Meditation and the Drama Triangle

While Buddha provides a powerful reminder of the relationship between meditation and enlightenment, that he meditates both on and is protected by a seven-headed serpent is a reminder of how meditation tames the mind, emotions and our enchantment by the delusions they create. 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 interpersonal relationships, IDL expands the concept by applying the Drama Triangle to two other dimensions of human experience, cognition (thoughts, feelings, images, sensations and our sense of self), and night-time dreams. In addition it calls attention to the relevance of the Drama Triangle for the understanding of mystical and near death experiences.

From: Dillard, J. Escaping the Drama Triangle in the Three Realms: Relationships, Thinking, Dreaming. Deep Listening Press, Berlin. 2017

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. For example, a night spent in anxiety-provoking dreams will create an undercurrent of tension that can start your day off on the wrong foot without you ever remembering a single dream. Meditation is a powerful tool for eliminating the Drama Triangle, primarily in 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.  Most of what people call meditation is unfortunately, in fact cognitive immersion in the Drama Triangle. This is one way of understanding why meditation is aversive, frustrating and unproductive for many people.

The role of Persecutor

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, whose judgment is not to be trusted as being empathetic with the perspective of the Victim.  Persecutors feel justified and self-righteous; when you have such 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. When you criticize yourself for not meditating correctly or enough you are in the role of Persecutor in relationship to your practice of meditation.

The role of Victim

The role of Victim is not victimization, the very real abuse that happens when a child is molested or your car is rear-ended. Instead, the role of Victim is associated with feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and powerlessness, and “justified” avoidance of responsibility. To a much greater degree than with victimization, Victims choose these feelings and rationalizations. 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!” You put yourself in the role of Victim in your meditation when you view yourself battling, sin, impurity, attachment, ignorance, confusion or evil or when you feel powerless against the onslaught of your own feelings, thoughts, images and sensations.

The role of Rescuer

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. They take a refusal to accept their assistance or advice personally. Another sign of rescuing is burn-out from giving more than you get back from life. In meditation, assume that most of the strategies you use to meditate are at foundation types of self-rescuing. The objective, as we shall see, is to find healthier and more productive forms of self-rescuing in meditation that encourage evolution into the position of Helper.

Each of these roles generate the other two. Persecutors become Victims and often conclude that because they are Victims, persecution is justified. When you are self-critical regarding your meditation you put yourself in both Persecutor and Victim roles. Victims persecute both themselves and those around them through their passivity, avoidance 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. For example, in meditation whatever tool that you are taught or use to quiet your mind and center your awareness will tend, at some point, to become a rigid structure that blocks both meditative flow and your own development.

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 largely end up in the Drama Triangle instead?

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-help when they are actually performing acts of self-rescue. To the extent that you meditate to escape from something, such as your thoughts, the stresses of life, or the existential predicament of existence in the world, meditation is an act of self-rescue, is it not? Meditation then becomes a form of escape and avoidance. Hinduism and Buddhism are quite explicit about this. Meditation is for Hinduism an escape from samsara into moksha and samadhi. For Buddhism, meditation is an escape from avidya, ignorance, into nirvana. For Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity meditation is an aesthetic escape into rescuing purification. Such formulations put your thoughts and feelings, the world, and life itself, in the role of Persecutor, meaning that meditation can become a conflictual relationship within the Drama Triangle. To the extent that you become addicted to some meditative approach or tool you risk it turning into a Persecutor, even if it is a positive addiction. This is not an argument to not use tools when you meditate but instead a recommendation to recognize that like ladders, when they take you to their termination you leave the ladder and proceed on. In many ways, instead of moving you out of the Drama Triangle, meditation can actually reinforce 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 or nirvana. A similar form of self-deception occurs within Christianity. When prayer and meditation are undertaken to become one with God, as it is in Christian mysticism of Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart, the implication is that you are not normally one with God. Therefore, prayer and meditation become forms of self-rescue from normalcy, a life of secular separation from God or sin, that actually both affirms and reaffirms the reality of your separation from God.

Ways that Rescuer different from a Helper

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 attempt 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 persecuting distractions within the Drama Triangle, thereby risking giving them both reality and power. If you do mantra meditation, such as Transcendental Meditation, Tibetan Buddhist mantric meditation or Nichiren or Shingon Japanese Buddhist meditation, you practice avoidance via substitution. Your answer to everything that comes up is substitution: you return to repeating your mantra or working your japa mala or rosary.

The problem with practicing meditation within the context of self-rescue is that you turn your mind into a Persecutor and yourself into a Victim. There is no escape, because your practice occurs within the perceptual cognitive distortion called the Drama Triangle. The context of your entire practice can become self-defeating if you do not find ways to compensate for these insidious natural tendencies.

IDL proposes an approach to meditation that is designed to recognize the challenges of the Drama Triangle, take them into account, and minimize them. It involves three tools. The first involves applying the distinction between helping and rescuing to your meditations by learning to be vigilant for indicators of the presence of the Drama Triangle, how you meditate within it and the cultivation of a desire to get out of it. Without these self-awarenesses the other two tools will be practiced within the context of the Drama Triangle. The second tool is naming and the third is observation of your breathing.

The question then becomes, “How can I spend most of my time while meditating in the role of Helper?” lf a Rescuer jumps in, without waiting for a request, the analogy in meditation is to react to stimuli, whether a pain, sensation, sound, image, thought or feeling instead of simply observing it. Once you understand the distinction between being a self-rescuer and a Helper when you meditate you can then decide what a respectful response will be. Most of the time it will be to simply name or note your thought, feeling, sensation or image and allow your awareness to move into clarity or to name the next stimuli. However, there will be times when a stimuli is persistent and you need to make a plan to deal with it: “I’ll call after meditation;” “When I’m done I will note that appointment in my calendar.” There will be other times when the stimuli will cause you to want to end your meditation. When that occurs IDL recommends that you once again return to a mental space of relative clarity before stopping in order to put a positive closure on your meditation.

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. The best way to do this in the context of meditation is to see if naming, maintaining objectivity and observation of your breath allow you to return to clarity or not. It is also recommended that you interview emerging potentials of your choice after your meditation from time to time to see if the approach you are using is indeed useful at moving you out of the Drama Triangle and into greater alignment with the priorities of your life compass.

A third condition that differentiates Rescuers from Helpers is that Rescuers don’t stop when the job is done but instead take up another task, while Helpers stop and wait for another request. The analogy in meditation is to beware of attempts to self-rescue during meditation. One example is to impulsively follow some thought, feeling, sensation or image, forgetting for the moment your intention, why you are meditating. Assume anything that you do or think in mediation is an attempt at self-rescue and observe it rather than mindlessly listening to or following it. If meditation feels like a struggle or you find yourself “burning out” and losing interest in meditating, you have probably been self-rescuing. Your expectations are probably unrealistic and you are trying too hard. You want to partner with your body, mind and emotions when you meditate, not conquer or control them.

There are a number of ways to use your breathing to move you out of the Drama Triangle and keep you there when you meditate. The first and simplest is to use your exhalations to let go of all need to self-rescue, whether by thinking thoughts, feeling certain feelings, maintaining a particular posture, meditating for a certain period of time or attaining a certain space of equanimity or inner peace. Counting while you exhale and attempting to make each successive exhalation a bit deeper and longer than the last for a series of three to five breaths are two strategies to keep your attention focused on your exhalations.

Use your exhalations to let go of your need to either avoid or substitute anything for your pain, thoughts, feelings, or images. Stop seeing whatever comes up 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. If you need or want to problem solve, stop meditating, change location and focus on your problem. Then, when you are done, return to your meditation. This teaches several lessons, including flexibility and the priority of meditation.

Of course, using your exhalations in such a way can also become a form of self-rescue; the goal is not to avoid the Drama Triangle all together but to discover tools that move you into increasingly subtle forms of self-rescue, persecution and victimization. This is a much more realistic goal as it is attainable, whereas “enlightenment,” “oneness with God,” “nirvana,” “salvation,” the “burning up of all karmas,” freedom and perfection are not.

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?” How is this different from an individual or country going to war for God, peace or democracy?

IDL deals with this predicament in meditation in several ways. As we have seen, 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 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. Be structured but not rigid, like a nurturing parent with a child. Establish guidelines and enforce them, but listen to the child and be flexible based on respect, acceptance and wisdom, not on comfort or appeasement. You are meditating to help yourself, and therefore those who have to live with you, as well as the world in general. You can address whatever problems or issues that arise during your meditation at a later time.

If a thought, feeling or sound is a recurring interruption in your meditation, IDL strongly recommends that you address it outside your meditation in some practical way. Make a plan regarding how you are going to deal with it and handle it. If this does not stop it from interfering with your meditation, such as the noise from a building site across the street or someone practicing their Tuba upstairs, interview the noise, Tuba or some other related personification outside your meditation. You are thereby approaching it as if it were a “wake-up call” to which you need to listen. Doing so will generally move the distraction out of the role of Persecutor and into a more neutral space.

Don’t attempt to focus on your distraction during meditation and imagine you are meditating, because you are either amplifying your distraction or focusing on repressing your distraction. The exception to this rule is if you completely merge with or identify with the sound of the Tuba, the noise from the building site, the pain in your back or some thought or feeling. If you can make such a move it is excellent because you both integrate the disruption into your sense of self while expanding it. However, this is typically a post-graduate level approach to distractions that few are able to manage, because we are typically too subjectively enmeshed in our thoughts, feelings and sensations to objectify them and then become one with them.

Instead, it is generally preferable to use IDL interviewing after meditation to listen to what the distraction has to say to you and then to take that identification into future meditations when and if it arises. Such interviews will more than likely disclose to you why the “distraction” comes up for you while providing 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 may sound 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 love, compassion and infinite self-sacrifice. 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 that no longer work for you. Perhaps you use them because some guru told you that is the way to meditate or because you can’t imagine any other approach. In any case, the result of using meditation tools as forms of self-rescuing is that you may have little success meditating yet 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 or that of some spiritual teacher onto my practice?”

IDL uses naming during meditation to objectify whatever role in the Drama Triangle you are in at the moment. It is based on the principle that you cannot change what you are not aware of and that therefore when you name something you not only call it into your awareness but you focus your awareness on it instead of on an infinite number of other possibilities. For example, imagine you are distracted during your meditation by the sound of the fan or ventilation system. You think, “I am aware of the sound of the ventilation system,” or “ventilation system,” or “sound.” You are simply naming what is in your awareness without putting a value on it: “BAD sound!” “Distracting sound!” You then name whatever next arises in your awareness; “I am aware of wondering what time it is.” Then you name what comes up next: “I am aware I am not meditating but thinking about these distractions!” Then you name what comes up next: “I am aware I am irritated at myself and getting frustrated!” Continue naming. By doing so you do several things. You do not place positive or negative value on objects of your awareness. You are not saying, “This awareness is good (a Rescuer) and this one is bad (a Persecutor.) Instead, you are simply naming each as it arises. Secondly, you are interrupting your normal train of thought which serves to keep you trapped in the Drama Triangle. Normally, one thought leads to the next and to the next in habitual chains of self-rescuing validation. These chains are highly addictive, as you will discover when you realize that you have stopped naming and gotten lost in one of them. When you attempt to start naming again you may experience resistance, which indicates that floating down river, carried by first this, then that current of thought, is self-rescuing and the act of naming itself has magically taken on the role of Persecutor! What to do? You have three choices. You can name that as well, you can shift to some type of breath awareness, or you can stop meditating, refocus, and return later to meditation. You don’t have to sit there and tough it out. That will easily put you into the role of Victim. You will find more on naming in Waking Up.

Your breathing can be used as a second, very sophisticated tool, to move you out of the Drama Triangle. Seven Octaves of Enlightenment: Integral Deep Listening Pranayama is an in-depth guide for doing so. By observing each of six stages of every breath you shift your attention from your thoughts, feelings and images to a grounding, centering sensory awareness, thereby turning your breath into a Helper instead of an always present irrelevancy, like your shadow. This practice associates thoughts, values and feelings with different stages of each breath depending on the octave you are dealing with at the time. This can be thought of as a naming practice used in conjunction with observation of breath, further strengthening objectivity and detachment from other thoughts, feelings, images and sensations. Observation of breathing itself is another ladder which, when climbed, if not abandoned, becomes another form of self-rescue.

A third powerful tool IDL uses to wake up out of the Drama Triangle in meditation is similar to Tibetan Deity Yoga. It involves identification with interviewed emerging potentials that score high in qualities that are conducive to good meditation. For example, if you interview a hedgehog that scores ten in witnessing and you want to develop your ability to observe the contents of your awareness, including your tendency to fall into drama, you could do worse than to “become” this hedgehog while you are meditating and let it meditate for you.

Why would this be more effective than becoming an obviously sacred avatar, such as Manjusri or Avalokiteshvara? There are several reasons. These Tibetan Bodhisattvas are sacred for Tibetan Buddhists but are they for you? Because Amun Ra, Quetzalocoatl or Odin were sacred within their respective cultures, could you expect to get equivalent results from using them? The advantage of your hedgehog is that he is intrinsic to your consciousness in various ways and that his ability to witness is anchored to your current level of development, meaning that he is more likely to provide a type of witnessing that will work for you. In addition, while you may very well work with some emerging potential that is obviously sacred, like Jesus, working with those which are not, such as a hedgehog, expands your definition of what it means for something or someone to be sacred. You thereby move beyond appearances of sacred and secular as well as cultural assumptions about what is meaningful and what is not, to your own personal relationship with the perspective the hedgehog embodies. After all, can any one give you any intrinsic reason why Mother Mary or Buddha have to be more sacred or meaningful for you than nail clippers or a pile of dog shit?

Becoming, for example, a pile of dog shit that scores high in some quality you want to develop, such as inner peace, works because dog shit is completely unhinged from social and cultural definitions of what sacred sources of inner peace are supposed to look like. What this does in turn is add a potent element of cosmic humor to your meditation, meaning you add a certain lightness, not taking yourself or your practice so seriously that you crush the life out of it.

This points to another important point, that ongoing interviews will provide you with new, fresh and appropriate perspectives to take with you into meditation that will work to balance and thereby move your practice forward into a state of flow.

One challenge that routinely comes up in identifying with this or that previously interviewed perspective, like our hedgehog or pile of dog shit, is that it is difficult to stay identified with any perspective that is different from our own. It is natural to drift out of “hedgehog consciousness” and back into our own, generally without realizing it. This is avoided during IDL interviewing by the asking of numerous questions that require role identification to answer. However, this option is not available during meditation because meditation is not a time for asking such questions, although as we shall see there are some types that may be useful.

The Tibetans deal with this issue by having meditators first contemplate a picture or statue of the deity to internalize and then to contemplate its image, in exquisite detail, mentally. However, contemplating an image is not the same as identifying with it. While it is true that our attention stays focused on the various attributes of the image, that is something less than taking on the persona of the image and looking at life from its perspective during meditation or normal waking life. To deal with this issue, IDL recommends that you ask repeatedly, during your meditation, whenever you become aware that you have lost touch with your hedgehog or pile of dog shit, “As this hedgehog, what am I thinking/feeling/doing/experiencing at this moment?” To take this question seriously requires empathy and identification on your part, meaning that you will shift back into its perspective during your meditation, a perspective which is much less immersed in the Drama Triangle than you are.

All of these understandings about the relationship between the Drama Triangle and meditation, as well as the tools of naming, observation of breath and identification with emerging potentials can only be proven with regular practice. Meditation is a yoga, a discipline. If you take it seriously and make it a priority in your daily routine it will speed your evolution out of the Drama Triangle, particularly if you experiment with these tools.