One Breath At A Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps - Excerpt
Kevin Griffin, a Buddhist mediation teacher and longtime Twelve Step
practitioner, weaves his personal story of recovery with traditional
Buddhist teachings. The book takes us on a journey through the Steps,
examining critical Twelve Step ideas like Powerlessness, Higher Power,
and Moral Inventory through the lens of Buddhism. One Breath at a Time
describes the convergence of two vital traditions, one ancient, the
other contemporary, and shows how they are working together to create a
rich spiritual path for our times.
The Steps as Sila
In Buddhism the initial, purifying stage of spiritual development is
called sila, usually translated as morality or virtue -- what one
teacher calls "cleaning up your act." This involves living an ethical
life; treating others and ourselves with kindness; and letting go
of destructive behaviors. In Buddhist teachings, sila is formalized in
the Five Lay Precepts -- and number five is "I take the training to
abstain from alcohol and drugs which make me heedless." So, guess what?
The Buddha didn't think getting loaded was that good an idea either --
the Twelve Steps are, in fact, sila.
Sila is one of the three classic stages of practice. The other two are
concentration and wisdom. When I began to practice, I didn't put much
emphasis on sila, figuring that concentration and wisdom were where the
action was. None of my teachers talked much about the Fifth Precept,
and I certainly wasn't going to worry about it. In fact, psychedelic
drug experiences were the inspiration for much of the sixties movement
toward Eastern religions. In the Beatles song "Strawberry Fields," for
example, we're told, "nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about"--
sounds a lot like being stoned, but it also sounds like the stuff of
certain Buddhist teachings. With this blurring of drugs and religion,
no wonder some teachers felt ambivalent about the Fifth Precept. For
most of them, drugs and alcohol weren't a problem, and they probably
didn't want the teachings to come off as puritanical or moralistic.
Unfortunately for me, LSD, mescaline, and mushrooms were all just
another high, just another way to get loaded. They never had much of a
spiritual effect on me. Even though there were times I wanted to
explore them as a gateway to some higher states, my trips always
devolved into drug fests, often concluding with alcohol to ease the
crash. That's the trouble with being an addict: it takes all the fun
out of drugs. I always admired and envied people who could make their
trip a spiritual one, but for me tripping was not much different from
The purifying aspects of sila work on more levels than just the
physical. It's not just following a set of Precepts -- just as real
sobriety is more than putting down the bottle or joint. Buddhist
teachings are said to "reveal what was hidden," and to "hold up a lamp
in the dark." And meditation practice itself tends to uncover the
repressed aspects of our psyche.
Even before I got sober, the dharma was working to reveal what
was hidden, though I didn't know it. One image the Buddha uses is of a
goldsmith who heats gold in a crucible, burning off the dross. So, as
my inner gold began to shine more brightly, the dross of my destructive
behavior stood out more distinctly.
I saw this unfold with Dan, a beginning meditation student who
impressed me with the intensity with which he approached his practice.
He reported putting in great effort, sitting as long as he could
through knee pain, restlessness, and sleepiness. His commitment
reminded me of my own at his stage of practice.
One day he called and said, with a quaver in his voice, "I won't
be at class for the next few weeks."
"Are you okay?" I asked. "What's happening?"
"Last week I was arrested for drunk driving . . . again."
Dan told me that even though he had known he had a problem with
drinking and had been arrested before for drunk driving, he still
thought he could control it. After he and his wife, Karen, started
meditation, he tried to hide his drinking because he was feeling shame
and a sense of disconnection from his growing spiritual life.
"In retrospect, it doesn't really seem accurate to say that I had
a meditation practice because I wasn't really practicing in the strict
sense of the word. I spent time on my cushion, but there was no
consistency and the sittings felt fragmented and unfocused."
Finally, he said, his last arrest was almost a relief; there was
no need to pretend anymore, and he could begin the work of recovery.
Dan's been sober for more than two years now, and still attends my
group. Here's what he says about the change:
"When I committed myself to sobriety, I regained a sense of
openness, honesty, and a feeling of actually living with the ethics
that I accepted. Instead of sitting around my garage smoking cigarettes
and thinking about the dharma, I was putting it in motion within my
day-to-day life. I felt that I was taking the right action, and in
doing so my integrity was awakened."
The Buddha talks about "the bliss of blamelessness." When there
are no secrets in your life and you're living cleanly, a sense of
safety arises. You're not looking over your shoulder all the time. For
a recovering addict or alcoholic, this delight can arise at odd times,
like when you get pulled over for a traffic violation and realize that
the worst you can get is a ticket -- no fear of a drunk driving charge
or drug bust.
Dan's experience of meditation has changed as well. "My
meditation often has a feeling of lightness and ease that I seldom felt
before. When intently focused, it's at a depth that is new for me. When
it's tough and I'm feeling some type of existential distress, I've got
the awareness to be attentive and accepting instead of simply giving in
to a habitual desire for escape."
Powerless, Not Helpless
People sometimes hear the word powerless and think it means "passive,"
that people who work with the, Twelve Steps think they are victims,
that life is just happening to them. While it's true that there are
lots of things you can't control in the world -- the weather, the
economy, your parents -- chances are no one is shoving booze down your
throat or a line up your nose or a supersized fast-food meal into your
mouth. We are powerless over the disease of alcoholism and the effects
of alcohol, but we are not powerless over whether we pick up a drink or
not. The Buddha was emphatic on the point that we are responsible
moment to moment for our words and actions, not just victims of destiny
or hidden forces; we have an element of free will.
Noah Levine, a recovering addict, meditation teacher, and author
of the moving spiritual memoir Dharma Punx, puts it this way: "I don't
have power over what desires I have, but I do have power over what
actions I take." Noah recognizes, though, that his sense of
powerlessness can become corrupted. "I can see a tendency towards
nihilism both in my spiritual practice and in my recovery. At times I
use the First Step and my meditation practice as excuses to avoid the
suffering in the world, feeling that I can't do anything about it or
that it is just everyone's karma unfolding." This is a distortion of
the concept of powerlessness. It's an excuse to give up and bail out on
life and responsibility.
The Buddhist term near enemies can shed light on the difference
between powerlessness and helplessness. For example, the near enemy of
compassion is pity; the near enemy of equanimity is indifference. I
think helplessness or, as Noah puts it, nihilism is the near enemy of
powerlessness. This tendency to turn spiritual ideas upside down and
inside out is very dangerous for an alcoholic, or anyone who has
negative habits of mind. It can be the beginning of a slide into
depression, despair, and eventually drinking again -- or worse.
Noah brings the First Step and Buddhism together when he says,
"Yes, I am powerless, but I also have the ability to purify my actions
of speech, body, and mind through the practice of spiritual principles."
Buddhists are sometimes accused of being passive as well. In
fact, meditation lays the groundwork for acting skillfully in the
world. The Buddha was as concerned about the way we live in the world
-- as shown by his emphasis on qualities like generosity, non-harming,
and compassion -- as he was about meditation itself. But the Buddha was
intensely practical -- and very clear about the truth that we can't
control certain things: the fact that we are going to grow older, and
all the difficulties inherent in aging; the fact that we are going to
get sick; the fact that we are going to die; the fact that everything
around us is going to keep changing and will eventually disappear.
So, no matter how much exercise I get, or how much organic food I
eat, I'll die. All the vitamins and supplements in the world can't keep
me from sometimes catching cold or the flu, getting cancer or heart
disease (or even the disease of alcoholism!). Plastic surgery, herbal
elixirs, and skin creams can't stop the fact of my aging; my car will
eventually wear out, my roof will leak, my children will grow up and
leave me, and my parents will die. I'm powerless over all these things.
The Buddha saw how much suffering we create fighting with these facts,
resisting and trying to circumvent aging, illness, death, and loss, and
he realized that clear understanding and acceptance was the key to
letting go of that suffering.
After the Buddha tells us all of this, essentially pointing out
what we are powerless over in this world -- everyone, not just addicts
or alcoholics -- he says that there is one thing that we do have power
over: our karma. This means that we are responsible for our own
situation -- up to a point. The Buddha said that people do have free
will, and that this is what karma is, the energy of our will. The way I
express this will, whether skillfully or unskillfully, determines the
results of my life -- a simple cause-and-effect formula.
Karma, like powerlessness, is often misunderstood. People
commonly think it means destiny or fate. But both the Twelve Steps and
Buddhist teaching point to the ways in which we shape our own destiny.
The Buddha said everything starts with thoughts; that we speak and act
based on thoughts; that our words and actions turn into habits -- or
addictions; and that those habits shape our character into something
inflexible. So, he says, "Watch the thought and its ways with care, and
let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings . . . As the
shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become." This underscores a
strong argument for the value of meditation practice. Meditation makes
it possible to see your thoughts more clearly, and when you see your
thoughts clearly, you can consciously decide how to respond to them
This idea can be taken too far, though, and we can blame
ourselves for things we have no power over. The Buddha points out that
because there are so many causes and effects happening simultaneously,
our own will can have only a limited impact. It's up to us to find the
balance between responsibility and powerlessness. Sorting this out is
what the Serenity Prayer, often recited at Twelve Step gatherings,
tries to help you do, with its plea to "grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and
wisdom to know the difference." Though this prayer calls on God for
help, the Buddhist teachings and the inherent wisdom that comes through
the practices can bring the same acceptance, strength, and clarity.
Meditation develops in us the power to sit through all kinds of
experiences without flinching, with a willingness to see what is true.
This non-flinching willingness can be called courage. So, the courage,
wisdom, and acceptance of the prayer come from the same place, from the
inner strength that grows through continuously opening the heart and
Copyright © 2004 Kevin Griffin
Author Kevin Griffin is a writer, meditation teacher, and musician. He
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, please visit www.kevingriffin.net or www.writtenvoices.com.