see them not as fixed identities but as simply parts of ourselves which are open to investigation, transformation and healing. 

Starting out

Straight up, when we first start out with the basic practices of awareness of breath and the body scan - we find many unwanted aspects or parts of ourselves right there in the practice. These parts come to the fore in the quiet of practice and can even dominate – so much so that we can imagine the practice is “not working”. We may find that instead of being able to focus on the body, we get that old anxiety rearing its head. Instead of acceptance, we find that the loudest voice in our head is the perfectionist part of ourselves insisting that we must have exceptional concentration and ease in practice, or else we are a loser. This is normal - as the mind and body we meet in mindfulness practice is the very same one we have been practicing in our lives for 20, 30 or more years. . It is so natural to have aversion to these parts and want to get rid of them.

A multiplicity of the self

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
Walt Whitman
One of the problems here is we are living in an illusion that we are “one” – that we are, or at least should be - a coherent, consistent person who isn’t racked by contradictions and paradoxes in our thoughts and feelings and values. We identify with a certain way of being and idealise it and then struggle to maintain and control things so this is the one way we see ourselves and also present ourselves to others.

To maintain this ideal of ourselves, we keep going into battle with these “parts”, as if there is something wrong with us and with these parts of ourselves. This means we can miss the opportunity to get to know ourselves and how to work non-aggressively with the complexity of being a person.

Internal Family Systems* offers a helpful way to start thinking of ourselves not as a singular person, but as a system of parts with a life and logic of its own; each part has a history and contributes to the overall functioning of the system. There are parts we try to banish (usually parts that are vulnerable). There are parts that are protective managers, always striving to control things and other people to make things go well. And there are disrupter parts that cause havoc when we haven’t got another way to protect ourselves. All of these parts need our wise and kind attention, rather than our aversion and contempt.

The method of mindfulness meditation asks that we let go of the habitual striving for things to be a certain way. We are invited into meeting every experience with acceptance and curiosity. Easier said than done! The trick is to find a way to work with these phenomena without identifying with them. But at the same time honouring them as understandable coherent expressions of our needs as they have been shaped by all the many moments of our lives, and particularly moments in which we were dependant on others.

Welcoming all parts

What if in meditation you could truly make space for all the parts that arise and invite them in for a compassionate conversation?
Just like in the Rilke quote above, you might just respectfully assume that if intense parts (e.g. helpless, critical, intensely bored parts) are coming to the fore, that they are there for a reason, and often for a protective reason. Anxiety isn’t just a symptom of a disorder; it may be a powerful solution to something. Anger isn’t only an anti-social emotion; it may well be an important self-protective device, protecting us from feeling weak and helpless. Boredom in practice is not just a signal that we should do something more stimulating liking checking emails or making a cup of tea. It might be providing a screen against a vague sense of meaningless or disconnection more generally.

What if you could ask these parts to step back and stop flooding you with their feelings? and then wait, and see what happens.
This is a radical question and you might be surprised at how powerful it is. Ask the part to step back and stop flooding you with its feelings. This movement inside provides a sense of perspective and distance so that things can be differentiated. What – just a moment ago – felt like something that defined you, can be recognised as just a part of you, there to be explored and reflected on. When we can re-see these parts as having meaning and legitimacy, they often calm down and seem to take up less space. An intimacy develops with the various parts and they feel much less threatening and dominating.

What if you could offer these parts your courageous, compassionate, spacious and curiosity-laden presence?
Once the part has stepped back, ask yourself how you feel towards it. See if you can find a place in yourself where you can see the part with some compassion and interest. Taking time to just be with and inquire into the experience of a part is powerful. Staying present with how it feels in the body, the emotions involved, the kinds of thinking that arise. Deep listening to the need of the part to express itself in this way, actually frees it up to maybe be able to relinquish a rigid and no-longer helpful way of organising itself. Just being present and exploring the felt sense of a part (the associated thoughts, beliefs, emotions, sensations, images) makes possible a settling and integration of this experience in the moment.

You might explore what is left, when you ask these parts to step back in this way.
If these parts step back, what is left? What I have found is that what is left is a spacious and compassionate awareness – very akin to a state of awakened presence referenced in the Buddhist literature. Resting in this awareness is experienced as a lack of urgency to do anything or solve anything. It offers an alive healing moment of knowing and being known which seems to dissolve dynamics of strain, shame and blame in the whole system.

CLICK HERE to get the details of a talk and led practice with Timothea Goddard on how to work directly with “parts” as they arise in your mindfulness practice. This can lead to a more spacious and freeing practice in which we can explore letting go of painful identifications – not by repressing or rejecting parts of ourselves but by including them with compassion and interest.

*The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of psychotherapy offers a clear, non-pathologizing, and empowering method of understanding human problems, as well as an innovative and enriching philosophy of practice that invites healing.