When I began practicing Buddhist meditation in the fall of 1980, I had a list of troubles I thought I could solve through getting enlightened: chronic depression, chronic poverty, lack of musical success, a teetering relationship, and habitual use of drugs and alcohol. I figured that somehow, if I meditated enough, all these problems would be fixed—that enlightenment would bring happiness, attract money, make me a rock star, get me the perfect woman, and, as a side effect, eliminate my desire for pot and beer.
Over the next year I committed myself to achieving this elusive goal of “enlightenment,” culminating in an intensive three-month silent retreat, where I practiced sitting and walking meditation up to twenty hours a day. But at the end of the retreat I was broke, my musical career was at a standstill, my relationship had ended, and I still wasn’t enlightened. So much for meditation as a life fix. Nonetheless, I had been able to touch something deep and still within myself on the retreat, and I discovered a real resonance with the Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and compassion. Sitting on my zafu in a silent meditation hall, I felt at home and at peace.
In the ensuing years I gradually lost my belief that meditation would bring me permanent happiness, and I eventually descended into a life that swung between hope and despair. Some part of me felt that there had to be a key, some way out of the cycle of pain and confusion that seemed to run my life, but I could never find that key. Despite my longing for spiritual fulfillment, I kept drinking myself into blackouts, smoking pot as a form of self-medication, using my friends, and deceiving my lovers. In a final act of desperation, in June of 1985 I stopped drinking and using and got sober in a Twelve Step program. I didn’t necessarily think sobriety was going to help solve my problems. In fact, I had never thought of the drugs and alcohol as the cause of my problems but rather as the solution to them, or maybe a result of them. So I was surprised to find that once I got sober my feelings of despair gradually lifted and a new sense took hold that my life was heading somewhere positive.
As time went on and my list of problems shrank, I became committed to the Steps. I admitted I was powerless over drugs and alcohol (Step 1); learned to trust in God, or at least to accept things as they were (Steps 2 and 3); wrote a “searching and fearless moral inventory” that delved into my painful personal history in order to become clear about how I’d gotten where I had (Step 4); made amends, mostly to family members like my brother, who many years before had gotten arrested because of the drugs I brought into his house (Steps 8 and 9). Finally, I tried to “carry the message,” doing service in meetings and helping other alcoholics and addicts (Step 12). The Steps were working, even if I didn’t understand them or, at times, feel comfortable with them—what did Step 11’s admonition to “improve our conscious contact with God” mean, anyway?
During this time period, I also continued to meditate, go on short retreats, read about the Dharma, and practice with a local teacher. I still thought of myself as a Buddhist. While the Twelve Steps were having a practical influence in improving my life, the language and practices of Buddhism still made more sense to me, and I loved to sit in meditation. Though I couldn’t seem to reconcile the two paths in my mind, in my heart I knew I needed them both. Without Buddhism I didn’t feel I could have a life of true peace; without the Twelve Step program I didn’t know whether I could have a life of any kind.
Eventually something had to give. When I moved to Berkeley at six years sober to finish my degree, I was drawn into the thriving local Buddhist scene. Keeping the Steps and my Dharma practice separate became less viable. I needed an integrated life; I needed to bring Buddhism and recovery together. As I became more serious about my Buddhist practice and study, I started to probe for connections. As an English major, I was learning how to look for layers of meaning in language, and I began to apply this training to my examination of Buddhism and the Steps. In meetings I would silently translate Twelve Step language into Buddhist language: “God’s grace” became “the Law of Karma,” “removing shortcomings” became “letting go.” At meditation groups I would put Buddhist concepts into Twelve Step form: “clinging” was simply “addiction,” “mindfulness” was like “conscious contact.” I’d hash out these ideas in conversations with others in recovery.
By this time I’d been at Buddhist practice for a long time, and my teachers seemed to think my practice was ripening. They occasionally asked me to fill in for them at some of the local sitting groups, and a funny thing began to happen: right in the middle of a Dharma talk, a Twelve Step concept would pop out of my mouth. At first I was a little embarrassed and apologetic. But then another funny thing happened: after the talk people would tell me that they were in recovery too and wanted to understand the connections more. I saw that what I had felt was just a personal exploration actually had significance for a large segment of the Buddhist and recovery communities.
So, what are the connections I find between Buddhism and the Steps? (I’ve now written two books to answer this question, but I can simply summarize a few points here.) First, Step 1 says we’re powerless over our addiction; the Buddha’s First Noble Truth says we’re powerless over sickness, old age and death. Where the Steps are pointing to a specific kind of surrender, the Buddha points us to a more all-encompassing surrender to our mortality. I also see powerlessness in the meditation experience. I’ve come to recognize that I am powerless over the stream of thoughts and emotions that appear in my mind. This doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything about these energies, any more than I can’t do anything about my addiction. What it means is that I have to change my relationship to my thoughts and feelings and find tools for dealing with them. There’s an essential connection between admission of powerlessness in Step 1 and the First Noble Truth, the Truth of Suffering. They both ask us to look at the pain in our lives, at the shadow side. They suggest that the path starts in the muck, not in some bright and shiny revelation.
Step 2, which says that we “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” corresponds to the Third Noble Truth, the Truth of the End of Suffering. Freedom is possible, they both say, if we take another path.
Step 3 tells us we have to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood him.” Since Buddhism doesn’t teach about a supreme being that we can ask to intervene in our lives, how are we to do this? Dharma teacher Joseph Goldstein has said: “One could equate God with the highest truth, which would be the same as the Dharma, the law, the way things are. The way of surrendering is letting go. Letting the Dharma unfold.” As I’ve come to understand it, when we turn it over to God, we are taking refuge in the Dharma, committing ourselves to live in harmony with the Eightfold Path and the truths it reveals. Over the many years that I’ve tried to practice in this way, taking refuge and turning it over has been an ongoing challenge and struggle to relinquish self-centered craving, stop acting on my pleasure-seeking impulse and reactive conditioning, and live by a wiser, more skillful set of principles.
Having made this commitment to the path or to God, we might think that we are done with our work. But what we discover when we decide not to follow our destructive conditioning is that it’s not so easy. The forces of karma keep pushing us in the direction of greed, hatred and delusion. Even as I gave up drugs and alcohol, I found myself pursuing women addictively; at other times food, work or just plain selfishness grabbed hold. The Steps say that now we need to look at these forces—the habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting that harm others and ourselves. In Step 4 we take a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” one of the most excruciating aspects of the program and one that challenges us to reach a new level of honesty. The inventory also cultivates equanimity so that we aren’t emotionally overwhelmed by looking at ourselves; compassion for the suffering that triggered our destructive behavior; and humility, as we admit to our profound imperfection and humanness.
For many years I thought that the inventory process was unique to the Steps and had no corollary in Buddhism. Then, on one long retreat, I heard the teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center talking about a “life review” as part of the process of long-term retreat practice. Apparently they had seen this so many times in their students and themselves that, even though they would ordinarily be advising students to drop their “story” and just come back to the breath, they began to think that self-examination was in fact an organic part of the Buddhist path. What I think this reflects, and what Step 4 is ultimately about, is that if we are going to change, we are going to have to understand what it is in us that needs to change. We have to make a fiercely honest appraisal of our habits and behaviors before we can decide which ones we need to let go of.
Having explored this history, the Twelve Steps tell us that now is the time to let go. Steps 6 and 7 talk about this process in somewhat Christian terms, saying that we “humbly asked Him [God] to remove our shortcomings.” Thai elder Ajahn Buddhadasa gives a Buddhist view of this when he talks about the Biblical admonition “ask and it will be given you.” He says that this means we should “beseech the law of karma through our actions, not merely with words.” This clever twist—to “beseech the law of karma”—clarifies not just the Steps but the Bible as well. “Asking” is not literal—Buddhadasa says that prayers alone won’t help—but rather shorthand for the work of change. It doesn’t do any good to ask the law of karma for anything; karma isn’t a being that can be moved by words. Rather, the law of karma depends on our intentional thoughts, words and deeds.
Fundamentally, Dharma and the Twelve Steps are practices, not dogma. It is how we live that changes us. When we stop drinking, over time the desire to drink fades; when we follow the precepts or act out of lovingkindness instead of selfishness, over time self-respect grows and we actually start to feel more loving. A Twelve Step axiom is “you can’t think your way into right action, you have to act your way into right thinking.”
The Steps go on to suggest making amends for past harms, which allowed me to put into action Buddhist forgiveness practices. When I wrote my inventory, I realized there was some important work to be done to clean up the past. And over the decades since, amends have continued to be important. It’s so easy for me to get into a tug of war with my wife or a friend; when I see that I’m just trying to protect my ego and that I’m actually creating more suffering by avoiding taking responsibility for my anger or fear or resentment, then apologizing or making amends becomes that natural response. It’s usually the only way to move on from conflict. I am often amazed by how quickly such disputes fall away once an honest admission of wrong is complete.
In Step 12 another correlation with Buddhism is made: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics [and addicts] and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Seeing this Step we understand that the goal of recovery isn’t just to become clean and sober but to awaken. Of course, this is the same goal as Buddhism—buddha, after all, means “awake.” Further, the Step tells us that this isn’t a selfish goal, because once we achieve it we don’t rest on our laurels or just sit there meditating in bliss. In the same way, the Buddha, after his enlightenment, rose from beneath the bodhi tree and walked out into the world to spread his gift with a heart of compassion.
The arc from recognizing our suffering in Step 1 to being free from suffering and acting out of compassion in Step 12 doesn’t belong to a Buddhist, Christian, Twelve Step or any other tradition. It’s an archetypal spiritual path. When we practice Buddhism and the Steps side by side, we can see this archetype more clearly as the two reveal and support many other things about each other. The emphasis on meditation in Buddhism helps strengthen the contemplative element of the Steps. The emphasis on community in Twelve Step programs supports the idea of the Buddhist sangha. Sobriety is fundamental to sila, the purifying element of the Buddhist path. The Buddhist notion of lovingkindness helps heal the resentments that are so common to addicts. The inventory process helps us see our karmic patterns. The mindfulness cultivated in Buddhism helps the addict to be present for the arising of craving and helps to develop the serenity needed not to act on addictive impulses.
What at first felt like two disparate paths in my life now seems to be a whole, a fully integrated practice system. Buddhism without the Steps seemed a little dry and impersonal at times; the Steps without Buddhism felt thin and ungrounded. I love them both separately, but when I bring them together, I feel safe, that I’m living a more thorough spirituality, one that acknowledges and watches out for my destructive human tendencies and at the same time guides me to a deeper peace and broad insight into the nature of life and reality.