Modern psychotherapy meets 19th Century Bengali Mystic

Fakir Lalon and Internal Family Systems Therapy

By Farhan Ahmed

Fakir Lalon Shah is known to all Bengalis as a spiritual mystic, sage, poet, and a prominent proponent of the philosophy of humanism. The song above by Fakir Lalon originally dates back to the late 19th century. However, sometime in the late 90's it received a vivacious revival by a local band in Dhaka. I remember vividly the buzz it stirred up for me and my teenage peers back then. The song was catchy, fun to sing along, the lyrics simple, the words learnable and the music familiar. Pretty soon, we were singing it everywhere - at lakeside concerts, cultural festivals, house parties and rooftop hangouts. It became the anthem that reaffirmed our Bengali identity. 

20 years went by and the song became archived in our memories. All that time, I rested in the comfortable notion that I understood what the song was saying. I had settled for a very literal interpretation of the words on the surface. However, I recently came to realize that there was always a deeper meaning that had eluded me for a better part of two decades. A meaning that only became clear to me when I happened to learn about the Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy framework. 

The link between a 19th century Bengali folk song and a modern Western psychotherapeutic technique sounds as absurd as it is unlikely. There is no reasonable conjecture, no educated guess, not even the most fringe academic interest that could result in anyone connecting these two together. Yet, there it was, a link so unusual, yet undeniable, such that when I finally made sense of the connection, it was as though it had always been there, right in front me. 

In the song, Lalon outlines a model of the human mind. Upon introspecting into the nature of his own being, he describes his own inner psychic universe as occupied by various "residents" who live within the "home of his heart". He identifies numerous psychic personalities within himself, each with its own particular trait - some creative, some destructive, some playful, some mischievous, some childlike, some managerial. These personalities interact with each other within his inner world, but also engage in behaviours perceivable in the external world. Ultimately mesmerized by this truth, and recognizing the existence of an entire family of personalities within his psyche, Lalon asks the question - "Oh my heart, do you even know how many are living within your home?"

The IFS model views the human mind in much the same way, as being made up of multiple psychic personalities or Parts, that revolve around a central Self. IFS embraces the idea that multiplicity within the human psychic structure is a natural state of being. It identifies two broad categories of psychic parts, namely exiles and protectors, each arising as a result of specific life experiences. These parts also have distinct personalities, often determined by the nature of the experiences that created them. Together, these parts form the internal family that exists within an individual's psychic structure (thus the name "Internal Family Systems"). Much of the therapeutic approach used by IFS involves getting to know this family of parts, identifying their behavioral manifestations, understanding their dynamics, unburdening their pain, and negotiating a balanced relationship between them. 

As is apparent, the similarity between the mental models presented by these vastly different frameworks is uncanny. Yet, the question remains, how did this come to be? How did these two constructs, separated by great distances and ample time, produce such similar models? IFS is a relatively new technique, created by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the early 1980s. As far as I can tell, from attending training courses at the IFS Institute, neither Dr. Schwartz nor any of his peers had any knowledge of this song or of Fakir Lalon. 

The only plausible point of convergence lies in the fact that IFS takes much of its foundational principles from Eastern Buddhist traditions. Similarly, Lalon's ideas were also influenced by parallel eastern traditions, including Advaita Vedanta, Sufism, Jainism and Hinduism. This can explain some of the commonalities between Lalon's philosophy and IFS [for instance, the central Self in IFS and Lalon's concept of "Moner Manush" (the "heart-mind" being) both emerge from the idea that the core essence of being sits within a silent, objective witness of all phenomenon, i.e. pure, egoless consciousness]. Yet, the specific detail of the multiplicity of the human psychic structure, does not appear to be exactly spelled out in the same way within these philosophical traditions. As such, for me, the link between this song and IFS still remains a mystery. But if you happen to figure it out, please let me know.