Repression and the Triangle

There’s quite a bit of material in books and online that presents many of the nuanced processes of ISTDP so here we’ll just give a brief overview, and take a bit of time with how it relates to Dharma practices.

Basically, ISTDP holds that repressed feelings are held in place by a wide range of defensive structures, many of which diminish our lives, and some of which can wind up obstructing the deepening of Dharma practices, if not derailing it altogether.

These difficulties can manifest themselves not only on the mat, but also in relationship with one’s teacher. ISTDP further teaches that by deeply experiencing these unconscious feelings we’re no longer compelled to repeat the contortions enforced by repressing them. Davanloo sometimes speaks of this process as “draining the pathogenic zone” which refers to the process of “unlocking of the unconscious” and permitting the complex buried feelings to be released. In allowing the formerly repressed feelings to quite literally move through us along specific neurobiological pathways, the toxic defensive structures lose their purpose, and so their power. In terms of our Dharma work, this doesn’t magically make things easy, just much more direct.

In a way, we could say that the process of ISTDP is a bit like removing a deeply embedded fishhook; our first instinct is probably either cover it over, or try to pull it back out – but neither of those approaches work very well. On the other hand, if we’re willing to push the point all the way through we can cut off the barb and then easily slip what remains of the hook back out. A key element of ISTDP has to do with ways of skillfully getting the point to go all the way through. To be clear, this is not an easy process, and it’s not simply about making us feel better; it’s about resolving the core emotional issues of our lives at the deepest level possible – in other words, it’s about getting the hook all the way out.

The purpose of repression is to keep unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and impulses, out of consciousness, which theoretically might be a good plan, but one that comes with a high, and often unseen, price tag. ISTDP helps us become emotionally honest with ourselves, and so frees us from layers of neurotic repression. One way of understanding this process is by following the path around the ‘Triangle of Conflict,’ a term that refers to conflicted feelings in the unconscious – feelings that may be unacceptable by themselves, ones that we don’t deserve, or ones that conflict with others that may be more acceptable. The real issue here is that the conflict is intrapsychic, it is within ourselves. So if you imagine a triangle with one corner pointing down, the lower corner represents the thoughts, feelings, and impulses that exist beneath the repressive barrier and so outside of our awareness. Here the question is, how can we love and hate the same person; what happens when deeper levels of intimacy bring up pain, the fear of rejection, or even guilt; or when sexual feelings bring up anger (or visa versa), and many more? Naturally we would like our feelings to be safe, appropriate, reasonable, and, perhaps especially for Buddhists, compassionate – but they don’t always work that way.

So when the repressive barrier begins losing its strength, (as it does in many circumstances including therapy and intensified zazen), or when circumstances arise that stir the hidden feelings themselves, these previously buried feelings begin moving closer to consciousness, and we become anxious.

This anxiety can exist on conscious and unconscious levels, and can channel itself in ten thousand ways. It can manifest itself through various forms of cognitive disruption (confusion, loss of memory, an inability to be present, etc.); it can go through smooth muscle (we may become aware of difficulties like GI tract disruption, asthmatic symptoms, some types of headache, and so forth); and it can be channeled through striated muscle which manifests itself as tension in different parts of the body (clenching our hands, gritting our teeth, constricted breathing, and so forth). With some people, the energy from this inner conflict may bypass these channels of anxiety and move directly into depressive states through a mechanism Davanloo calls the “instantaneous repression of affect.”

Our defenses get stirred up by the anxiety, and generally work to lower it; they may also serve to redirect the impulse embedded in the feeling into some more acceptable form. As someone once said, “When someone is being brutally honest, there is usually more brutality than honesty involved,” and we probably all know what both the giving and receiving of that feels like.

Simple forms of defense include looking away, intellectualizing, and rationalizing, but most are more complicated. Often they involve various forms of shutting down, detaching, falling apart, or running away; and then there are all the ways we lash out at others, or beat ourselves up. There are literally hundreds of ways we might try to avoid the actual feeling, and instead cope with the anxiety. Unfortunately, some people wind up living their lives simply trying to avoid or contain anxiety – leading to a totally reactive, or passive existence. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote, “Life is occupied both in perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.”

Some defenses come from the early years of our lives, some are more tactical in nature, some more malignant. Those that are deeply ingrained, that we identify with, are called “characterological” defenses.  They feed into an implicit sense of self and limit us in terms of Dharma practice.

Defensive processes, which are often functioning outside of our awareness, may help lower anxiety, but none of them touch into the underlying cause. It’s as if we had an allergic skin condition and instead of finding out what’s causing it, we repeatedly put on some kind of anti-itching cream. We may feel better temporarily (or not), but the fundamental problem remains; intrapsychically speaking, the conflict remains lodged in the unconscious and often repeats itself throughout our lives. As someone once commented, “It’s not one damn thing after another, it’s the same damn thing over and over again.” Freud called this phenomena “repetition compulsion” and believed it grew out of our will for mastery; Davanloo has shown that it primarily functions as an aspect of the self-punitive structures.

Through years of research, and reviewing who knows how many hours of videotaped sessions with patients, Davanloo discovered ways of reversing this whole repressive process. By skillfully stripping away the defensive structures, the unconscious becomes increasingly mobilized and the underlying anxiety builds; by holding to that kind of pressure-cooker state defenses melt, and the buried feelings can then break into consciousness.

By working to ensure the fullest experience of feeling, the whole range of complex feelings emerges, unfolding from the depths. Repression doesn’t affect just a single feeling, but almost always deals with a range of complex, and often contradictory feelings. Generally speaking, the more heavily guilt has been repressed, the more we inflict suffering on ourselves; to the extent that anger and rage are lodged in the unconscious, deeper levels of compassion become obscured.  The process of ISTDP  is theoretically simple, but is in fact a technically demanding process.

Of course, the more intensely we go into meditation practice, the more we stir up the unconscious, so the disruptive forces of the unconscious can not only affect our lives and relationships, but can impact every level of Dharma practice as well. In my experience Dharma practice activates the triangle, but does little to clarify the defenses or release the depths of unconscious feelings. This website is concerned with exploring the unique ways the unconscious opens in the midst of practice, and how we can work with these issues as a part of our practice.