Kevin Griffin (Excerpted from “One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps”): Both Buddhist practice and 12-Step programs encourage followers to have faith in their own experience.
How Can I Believe?
Buddhism offers a safe way to approach faith. The Buddha invited people to “come and see,” ehi-passiko—to come and see for yourself. In the same way, Twelve Step programs don’t recruit members but use their members’ success in dealing with addiction to speak for itself, a policy called “attraction rather than promotion.” Nobody’s trying to sell you something with Buddhism or the Twelve Steps—quite literally, since both are primarily supported by donation—but rather they invite you to see how they work for others and yourself before making a commitment.
The Buddha understood the challenge of faith. In the India of his time, many competing teachers claimed to be the repositories of Truth. One community of eager spiritual seekers, the Kalamas, were confused, and asked his advice. In his famous and fundamental teaching, “The Dilemma of the Kalamas,” the Buddha explains how to decide whether a teacher or teaching is useful.
The Buddha starts by sweeping away the past as the container of wisdom. It doesn’t matter what people tell you or what’s been written down; you don’t have to believe something just because it’s got the weight of history and tradition behind it, he says.
He goes on to assert that it’s not enough that a teaching appeals to our intellect, our logic. While the ideas behind a teaching may be appealing, that doesn’t mean they work in real life. What’s also implied here is that, just because a teaching “feels right” doesn’t mean it is right—a critical point, since we are often drawn to ideas that fit with our own preferences, whether accurate or not.
Finally, he warns against accepting an opinion just because your teacher holds it.
The Buddha takes away many of the standard routes to faith: scripture, tradition, logic, authority. And what he says then is that if you want to know the value of a teacher’s offering, you have to try it out and see what the results are. If the results are good, keep it up; if not, drop it. But, to guard against bias in your own interpretation of the results, you should also check with the wise. One way to determine if someone is wise is to see if they are living a skillful life. In Twelve Step terms, “Do you want what they have?” To check with the wise means to listen to the advice of those we trust: a sponsor, mentor, therapist, sibling, parent, friend, or teacher. (Although we don’t do something automatically because someone else said we should, we do not dismiss out of hand the suggestions of those who are close to us.)
For those of us skeptics who need proof of the value of a practice or belief, this is a helpful invitation. You can try out the practice, study the teachings, sit with a teacher, and see what happens. If your life gets better and if “wise” people approve, you know you’re on the right track. For those whose faith has been damaged, this is also a gentle approach that can rebuild trust and help to gradually open to the possibility of a renewed spiritual life.
Faith, the Spiritual Faculty
Alcoholism is a disease of faith. Alcoholics often develop a cynical attitude toward life, not seeing anything to believe in. When you persistently feel the need to change your consciousness through drugs or booze, you are expressing a lack of trust in life itself. And, in some ways, you are expressing a lack of trust in yourself, in your ability to tolerate life undiluted, to find value in your own, unadulterated experience.
This same difficulty confronts the beginning meditator. Meditation is even more unadulterated than sobriety. Intentionally stopping activity and any diversion can be intimidating. Many people say, “I could never sit still for that long—twenty minutes!” Even without drugs or booze, many of us are trying to control our consciousness with food, TV, music, reading, and other daily habits. Stopping all activity as we do in Meditation is like a new layer of sobriety: ultimate abstinence (a new X Game?). Trusting this process is frightening, whether you are an alcoholic or not.
Nick, an independent filmmaker, went through a remarkable process with faith. When he began meditation practice he told me that he’d never been able to sit still. Even as a kid he’d always gotten in trouble in school because he was always squirming in his seat. As an adult he’d been treated for anxiety and panic attacks. He was nervous about the idea of meditating for even twenty minutes. We talked about different ways to work with this, and he decided to try an unusual approach.
Each day he would go to a park on the UCLA campus near his house. He found a beautiful glen that was usually quiet. There he did walking meditation for twenty minutes. After developing some calm through walking, he then sat on a bench. In the beginning he would just try to sit for five minutes. After some time, he began to stretch the sitting period, first to ten minutes, fifteen, and up to twenty.
He was beginning to develop confidence in his own ability to sit still and be with his anxiety. He continued to practice in this way until he was able to skip the walking altogether. He bought a meditation cushion and began sitting at home, eventually taking daylong and weekend retreats that required longer and longer periods of stillness. Although in times of stress he still has feelings of anxiety, he’s learned to work with these feelings by opening to them and developing calm. In this simple, step-by-step way, he has developed faith in himself and faith in the power of the practice as well.
Although Buddhism and the Twelve Steps both require us to develop faith, thankfully neither requires that we swallow a dogma or belief system whole. Both allow us to take on the amount of faith we can handle, little by little. Step Two says we “came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” not that this power could fix everything in our lives. Restoring us to sanity in this case, means helping us get clean and sober.
This isn’t a huge Step, and it is often initially made by accepting the group of sober people who you practice the Steps with as a kind of Higher Power. Seeing how the Steps have allowed these people to stay sober—sometimes for unimaginably long times, like six months—can give you the confidence to venture into the process yourself.
In the same way, when we begin meditation, like Nick, we may not feel much calm or insight ourselves, but joining a room full of peaceful meditators often convinces us that there’s some value to practice. Once we have this seed of faith, we’re on the way to developing our program and our practice.
We all need this seed of faith to weather the difficult early stages of practice when the mind seems to wander endlessly, alternating periods of restlessness and sleepiness leave us frustrated, and sensations we’ve never felt before appear in the body. And we all need faith to weather early sobriety, with its roller-coaster ride of emotions, awkward first stabs at living more ethically, and unfamiliar, deer-in-the-headlights clarity.
As you practice more, the meditative experience grows deeper and richer. At the same time, you may want to read and hear more of the Buddhist teachings or make a connection with a Buddhist teacher who seems to be living the teachings. In the Twelve Step process, as sobriety takes effect, things improve in your life. You begin to read the literature and gather with others who help you learn how to live without booze or drugs. Finally, when you find a sponsor, you begin to have regular support and inspiration from someone who has truly benefited from and fulfills the promise of sobriety.
These are three of the foundations of faith: practice, study, and contact with a teacher, guide, or spiritual friend. As you practice, you see for yourself the results; as you study, your own experience gets put in perspective of the dharma and the Steps; and, as you sit with a teacher or spend time with a sponsor, you are guided and inspired. In this way, faith develops organically, not based on threats from a punishing God or the mysterious, inscrutable teachings of a foggy past, but through direct experience.
Kevin Griffin is a writer, meditation teacher, and musician. He lives in Northern California with his wife, the novelist Rosemary Graham, and their daughter. He is a graduate of the University of California at Irvine MFA program and the Spirit Rock Community Dharma Leader program.
For more information visit www.kevingriffin.net.