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Dharma Drunx

Darren Littlejohn recently published a book titled, The 12 Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery from any Addiction, a Buddhist take on the Twelve Step addiction recovery method.  As Darren’s article on Beliefnet iterates, “from a Buddhist perspective of attachment, we’re all addicted to something.” 

The statement that we’re all addicted can be a liberating and empowering point of view.  But it is also important to understand that some of us are wa-ha-hay more addicted than others.

My father, for example, is a recovering alcoholic, a man who stopped drinking one night 20 years ago like he was cutting off a limb – immediately, finally and absolutely (with the 12 step help of Alcoholics Anonymous).  At the time he needed to put down any vision of gray he might have considered about his drinking and simply quit.  And he did. 

I’ve always wished that he could have also accompanied AA with therapy and meditation and attempt to learn how to cognitively deal with the root sense of anxiety that I imagine prompted his drinking.  I think rather than Turning his Mind into an Ally, he turned the bottle into an enemy.  He won that fight, but he didn’t necessarily come to understand his mental processes more intimately, and he suffers for it.

He needed dualism to help him stop -if you agree that the teachings of the Buddha are indeed for “those with but a little dust in their eyes” then a practicing alcoholic is blind with 80 proof sludge, caught in a cycle of highs and lows, imprisoned by desire.  That kind of addiction resembles a Buddhist hell realm more than a human one, the kind of realm in which you can only bring a burning man a glass of water, not expect him to understand why he is setting himself on fire.

Which is why I am interested to read Littlejohn’s book (he himself is a recovering addict) and see if, along with all the great mental assistance that these steps provide: acceptance, building confidence, self-honesty, staying humble, the book offers a hard-line stance on destructive addictive behavior.  (Not your “addiction” to coffee, people.  Food, yes.  But unless you’re Mr. Death, coffee doesn’t count).  As someone who struggles with addiction, I worry that the beautiful specificity of Buddhism can, if you feel like pulling some wool over your own dusty lids, sometimes enable harmful behavior.  It might also support attempting to heal your self by yourself, when you really need the help of professionals and support groups.  Similarly, if you weren’t already ashamed of your addiction enough, Buddhism can provide whole new ways to feel like you are failing the world by complicating your feelings about self-control and desire.

Nonetheless, when it comes to dealing with attachment and altering your behavior, the dharma has some of the best advice ever.  Combined with more Western symptom-oriented treatment our addiction treatment plans seem destined to become more comprehensive and effective than ever.   And considering that 1 in 11 Americans now meditate is seems like we may be well on our way to an enlightened society: confident, compassionate and relatively sober.

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posted June 12, 2009 at 11:13 am

Nice hyperlinking!

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Julia May

posted June 12, 2009 at 11:59 am

It’s true. The secret is in the hyperlinks.

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posted June 12, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Julia, I enjoy your posts and relate to your perspective. I hope you continue. As for this one, my question or concern about 12 step programs is from what I can tell, there seems to be a lot of focus on the self, or, “me, me, me” (what I did in the past, how I hurt others, what I need to do now to avoid getting caught up in my addiction), which seems antithetical to the practice of buddhism which aims in part to help us realize that there is no self the way we are conditioned to believe. Any thoughts on that?

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Julia May

posted June 12, 2009 at 3:09 pm

That’s a very interesting point. I’m not sure where I fall – one of the negative aspects of a 12 step problem is that it is, as you say, self-centered and even more than that, self-solidifying. Once an addict, always an addict is antithetical to the Buddhist ideas of non-self. On the other hand, that’s where, if one is not careful, one could get into trouble – when you relate only on a surface level of non-self it could create a lot of excuses to get into a lot of trouble and continue abusive or self-indulgent behavior. I mean, as much as we talk around the 5 precepts, maybe if one finds that addictive behavior is getting in the way of your practice, it would behoove us to be humble and follow some rules. Also, going back to the idea of the hell realm – when you’re in a hell realm, I think the first thing you got to do is get yourself the hell out of it – then you can think about how you’re an interdependent being and the thing that you think is your “self” is fluid and changing. I can see how having a Buddhist epiphany could free you temporarily – realizing you’re not real and nirvana is now could probably free you from addiction for a while – but those mind states, unless you’re in a retreat setting I’ve found, can be fleeting – and what a body needs is rules. And even a little bit of self-cherishing for a while, so that the symptoms can subside while they continue to meditate and train in compassion and loving kindness for others.
Who knows. Overcoming certain addictions for me have always happened gradually and when I trace back to them, due to seemingly unrelated factors of change in my life – the one thing they all had in common was letting go of a certain anxiety.
All conjecture, though, on my part. I’d love to hear from an addiction counselor or therapist about the different ways that folks overcome this problem. It gets presented to the world as a “there is only one way to overcome addiction to something and it was developed by a man in the 1950’s who occasionally still drank.”

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Darren Littlejohn

posted June 12, 2009 at 6:47 pm

If we look deeply at the 12 Steps and Buddhism we can see that there are many common points that are well worth examining. To those who have no real, concrete experience in the 12 Step community, or who have no need for it because they’re not addicted, it’s easy to make assessments and criticisms. Even those of us deeply immersed can see some problems. I wrote a whole chapter on that called 12 Steps – What Works and What Doesn’t.
In terms of the 12 Steps being antithetical to no-self teachings, that statement is not well thought through. Even a cursory look at the function of the 12 Steps will reveal that it’s about abandonment of self. To that effect, if a crack head can simply realize no self, and thus gain victory over attachments and addictions – there is a difference, then they don’t really need any teachings or programs. I’ve been involved in the world of addiction since about 1976. I haven’t met a real addict who could do this in all that time. Although in the 12-Step world I’ve met many thousands who do recover from what we call a “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.” But not so many people in the 12-Step world really dig deep into the underlying spirituality offered there.
In my own experience the Buddhist teachings go hand in hand with the principles of the 12 Steps. When we look at addiction through the eyes of the Buddha, we can see the Buddhist principles very clearly. When we look at Buddhism through the eyes of the addict, we can easily understand the basics of Buddhist thought. In my opinion, you don’t have to be an addict or a Buddhist to benefit from the information, the meditations and the integration that I outline in the 12-Step Buddhist.

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Julia May

posted June 13, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Hi Darren,
Thanks for commenting! I’m excited to read your book and I definitely think everyone can benefit from the 12 steps you laid out in the article. I think that Buddhist principles are good for everyone, and especially for addicts. So I’m not challenging you, in the least, just posing questions.

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posted July 30, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Darren, sorry, I disagree that the 12 steps can be integrated successfully into Buddhist practice. The 12 steps are, no matter how you slice it and dice it, about GOD, praying to God to save you, and about examining the “diseased self” ad nauseum, picking apart everything you’ve ever done wrong, “confessing” these “defects of character” to your fellow AAs, and no mention anywhere of compassion or metta for one’s self, all of which I would argue is antithetical to Buddhist practice. The 12 steps, pure and simple are about asking someone else to magically fix you, that someone else being “God” who is mentioned or alluded to in at least 6 of the steps:
Step 2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
Step 3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
Step 5 – Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
Step 6 – Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
Step 7 – Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
Step 11 – Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out

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