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Bill W. and Buddha: Connections Between Meditation and the Twelve Steps of AA

posted by Ethan Nichtern

by Rosemary McGinn

I’ve always wanted to eavesdrop
on a conversation between Siddhartha Gautama and Bill Wilson (the founder
of Alcoholics Anonymous). I think they’d get along great: Both of these men found paths
out of suffering in their own experience and went on to share them with
many people. They both struck chords that have resonated for millions
of people over the years.

The Twelve-Step way of life
and Buddhism share many similarities and connections, even beyond the
apparent compulsion to number important things. They’re loaded with
similar paradoxes: Buddhists take vows, but dwell on and in the impermanence
of all things. Sober alcoholics “count days” of sobriety, yet survive
one day at a time.  

Here’s what struck me the
most when I started hanging around with Buddhists, though: both Bill
and Sid got that we can’t do it alone. Or rather, that we don’t
to.  Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “The Buddha said that Right
View is to have faith and confidence that there are people who have
been able to transform their suffering.” Bill Wilson started off the
Twelve Steps with the word “we”, and marked the beginning of AA
not from his own sobriety date, but from the date when he and AA’s
co-founder got together to help a third alcoholic. 

Why bother? Why not just get
the home versions of the Twelve Steps and of the dharma? I’m sure it’s
possible – people who are not fortunate enough to live in New York
City do it every day. But we are encouraged by both gentlemen to take
refuge in the communities of those like us – because that’s where
hope comes from. When I look around my zendo, I see people who have
been able to transform their suffering – and that makes it easier
for me to sit for another 25 minutes. When I look around my home Twelve-Step
group, I see people who have come a million miles from their histories
of hardship and trauma – and that makes it easier for me to show up
at the next meeting. 

If I didn’t have these powerful
examples, I doubt I’d get very far, because I want guarantees. I want
to be sure of the results before I take a step or make a commitment.
My default is to wait for my fear to go away before doing the things
I’m afraid of.  I’d learn to swim when I’m not afraid of the
water any more, I thought.  I’d apply for that job, I’d sign
up for a new class in a new place, I’d go on a retreat with people
I don’t know, I’d ride my bike down that unfamiliar street – when
I’m “comfortable”, when it “feels safe”. That’s how I used
to run my life. 

Obviously, guarantees are not
forthcoming, so it’s a good thing I’ve found Bill and Sid to help
me along. I’ve learned to “make a ziff” – or “act as if”
- acting my way into right thinking rather than thinking my way into
right action, as they say in the Twelve-Step rooms. The Noble Eightfold
Path holds a lot of this, too: Right Speech, Conduct, Livelihood, all
lead us to awakening and serenity, rather than vice versa.  

But I wouldn’t have the courage
to do any of this if I didn’t have teachers, veterans, and peers around
me in both circles. Today, I know that I don’t need blind faith in
either the Steps or the dharma: I have proof. All I need to do is look

Comments read comments(10)
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Jack Daw

posted November 2, 2009 at 5:02 pm

I recently reviewed the book “The 12 Step Buddhist” by Darren Littlejohn and his process centered around the integration of several therapies to ensure a maximum of benefit. Overall a good read and a great supplement (as it is intended) to the 12 Step program.

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posted November 3, 2009 at 9:06 am

You have presented a very nice perspective on the two beliefs.
You have confirmed that “this is my way, that is your way, the way does not exist”.
We all need to come to grips with our demons and find a Higher Power/God/Divine Being that we can believe in and trust. The Twelve Steps suggest that we need to find a Higher Power “as we understand it”.
I do not need to hold on to my parents God.
By following the Steps, I am able to come out of the shadows and into the light of the world.

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posted November 3, 2009 at 11:58 am

Good community is so valuable.

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Mary Ellen

posted November 3, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Thank you! You make a powerful and important point. How do we know? How can we find hope if we do not see the power of recovery and the benefits of being a practitioner? What attacks us in the first place?

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posted November 3, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Thank you for this article. I have recently launched an online meditation centre (from the buddhist tradition) and am really focussing on the community aspect because I know the personal transformative power in reaching out, moving away from isolation and just generally, as you have expressed here, being transformed by either listening to or sharing experience, strength and hope…

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Darren Littlejohn

posted November 3, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Thank you for this article. There are methods and principles connected to the 12 Steps that work very well with many forms of Buddhism.
In my book, the 12-Step Buddhis, I write about the connections and differences between the 12 Steps and modern psychotherapy, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism in some detail.
May it be of benefit.

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posted November 3, 2009 at 5:48 pm

There are similarities, but there’s a fundamental difference to me. The 12 steps say that you are powerless and must turn your life over to the care of god, the higher power that has the power to save us. buddhism says that you have the power, not some external force, and by following the path you can tap into it.
I haven’t found a sangha I feel comfortable with. I sit with a group, but I don’t feel a sense of community with the members. I’m not particularly inspired by their example.

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posted November 3, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Wonderful article! I was a “Spiritual Seeker” 20 years before I found the gift for my life of A.A. and it’s marvelous concurrence, and practical, tight consolidation of the many truthful disciplines. I have recommended to those not wishing to consider themselves “Alcoholic”, to just live by the 12 steps anyway and find a lifting of suffering.

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Richard Sanders

posted December 3, 2010 at 11:15 pm

I was looking around for some spiritual uplift tonight and I found it here in your post. This zen-loving recovering addict/alcoholic sends you a great big heartfelt thank you!

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posted May 18, 2013 at 5:15 am

My first exposure to Buddhism was through a series of lectures by Dr Santos on the basic precepts. I read them all with beginners mind in just a few hours. In my second year of recovery my best friend was SGI and we communicated about intimacy in our relationships. I could not understand why I had more in common with my Buddhist friend than the others in my AA group. MY life was not about my sexuality.

Now as an older adult I understand how hedonistic I actually was then and I feel vigilant trying to escape disire and passion. Wisdom and compassion to me are truely ideals. The steps have freed me from alcohol, but my failure to learn or practice vipassana, or realize at that early age the significance or need of a lasting bond, perhaps due to an over emphisis on imperminance has left me needy and unfulfilled.

Buddhism doesn’t get easier. Keeping your spiritual needs just ahead of your practice is quite a challenge. A person has to continue to live in the western world and stay true to their ideals. I tried to abondond my Chritian beliefs amd let go of God. Perhaps god and AA will be there as long as I need them.

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