I was preparing to facilitate an addiction recovery group at the outpatient clinic where I work, and I decided to reference Kevin Griffin’s One Breath at a Time. While this book was instrumental to me in my early recovery, I hadn’t read it in a long time. Exactly how long became apparent when a folded sheet of paper fell out as I pulled it from the shelf. The short essay was from a reading and talk that I gave at Open Meadow Zen Center several years ago, most likely eight or nine years judging from the date reference it contains. Being that my humble little blog has been foundering a bit over the past half year or so, I decided to seize this serendipitous event and print it here as a means of re-dedicating myself to the endeavor of sharing musings from the world of Buddhist informed recovery.
What follows is an unedited reprint of the talk I gave that evening:
After sharing the poem “Inscription on Trust in the Mind” by Tseng Ts’an back in September, I was gently yet sternly informed that I wouldn’t again be allowed to slide by without offering a personal commentary on the reading, as the purpose of the weekly reading wasn’t merely to share insight, but to allow the other members of the group to get to know us. Interestingly, this passage by Kevin Griffin was the other reading I’d considered sharing back in September, but apparently I wasn’t in much of a self-revelatory mood. Tonight I’ll take the opposite tack and identify myself as a member of a 12 Step recovery program. Usually when I offer commentary, I just sort of wing it off of phrases underlined in the text and notes jotted down in the margins, but this time I’ve taken the time to write out my thoughts, as this is pretty important stuff.
Founded in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous is probably the most important spiritual movement of the 20th century. Despite the insistence in the AA Preamble that “AA is not a religion,” that’s pretty much exactly what it is… an organized system of beliefs, complete with literature, regular meetings, and rituals designed to offer its adherents a better, more fulfilling way of life through the dissolution of the ego.
What separates both Alcoholics Anonymous and Buddhism from other religions is the emphasis on direct personal experience over beliefs. While we’re contin ually offered the guidance and support of those who have walked the path before us, we’re encouraged to apply these teachings and practices to our own lives on a daily basis. In both traditions, the basid understanding underlying the teachings is “don’t take our word for it… do what we do, trust your own experience, and see what happens.” The adoption of this attitude is facilitated immeasurably by the profound realization that there’s nothing to lose.
After staying in recovery for extended periods, there is a tendency for people to open to wider spiritual paths or to reconnect with the religion of their youth. The relationship between my spiritual life and my recovery from alcohol and drug addiction grew a little bit differently. Like Kevin Griffin, I began my study of Buddhism some time before I arrived at my first AA meeting. I’m not sure when my interest in Eastern Philosophy began… probably as something far-out and esoteric to groove on while getting stoned in college. George Harrison probably had something to do with it.
At any rate, after finding myself in a drug and alcohol rehab in the fall of 1995, my first reading of a piece of AA literature called The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was punctuated by many “A-ha” moments… those flashed of insight followed by a sense of deja-vu… a feeling of “wait a minute, didn’t I already know that?” I was so astounded by the parallels between AA and Buddhism that, for a while, I was convinced that AA co-founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob had deliberately re-drafted the dharma to make it more palatable to a Depression-era American audience.
The reality, of course, is that they were two hopeless drunks trying desperately to conquer their alcohol problem and lead normal, productive lives. They proceeded to outline their own personal experiences for the benefit of others, just as the Buddha had offered us the Eightfold Path as a means of achieving liberation from what is known in 12 Step parlance as the “bondage of self.”
When people in recovery ask me what Buddhism is all about, I tell them, “it’s like AA.” When Buddhist practitioners ask me about 12 /step recovery, I tell them, “it’s like Buddhism without all the bSanskrit and Pali words.” The connection between the two traditions is clear: They present basic human truths arrived at by different means, in different times, for different reasons. But truth by any other name is just as urgent.
Alcoholics and addicts aren’t unique; we don’t have the mearket cornered on suffering. We find ourselves plagued by an exaggeration of the human condition, which Albert Einstein described as an “optical illusion of consciousness” in which we percieve ourselves to be seperate in space and time from all other beings. And we’re the only ones who can save ourselves from this condition. There is no externam savior. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we’re already saved. To attain this truth, just as to achieve sobriety, isn’t a matter of learning anything new, but rather of unlearning mental habits and false information, or, as Kevin Griffin puts it, “shedding limiting concepts until nothing remains.”
One of the greatest things about Alcoholics Anonymous, and the reason that the fellowship has been able to survive for 75 years, is that the Boddhisattva Vow is built into the program. Step 12 reads, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” We can only keep what we’ve attained by giving it away. In this spirit, I hope I’ve done some 12th Step work here tonight.
And I hope, as well, that I’ve done a little more 12th Step work by sharing these thoughts with a wider audience here. Zen Master Seung Sahn said that our job as humans is to transform our experience into wisdom for the benefit of others. The preamble of Alcoholics Anonymous states that “we share our experience, strength, and hope with each other that we may solve our common problem…” None of us does this work alone, and I’m deeply grateful to all you bloggers whose words have helped me.
May this be of benefit.