Transcript of a Curiosity Conversation between Dick Schwartz, PhD and Helen E. Lees, PhD, Spring 2022
Helen: Thank you very much for talking with me this morning, Dick. What I’d like to talk to you about is the Self. I have heard what you’ve already said in a variety of places about the Self. If you could just very briefly recap how you see the Self—what the Self is—and then I can go from there with my questions, if that’s alright.
Dick: Sure. My view of it has evolved over the years that I’ve been doing this. At first I couldn’t believe it because I’d been trained, like so many of us, to believe that for people to have those C-word qualities within them, they had to have had a certain kind of parenting in their childhood. Yet, this was popping out of people who had horrible childhoods and had no business, according to attachment theory, having any of that. So, after I got over my astonishment at that, I started to think, maybe, you know, just as our bodies know how to heal themselves—like if you cut your arm, your body immediately goes into action to heal—maybe the Self thing is the emotional equivalent, the place in us where we know how to heal ourselves emotionally, which it is. But the degree to which it can’t be damaged—and there were just a number of observations about it that didn’t allow that to really work ultimately, like the evolutionary view of that—and I had to start to look at various spiritual traditions even though I wasn’t at all a spiritual…well, I shouldn’t say that…I wasn’t in any religion and I was agnostic, I would say at best. But I had some students who were both Christians and Buddhists, and they started to say, “So maybe this is like Buddha nature” or “Maybe this is like the soul” or “Maybe this is like Atman.” So I began to explore all that. Indeed, it turns out that virtually every spiritual tradition has a word for it. Often a lot of their practices are designed to access it. So that’s where I’ve landed with it—that it is more spiritual, our essence within us. My thinking now is that [just] as quantum physics talks about photons being both a particle and a wave, there is a wave state of Self that isn’t personal—that’s much more transpersonal—and then each of us has a particle of that within us, and that particle is really the same as the wave except that it has boundaries. In our bodies, we feel separate from each other much more. That’s why Self has all these healing qualities. So anyway, that’s a short version of how I’ve come to see the Self.
Helen: When you first started talking about the Self, it made me think of life force—an unstoppable element, shall we say. We can’t stop the body from healing us. The body could avoid healing us or not be very good at it for reasons of ill health, but you can’t stop the force of what you’re calling the Self from being a part of a person if the other stuff gets out of the way.
Dick: Right. I mean, you know people’s Parts can stop Self from acting. It’s never been clear to me how that’s possible given the power of Self, but yeah, it can be thwarted by many different Parts. That’s a lot of what life is about—helping those Parts see that they need to allow Self to function.
Helen: I think that is the beautiful appeal of it for many people because at whatever level, be it conscious or subconscious—a life force that they’re not even in connection with but they can’t help but have—they are driven toward the Self. You could make an analogy with love. This is it from the Hindu tradition: we fall in love with ourselves because in the other, we see the Self that we recognize in ourselves. I suppose my interest in talking to you started in the first place because if the Self is so great (and I agree with you that it is), you know the C words, just as a kick-off, they are super things. If you can have those and channel those, you’re in a good situation. If it’s such a good thing and if we have it, why on earth would our Parts choose to get in the way and not be Self-led. Have you got any thoughts on that?
Dick: I’ve asked the Parts that many times. What they say is, “We don’t trust Self because Self didn’t protect us when we were young.” That’s been true. I’ve had to work to where we access Self. We talk to a part, and the part turns its back and says, “I don’t trust you—you abandoned us and locked me up.” Self has to apologize and typically will say some version of “When that all happened, I didn’t have the body to protect you”—because it’s usually when a person is a child and is overwhelmed by whoever is hurting them—and “I’m really sorry that I couldn’t.” So we had to make a repair. This is the second goal of IFS: to have the Parts’ trust in Self restored. Sometimes the repair is necessary for that.
Helen: The role of trust in a human life is so fundamental. I see this, or I’ve seen this, in alternative education—how trust allows learning to occur in the most beautiful natural way, but there’s a connection, isn’t there, between trust and love. I wonder what you think about the, shall we call it, the weakness of love? Or, I’m going to put it in another way, which is that lots of religions talk about God playing with us—that this life is some kind of game, or they call it “God’s play.” Hinduism talks about God’s play or the drama of existence—the fact that we hear—you said it yourself, I read it recently, I think—about lessons. You talked about how why we’re here and the purpose of life as to learn lessons. So you could see that as a kind of God play, or the play of God’s love in our life. Then we enter into dramas: we face difficulties in order to learn and grow—to evolve if you like, if you see that in a spiritual sense—and so in that sense we could say that there’s a sort of a God’s play withholding of love. If love had been there when Self was weak, then everything would have been overcome, and Self would have led, and everything would have been fine. But then perhaps there is a withdrawing of love, or a passive kind of love that looks on as a witness to what drama we are going through—in that we need the weakness, we need the Parts to feel that they’re not being supported, so that… One of the Hindu holy figures, Swami Vivekananda, talks about life as a kind of a gym. When we fall down and we have to get up, we’re going to use our muscles to get up. So it kind of makes sense why Parts would feel let down by Self. But on the other hand, IFS is striving to increase Self, so why do that if life is a game and it’s a gym and it’s part of the fabric of existence for Parts to have trouble?
Dick: Why do what?
Helen: Why try for more Self?
Dick: Well, I’ve asked these questions, and what has come back is similar to what you’re saying: that we’re here to learn lessons, and if Self were all powerful and love were all powerful and we led that way through all our lives, there wouldn’t be much to learn. Instead, we accumulate these burdens from these extreme beliefs and emotions—from traumas and attachment injuries and from interactions with people—and that becomes our lesson plan: how to unburden, how to release all of that. In doing that, we have to interact with the Parts that carry the burdens and show them love and help them trust that it’s safe to do that: to unburden and trust Self again. All of that for me is the lesson plan. It’s why we’re here, and if we can do that—if many, many people start to do that in our culture and we could bring more of this wave state of Self to this planet—it will change a lot of things. That is what keeps me going. I’m very interested in ways to do it more collectively, with lots of people at once.
Helen: Like a stadium or something?
Dick: Well, yes, you know, something like that. Or online. You know, we could do it online as well. That’s what I’m learning—that one of the goals of IFS is to bring more Self, not just for individual healing but for collective healing and the learning of lessons. This may be in contrast to some religions, may be in contrast to Hinduism, where this reality is thought to be a kind of playground… The work is to be in that wave state all the time. My take is that we enter the wave state in order to bring more of that to this planet. Our work is to be embodied in this world so we can help other people unburden and ultimately help the planet heal. So, it’s a bit different that way.
Helen: This is very similar to the Hindu tradition where – again I mention Swami Vivekandanda – they talk about reincarnating over and over until nobody is left [behind, suffering]. We don’t escape into Nirvana and disappear off into the heavens and leave everyone behind to get on with it. It’s much more a sense of “Come on everyone! Come with us!” or “Let’s all go together.”
Dick: No Parts and no people left behind.
Helen: That’s right. Absolutely, yes. There’s that sort of question which is unresolvable, but perhaps the Self as an unstoppable force, or life force that heals the body as an unstoppable force even—let’s imagine that they have the same source or same nature…
Dick: But it is stoppable. That’s the irony. I mean, Parts can block access to Self.
Helen: Well, I think actually, there’s a contradiction there. Because you’re saying the Self is untarnishable. So, Self is always there, always in the background, shall we say—always watching and understanding and knowing that these difficult un-Self-like experiences and behaviors are going on.
Dick: Yeah, although, you could have Parts dominate to the point where Self isn’t that aware. It’s out of the body and so on, but the point is that once Parts open space, the same Self in everybody pops out and starts to move into leadership. But it could be put into a kind of dormancy or could dissociate to the point where it can’t function.
Helen: Well, there’s a question there about the nature of Self. I’ve got a list of questions here, and I do wonder about the nature of Self, and it may be that this is outside of our ability to think about it or answer it because Self could be ineffable, right? If that’s its nature—that we can’t really grasp it, can’t talk about it—it’s in the realm of silence. Let’s call it sacred silence. But then would that mean a human being could say Self wasn’t there? When a person is so, as you put it, dissociated or troubled, and having such extreme difficulty with burdened Parts that Self does not seem to be present in any way, shape, or form, can we claim that Self isn’t present?
Dick: Again, I’m just reporting what I’ve been taught. So, it isn’t that Self doesn’t exist anymore or that it isn’t there. It’s just that it’s covered over—blended and taken out of the body. When that’s the case, you know, the big Self still exists—the wave state Self. But for a particular person, their access to this Self is quite diminished. It’s not that it went anywhere—it’s just that it’s impeded to the point where it isn’t even aware of what’s going on.
Helen: What you just said was very interesting and key, possibly—you said it’s taken out of the body. Where does it reside? Does it normally live in our body?
Dick: Again, there’s the wave state—the ocean—and then we have a drop of that ocean in us, and that drop can only function if there’s room in us for it to be in our bodies.
Helen: And I imagine that drop has a link to the wave state?
Dick: Yes. Totally.
Helen: Would it be possible for that drop to lose its connectivity such that it’s never able to reconnect? That would go against what you said in your book No Bad Parts.
Dick: No. That isn’t possible. You can always reconnect.
Helen: So, it’s just a case of quantity.
Dick: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a case of how much access and how embodied that drop can be. I’ll give you an example. I did high-dose ketamine some years ago with Bob Grant. During that time, I totally left my body, had no connection to it, and was totally immersed in that wave state. I had no boundaries and just felt that oneness, that oceanic state, for the whole 20 minutes. During that time, my Self had no awareness of what was happening in my body. After the medicine experience when I started to come back, I slowly started to feel embodied a little bit. Then more and more as I came back. Also, as I came back I started to realize how difficult it is to be in these bodies because they make you feel very separate from everybody, in contrast to when you’re in the wave state. So, that’s what I mean. I was really not around for my body during that time. I just left and entered the wave state.
Helen: How dare we, shall we say – talk about the Self! The Self is bigger than us. The Self is a tremendous… You know, that’s where I run into problems of an ineffable kind. I research silence, right, so as soon as I come up against that…that…that…that lack of language, I know that there is a…
Dick: I know that there’s been that idea about Self—that it’s ineffable, and if you try to talk about it, you’re not really talking about it, but that’s not been my experience at all. I mean, I talk about the eight Cs, I talk about the five Ps. I talk about how it shows up. I don’t know…talking about what it is, is a little trickier. I do my best to report what I’ve been taught, and I do want to say that none of this came out of my brain. This is all from the research I’ve done with clients and asking the kinds of questions you’re asking.
Helen: That doesn’t surprise me at all. A person—even someone who’s uncovered some really useful ways to access Self, as you have—a person is not capable of saying or doing or amending anything to do with Self, are they? It is what it is. It is there. You’ve discovered that is the case in your own language, with your own set of concepts, but talking about it here is not going to change a thing. I guess the reason to have the conversation in the first place is because there seems to be something very positive about accessing Parts, befriending Parts, and doing unburdening in order to make people lighter and make Self more accessible to them. But Self is still very elusive. Parts are getting in the way all the time.
Dick: Yeah. It’s elusive in that sense. But in addition to the healing of Parts and transforming, this idea of Self leadership is very powerful. In addition to not being ineffable in terms of talking about it, you can actually feel when it’s in your body and when it’s not—in a very practical way. That’s what we teach in our training programs.
Helen: What does it feel like?
Dick: I have five or six markers to tell in my body if I’m in Self. Those include: is my heart open? (I can check quickly to see if it is.) Do I have a big agenda, and am I really trying to convince you of something? (I can check that really quickly; there’s a kind of vibrating energy that runs through my body when I’m really in Self.) How much of that energy is there? And so on, and so on. So, what we do in the trainings and in my workshops is help people get triggered and feel what that’s like to have a part take over. Feel what their muscles feel like, what their breathing is like, what their heart is like—look through the eyes of the triggered part, notice the impulses, notice the thoughts—and then ask the part to separate. When it separates, you start to access Self, and it’s a totally different feeling in your body that you can very clearly identify, and then, as you go through your day, you can check to see how much Self is in your body. It becomes a daily practice.
Helen: I’ve heard that—a daily practice. But it’s the sort of thing that isn’t really widely talked about. Let’s take religious people who are using some sort of religious spiritual practice, as you put it, to escape their Parts—their trauma their burdens and all of that stuff—to try and not bother with them. That’s never going to work. They’re going to have to do this Self work to clear themselves out, shall we say.
Dick: You know, it works to a degree. I mean, people go through their whole lives meditating every day and feeling pretty good, in general.
Helen: This is true.
Dick: So, it’s not mandatory that you heal these Parts. Though, they often affect your body somehow if you don’t—physically.
Helen: With illnesses and things like that?
Dick: Yeah, things like that. Or they’ll screw your life up in other ways, but you can still make it through your life without dealing with them.
Helen: Yeah, but it’s much better to not get ill. It’s much better to deal with people in a decent way and deal with yourself in a decent way—to care for yourself. I just wonder why these concepts—particularly given that religions are already there, already on the case, and they’ve been on the case for a long time—why these concepts are not more accessible and widely practiced. For instance, we brush our teeth. Most people know that if you brush your teeth, your teeth will last longer. That’s a daily practice, morning and evening. Why aren’t people checking in for some kind of Self leadership? It doesn’t have to be your language or IFS as a community saying you should do anything. It could be a simple practice that helps support a healthy, happy, safe, peaceful world. So why isn’t this commonplace so far?
Dick: Well, you know, I think for some other traditions, it is pretty much a practice, but the biggest reason for that is the title of my book. Most religious traditions—and also most of our culture—don’t believe there are no bad Parts. They believe that these things are negative emotions that need to be, at best, ignored. I just did a podcast this week called “The One You Feed.” Do you know that parable?
Dick: There’s a parable, allegedly from Native Americans, in which a boy asks his father, “I have these two sets of emotions—the good ones and then other ones like envy and avarice. The two sets of emotions are in a battle in my mind, and I’m worried which set is going to win.” The father says, “The one you feed.” So that’s been the attitude. The Dalai Lama’s attitude is basically that. All kinds of traditions have that attitude: that there are good and bad emotions, and there are good and bad thoughts; you should just focus on the positive and starve the negative. That’s what I mean: at best you ignore them, at worst you fight with them or shame them or lock them away. It’s that misunderstanding that leads people to believe these emotions are creating all kinds of terrible things in our world. That’s what I’m trying to change.
Helen: Well, IFS is very good. I personally think, particularly since you published a book with the title No Bad Parts, that IFS is very good at depathologizing people. That, if you like, could be the heart of its beautiful gift. In alternative education, A.S. Neill, who started Summerhill School in the UK, insisted that children were good when they were born, and it was their parents who screw them up. This goes against all educational ideas about improving people, about modeling and molding them into an ideal citizen or an ideal workforce member—or a moral being, if you take character education and what it’s trying to do. So, we need, one could suggest, to get a break and cut out all of that kind of modeling of others. If, as you’re talking about, the Self is already perfect, it already is in place as a healing, positive force—it doesn’t need modification. It needs to be allowed to emerge, and it’s not just that Parts need to get out of the way. The world and its erroneous concepts that are forced upon people also need to get out of the way. So this brings me to a question about the Self, about IFS. I’m interested in your understanding of consent and the Self.
Dick: What do you mean?
Helen: Indeed! This relates to the way IFS has to be in the world. My big interest in IFS is IFS as self-determined. In other words, for people who don’t have money, what is a quick, useful, effective method to access their Self? How do they do those processes? How do they become more Self-led if they can’t afford a therapist? So, it’s sort of a self-determined version of what you’ve brought to the world—so, in that sense, there is this big issue of consent of oneself to allow oneself to heal. Not needing the support, or the consent of a therapist, to get permission to heal. It’s not just about how we access Self—it’s also about how we access the idea of consent. Because that’s a new concept for this world, just as Self is a relatively new concept….In other words you have a model which is premised on unburdening, which is the key to getting lighter, getting more Self-led, and is premised on the idea that you need a therapist.
Helen: So there, in that “no,” is a very interesting area, a very interesting issue, which is how do people unburden safely, because I appreciate that for some people they may need support—but in general, how do people unburden safely without needing a therapist? You know, you and I have briefly talked about various things, and you’ve mentioned there are things in the works, so this is of great interest to you. You mentioned earlier about a stadium or online mass healing, getting people toward Self leadership. But the key thing in all of this, I would suggest, and I’m asking, what do you think of the possibility that the key thing would be consent? It’s not just consent within oneself and with one’s Parts to get out the way or to unburden, and it’s not just consent that we trust or we might trust a therapist to help us and to guide us—it’s also consent that we are given consent or we get consent or we take consent from the world to say, “No! I will heal! I will be a healed version of what a human being is! I will not continue through my life as this sort of handicapped half-version that’s not accessing Self leadership.” Consent to be oneself comes from many different areas, and people don’t know how to give consent, take consent. Do they?
Dick: It’s a little more complicated because there are Parts who will say, “I’ve had enough of this life, the way I’m living, and I’ve gotta change, and I’m saying I’m taking consent to do that.” Those Parts typically are not responded well to by other Parts who aren’t so on board with that project, and that’ll create polarizations inside. Now, it’s different if it comes from Self and if Self says, “You know, it’s time to really start to do some work on this,” but the whole concept of willpower in our culture has been a big problem because it generally means getting these manager Parts to sit on the Parts that are causing you trouble in your life and exile them as well as the other exiles. So, I’m very careful about not being a big advocate of consent in that way.
Helen: That sounds like coercion—that the managers coerce because they sit on other Parts.
Dick: Yes it is, but they would say the kind of things that you’re saying, like “Enough is enough! I’m gonna have a life—I’m gonna take over my life and change.”
Helen: But that’s something I learned from IFS. That approach doesn’t work at the level of the internal person.
Helen: But there’s a bigger issue here about consent. Take schools, for example. Schools were set up to create workforces that serve the rich and elite who have factories, right, or they need fodder for armies and so on. That’s why schools were generated. That is not the world—people with power, whoever it might be—consenting that people become their best Self, is it? They don’t want that. They want a certain type of person. What you’re talking about with IFS is a revolution at the level of consent—that people can flourish and emerge as the person they were meant to be, which of course, as we might suggest, is a beautiful version, right? That’s very dangerous.
Dick: Yeah, I mean, it challenges the existing paradigm for sure. Yeah.
Helen: It changes the world.
Dick: It does change the world.
Helen: And do you have any understanding or idea in what direction that goes? What world it becomes?
Dick: I don’t have a totally clear vision. I’ve never been able to see much past the headlights in terms of this whole journey. I’m just kind of following the larger picture of bringing more Self to the planet, with the assumption that… I’ve worked with many clients where, when you get in there, in the beginning it looks totally hopeless because there are so many polarizations, there’s no Self available, there’s so much exiling—and then you just start to convince these Parts to open a little space, and Self starts to manifest a little bit. Things can change very quickly. To extend that analogy to the planet, what drives me is this belief that if we can just bring more Self—without anything else, without having to get certain people on board or anything, just bring more of this energy to the planet—that can happen quickly, too. You know, I’m almost 73. I feel like there are some deadlines that I’m facing.
Helen: There are. That’s why when I was talking with this person yesterday about IFS and climate change, the key interest in IFS, if you like, is its velocity, its speed, the speed with which it can operate. But it strikes me that maybe it’s right to mention to you why was I so drawn to IFS when I first saw it. I’ll tell you why. In 2003, 2002, I can’t remember exactly… I was walking along the Brompton Road in London during a lunch break from this work I was doing in an office. I had this vision of the world to come, and it blew me away. I couldn’t believe it. There weren’t that many people, and they were wearing funny clothes. It was not today’s fashion, shall we say. But the thing that was so striking was that those people were so incredibly good. They were so incredibly pure and kind and balanced. I mean, you know, it was nothing I’d ever encountered before in terms of how people can be. It gave me a sense that this could be the future, and I erroneously said, “When is this gonna happen, then?” and I got it in my head—I made up the date of 2013, and I couldn’t help but think, that’s so far into the future. That’s crazy—let’s have it now! And then 2013 came and went, and my mind made up a new date of 2018. I thought, “oooohhh, we’ve gotta wait so long! Well, I don’t actually think it’s likely to happen in our lifetimes—yours or mine. However, when I encountered IFS, I recognized the possibility that this vision on the Brompton Road could occur in the future. That blew me away because I thought, now I can see that this thing I encountered—those wonderful people, that wonderful world in terms of how people are (though I can’t talk about how nature’s gonna be)—that was possible. I see it happening through IFS.
Dick: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I think IFS is not the only source of it, but it’s one of them, and it’s exciting for me to encounter people who grasp that vision as deeply as you just described. I got it, I’d say, 35 years ago, and I was still in my 30s, and I thought, this is amazing, this could really change it all—I hope the person comes along who could make it happen, because I’m just a little kid, and nobody is going to listen to me. I’m still waiting for that person, so…
Helen: IFS is not going to be responsible for it, but it may help a lot. The fundamental shock is that this thing can occur.
Dick: Ah, now I hear what you’re saying. Yeah.
Helen: Like you say, it could happen through other pathways, and it’s obvious that anybody who says IFS is the only way is just talking rubbish. That’s not true. IFS is an effective method for this thing that we’ve seen as possible to realize itself.
Dick: Yeah. That’s the way I see it exactly. That’s right. One of many effective methods.
 The C words referred to are what Dick Schwartz calls eight qualities of the Self. These are: Compassion, Creativity, Calm, Courage, Connection, Confidence, Clarity, and Curiosity.
Helen E. Lees, PhD, is Editor of PARTS & SELF and based in Italy.