12-steps

Meditation for recovery: program adapts Buddhist practice to fight addiction

EmmaJean Holley, Valley News: It’s 9 on a Tuesday morning, and Larry Lowndes is setting out the cushions.

Lowndes is the assistant director of the Second Wind Foundation, which operates an addiction recovery center in Wilder that serves as a space for a number of recovery groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step meetings. But Lowndes has recently introduced a new, less conventional program at Turning Point: Refuge Recovery, a peer-to-peer, mindfulness-based recovery group, grounded in Buddhist principles.

Some of the participants in the group have been practicing meditation, and sobriety, for …

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Exploring your past is a prerequisite for true mindfulness

wildmind meditation newsJohn and Elaine Leadem, PsychCentral: Mindfulness. It means living in the moment. By now, most of us are well aware of the great emotional and spiritual promises of living mindfully. It is believed to lower high blood pressure, heal trauma, and enhance our problem-solving abilities. Studies show that mindful people may be happier.

Many traditional philosophies however, stress the importance of purposefully going back in time and exploring our past experiences. We revisit where we have been and how we have become the people we are. Those of us who are members of 12 Step recovery groups are asked to complete a comprehensive 4th …

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Why another book on recovery?

Eight Step Recovery

During the past few years we have seen several authors like Kevin Griffin, Tom Catton and Noah Levine publish books about recovery. They are making the rounds in the recovery community. This year three new books have come onto the market, Scot Kiloby’s Natural Rest for Addiction: A Revolutionary Way to Recover Through Presence, Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction by myself and Dr Paramabandhu Groves, and in June Noah Levine’s Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Overcoming Addiction will hit the streets.

Not so long ago there was only the Big Book, of 12 step recovery, and it was a book that was in the closet. Nobody went public about it, unless of course you were in the fellowship, but these new books have brought addiction and recovery far more out into the open. You can walk into somebody’s front room and see some of these books lying on the coffee table. Once upon a time the only places to get recovery were in the rooms of 12 step meetings or psychiatric treatment offered by the doctor. Now we have Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention, Mindfulness Based Addiction recovery courses, Self Management And Recovery Training (SMART), Scot Kiloby’s Living inquiry for addiction, Noah Levine’s recovery program, Eight Step Recovery, and Buddhist versions of the traditional 12 steps that were originated by Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I often hear people saying: ‘I’m shopping around, there is so much out there to choose from’. I believe that is a good thing, because although 12 steps has saved many peoples lives, and saved families too, it has not worked for everyone. These new books or recovery programs are not a panacea either; they will not work for everyone. But we live in a climate where we recognise that people have different learning styles and needs, and hopefully, people who are looking for a way out of their misery will find something in one of these newer recovery approaches on offer.

We identified eight steps in our book, because steps have a venerable historical tradition in Buddhism. One of the main texts in Buddhism is called the Dhammapada. The etymology of the word Dhammapada actually means steps of the Dharma or more commonly interpreted as verses of the Dharma. Statues of the Buddha are recent symbols of the Buddha. Once upon a time it was a tree, or a turning wheel, and many other symbols, including two footprints carved into the earth, into wood or clay. These footprints were a metaphor for the Buddha walking out into the world and spreading his teachings. We do know that the Buddha walked throughout India teaching the Dharma.

Our book is by no means a short cut to recovery, or the fast track route, and we haven’t forgotten the other four steps, as some people have suggested. It’s just that the teachings we took from the Dharma fell neatly into eight steps. Plus the shorter the list, the more memorable, and hopefully the more manageable it will be to work through. However each step covers many teachings, so take your time in reading.

Are we competing with 12 steps? No most definitely not. We hope to compliment what is already out there. People in the 12 step community often are looking to understand step 11, they are wanting to have a deeper connection with meditation, prayer and a God of their understanding. However one thing that the 12 step offers is a community specifically for people in recovery. This is something that those of us who are introducing new approaches do need to think about. Yes we can offer the Buddhist community, or other spiritual and self development communities, but are these doors open to somebody who has hit bottom, for somebody who is in a life-and-death crisis? 12 steps does, and offers one-to-one sponsorship, which is crucial part to the 12 step recovery process.

Community is something that all of us authors and pioneers in the recovery community do need to think about. How are we going to support people who walk through the door who are clearly under the influence of an intoxicant? How can we best serve these people? My approach to date, is to send them along to a 12 step meeting, and insist they only have to be clean on the day they arrive, or not using in that moment they walk through our Buddhist sangha doors. You could say this is their actual first step. Community is important, it’s what most of us place at the center of our lives. So if we want to recover from addiction, we need a community that is in recovery at the centre of our lives, to help us on our recovery path.

How to use the book has been a question asked by many. Throughout this year, I will begin to explore each step, and ways that you can use the book in groups, or by yourself. Meanwhile, dive in, and see if there is anything in the book that resonates for you. We hope to see some of you at our launches throughout the year. This month we are in Goderich, Toronto, Guelph and Edmonton.

Eight Step Recovery is out now: Eight Step Recovery – Order your book now

Or try a free sample – For a free sample chapter of Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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Powerless over our thoughts

Man distressed by his thoughts

For many, negative thinking is a habit, which over time, becomes an addiction… A lot of people suffer from this disease because negative thinking is addictive to each of the Big Three — the mind, the body, and the emotions. If one doesn’t get you, the others are waiting in the wings. (Peter McWilliams, American self help author.)

‘We admitted we were powerless over (addiction) — that our lives had become unmanageable.’ This is step one in the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous and all other twelve-step programs that exist including ALANON – which is a twelve-step group for families of alcoholics.

This is a poignant step for recovery – admitting that we are powerless. If we can’t admit this then we are still wanting to be in control. Which often is the root cause of many addictions.

What if we admitted we were powerless over our thoughts – that our lives had become unmanageable?

Take time to reflect on this. What emerges for you?

What if we could see that there was no thinker, that thoughts arise out of no where, and cease into nothingness?

Take time to reflect on this. What emerges for you?

What if we could see that there is nobody controlling our life. That life just happens. That there is no sufferer, just suffering that arises and ceases? Take time to reflect on this too. What emerges for you?

How often does a thought arise, we hold on to it, identify with it and act the thought out?

I ask these questions because often we think of addiction as dependency on chemical substances only. Addiction for me was the dependency on sugar – which did become a matter of life or death for me at one point. almost died at the foot of my toilet, with food lodged in my windpipe as I was purging. I snorted white stuff (sugar) through the mouth, and my teeth crumbled, my voice box strained and my stomach collapsed. Addiction for me is not just about the dependency on chemicals. One of my root addictions has been my stinking thinking. It was that, which lead me to identify with my thoughts, act on my thoughts and hey presto I had created a fixed self ‘the addict.’.

We may laugh – how can our thinking be a matter of life and death. If we think out of the box, and think of life and death as a physical, spiritual and emotional issues. Then we can perhaps clearly see how it can be a matter of life and death.

I share this from the new book – Eight Step Recovery – Using the Buddha’s teachings to Overcome Addiction written by myself, Valerie Mason-John, and the psychiatrist Dr Paramabandhu Groves – which will be published in January 2014.

Human nature has an inbuilt tendency for addiction. For some people this tendency can lead to the destruction of their lives, through their addictive and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. However, we can all struggle with the nature of the mind that tends towards addictions. We could say that we are all in recovery. That may come as a surprise to many of you.

All of us are addicted to our thinking. Thinking that tell us stories, thinking that can make us angry, thinking that can literally intoxicate us and impair the mind. Accidents and even fatalities can be caused when we are under the influence of this type of thinking. In Canada distracted driving and aggressive driving are in the top five most common reasons that cause car accidents. Our thinking can distract us and can cause road rage to the extent that we can become impaired behind the steering wheel.

This is a frightening fact – and we also know the impulse to identify with a thought while driving can be manifested in texting while driving, which also can be a matter of life and death. So if we admitted we were powerless over our thoughts what can we do?

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Waking up to the truth

Buddhists touching the fingers of a giant Buddha statue.

A new monthly blog first Monday of the month by Vimalasara Aka Valerie Mason-John

My Ego

When I came to Buddhism 22 years ago, I would never have admitted to being an addict. After all I was doing what everybody else was doing in my work and social life. No one I knew  was in a 12 step program, or thinking about sobriety. We were in our 20s, happy go lucky and indulging in our hedonistic lives.

In fact when I first mentioned I was going to stop drinking, my friends were horrified. “What? Not even champagne?” How could I refuse such an offer? “Okay champagne only.” That’s how I became the champagne Queen. People knew not to offer me anything else but the fizz.

By the time I was 28 I got to a place in my life where I knew I had burnt copious holes in my brain. Something intuitively told me meditation was the answer, despite the fact I had never formally meditated before. However, I knew the brain was capable of developing new brain cells, and therefore it needed something like meditation, learning a new language or simply doing headstands to revitalize it. Meditation I thought was the easiest option.

Thankfully, visiting a Buddhist Temple was much more hip among my friends. After all, we all needed something to balance our lives in the fast lane.  It was safer than therapy, and not considered navel gazing. The fact I could go to meditation class, and go out clubbing all night after, was acceptable.

I drank Aqualibra and so nobody noticed I wasn’t drinking.  I could meditate for half an hour, get up from my cushions and feel high. I could go on a week retreat, and feel like I was tripping. My addict had found something else to obsess with. I hadn’t bargained for the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, or for reciting the five lay precepts, one of which was ‘abstaining from taking intoxicants.’

There came a point that I had to admit listening to dharma talks was having an impact on my life. Alcohol and stimulants began to fall away. Even some friends too, but most were inspired by the fact that I had found a natural way to be high. I got addicted to guarana,  a native American plant, and kola nut, an African caffeine bean. I had gone from being the champagne queen, to the Duracell battery, as I had more energy than anyone who had popped or snorted something.

I began to realize that champagne, stimulants and natural highs were all about my external ego. How sad was that? As soon as I realized this I began to let go. However, my root dis-ease, root addiction, was food. From the age of 16 I struggled with anorexia, and then became a chronic bulimic. I could not walk past a food shop, or a table of food without eating. I could not refuse food, and would steal and lie to get my choice of drug. I could not eat food without throwing it all up. And so I was on the pendulum of craving and aversion.

Amidst this whirl wind of partying, and natural highs, meditation had cultivated a gap. It was this gap, that led me to recovery. In the gap, I had to discover my own truth. That I was an addict, and I needed to change. Not just an addict to food, but I was addicted to life. I didn’t want to age, get sick or die. The irony was that I was living a life that could accelerate all of these things. I didn’t want to see the ascetic, the fourth sight of the Buddha. To witness the man begging, was too much of a harsh metaphor. It would mean having to let go of how I made my money, how I lived my life. I would have to question my ethics.

The four noble truths came to my rescue. Next month, some of the things that shaped me before I was graced with the Buddhist core teachings: The Four Noble Truths.

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Recovery Mondays: A Buddhist approach to recovery

Scrabble tiles saying "Decide, Commit, Repeat."

A new monthly blog first Monday of the month, by Vimalasara, a.k.a. Valerie Mason-John.

Why is it that so many people make new year’s resolutions, and two weeks later, they are off the wagon?

A study in 2007 by Richard Wiseman from the University of Bristol UK showed that 78% of those who set New Year resolutions fail, and those who succeed have 5 traits in common.

Men achieved their goal 22% more often when they engaged in goal setting, (a system where small measurable goals are being set; such as, a pound a week, instead of saying “lose weight”), while women succeeded 10% more when they made their goals public and got support from their friends.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Of course, the date the new year begins is dependent on the culture we come from; not everyone writes down their resolutions for January 1st. Most cultures do, however, mark the beginning of their new year by letting go of the old.

In fact, up until 1751, the new year in England and Wales began on March 25th, despite the fact that the order of months in the Roman calendar has been January to December since King Numa Pompilius in about 700 BC. Many countries in Asia mark their new year in the spring period, which seems more apt for new year’s resolutions, as the new cycle of life in nature is about to emerge.

Despite all this, the fact remains that millions of people all around the globe will be making new year’s resolutions on January 1st. These resolutions will range from abstaining from intoxicants or from over-indulging in food to paying off debt, getting physically active, or being less grumpy.

Apparently, the top 5 resolutions for 2012 are to

  • Be financially-savvy;
  • Read at least one book per month;
  • Eat properly;
  • Get enough sleep; and
  • Keep a journal of awesome moments.

Notice that none of them have anything to do with abstaining, which may be one of the factors that helps maintain a resolution. In Buddhism, we tend to think of vows—making a strong commitment to oneself. In the lay tradition there are five precepts that we can take and observe. A person may take only one or two precepts, or all five, precepts as a commitment to oneself to change. Though these precepts talk of refraining from an action, they are not commandments. They are what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Training Principals” for the mind. Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community has developed a positive antidote to each precept to help us train the mind:

  1. To refrain from harming living creatures (killing). With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (stealing). With open handed generosity I purify my body.
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct. With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.
  4. To refrain from false speech. With truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness. With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify mind.

These antidotes could be seen as the remedy for keeping one’s commitment to oneself. Perhaps lending from Sangharakshita’s advice, when making a new year’s resolution for 2012, think about the antidote. And, most importantly, think about an action plan.

For example, the resolution, I will not overeat any more, could have the antidote, With serenity and courage, I purify my mind.

The action plan could be, I will seek help. I will record what I eat so that I notice exactly what I am doing with my food.

Awareness is the key to success when making a resolution.

Of course, we do not have to wait until the new year to change our lives. Some people use their birthday as a time of reflection. For others, fortunately or unfortunately, a tragic experience or threatening illness brings about period of reflection. However, after a period of time, we often find ourselves off the wagon again.

Buddhism, like many spiritual paths, can offer freedom from suffering if we are willing to open up to the core teachings of the Buddha. They can offer a way of living that enables us to stay on the wagon. Or in Buddhist speech, enable us to stay Mindful and Aware.

A short practice to enable us to become more Mindful

Take a long in breath – Take a long out breath
Observe a long in breath – Observe a long out breath
Become aware of the present moment
And Just sit –
Let your thoughts arise and cease
And Just sit – with heart/mind open to the present moment

Next Month – Exploring the first core teaching of Buddhism and Recovery. The First Noble Truth.

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Researchers see promise in treating addictive behaviors with mindfulness meditation

The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel

When the stresses of life become too much for him, Ken Volante takes a figurative step back and tries out being SOBER. That “nice little trick,” as he describes it, is the backbone of mindfulness meditation and it helps him remain sober.

It’s a series of steps that allows him to cope with the cravings that would lead him to drink. So important is this practice that he carries with him a laminated card listing those steps.

When he practices being SOBER, he Stops, Observes what’s going on, focuses on his Breathing (divorces himself from what’s going on around him), Expands (focus what’s happening to one’s body) and Responds (but constructively).

A binge drinker for two or three years, Volante, of Madison, recently completed an outpatient program at New Start and became part of a pilot study to see whether mindfulness meditation could help alcoholics remain sober and cope with their addiction. The research project is led by Aleksandra Zgierska, a physician at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Mindfulness meditation is closely identified with Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who founded a stress reduction clinic devoted to using mindfulness meditation.

The 19 people in the UW study took an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation, in which they learned how to be “present in the moment and be receptive to what is happening, without judgment imposed, just observing what’s there,” Zgierska says.

Doing that, she says, breaks the “auto-pilot” behavior that can lead to impulsive, unhealthy reactions.

“Let’s say a person has a lapse, they have one night of drinking or they have one drink. It’s not unusual for us to hear people in treatment say, ‘What I said to myself is that I screwed it up now. I might as well go ahead and finish it off.’ What mindfulness can do is interrupt that way of thinking,” says Michael Waupoose, program director at UW Health-Gateway Recovery in Madison.

Alcoholics, says Zgierska, when confronted with a situation that could lead to drinking – for example, passing a bar or being offered a drink – could rely on using the SOBER technique, or another approach, such as what’s called urge surfing.

Urge surfing is imagining the urge to drink as a wave, and imagining oneself riding the wave and coming down the other side, says Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Study results awaited

How mindfulness meditation helps alcoholics deal with their desire to drink remains uncertain.

“That’s the big question everyone is trying to get a handle on,” says Marlatt, who has also been studying mindfulness meditation and consulted with Zgierska on her study.

But he does contrast it with other approaches to alcoholism.

“The traditional kinds of behavioral treatment like aversion therapy tried to suppress urges or inhibit cravings or create a condition of aversion to them. Mindfulness is radically different. Let’s take an acceptance approach. You will have urges, you will experience cravings, but we’re going to teach you strategies so that you can manage them and get through them,” Marlatt says.

“I think that it has great potential for the treatment of substance abuse disorders,” says Waupoose.

This is a new approach that clients and clinicians are excited about, says Sarah Bowen, a research scientist at the Addictive Behaviors Research Center in Seattle.

For one thing, it’s an alternative to the traditional so-called 12-step group approach used by Alcoholics Anonymous. It was that alternative that attracted Margee Baxter of Baraboo to mindfulness meditation.

“I’ve done the whole AA thing before. I’m not a real rigid follower. I just kind of like to do my own thing in my own order,” says Baxter, 51, who adds that she had trouble finding a group setting in which she felt comfortable.
Early success

Zgierska’s study was a pilot study, which did not involve a control group, but rather sought to examine how feasible the mindfulness approach would be for alcoholics.

In the first controlled study comparing mindfulness with a 12-step approach, Bowen and her colleagues found that alcoholics and drug users using mindfulness meditation reduced the number of days they used drugs or drank to fewer than half the number of days of those in the 12-step group after two months (2.1 compared with 5.4). But the difference disappeared after four months.

The researchers explain the result by noting that after the initial course in mindfulness, the participants went back to the 12-step groups.

“It is therefore not surprising that MBRP (Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention) treatment gains were not fully maintained,” the researchers write. They add that mindfulness training may require continuing support to be successful.

The study began with 93 people who used mindfulness meditation and 75 who participated in the 12-step program. At the study’s conclusion, 69 were in the mindfulness group, 49 in the 12-step group.

The results of the study, published late last year in the journal Substance Abuse, should enhance the scientific credibility of mindfulness meditation as a treatment for alcoholism and other addictive disorders, says Bowen. She adds that as an approach it has drawn the interest and praise of many professionals who treat these disorders.

“This provides us yet another opportunity to say, ‘Here is another intervention that has been studied and outcomes are favorable.’ It gives us another tool we can use for treating substance abuse disorders,” Waupoose says.

Bowen says such findings may also increase the use of the technique.

“We may be able to have programs like this integrated into and covered by large organizations, such as the VA,” she says.

Zgierska says she plans on doing further controlled studies of mindfulness meditation. And Waupoose says he aims to introduce the technique to the treatment programs at UW Health-Gateway Recovery.

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“The 12-Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery from Any Addiction,” by Darren Littlejohn

The 12-Step Buddhist, by Darren Littlejohn

Title: The 12-Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery from Any Addiction
Author: Darren Littlejohn
Publisher: Beyond Words Publishing (March 2009)

Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-Step Program offers a path of escape from the cycle of dependency, but it’s a path that’s heavily reliant on belief in a deity. Can Buddhism provide an alternative approach to addiction? Buddhist and incarcerated drug-offender Rich Cormier investigates “12-Step Buddhism” as outlined in a new book by Darren Littlejohn.

Traditional 12-Step programs involve a God-based spiritual approach. The “12-Step Buddhist” emphasizes that it is important to develop a strong spiritual foundation for any attempt at recovery to be successful, and points out that addicts who are resistant to the customary system because they don’t believe in God are forced to adapt or make do in order to find support.

Darren Littlejohn offers an alternative spiritual path that works in conjunction with the 12-Step process: a path that is aimed not only at Buddhists but at anyone interested in a non-theistic approach to recovery. His experiences with addiction, recovery, and Buddhism provide those seeking to overcome addictions with a number of tools that can be used to enhance existing recovery strategies. The book, however, can be of benefit to a wider audience. We’re all addicted to something: “Because of the numerous forms of addiction in our culture, very few of us are left unaffected by the disease,” Littlejohn explains.

Because the development of spiritual principles and virtues is essential in recovery, we sometimes have to employ different strategies in order to reenergize our disease and focus. When our tools get dull and need to be sharpened our replaced, it is imperative that we gain a fresh perspective.

Littlejohn asserts:

“Anyone who’s been in 12-Step programs for years knows that recovery can get stale. As an unconscious alternative to digging deep, we easily switch to less obvious addictions. We do fine with our compatriots in 12-Step meetings, yet remain crippled with unresolved family, financial, relationship, psychiatric, and spiritual issues.”

 The addict within us is doing what’s necessary to survive…  

The 12-Step Buddhist takes each of AA’s Steps, relating and comparing it to Buddhist teachings. The author does a particularly good job of making these connections clear. For instance, AA’s Step One states, “We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and our lives had become unmanageable.” By comparison, in Buddhism developing the principle of acceptance is vital. Similarly, the popular expression of “being in denial” refers to our inability to accept our situation, while in Buddhism delusion — an inability to face reality — is seen as our root problem. As Littlejohn puts it, “The addict within us is doing what’s necessary to survive, and we suffer from delusions about the reality of our situation.”

An ability to “live life on life’s terms,” as AA puts it, seems elusive to those of us who become dependent on any substance. In order to help us overcome denial and develop acceptance, Littlejohn guides us through a meditation which allows us to recall our predicament of being trapped in a cycle of dependency without becoming overwhelmed by despondency, fear, and anger. Through reflection and meditation we can come to realize that our beliefs are delusions, and ultimately this allows us to change our views and behavior.

In addition to meditative techniques, a reflection method called Aspects of Self encourages us to speak to the addict within. This allows us to more fully understand ourselves, considering from all angles the obstacles we face, and helping us to see our situation more objectively, without the distortions imposed by emotional reactions. I found this tool to be rewarding.

 This book is designed to be used as a supplement to existing 12-Step programs…  

Littlejohn’s Integration Exercises combine 12-Step and Buddhist strategies, bridging the gap between the two systems perfectly.

This book is designed to be used as a supplement to existing 12-Step programs. The similarities with Buddhist practices and 12-Step work help in the transition. It is important to note that Littlejohn recommends that traditional resources be employed: qualified teachers, therapists, sponsors, etc. This manual is not designed to be a replacement for existing recovery programs.

Those familiar with Buddhism and 12-Step recovery models will immediately discern the value of undertaking a comparison and synthesis of the two models. At times the reader may find the abundance of Buddhist teachings somewhat complex. Even with ten years of experience with Buddhism, I found some of the material confusing, with references to teachings from Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, the Theravada, and also western models such as behavioral psychology. Unfortunately much of the “heavier” material comes first, and this could be off-putting for some readers. I would recommend that for many people reading Part Two before Part One would be a beneficial approach, giving people the “meat” of the 12-Step Buddhist model of practice before introducing the theoretical underpinnings.

Buddhism is a rich resource with a multitude of wisdom and plentiful tools for self-examination. The 12-Step Program is a powerful and time-tested approach to issues of addiction. Littlejohn’s 12-Step Buddhist demonstrates that the two models together form a very compatible alliance.


Richard Cormier is an inmate at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men. Addiction ultimately led to his incarceration and since then AA and Buddhism have had a positive impact on his life. He has been practicing Buddhism for ten years, gaining an understanding of spiritual values and their significance to recovery.


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Buddhism and the 12 Steps (Beliefnet)

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.

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