Meditation and the Drama Triangle


Integral Deep Listening (IDL) expands on an important and powerful concept from Transactional Analysis, called “the Drama Triangle.” Referring to the interactions of the three roles of persecutor, victim, and rescuer in interperpersonal relationships, IDL expands the concept by applying the Drama Triangle to two other dimensions of human experience, cognition (thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations), and night-time dreams. This is because IDL teaches that it is not enough to identify and avoid the Drama Triangle in your relationships; you need to be able to identify it and avoid it in your thoughts and dreams as well, because these are sources that not only generate drama in your relationships; they make peace of mind impossible. Meditation is a powerful tool for eliminating the Drama Triangle the second of those three dimensions, in your thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations.

IDL understands the Drama Triangle as a modern and psychological reframing of the ancient and classical sources of human misery: avidya, or ignorance, maya, or illusion, karma, or self-generated captivity, dukkha, or suffering, and sin, or separation from God.  The role of persecutor can be understood as abuse of others or self, whether awake or in a dream. Persecutors never consider themselves to be in that role. Instead, they are “defending” or “teaching.” Therefore, persecution is determined by the victim of the abuse, not by the abuser.  Persecutors feel justified and self-righteous; when you have those feelings or argue with someone, or feel a need to “explain” yourself to others, know that you are most likely putting yourself in the role of persecutor.

The role of victim is not victimization, the very real abuse that happens when a child is molested or your car is rear-ended. It is associated with feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and powerlessness, and “justified” avoidance of responsibility. The position of victim is very powerful, because when you are in it you are blameless. “What can anyone expect of me? I’m a victim!”

The role of rescuer is different from a “helper.” While a rescuer jumps in, without waiting for a request, a helper either waits for a request or asks if help is needed. While a rescuer just keeps on keeping on, out of a certainty of their good intentions, a helper checks to see if the help they are giving is indeed useful. While a rescuer doesn’t stop when the job is done but instead takes up another task, out of the goodness of their heart and their confidence in their own motives, a helper stops and waits for another request. Rescuers think they are altruistic, compassionate and generous when they are actually attempting to validate their own self-worth by demonstrating that they are beyond reproach. A sure tip-off that you are in the rescuer role is how you feel when your desire to “help” is rejected. Rescuers generally feel rejected and unappreciated. Another sign of rescuing is burn-out from giving more than you get back from life.

Each of these roles generate the other two. Persecutors become victims and generally feel that because they are victims persecution is justified. Victims persecute both themselves and those around them through their passivity and excuse-making. Rescuers are resented, because they are basically selfish and manipulative; consequently they are sooner or later seen as the persecutors they are.

It is relatively easy to identify these three roles in relationships, and indeed, that is where IDL recommends that you start. The next step is to look for ways that you play these three roles in your thoughts. Are you not in the role of persecutor whenever you criticize yourself? Are you not in the role of victim whenever you feel helpless, powerless, and out of control? Are you not in the role of rescuer whenever you indulge in any addiction or avoidance strategy, whether it is eating something that isn’t on your diet or surf the internet instead of doing what is on your “to do” list?

The realistic but very uncomfortable assumption to make is that you are in the Drama Triangle all the time, and that life outside of it is a foreign, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable concept and state. While you say you want inner peace, is it not true that when you attempt to find it in meditation you end up in the Drama Triangle instead?

This brings us to meditation and the Drama Triangle. You probably meditate to find equanimity, as well as centeredness, balance, clarity, and mindfulness. However, isn’t most of the time you spend doing whatever you call meditation filled with both thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and your attempts to escape from them, on the other? Is this not the Drama Triangle? Let’s look more closely at how this works.

Because most people do not know the distinction between rescuing and helping, they view meditation as a form of self-rescue. They meditate to escape their thoughts, the stresses of life, or the existential predicament of existence in the world. Meditation then becomes a form of escape and avoidance. What this does is put their thoughts and feelings, the world, and life itself, in the role of persecutor, meaning that meditation becomes a conflictual relationship within the Drama Triangle. Instead of moving you out of the Drama Triangle, meditation actually reinforces it. When meditation is assumed to be a form of self-rescue, as it is in both Hinduism and Buddhism, it merely generates more karma and suffering through a flight from ignorance and suffering to freedom (samadhi) or nirvana. A similar form of self-deception occurs within Christianity. When prayer and meditation are undertaken to become one with God, the implication is that you are not normally one with God. Therefore, prayer and meditation become forms of self-rescue from normalcy, that actually both affirm and reaffirm the reality of your separation from God.

How do the three ways that a rescuer is different from a helper show up in meditation? How do you, when you meditate, jump in, without waiting for a request for help? This occurs whenever you react to a thought, feeling, or sensation. Perhaps you feel a pain in your knee. It is one thing to change position to alleviate you pain or even to stop meditating, take care of your knee, and then return to meditation. It is quite another to experience the pain in your knee as a distraction, interruption, or enemy of your attempts to meditate. By doing so you put yourself into conflict with your pain and with yourself. You experience your pain in the role of persecutor and you are therefore the victim of it. Now you need to do something to rescue yourself from your pain. The same holds true of distracting thoughts, unwanted feelings, and pictures that keep floating through your mind. If you are a follower of the traditional yoga of Patanjali or a Zen Buddhist, you repress these things as distractions, thereby giving them both reality and power. If you do mantra meditation like Transcendental Meditation, you practice avoidance via substitution. Your answer to everything that comes up is substitution: you return to repeating your mantra or working your rosary, or whatever.

IDL proposes a different solution. For the moment, use your exhalations to let go of your need to either avoid or substitute anything for your pain, thoughts, feelings, or images. Stop seeing them as something that you need to do anything about or as a request for help. Why? Because although it is easy and simple to interpret any pain, thought, feeling, or image as a request for help, this interpretation lands you in the role of rescuer within the Drama Triangle. Instead, move to a space of balanced neutrality and non-reactivity. Then make a decision about what to do. You may want to intervene in some way or you may not, but the key is to learn to make decisions outside the Drama Triangle, and you cannot and will not if you are reactive or are not in a space of acceptance and inner equanimity. As a general rule, use meditation as a time and place to cultivate that balanced neutrality and non-reactivity; save problem-solving for later.

You may recall that the second way that a rescuer differs from a helper is in not checking to see if the help that is given really is helpful. Rescuers just “know” that what they are doing is helpful and useful because their intention is so pure. How is this different from a parent spanking a child for their own good? How is this different from a parent justifying their abuse by saying, “This hurts me worse than it does you?” IDL deals with this predicament in meditation in several ways. The first is to assume that any intervention you make to deal with a “distraction” in meditation is a form of self-rescuing. If you don’t like a thought, feeling, image, or sensation and react to it, assume that you are in the role of self-rescuer. Secondly, if it persists, table it and return to meditation, telling yourself that the purpose of meditation is not to address everything that comes up but rather to amplify balance, centeredness, clarity, and inner peace. You are there to help yourself, and therefore those who have to live with you, as well as the world in general. You can address it later. Thirdly, if it is a recurring interruption in your meditation, IDL strongly recommends that you interview it outside your meditation. The assumption is that it may be a “wake up call” to which you need to listen; just don’t do it during meditation and imagine you are meditating. Instead, use IDL interviewing to listen to it in a deep and extremely effective way. This will more than likely disclose to you why the “distraction” comes up for you in meditation and provide you with a number of concrete recommendations for how to address it. IDL then recommends that you choose those recommendations that make sense to you, check them against external authorities and your common sense, and act on them. See if such clear and focused helping does not change your relationship to the “distraction” during future meditations. Perhaps the pain does not go away when you meditate, but you now have re-framed it in such a way that it no longer is experienced as persecuting, but instead actually becomes a stimulus to deepen and broaden your sense of clarity and equanimity. While this sounds impossible and idealistic, IDL asks you to suspend your disbelief, conduct your own experiments, and draw your own conclusions.

The third way that a rescuer is different from a helper is that a rescuer doesn’t stop “helping” when the job is done. Instead, they keep on keeping on, out of a desire to validate their own self-worth, disguised as infinite self-sacrifice and altruism. This shows up in meditation as a determination not to listen to yourself, but instead to continue to use tools and approaches that you have either outgrown or just don’t work for you. Perhaps you use them because some authority told you that is the way to meditate or because you can’t imagine any other approach. In any case, the result is that you have little success meditating, but trudge on, out of a sense of dedication, self-sacrifice, and because you “should,” despite your lack of success and your inability to expand or deepen your awareness when you meditate. Such a lack of improvement are signs for you to ask yourself, “Instead of listening to what I need when I meditate, am I forcing my own agenda onto my practice?”

There is more on the Drama Triangle, as approached from IDL, in Waking Up, and more on IDL and meditation in the text of the same name as well as in the Essays under “IDL Resources” at IntegralDeepListening.Com.

What is your experience with meditation and the Drama Triangle? We invite your questions and comments.



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