Waking up in sobriety, by Kobai Scott Whitney

Kobai Scott WhitneyThere is in the Buddha’s early teachings a concept very much like the 12-Step ideal of true sobriety. It’s called, in Pali, appamāda. In fact, this is the title of the second chapter of the Dhammapada. Like most modern scholars writing in English, Gil Fronsdal translates appamāda as “vigilance.” In the commentary to his translation (Shambhala 2006), he elaborates, saying that it could also be translated as “diligence, heedfulness, watchfulness.” And he adds his own gloss, which is “energetic mindfulness.”

And this, to me, is what it takes to stay sober over the long term. Not just light and airy mindfulness, but a very serious commitment to always watching the body/heart/mind. For those of us who are addicts, this staying sober thing is serious business. So that’s why we need our mindfulness to have some energy behind it.

Traditionally the 12-Step programs have always made a distinction between mere abstinence and a deeper, more meaningful kind of sobriety. Just not using is sometimes called “white-knuckling it,” and it’s a miserable way to go. To be happy in sobriety one must be willing to actively work on restoring health, sanity, ethical behavior and, dare I use the word, joy.

I have known several people in my life that stopped drinking or using on their own. Things weren’t as messy, of course, since finances, relationships and other things were not as chaotic, but these people were clearly not happy campers; clearly not restored to gratitude or to love of life by their abstinence. I am not, by the way, saying that the 12-Step programs are absolutely necessary either, they just make things much easier for people who don’t know the territory of living without addiction. For those who can get over all the tired and not-true clichés about AA or NA, the programs offer a low-cost, always-available method of support through the first difficult months and years of living without using.

I see recovery from addiction very much like the Buddhist undertaking of recovery from suffering. Both projects require that we take on a whole new dimension of commitment, as well as engage in step-by-step work on ourselves. Both have 12 steps. In the case of Buddhism, this is the Four Ennobling Truths plus the Eightfold Map of the Path.

And both processes can be described as a recovery from ego.

When we are using, when we are inside the world of our intoxication from alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, gambling, video games–whatever particular enchantment has become our thing–we are really playing God. We are saying to ourselves, I am the center of the universe and I will control my own mind and my own feelings myself. I’m in charge. I AM THE MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE!

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in flesh I appeared to them. I found them all drunk and I found none of them thirsty.” (Meyer, The Unknown Sayings of Jesus, p.9) Like Gotama Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth saw people as intoxicated with the things of this world, missing what is real. The Buddha called this “enchantment,” meaning we are under the spell of our distractions. This is why he describes the wise person as “disenchanted.” He did not mean, as we use the word today, that we are disappointed. He means quite literally that we have come out of our trance, that our practice has de-hypnotized us.

So the first step in recovery is to realize, experience and admit that I cannot manage my own life. Just as in the beginning of our Buddhist practice we must experience the First Truth which is that–no matter what I do or don’t do–there is suffering.

So our meditation and mindfulness practice–or our practice of Step 11 (“We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him. [sic])–are designed to keep us awake, to keep us from slipping back into our drug-addled sleep. Vigilance is a commitment to life: negligence is a vote for the kingdom of death.

The Dhammapada:

Vigilant among the negligent,
Wide awake among the sleeping,
The wise one advances
Like a swift horse leaving a weak one behind.

With vigilance, Indra became the greatest of the gods.
The gods praise vigilance,
Forever rejecting negligence.

The monastic who delights in vigilance
And fears negligence
Advances like a fire,
Burning fetters subtle and gross.

To describe the effects of this committed watchfulness, the Dhammapada sets up a pairing of opposites, like vigilance versus negligence. And I must say there is nothing more negligent than an addict in the full practice of his or her trade. Family and friends are neglected, finances are neglected–even one’s home, clothing and appearance get neglected.

This is probably why we refer to early sobriety as “cleaning up.”

So part of our recovery involves doing simple things like the laundry, paying bills, going to the beauty salon or the barber. And our practice becomes taking care of ourselves as if we were worth it, as if we were ordinary members of society, with no claim on uniqueness. This is in stark contrast to that special person we were before: that person who didn’t have to obey any rules, that person who was so special we could do whatever we wanted to–even if it was against the law, or against plain human decency.

Bill W., one of the co-founders of AA, writes: “In A.A. we aim not only for sobriety–we try again to become citizens of the world that we rejected, and that once rejected us.” (As Bill Sees It, p.21)

I recently saw the movie “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” in which a new and evil administration has taken over Hogwarts Academy. Gradually much of the academy comes under the spell of a new administration, which is systematically eroding the rights and the free speech of both students and faculty. (Might this be a metaphor for something?)

Some people compromise. Some people slip away. But of course, brave Harry and his fellow travelers must fight. And so the story becomes the tale of a small, committed group of people who refuse to fall asleep, who refuse to be enchanted. So that’s what we’re up to also. If you want a fantasy to while away your time on the cushion, this is it!

Without our watchfulness, the other world always awaits. Buddhism has its own analogy for the kingdom of in-satiety. It’s the hungry ghost, with its huge belly and tiny mouth–always hungry, but never full; always eating, but never nourished.

And this is where we live. We are a culture of hungry ghosts–always shopping, but never having enough; roaming the buffet lines, but feeling like we’re starving, even as our bodies get bigger and bigger. It takes energy and mindfulness not to go to sleep again, but that’s our job. It’s time for the muggles to revolt

Kobai Scott Whitney is the guiding teacher of Plum Mountain Refuge in Aberdeen, Washington. He conducts meditation classes in Washington as well as conducting retreats around the northwest. He especially works with marginalized people who do not feel comfortable in other spiritual communities.

Kobai had many years of Zen training under Issan Dorsey in San Francisco and Robert Aitken Roshi in Hawaii. He currently teaches in the Theravadin tradition and is affiliated with Santikaro’s Liberation Park, which is in the Buddhadasa tradition of Thai Buddhism.

Plum Mountain Refuge
P.O. Box 1169
Aberdeen, WA 98520

6 Comments. Leave new

Thank you for these words, Kobai. They struck a chord. I would love to hear more on the same subject if you have time?


Indeed, no matter what I do, there is suffering. Your words are very helpful to me and stimulate my will to change. Thank you.

Waking Up in Sobriety | Plum Mountain Refuge
February 7, 2009 5:09 pm

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Great article! I’m in recovery and I believe that God is too big for one religion. I enjoy the best of all positive teachers wrapped up Native American style. In my meditation I enjoy Journeying. Please check out my article at: http://www.soberliving.com/blog/2009/09/23/journeying-a-shamans-meditation-technique-by-jay-rau


Thanks for the insight…I’ve found myself years clean, but having acquired other insatiable appetites. Still the hungry ghost! I also reverted, or remained, that “special person.” Continued metta, and more mindfulness, may help…


Thank you for these amazing words. I have been sober for 1.5 on my own from a multi year addiction to heroin, while still fighting the need/guilt/mind boggling thoughts that still swarm in my head. You have given me an insight on maybe I won’t have to white knuckle through everyday for the rest of my life. I wish you all the love in the world!! Thank you thank you


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