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,


moving the river home

Fleet Maull & Jimmy Santiago Baca’s talk, which is available here, was rich with Baca’s stories about his encounters with disenfranchised youth who attended his writing retreats.  One retreat was held at a ranch where previous (wealthy) owners had moved the river that flowed through the property closer to their ranch house so they could enjoy a cooling swim without having to go too far.  The original course of the river had dried up and the land became a dead zone.

Baca pointed out that this is often what happens to us.  Somewhere in the course of our lives, the river of our growth is re-channeled, sometimes through the direct actions of others, sometimes through unintended tragedy or catastrophe.  The ground where it might have nourished a different growth dies and we feel misaligned with our landscape.

I know that dead zone intimately.  There are words, scents, textures that evoke a deep grief that runs from the center of my chest up to the edge of my shoulder.  I used to think I was having a heart attack but now I know it’s just a flash flood in the riverbed of grief.  Both Baca and Maull punctuate their teachings that one way we cope with the dead zone is through addictions that give us the edge of feeling alive; we can be addicts to physical substances as well as the drugs of greed, ignorance, and anger.  This is dharma at the edge: the dark edge between who I was meant to be and who I am.

This is also where dharma can slice across the edge to give light to who I am as a creative, generative and prosocial being – if I can remember the antidote practices of generosity, wisdom, and tolerance.  Maull speaks of this, our luminous Buddha nature, who we really are, and points out that we lose sight of it because of our tendency to flip into survival mode when we are on the dark side of the edge.  I felt that flip over and over through the week as I contracted into the solidifying, narrowing, and rejecting mind to prevent falling into the abyss of the dead zone.  Then slowly, I found a way to meet the contraction with respect for its power to dislodge my footing and to say a quiet “farewell and well met, my friend,” as I moved a little less fearfully along the edge,  a wobbly but willing warrior.

I haven’t figured out how to move the river home.  Perhaps, after all these lifetimes, it doesn’t matter.  As I noticed in the New Mexico landscape, there is a powerful beauty in the volcanic rocks that hold up the sky – and on some are tufts of living green.

Thank you for practising,


Note bene: The title of this post is borrowed from Baca’s documentary of the same name.  for more information go here.