As I’ve argued here previously, our modern culture’s poor track record of treating mental health conditions can be directly tied to not understanding what causes these conditions in the first place. It should come as no surprise that trying to treat what one doesn’t understand—to truly heal it, not simply attempt to manage symptoms—is extraordinarily difficult. As such, exploring new (or old, as the case may be) ways of understanding mental health is critical if we’re to progress beyond today’s largely lackluster treatment modalities.
Critical to this endeavor is having an understanding of the mind that isn’t subject to our modern tendencies of reductionism, materialism, and hyper-rationalism. There are three misconceptions about the mind that are particularly relevant to Eurocentric culture’s views on mental health:
- The mind as separate from the body
- The mind as a unitary entity
- The mind as a closed entity
These myths are ordered based on the amount of attention they tend to receive in mental health circles, with mind/body separation being at the top. I’ll cover them in order here, as they build on each other. The bulk of this article will focus on the third one, as it has by far garnered the least amount of appreciation here in the west.
Mind and Body, or Mindbody?
Although science has definitively established (over and over again) the inseparability of mind and body, western medicine continues to largely operate as if they are discrete entities that don’t influence each other. This creates a narrow view of disease that, particularly with chronic physical and mental conditions, makes truly effective treatment all but impossible.
The fact that this mindset contradicts our day-to-day lived experience makes its prevalence in medicine all the more remarkable. Think of the last time something startled you, or the moments after waking up from a bad dream. How are our bodies impacted in these situations? Our hearts race, we feel tense, and anxiety flows through our veins. This is the mind impacting the body.
The reverse can be shown just as easily: Consider your mental state the last time you were sick with a cold or the flu. Depending on one’s level of physical symptoms, this can range from being groggy and mildly annoyed, to flat-out miserable. This is the body impacting the mind.
With respect to mental health treatment, viewing the mind as separate from the body impacts one’s treatment approach in a variety of ways. For one thing, this perspective is often the result of a larger reductionist/materialist mindset which views the mind in purely physical terms—merely a collection of cells, afflicted with chemical abnormalities which supposedly cause mental pathology. Treatment with drugs—psychiatry’s old faithful—is all but inevitable when this mindset is at the helm.
Moreover, chronic mental and physical health conditions often share the same underlying cause—trauma—and therefore tend to manifest together. Treating them as entirely separate conditions (with different specialists) therefore misses the mark, and makes true healing much harder to achieve than it would be otherwise.
The Mind as a Multiplicity
In Eurocentric culture, we tend to think of our mind as a single, homogenous entity. We say “I” and “Me” as if we’re referring to one thing, and much of how we view ourselves in day-to-day life revolves around this concept.
What’s particularly interesting about this largely implicit perspective is that, much like the notion of mind and body being separate, it contradicts large portions of our lived experience. We frequently have contradictory opinions or emotions about things; for example, when weighing a big decision, we’ll waver back and forth between opposing perspectives, often very rapidly. In addition, we often say things like “A part of me wants to do this, but a part of me doesn’t”, or more generically, “I feel conflicted about this issue”. We also know that not only are our minds able to look at themselves—passive self-observation—but they can also actively self-engage, including self-criticism, self-shaming, self-praise, and so on.
All of these things point to something very fundamental about how our minds actually work: The mind consists of parts, rather than being a single entity. In this perspective, the notion of a unitary “I” is more of a superficial feature of the human mind—a helpful shorthand to be sure, but one which doesn’t fully describe the underlying reality.
While this non-unitary view of the mind has been recognized in psychology, art, literature, and even quantum physics for over 100 years, it has yet to pierce through into mainstream thinking. This appears to be gradually coming to an end, however, with the dramatic rise in popularity of a therapeutic modality called Internal Family Systems (IFS), which was built from the ground-up to honor our parts, hear their stories, and work with them rather than against them to effect healing.
IFS views the mind’s parts as full-fledged sub-personalities, each with their own way of viewing and thinking about the world. They are a completely normal trait of the mind – we’re all born with them, and they’re present with us throughout our lives. Each person’s parts interact and function in different ways depending on his or her history. We are particularly susceptible to trauma—both overt and covert—early in life, and when this occurs it causes our parts to take on two basic roles:
- Burdened Parts carry pain and toxic self-beliefs
- Protector Parts take on protective roles aimed at preventing more pain from being inflicted on burdened parts
A practitioner of IFS takes a systems-level view of one’s parts to understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re interacting with each other. Through the IFS lens, we gain a deep understanding of the dynamics underlying our behavioral patterns. By forming relationships with our parts, we come to better understand ourselves, investigate issues we’re having in life, and work with the parts that are involved in those issues.
Working with the mind in this way led fairly quickly to another realization, one that virtually every other culture and spiritual tradition has recognized for ages: That the mind is not a closed, sealed-off system.
The Mind as Porous
I had been seeing a client for some time for a variety of issues going on in his life. One side issue (that we hadn’t yet focused on) was a temper that often manifested at work with certain colleagues. As we started digging into this one day, I invited him to focus on the part of him that was getting intensely angry when triggered. In IFS, we approach parts with openness and curiosity—inviting them forward, finding them in the body, and relating to them from a centered place. If the part is a protector (as is usually the case in situations like this involving high reactivity), we talk to it to gain an understanding of its roles in the inner system—why it does what it does, and what the part is afraid would happen if it stopped. (Protector parts always have a positive intention, despite how negative the effects of their actions often are.)
Owing to his experience with IFS and good intuition, the client quickly realized something was amiss. After finding the anger in the body and focusing on it, he said “It feels like there’s something inside of me that isn’t me.” This realization would completely change the course of how we dealt with his short temper.
The Citadel Mind
“The mind, unconquered by violent passions, is a citadel, for a man has no fortress more impregnable in which to find refuge and remain safe forever.” —Marcus Aurelius
Western culture has tended to view the mind as a largely closed, independent, and private entity since at least the Enlightenment era. (The roots of this line of thinking go back further, however—the above quote from stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius is nearly 2000 years old.) Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann refers to this individualistic perspective as the Citadel model of mind: on a hill, impenetrable, disconnected from the rest.
This view of the mind impacts us in a number of ways, ranging from a tendency to be more alienated from society, to persistent anxiety when things outside threaten to invade. Here we’ll focus on the aspect that most directly relates to mental health and psychiatry: The idea that our minds are private fortresses, and that nothing comes in without our will and permission.
Much like the notion that the mind is unitary, the idea that it is a sealed-off structure is a cultural belief so ingrained that we don’t even think about it. Belief has become assumption. Yet when these ideas are brought out into the light of day and examined, they fall apart rather quickly.
IFS and “Entities”
As IFS was being developed experientially in the 1980s and 90s, clinicians kept running into situations such as the client above, in which something in a person’s mind was clearly not a part of them; that is, it was something that came from the outside, not native to their inner system. These entities, which IFS calls unattached burdens (UBs for short), often have a very different feel to them than our parts do. This difference is often sensed energetically—the UB will just “feel” foreign, or it will have a very antagonistic energy/demeanor which isn’t typical in a person’s system.
There was a good amount of consternation in the IFS community as to how to deal with this. There was very little precedent for dealing with the paranormal in psychotherapy, and our culture’s tendency to relegate things like possession to the realm of make-believe has been strong for some time now. There were two primary things that allowed IFS practitioners to overcome these anxieties:
- The realization that our culture is in the extreme minority with respect to its views on the supernatural. Other cultures all over the world have, since time immemorial, accepted the reality of these things as self-evident. (Hence, virtually every known spiritual and religious tradition includes these elements.)
- IFS has always taken a follow the data approach during its evolution. The idea of the mind having parts was (and still is) a minority view, particularly in scientific circles. But the experiential data with clients was irrefutable, so clinicians bravely stayed the course and didn’t concern themselves with how these findings would be perceived. (This, of course, is the very disposition required for a new paradigm to take root.) When unattached burdens were discovered, all it required was more-of-the-same: follow the data, wherever it may lead. (And focus on helping clients, rather than trying to rationally explain what is being observed.)
One of the fundamental therapeutic findings of IFS is that parts can take over our minds. Known as blending, this ability for parts to cover up our true essence (called the Self)—and cause us to see the world through their eyes—accounts for otherwise inexplicable mental experiences, such as strongly overreacting to something emotionally, doing something that we know at the time we’ll regret, and our penchant for criticizing (or blaming/shaming/guilting) ourselves. It turns out that unattached burdens can also blend in this way, and this occurs whether or not a person is aware that the UB isn’t a part of themselves.
In mental health circles where entities are recognized, they’re most commonly associated with severe schizophrenia and psychosis (and the resultant extreme behaviors). But things can be, and often are, much more subtle. There are a wide variety of ways that a UB can manifest in a person: Hearing voices, relentless self-criticism, frequent violent ideations, explosive anger, and seemingly endless others. (Note: Parts can present in these ways as well, so it’s never possible to definitively identify a UB just based on surface manifestations.)
The idea that our minds are porous, rather than sealed-off structures, is a hard sell here in the west. But as we’ll see below, these findings have by no means been limited to IFS circles.
A Broad Perspective
The phenomenon often known as possession has been observed over and over again throughout history, in cultures all over the world. Whether we view it as literal (an external entity entering a person) or metaphorical (a yet-to-be-understood biopsychological process), the fact remains that it must be a helpful way of looking at (and treating) certain mental states, otherwise it wouldn’t have arisen independently in so many cultures and religions.
Here in the west, with our hyper-rationalistic notion that anything which can’t be measured or observed isn’t scientific, we tend to have a difficult time with such concepts. It would do us well to keep in mind that the entire idea of mental illness is cultural to begin with. In anthropology, the phrase idioms of distress is used to reflect the fact that mental health problems manifest very differently in different cultures. The western notion of mental illness is no less cultural (and therefore subjective) than any other. As anthropologist R.H. Prince noted, “Highly similar mental and behavioral states may be designated psychiatric disorders in some culture settings and religious experiences in others.”
The idea that possession states and entities impact mental health has been noted by psychologists, anthropologists, and even physicists. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann refers to these states as spiritual presence events, and writes that these events “often come from a domain in-between the mind and the world, between a person’s inner awareness and the sensible world.”
Wilson Van Dusen was the Chief Psychologist at a state hospital in California. His article The Presence of Spirits in Madness discusses in detail his 17 years of experience working with patient hallucinations, and what he found to be their clear link to the spirit world. Jerry Marzinsky is a retired psychotherapist who continued Van Dusen’s work. He writes, “After what I’ve experienced in my 35 years on the front lines with patients suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, there is no doubt in my mind that these entities exist. I’ve both seen and spoken to them and they are very nasty.”
Tom Campbell, a physicist, lays out the problem with the west’s view of the paranormal very well:
“We call things mystical and paranormal because we don’t understand them. Once you do understand them, they are just normal stuff. You take a color TV to a tribe in the jungle that has never seen modern-day technology, and they would find that television set entirely mystical. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t good science behind it. It just means they don’t understand it. That’s the way our culture is about the paranormal. There is good hard science that describes the paranormal exactly—and it’s repeatable—but to most people, because they don’t understand it, they label it weird or crazy.”
This is necessarily the briefest of looks at cross-disciplinary perspectives on this issue. What these spiritual presence events actually are, however, isn’t as important as how we can practically work with them to help people who are suffering. Undoubtedly, when someone has voices in their head which aren’t their own, the voices are real to the person who has them. As such, the person deserves to be taken seriously rather than dismissed as ill or crazy.
It is believed that UBs often enter into a person’s system during trauma, when defenses are weak and the system is vulnerable. It’s often not possible to determine exactly when a given UB came in, but fortunately this knowledge isn’t necessary in order to get it out.
Robert Falconer is a senior IFS practitioner, IFS trainer, and author. Some years ago, he decided to put a heavy focus on unattached burdens, and his wealth of knowledge on the subject is unmatched. His recent book The Others Within Us delves deep into the history of the paranormal with respect to mental health, and focuses on his treatment approach with IFS.
The gist of the approach is that UBs can be removed from a person’s system, often without much fanfare. This process looks nothing like the common stereotype (The Exorcist), because it’s not a fight between the person, their therapist, and the UB. While UBs can initially present as very scary and intimidating, there is nothing violent or aggressive about the removal process. This aligns with the overall IFS philosophy of working with our symptoms (i.e., parts or UBs) rather than against them.
While there are a lot of subtleties with the protocol, and it can vary substantially per-client/per-UB, there are a few fundamental aspects of it that can be generalized:
- UBs feed on fear, and they only have power if we’re afraid of them. Once any parts of the client who are scared of the UB are dealt with, the UB’s power to wreak havoc is eliminated.
- A UB can’t stay in a person’s system if all of that person’s parts are in agreement that it needs to leave—it doesn’t get a choice in the matter. This is part of why expulsions are much less dramatic than on TV.
- Much like IFS work with parts, work with UBs is done by guiding the client to connect with their inner world, in effect establishing an interface between their conscious and unconscious minds. Within this inner realm, a person communicates and interfaces with their UB in order to determine what needs to happen to get it out, and then to perform the required steps.
While the overall process can sound like basic visualization work, it would be a disservice to consider it imaginary or metaphorical—it is very real, as its results attest. Once the process is complete, the symptoms that were associated with the UB disappear. It is common for large energetic shifts to be experienced, followed by feelings of spaciousness, lightness, or wholeness. The client mentioned earlier experienced precisely this—after the UB was removed from his system, his sudden bouts of anger with co-workers went away with it.
Effective mental health treatment begins with understanding the mind’s architecture and basic functionality. When a culture is married to fundamental misconceptions about something, it’s going to have a very difficult time working with it in a productive way. Eurocentric culture in particular has proven to be remarkably stubborn with respect to how the mind works.
It’s a strange kind of irony that the people who scoff at the idea of entities causing (or contributing to) mental health conditions are often the very ones who staunchly believe that genes do so—a claim for which there has never been any supporting evidence. Science, as it turns out, isn’t as objective as we’d like to think.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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