not knowing

The final role in Karpman’s Triangle is that of the Rescuer, a role which is the bane of my existence.  In fact, it might well be the bane of all our existences, past and present.  The intent of the Rescuer is not different from that of a Bodhisattva – save all beings from suffering.  We evoke images of Avalokiteshvara with her 10,000 arms and selfless aspiration to defer Nirvana until all beings are liberated.  The other Bodhisattva (and perhaps a more realistic model of one) is Jizo who enters the hell realms and simply opens his sleeves so those who wish to leave the hell realm with him can catch a ride.

Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.  Salvation is voluntary.

Being in Rescuer mode, however, encourages the belief that hauling beings out of the jaws of disaster is not voluntary – for myself or the one suffering.  I get stuck in believing that I  must (and only I can) act swiftly and heroically to carry the person away from their tragic circumstances.  Not only does this diminish the power of the person involved but it exhausts me.  I probably come by it honestly, having lived my life in thrall to men in tragic poses.  Frank is kind in pointing out that the objects of my misguided rescuing is not gender specific; apparently I have a propensity to rescue all manner of beings.  On the funny side, the farm’s inhabitants do attest to that.  On the painful side, the many hours spent driving, flying, traversing the continent, working long hours attest to an unmodulated Rescuer-role.  And I know better.

I am blessed with friends who trust me with their difficulties.  The blessing is not just the trust but that it gives me opportunity to observe my unskilfulness!  As they tell their story of stuckness and confusion, I notice my body contracting like a superhero about to lift off.  Fearful for them, I try to carry them out of their situation with interruptions, interpretations, suggestions, and even confrontations.  If my friend is strong in his own grounding, he’ll likely ask me to shut up and just listen.  If my friend is caught in her own victimhood, she’ll likely cling harder and heavier.  The problem with my rescuing attempts is not just that they are ineffective in truly helping but that I end up angry or resentful when the advice or exhortations are not accepted.  In end, we all fall down, suffering.

When someone is in pain, it is natural to want that pain gone.  And that desire is directly proportional to the intimacy we feel with the person.  Our responses are likely to be impulsive and, despite the appearance of being other-centered, are self-motivated.  However, because there’s a fine line between rescuing and persecuting, we run the risk of pendulating between these two states rather than bringing resources to the situation.  Our desire for an outcome blinds us to fact that it is the uncertainty of the situation that is driving the system.  Yet, the shift from rescuing so that we all can avoid the pain to being willing to sit with the uncertainty of what could happen itself can elicit lots of anxiety.

The Zen Peacemakers Tenet of Not Knowing is the foreground practice for transforming the Rescuer.  By practising a willingness to be with what is and temper the mentally generated catastrophes, we shift from Superheroes to Guiding the process if called to do so.  This mode of being present is hard for me.  The high energy and desire to keep a safeness in and around all beings is overpowering.  And, of course, I’m just not good with uncertainty.  But rescuing has brought me to my knees with burn out and depression many times in my life and it’s definitely not a path I want to tread any more – or can.  The commitment for me has to be with resting in Not Knowing, Bearing Witness to my discomfort, Acting Compassionately.  Only then can I be fully present and walk in partnership with all those I love.

As Barry pointed out in the response to the first of these posts, we can only respond when we have a felt sense of our own Victim-Persecutor-Rescuer experiences.  Similarly, we cannot teach the Three Tenets to Victims-Persecutors-Rescuers directly.  I think we can only embody Bearing Witness-Compassionate Action-Not Knowing and by doing so change the dynamic because we erase the fixed-role of any one of the points on the triangle.

Thank you for practising,


compassionate action

We’re continuing with the second point in Karpman’s Drama Triangle, the role of the Persecutor/Perpetrator/Aggressor.  This can be the initiating point of a relationship or can be a role that one takes on to intervene in a situation.  In relationship with parents or supervisors, for example, we might have no choice in finding ourselves in an authoritarian relationship.  While it doesn’t mean we therefore are victims, it does open the potential for a victimization process if the authority figure is driven by their own needs.

Exploring the triangle gets complicated if I try to deal with it from a victim-perceiving-aggressor or victim-perceiving-rescuer angle. I think these perspectives dissolve when we take radical responsibility of our actions in each role. Because the object is to look at the potential for transformation when we fall into these unskilful roles, I’m choosing to move into the relational process from the vantage of each point of the triangle.

The Aggressor role is a powerful position because it is filled with high energy, directed at an outcome. As with the Victim role, it is important to move away from seeing this as a fixed self-role and to look at the intention of the Aggressor role. It can intend to be protective, motivating, shifting, dislodging, or any of a number of desires to bring energy into a system that may be stuck. When engaged skilfully, the energy can move a process; when unskilful it can become a need to control the other person. The foreground practice for transforming the Aggressor role is Compassionate Action, one of the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker.

During the retreat, we shared an incident in which we had been so unskilful that, despite our best intentions, we had done damage. I joked in our small group that my life had flashed before my eyes. Perhaps it wasn’t much of a joke.

I shared about a time in sangha when I felt we had slid into complacency and sloppy practice. In a previous sangha, I had learned and taken on a deep appreciation for the sacred in every action. Laying down mats, placing cushions, setting up the altar were all done with gentleness and quiet appreciation. All this was with the intention of settling out a sacred space in which we could deepen our practice. In this new sangha, as we became familiar with each other, our actions became inconsiderate of that intent. Cushions were literally tossed across the room, mats were askew on the floor, chairs dragged and practitioners slouched or slept through the meditations. And it had expanded beyond the set up into the program itself. We would agree to use a book as a contemplation guide or a series of talks; however the books would not be read or the talks not attended.

When I spoke with the core members, the feedback was that they just wanted a place to meet “nice people.” Frank and I were at a loss. Being the more energetic and passionate about developing a practice community, I took on the role of conscience – an arrogant position that doomed the enterprise from the outset. When we were setting up, I’d remind everyone of the need for mindful movements; when I lead the meditations, I would insert reminders to sit up. And so it went. But the more I pushed, the more they resisted. The more we talked about it, the more confused it became. New members didn’t seem concerned but the core members felt a new agenda being foisted on them that they had no part in developing. I felt we had become stuck in habits that encouraged complacency rather than commitment and got stuck myself.  I missed their fear of not being able to meet the standards they perceived in the “rules” and hurt at not being included in what they saw as a new process.  Looking deeply into my actions, I saw that although my intentions may have been to foster the growth of our practice, the energy I brought to the system was not the right form or intensity. Not only had I missed their fear and hurt, my actions had not been compassionate of their need to move slowly into what they viewed as new forms or to want something different.

Using the Dharma Triangle, the Aggressor role can be seen as a process of advocating for the quiet or silenced voices in the system; that means being sensitive to the reasons those voices may be silent. Fear, inadequacy, and a number of self-blame/shame emotions keep us from asking for what we need, keep us stuck. When we engage with Compassionate Action in advocating for these unspoken needs, we transform not only ourselves but the system itself. Just as our Victim role is transformed by seeing our suffering and bearing witness to that suffering, our Aggressor role is transformed by bringing energy into the system with compassionate care for ourselves and others.

Bearing Witness to the layers of suffering in sangha, especially when we meet in Council, has been critical. And, of course, when we deal with a multiplicity of roles and desires, being willing to live in Not Knowing is important. However, when we’re in the position of activating change – whether it is designated, requested or taken on – ensuring our engagement is through Compassionate Action has to be the foreground practice.

Thank you for practising,


bearing witness

Karpman’s Drama Triangle tends to pivot around the Victim role with the Persecutor and Rescuer emerging to meet the Victim’s needs.  It’s important to repeat the caveat that there are times when the Persecutor creates a Victim and nothing in this process suggests anyone who feels victimized is being blamed for it.   In fact, it’s trite to suggest that the way to stop the dynamic is for the Victim to stop being a victim, the Persecutor to stop persecuting, or the Rescuer to stop rescuing.  The relationship between Victim and Rescuer/Persecutor is one of pathogenic hope – a hope that one can be lifted or pushed out of one’s Suffering but which requires the Rescuer/Persecutor to play out a fixed role.  As I suggested yesterday, it’s not so much about roles as it is about honouring the true intentions of each person in the relationship and engaging in the practice of Bearing Witness, Compassionate Action, and Not Knowing to transform our relationships.  I’ve chosen to use a deeply personal example in the hopes that it explores through the Dharma Triangle how Bearing Witness to one’s suffering might transform a toxic relational dynamic.

Not long enough ago, I sat across from a friend of many years, emptying my heart of all the pain it had carried for as many years.  I described to him the feeling of being on a swaying bridge, trying to get across, and needing someone to call out encouragements and even sometimes guidance.  Knowing his tendency to become a Rescuer, I was also trying to get across the idea that I didn’t need anyone leaping onto the bridge to carry me off, an impulsive act that could well have both of us tumbling into the abyss.  There was a pause in our conversation and he said (typically), “So, who’s there for you at the end of that bridge?”  The question was not the problem.  The long unwavering eye-lock that practically had the answer scrolling across their vast blueness was.  I was taken aback; this was a huge and dangerous shift in our relationship.  Yet there was a deep longing to throw caution to the winds and read the scrolling script.  I took a deep breath, gathered all my loneliness and pain, and said, “No one.  It can’t be anyone but me.”

He pushed back from the table and glared angrily out the window, “Maybe you need to talk to your girlfriends.  This is so like you.  As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been like this.”

For the next 6 months, as he danced between Rescuer and Persecutor, I fixed into the Victim role.  Any attempt to speak to the truth of what was unfolding was met with anger and blaming which I took on as my own unskillfulness.  Eventually, I knew the relationship had to end but also wanted to salvage it.  The pain of the potential loss of a long-term friendship was intense and suffering grew out of wanting and not wanting.  I sat sesshins feeling that profound sorrow and in dokusans searched for concrete answers.  It was a struggle to let go of the role and look into the process.  Is there a victimization process going on?  Sometimes there is and that has to be directly addressed.

After repeatedly observing the dynamic, I realized I had to bear witness to the process of suffering without stepping into the Victim role, being swept away by it or by assumptions about any character flaws.  I needed to be present to what was happening without manipulating or diverting the experience.  I came to see that my intention in sharing my pain with him was to have that pain acknowledged.  I could see that his intention was to shake me out of my helplessness, a strategy that had been the trademark of our relationship.  And the process of losing sight of those intentions was the cause of the pain we felt.  I could only sit and watch that pain rise and fall, recede and overwhelm me.

The process of bearing witness didn’t stop with the end of the relationship.  In fact, I think it only truly began when he was no longer a part of the triangle.  The deeper process of bearing witness to my pain continued for about a year as I sat with the grief and loss.  I vacillated between seeing both of us caught in the victimization process and feeling a Victim.  Doubt expressed itself in pitiful questions: If only I had… What if I had… Why didn’t I… Who would ever…  No one ever…  Bearing witness meant honouring what was happening in the moment.  It meant not running away from this edge by giving in to the self-blame, the urges to call, ask for reconciliation, or some other distraction from the pain.  It meant feeling the aliveness of the pain in me, noticing how its power could create something profound as well as something dark.  Only by willing to be present to the pain could I discern between forcefully holding to labels about me and advocating for a more compassionate view of myself; between rescuing as distraction from my pain and guiding myself through the pain.

More important, because the loss was relational, I had to look at my own dynamic in relationships.  Not only did the healing require me to engage in advocating for my own well-being and guiding myself gently out of the swamps of self-blame, it also required that I find companions who were strong in advocating for and guiding me when I lost the means of honouring my intentions or wandered away from the path.

All three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker are applicable when the victimization process is active.  Compassionate Action and Not Knowing are important components.  In being present to suffering, Bearing Witness takes the foreground and honours the intention of having that suffering seen and heard.

Thank you for practising,


drama triangulation

What does it mean to live on the edge in a way that is fundamentally creative, generative, and prosocial?

What does it mean to live on the edge in a way that is fundamentally destructive, degenerative, and antisocial?

Life in the dead zone is being in a place of meaninglessness… we go looking for this edge – but not in healthy ways.

When things get intense in the world, we have to meet it not in survival mode but as a functional person.  (For that) fearlessness is needed.

from notes on Dharma at the Edge, Fleet Maull

Maull related our unskillful attempts to live on the edge to the ego roles we adopt and for that he used Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle.  I’ve used this concept in therapy for years; roles we play and roles we evoke from others that support the roles we play.  If you want to read more, here is a detailed but accessible explanation of the triangle and all its possibilities.  The premise is simple: the interactions between the ego identities we take on can be dysfunction when the roles are those of Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.  (These are the original Karpman terms which are useful in some circumstances and can be modified to suit other specific interactions.)  The roles can switch when the goal is obstructed and, in fact, if we look closely all three roles are positions of powerlessness.

(Please note that saying roles switch or the three roles co-create each other does not imply that a victim of physical or emotional crime is at fault.  We can be victims of assault and abuse without having played a role in creating the situation or the Perpetrator.  Under such circumstances, this model is only useful in working through the internal process of self-blame, shame, and an understandable avoidance of our internal distress.)

Here’s an incident that shows how the model works in a relational setting: I was walking back from a meeting with someone I trusted as a colleague (we weren’t close enough to be called friends).  He was agitated about a decision he had made and was expressing anxiety and indecision about what he had committed to in the meeting (Powerless/Victim/Eliciting Rescuing).  Ever the sucker for men in tragic poses (that’s another week-long explore, folks!), I offered reassurances and soothing statements (Rescuer/Looking for short-term relief).  Then in an attempt to disengage because we were getting to our destination where he would go one way and I the other, I made a joke about my own vulnerabilities (moving towards Victim/eliciting rescuing).  At this, he grabbed my sleeve and spun me around to face him (we can’t both occupy the same role space so he SWITCHES from Victim to Aggressor).  Towering over and poking his finger at me, he ranted about how that was my issue which needed to be dealt with immediately (Aggressor/Authoritarian stance).  Instantly, I felt my chest collapse and under the intensity of his words, I reacted with my age-old victim statements (complete SWITCH from Rescuer to Victim).

The dynamic is powerful and, ironically, serves to build a base of powerlessness in all participants.  I had an encouraging chat with Fleet sharing how we tend to see the triangle as statement of each participant’s pathology and how that misses the relational creative process.  In fact, it’s a pathogenic process, i.e., creating ill-being in a relationship through our ignorance, grasping, and fearful rejection.  In other words, less of a triangle, more of a triangulation or attempt to develop connection with the other.  I also proposed that Bearing Witness, Compassionate Action, and Not Knowing, the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker, were more skilful means of connecting when we see ourselves caught in these roles.

Maull indicated that first we have to take radical responsibility for our role.  Then, flipping the triangle around so the base is long and solid, we can transform our roles to be more creative, generative, and prosocial. The diagram below uses the terminology of The Empowerment Dynamic.  I’m not totally comfortable with the language but also do not want to get caught in concepts (words).  However, suffice to say my discomfort is that the Victim position has evolved into a process yet the other two remain as objectified roles.

For all three positions to emphasize the relational nature of the system, I thought a Dharma Triangle had more potential to make the transformational leap and meshed well with the Three Tenets:

In Dharmic terms, the interactions are intended to relieve suffering and the first step to alleviating suffering is to step out of our roles and the concepts those roles confer on us.  By seeing the impermanence in each of these roles, letting go of all fixed selves (victim, aggressor, rescuer), and concepts about the other, the potential of a new dynamic that is truly co-creative can emerge.

To shift from a role-based system (Victim, Aggressor, Rescuer), we first look at the lack of skillful means embodied by each of these roles.  The Victim role embodies helplessness, negativity, and elicits support for that mode of interaction.  The Aggressor role embodies righteousness, authoritarian views, and controlling behaviours.  The Rescuer role embodies co-dependence through a need to be needed.  The Aggressor and Rescuer also have poor distress tolerance so their attempts to foster change are based more in relieving their own discomfort and less in the victim’s need to be assisted.

The skillful means arises from honouring the true intention of each person in the relationship.  The Victims’ intention is to have their suffering acknowledged.  The Aggressors’ intention is to protect using their vast energy to push away what is harmful.  The Rescuers’ intention is to lift the Victims out of their suffering.  The question now becomes: How can we honour our true intentions and cultivate skillful interactions using dharma wisdom?  Over this week, I’ll try to explore the potential for transformation from our role-based interactions to a dynamic that can arise through practising with the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers: Bearing Witness, Compassionate Action, and Not Knowing.

Thank you for practising,