Know Thyself: An IFS Approach

By Farhan Ahmed

Long before the Oracle pointed Neo to the words above her doorway, numerous teachers, sages and mystics have uttered different versions of the same maxim - "Know Thyself". Although historians credit the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (~ 500BC) with the first written record of the saying, there are various articulations of the same aphorism which date back even further. For example, in shamanic wisdom traditions, some of which find their roots 5000-6000 years ago, there is great emphasis on acquiring deep self-knowledge before assuming the role of a shaman. Similarly, Buddhist teachings dating back to around 2500 BC centre around meditative practices that equip one to delve into one's inner universe. Closer to present day, the Hadith quotes Prophet Muhammad saying "whosoever knows himself knows his lord", highlighting the importance of self-knowledge for communion with the divine. Meanwhile, in the bible, when Jesus Christ asks his followers to "know the kingdom of heaven within you", it could be interpreted as a call to know one's inner being, where the "kingdom of heaven" ultimately lies. For Bengalis, this wisdom can be found within the teachings and songs of the mystic poet Fakir Lalon. Many of Lalon's songs allude to the wisdom of self-discovery. This song, in particular, spells it out directly in its lyrics: 

ও যার আপন খবর আপনার হয় না

[O Jar apon khobor, Aponar Hoy Na]

For the one, who gets no tidings of oneself,

একবার আপনারে চিনতে পারলে রে।

[Ekbar aponare chinte parle re.]

To know himself one day,

যাবে অচেনারে চেনা, যাবে অচেনারে চেনা।।

[Jabey ochena re chena.]

Is like getting to know a stranger.

The wisdom conveyed here by Lalon, echoing the teaching "Know Thyself", has transcended all cultures and ages. However, one may still wonder, what does it actually mean to "know thyself"? How does one go about realizing this teaching in life? Where and when to begin such an endeavor? 

In contemplating these questions, one may identify two distinct approaches to the project of "know(ing) thyself", that stand at opposite extremes of a spectrum. On one side, knowing oneself could be defined as identifying and enumerating the numerous specifics of one's egoic identity. One may claim with utmost confidence "I know myself!" and proceed to catalogue a list of likes, dislikes, preferences and pet peeves, anything from preferred ice-cream to taste in music to political ideologies to one's desires and ambitions. 

On the other end, perhaps more in line with what the ancient sages meant to say, the task can be brought down to recognizing that the various aspects of the egoic identity that one tends to associate with a subjective sense of self, are actually illusions; that the true nature of one's being is that of an infinite, boundless, objective, radiant consciousness. 

Both these extreme positions, however, have their drawbacks. The former, although easy to do, is superficial, lacking epistemic depth. It is akin to knowing yourself by your egoic garb alone; slightly more illuminating than your annual Spotify Wrap-up or Amazon shopping history. Meanwhile, the latter position, while true, is impossible to realize outside the bounds of a monastic life, as it entails sacrificing all semblance of an identify at the altar of infinity. As Ram Dass said, “The game is not about becoming somebody, it's about becoming nobody.” Yet, becoming nobody is a monumental and isolating commitment to make, especially in a world where everyone is trying to become somebody. 

As a middle-ground between these two extremes, Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy offers a framework to operationalize the task of "know(ing) thyself", that is both deep and feasible. IFS "conceives every human being as a system of protective and wounded inner parts lead by a core Self".  Parts can be seen as being similar to one's egoic masks, having likes, dislikes, preferences, dreams, desires and specific behaviors. Yet, unlike knowing oneself as the masks alone, understanding parts provides much deeper self-knowledge in relation to one's memories, life experiences and past traumas. 

Meanwhile, the concept of the Self is also similar to Ram Dass's idea of "nobody". The Self is able to detach from parts, see past their illusions and stand outside the egoic masks. Yet, despite this position as an objective witness, the Self is not entirely boundless or without characteristics. As described within the IFS model, the Self possesses particular traits that are encapsulated by the 8 Cs - Curiosity, Compassion, Clarity, Connectedness, Creativity, Courage, Confidence and Calm. 

In this way, the IFS model finds fertile common ground between the two polarized approaches to self-discovery. In doing so, it incorporates the most useful aspects of both, to derive a balanced syncretic framework. A path to "know thyself" at a deep level that is accessible to anyone, without the need to fully embrace a spiritual or monastic life.