Sigmund Freud and the Nirvana Principle

The Nirvana principle is a psychoanalytic concept that Sigmund Freud integrated into his theory. Over time, it developed in a fascinating way. We're going to explore it in this article.
Sigmund Freud and the Nirvana Principle
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 08 June, 2023

The Nirvana principle was a concept discussed by Sigmund Freud in his work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). The essence of this concept led the father of psychoanalysis to one of the most important postulates of his theory: the death drive. The concept was initially worked on by an English psychoanalyst named Barbara Low. She used it to explain the functioning of the psychic apparatus.

Freud used Low’s definition of the Nirvana principle almost literally, describing it as: “a tendency to reduction, to constancy, to the suppression of internal exciting tension.”

This is an interpretation of the concept of traditional Nirvana, whose origin lies in Buddhism. Nirvana literally means ‘blown out’ or ‘extinguished’. Within the framework of Eastern philosophy, it refers to a total detachment from fear and desire, which leads to fulfillment. But, in Freudian psychoanalysis, it takes on another dimension. Continue reading to find out more.

“Thus, like any other instinct, the death drive will seek satisfaction, that which is completely possible only through death, the zero degree of tension, that state of peace that has preceded stimulation, the recovery of a state of previous relief.”

-Gabriela Castro Meléndez-

The principle of Nirvana in Freud

From a technical point of view, Freud’s Nirvana principle is identified as a need that governs the mental apparatus: that of reducing tension. It’s a state in which there’s no stimulation. Therefore, a relatively stable equilibrium is generated. In Eastern philosophy, it’s more associated with a phase of transcendence. But, in the West, it’s equivalent to absolute peace.

When Freud was outlining his theory, he didn’t speak of the Nirvana principle, but of the constancy principle. He defined it as a tendency of the psychic apparatus to keep arousal at an extremely low level or, at least, as stable as possible.

This state is achieved by discharging the energy already present in the body, avoiding anything that could break its stability, and protecting against any eventual increases in arousal.

After learning about the work of Barbara Low, Freud decided to adopt the name of the principle of Nirvana. He referred to it as a homeostatic or rebalancing tendency of the nervous system. The latter seeks, by nature, to reduce excessive stimulation and disturbing tensions.

Person in a state of relaxation practicing Freud's Nirvana principle
The principle of Nirvana from the Freudian perspective deals with the reduction of tensions.

At first, Freud thought that the Nirvana principle was related to what he called the pleasure principle. In other words, he believed that the reduction of stimuli and tension was pleasant for the organism. However, as he developed his theory, he changed his mind.

By 1924, Freud was referring to the postulate in other terms. He linked it with absolute stillness and saw it as a kind of deadly pleasure. He didn’t consider the ‘pure’ form of pleasure to be constituted by the absence of stimulation and tension. Indeed, in sexual arousal, there’s tension and many stimuli that are pleasant.

In fact, the Viennese psychoanalyst concluded that this state of absolute stillness and minimal tension made up the death drive. In his work, The Economic Problem of Masochism, he stressed that “The Nirvana principle expresses the tendency of the death drive “.

An article in the Revista Chilena de Psicología claims that this idea of Freud’s is controversial. Some experts consider that it’s influential in the understanding of aggressive phenomena in mental life, while others find it less reliable from a clinical point of view.

Buddhist meditating
The concept of traditional Nirvana has its roots in Buddhism.

You might be interested to read Achieving Nirvana: The State of Freedom

Pulse of life and death

An article published in Salud Mental states that, in Freudian psychoanalysis, there are two basic forces of the psyche: Eros and Thanatos. The first is understood as the life drive. It seeks to satisfy the physical and mental needs of the organism. The second is the death drive. It has a destructive character and seeks disintegration and destruction.

Although the Eros force is aimed at pleasure, life itself is a source of pain, disorder, chaos, and tension. The human being feels the urge to eliminate this discomfort.

The death drive acts as a force that tries to eliminate psychic tension. This refers more to the world of the inert than to life with all its complexities.

Finally, according to Freud, this desire to eliminate stimuli and tensions, in search of stillness and unlimited peace, is nothing more than an expression of the death drive. It’s exacerbated in those who, neurotically, from nowhere, want to return to paradise lost.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.