Buddhism and the 12 Steps

Both Buddhist practice and 12-Step programs encourage followers to have faith in their own experience.

BY: Kevin Griffin

 

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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.

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