One way to view the human mind is as a complex system made up of multiple sub-personalities, each with competing needs and agendas. This can make it difficult to make decisions, feel content, and, ultimately, relate to other people. In the conversation below, Korda and Morey discuss the idea of sub-personalities, the limits of the conceptual mind, and the wisdom of the body and emotional mind.
Sam Mowe: Let’s start with the idea that the mind is made up of different sub-personalities that can sometimes be in conflict with each other. How can we begin to integrate these different sub-personalities?
Josh Korda: We can easily misperceive our minds to be organized by single, static personalities or identities. And we often place our thinking at the epicenter of these core identity beliefs. The Buddha, similar to contemporary therapeutic practices, suggested we put aside our allegiance to thought and break down our moment-to-moment experience into what’s actually present in our experience. The mind is far larger than just our thoughts. There are physical sensations, feelings, emotions, attention span, old perceptions and so on. If we over rely on thoughts to make sense of our lives, we’ll become anxious when our thoughts can’t “make sense” of difficult emotions or overwhelming experiences. We set ourselves up for anxiety, panic, and dissociation.
So it’s crucial to break down experience into the various components, not only to end the inner dictatorship of conceptual thought and befriend our emotional lives, but to familiarize ourselves with all the sub-personalities that can develop in life. For example, I’m a different person when I’m actively teaching a retreat than when I am hanging out with old friends at a diner. If we are only able to experience ourselves as an undifferentiated whole, we can sometimes experience the various underlying personalities as embarrassing or disruptive.
Jessica Morey: One thing that Josh and I have been talking about recently is the Internal Family Systems Model, which is a way to understand how these different sub-personalities are organized. When we use this approach, there is the idea that the different parts of ourselves perform different functions within the system.
With mindfulness we can learn to attune internally, listen deeply, understand, and communicate with these different parts of ourselves. It doesn’t matter what our experience is, but it’s about what our relationship to the experience is. This means that we shift our relationships to these parts of ourselves, such as the anger, the neediness, and the over-worker.
Sam Mowe: It is easy to imagine these different sub-personalities wanting things that are in conflict with each other. Can becoming familiar with them help a person understand what their deepest values are and therefore prioritize how they should spend their time?
Josh Korda: The conscious mind is most aligned with the narrative goals that we set for ourselves to help us achieve things in the world, so that we wind up with wonderful adventures that make for a good life story. For example, we may want to achieve certain degrees of renown in our fields, start a family, or travel the world for a wide variety of experiences. The conceptual part of the mind relies on finding happiness through creating a “big life filled with wonderful stories.”
Of course, sometimes on this journey to achieve and accomplish, we find that we’re abandoning other needs and wind up self-sabotaging. For example, we may want to exhibit our paintings in a gallery, but procrastinate before we ever submit our work. Fear and anxiety can get in the way. If we actually begin to investigate the mind—not just as a single entity that has plans and goals, but as something with different sub-personalities—then we find that these are manifestations of other parts of ourselves that are seeking to have our attention.
Instead of regarding procrastination or anxiety as some kind of character default that gets in the way of our righteous goals, we can think of these “unwanted” behaviors as messages from the emotional mind. We start to understand the parts of ourselves that we’re unaware of, and can take care of their needs and actually move towards our goals in a more self-caring way.
Jessica Morey: Exactly. What’s the underlying energy and motivation feeding these different parts of myself? Sometimes we find that these different parts are not actually unaligned, at least not in a fundamental way. They’re just showing up in ways that seem to be unaligned.
For example, the part of me that wants to achieve things in the world and the part of me that wants to have safe relationships. If we go deeper in communicating with these parts of ourselves—where we can feel it in the body—perhaps we hold a belief that if we achieve, then we’ll have safe and meaningful relationships and people won’t abandon us.
Sam Mowe: Do you think it’s usually the case that our different parts are unified in some deep way? Sometimes we’re torn about a decision—say, for example, whether to stay in a job or leave it—because parts of ourselves are in direct conflict and there is compassion and wisdom on both sides of the decision to be made.
Josh Korda: As we try to make sense of life via thoughts and ideas, we can fall into the bad habit of disregarding our embodied emotions and impulses when it’s time to make an important decision. We tend to overlook all the messages the body is sending us because our emotional experience doesn’t speak to us directly through word-based thoughts. They speak through a host of other non-verbal means. For instance, anxiety can speak through the belly, or a clutching of the throat. Fear can speak through a jumpy awareness, a clenched jaw, and so forth.
Suppose we’re in a job that is not fulfilling, but every time it comes to sending our résumés we get stuck and anxious. Through these non-verbal signals, we can see that the emotional mind is telling us that our job is meeting a lot of our needs. It’s making us feel safe. And it’s communicating that to us not through ideas but by sabotaging us every time we want to apply for another job.
Jessica Morey: To build on what Josh is saying, in our workshops we try to help people rest in not knowing so that they can see what arises out of the inquiry process. Then you can take action when it needs to be taken, but we can be mindful through the whole process. There are tools we can use to help us keep diving below our neurotic thought processes and stay close to the roots of our different parts.
You might discover that a problem is multilayered. For example, maybe your job is meeting your need for connection and relationship, but it’s not meeting your need for creative expression. Perhaps you could shift something in a way that helps in this area. In this way, mindfulness can help you see a much wider field of solutions or actions.
Photo by Hernán Piñera