Buddhism and the 12 Steps

Buddhas

By Roger C.

There would appear to be much in common between Buddhist thought and the 12 Step recovery program practised by some in AA.

A number of books have made the connection between them.

Three of the more popular ones include Kevin Griffin’s work, One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the 12 Steps, published in 2004. That was followed in 2009 by Darren Littlejohn’s well-known work, The 12-Step Buddhist.

And a third is Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart’s book, Mindfulness and the 12 Steps, published in 2010.

Buddhist thought holds that craving leads to suffering (the second noble truth). Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha taught that snippets of addiction – constantly wanting, ever craving this or that – are the source of all human suffering.

He also taught that this craving could be reduced and eventually eliminated.

This is where Buddhist mindfulness enters the picture. It can be defined as self-awareness brought about by the practice of meditation.

Meditation leads incrementally towards an “awakening:” an understanding of human interaction in the world that is both craving and delusion-free.

We have the choice to live an awakened life… This is a choice to be mindful, see our patterns, and recognize the delusions that lead us to act the way we do. In Twelve Step terms, it is the practice of taking inventory, searching out what’s driving our actions and reactions, and taking responsibility for it. (Mindfulness and the 12 Steps, p. 52)

It is certainly worth noting that the the “mindfulness” of Buddhism as a way of dealing with addictive behaviour is ever more prevalent in the rooms of AA.

Some time ago Julie B. celebrated a year of sobriety at the We Agnostics meeting on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. She chose to have one word, an acronym, on her one-year medallion: S.O.B.E.R.

When we have a troubling thought, or a desire to drink, the Buddhist approach is laid out this way:

  • Stop – Pause for a moment and consider what you are doing;
  • Observe – Think about what you are sensing, feeling and experiencing, and what events led to the situation;
  • Breathe – Pause for a few deep breaths in order to assess your situation in as calm a manner as possible;
  • Expand – Expand your awareness and remind yourself of what will happen if you keep repeating the unwanted behavior (and how you will feel afterward);
  • Respond mindfully – Remember that you have a choice, that you are not required to continue the undesired behaviour.

As Jacobs-Stewart puts it, “If we are mindful, we can slow down the reactionary chain of thoughts, feelings, and subsequent actions. We can see the whole cycle.” (p. 81)

This mindfulness approach to dealing with the affliction of alcoholism has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Indeed, it is doing so with or without Buddhism.

In 1990, Jon Kabat-Zin published a ground-breaking book, Full Catastrophe Living, which launched the use of mindfulness meditation as a “stress reduction program.” Called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), these programs are readily available in most cities from a number of hospitals and doctors and are used to deal with a wide variety of afflictions, including alcoholism.

BuddhaIn fact, the S.O.B.E.R. inscription on Julie’s one-year medallion had its inspiration in an eight-week program based on the Kabat-Zin MBSR model that she had taken in early sobriety at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

It is perhaps also worth mentioning that, like AA, the Buddhist approach places a great deal of emphasis on community or “fellowship” as an important part of maintaining sobriety. Buddhism believe that all beings are interdependant and thus has a profound understanding of the importance of the principle of “one alcoholic helping another alcoholic,” as an important part of recovery.

Many looking for meditation and mindfulness to deal with the affliction of alcoholism turn to the Buddhist Recovery Network, which has been online since 2009. The website “supports the use of Buddhist teachings, traditions and practices to help people recover from the suffering caused by addictive behaviors.” The Buddhist Recovery Network specifically “promotes mindfulness and meditation” as a way of dealing with alcoholism and addiction. On its Resources Page it lists a total of sixteen published books that take a Buddhist approach to working the 12 Steps.

On the Buddhist Recovery Network’s Meetings Page, it lists times and locations for meetings in half a dozen countries. In the United States there are roughly one hundred meetings, with thirty of them in California. Interestingly, at the Alano Club in Portland, Oregon, where a Beyond Belief agnostic AA meeting is held on Sunday mornings, there is also a Buddhist 12 Step Meditation meeting on Tuesday evenings. Indeed, many of these Buddhist recovery meetings involve the 12 Steps.

A Buddhist approach to the 12 Steps can be an important part of achieving what Bill Wilson described as the “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” in the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous.

Buddhism and the 12 Steps. Do they fit together?

They sure do, for an increasing number of people.


This article is a condensed and gently revised version of Mindfulness and the 12 Steps, originally published on AA Agnostica on September 2, 2012.


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Buddhism and the 12 Steps — 33 Comments

  1. The first step of AA requires us to admit powerlessness. AA will tell us that if we don’t accept powerlessness then the only option is the delusion of complete control. This might be the case if we possess a dualistic viewpoint. The non-dualistic viewpoint wold assert that powerlessness and complete control are both illusions of the mind.

    • Powerlessness over alcohol. And yes, it is dualistic but the ego is dualistic and as long as we have an ego the difference is important, even crucial.

  2. While I do not consider myself to be a Buddhist, I find that Buddhism provides some great insights into how to best approach and respond to life. In addition to meditation, I find an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Ten Perfections and the Three Characteristics of Existence to be helpful. As well, I try to practice Mindfulness throughout my day. Buddhist philosophy and practices have become an important part of my recovery. My understanding of both Buddhism and AA is that they are not about believing, they are about doing.

    Thanks for the article.

  3. Thank you for this article. I am a Buddhist in recovery. Being a fan of Noah Levine and his recovery I purchased the book Refuge Recovery that Dave mentions below. I wonder if this is the same Dave from the book testimonials or from the Nashville meetings? I live in the DC area and unfortunately we do not have any Refuge Recovery meetings here yet – I have to believe someone will start them. I don’t know how many more AA meetings I can stomach. I find myself, again, struggling with all the god talk. I really try to practice patience and perspective but an atheist/agnostic in AA is such a difficult path.

  4. The blogging and comments here feel really antagonistic and reductionist and disturbing to me. I’m not so sure I want to be part of this group. I resign the debating society and find solace in Buddhism and many other approaches.

    • What I am finding so refreshing in this emerging community is the ability for us to express ourselves here without fear of censure. An attraction is my own aversion to fundamentalism and absolutist thinking wherever I find it, be it religion, politics, or 12-step programs. In the WAFT meeting I attend in San Diego I don’t like everything I hear, but I am so happy to be in a group that allows people to have a forum to say what they think, without the condescending invocation to “keep coming back”.

      Remember, when somebody is speaking here, they are an authority, not the authority, in their own individual area of understanding and experience.

  5. Thanks for the interesting topic, Roger. I think that any and all avenues leading to sobriety should be considered, regardless of who said what. I spent over five years in Vietnam during and after the war, and was exposed to Buddhism on a daily level. I was there when the monk demonstrated his antiwar beliefs through self-immolation. I don’t recommend that, but their beliefs are strong.

    I have recently been introduced to the world of Stephen Batchelor, the author of “Buddhism Without Beliefs” and “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”, among many other books. Like Roger, I felt an immediate correlation between the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and our twelve steps. Although he doesn’t make a direct connection, to me at least there is a wealth of knowledge there, from which to learn.

      • Are they still doing retreats, Roger? I understand that they moved to France and were just “living the life”. But if they are still doing retreats, I would love to attend one.

        And thanks again for introducing the topic.

  6. Practicing Buddhism brought me to the 12 step path, eventually meditation and books on Buddhism weren’t enough to maintain sobriety for me, I needed the steps and the support of people at AA meetings.

    Buddhism is non-theistic which can confuse people, that doesn’t mean atheistic. It means a Christian and an atheist can practice side by side with no conflict, as long as everyone tolerates different beliefs and no one tries to evangelize their own beliefs.

    AA in its idealized form can be the same way but human nature is what it is and boundaries will be crossed when people are sharing. I’m an agnostic but I once mentioned the concept of a higher power at my Buddhist group, just in casual conversation about recovery, and someone politely shut me down. She said there were several atheist members and that might offend them. That really impressed me.

    AA has no professional facilitators or rigid guidelines for sharing at meetings and the concept of a higher power is central to the steps and the Big Book so it’s a different environment for sure. Lines get crossed when people bring religions like Christianity into their sharing or rigid views of atheism that can come off as critical of others. Sometimes I think the only solution is to move towards atheist/agnostic AA groups forming their own organization as NA, OCA, Coda and others have done. Mainly because the literature needs to be re-worked for compatibility. There are Buddhist 12 step groups, Christian 12 step groups, why not a separate organization for Atheist/Agnostic 12 steps with its own literature? The literature already exists in many forms. At the same time, there should be debate on efforts to make AA more inclusive of all people and concern that some groups have become religious and oppressive.

  7. I attend one of the Buddhist Recovery Network meetings in my area. I’m an atheist and not a Buddhist, but I feel welcome there. There are some rituals, like bowing, that I don’t participate in, but no one cares. They read from material developed by the San Francisco Zen Center. It is a little religious for my taste and closer to conventional understandings of the Steps than I prefer, but it is mostly benign and is helpful generally. And the discussions are intelligent and mostly free of god talk. (Every now and then somebody talks about their higher power.) They open with silent meditation and close with the Serenity Prayer (in a joined-hands circle). No one even blinks when I disclose that I am an atheist. As there are no agnostic AA meetings in my city, it has been a welcome addition to my recovery repertoire.

    • Rituals can serve a purpose, provided one remembers they are simply a tool towards accomplishing a goal, and not the goal itself. Zen practioners are usually pretty good at making this distinction, provided they have a bona fide teacher and aren’t just winging it based on what they read in some popular book.

      If someone is discussing their higher power, they are discussing something decidedly NON Buddhist. Buddhism places all responsibility on the individual for his lot in life. That’s the whole point of the law of karma. “I am the owner of my karma. Born of my karma, heir to my karma, related to my karma, abide supported by my karma. All I do creates karma, and whether good or bad, I shall inherit that karma” is a recollection all Buddhists are encouraged to remember daily. This means no higher power is going to save us from the situation we put ourselves in. We don’t deny the existence of what others may refer to as supernatural beings. We just deny they have any useful purpose in our lives and are just as deluded as we are.

      Being an ordained lay Buddhist, I would have serious philosophical problems using the Serenity Prayer in any Buddhist sponsored program. The Buddha NEVER asked gods for anything. When I took refuge, I accepted and publicly affirmed the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as my ONLY refuges, and confirmed I needed no others, including gods. It saddens me to hear that the SFZC allows this to take place, diluting and corrupting the Buddha’s teachings and intent.

  8. There is another book that my wife found for me at Barnes & Noble, “Bill, The Buddha, and We: 12 Steps Along the Buddha’s Path,” by Laura S. allowed me to get beyond step one. Not sure if Barnes and Noble still stocks it generally – I know local store here has not had it recently, perhaps owing to the fact that I keep buying copies when they put them out for myself, having given away many earlier copies I owned to folks struggling with “the whole god thing.”

  9. I went to Buddhagoya in 2007. That was my 11th month of sobriety. Buddhagoya is the place where prince Siddhrta sat under the bodhi tree for 49 days to become Buddha. That visit was the first step to practice mindfullness meditation for me which is a form of Buddhist Vippassana meditation. Today I am happily sober practising Buddhist psychology and AA philosophy (minus GOD) in my daily life.

  10. Then there are ‘The Zen of Recovery’, by Mel Ash, and ‘Cool Water: alcoholism, mindfulness and ordinary recovery’, William Alexander.
    Palms together.

  11. Actually, there is almost nothing in common with what the Buddha really taught and the 12 steps. Attempts to reconcile the two are either by misguided twelve steppers who can’t abide the god thing or paper back Buddhist who want to help, but don’t really have clue what real Buddhadharma is. Mindfulness, ala Jon Kabat-Zin solves nothing, and from the Buddhist prospective, isn’t meant to. I guarantee you can be perfectly mindful and present and in the moment when you hit your thumb with a hammer and it’ll still hurt and you’ll still cuss a blue streak. Most of what is being passed off as mindfulness these days is anything but from the perspective of authentic Buddhist teachings. If you want to see Buddhist recovery, check out “Refuge Recovery” by Noah Levine or “Eight Step Recovery” by Valerie Mason-John and Dr. Paramabandhu Groves.

    • As a society we must never become so vain as to suppose that we are authors of a new religion. We will humbly reflect that every one of AA’s principles was borrowed from ancient sources. A minister in Thailand wrote, “We took AA’s 12 Steps to the largest Buddhist monastery in the province and the head monk said, ‘Why, these Steps are fine. For us Buddhists it might be slightly more acceptable if you inserted the word ‘good’ in your Steps instead of God. Nevertheless, you say that it is God as you understand him, and that must certainly include the good. Yes, AA’s 12 Steps will surely be accepted by Buddhists around here’.” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age)

      By personal religious affiliation, we include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and a sprinkling of Moslems and Buddhists … (Foreword to Second Edition of the Big Book, published 1955)

      • Laurie’s comment captures that non-North American viewpoint that fascinates me with Buddhism. To me, this quote is that frame of mind: Why, these Steps are fine. For us Buddhists it might be slightly more acceptable if you inserted the word ‘good’ in your Steps instead of God.

        I feel sad for someone who is critical of 12th step work. For me, the fellowship is special and helping is what it is all about. I still am not comfortable with sponsorship or even chairing a meeting but I’ve learned to cook a great cake.

        Twelfth Step work is critical in my life as a Buddhist and in my recovery as a alcohol/drug addict. Thanks for the link to the Buddhist Recovery Network. Your service helped me.

        Namaste, Robert in the US Virgin Islands

    • I’ve found AA and Buddhism to be very compatible. I’m gay and I was very anti-religious at one time for obvious reasons, I resonated with Buddhism before I got sober and when I did show up to AA it was not difficult for me to consider the concepts in the 12 steps, to not view them through a Judeo/Christian lens. To me, Buddhism is like a spiritual psychology, a path of self discovery and meditation has been a very valuable tool. I viewed the 12 steps in the same way. People get hung up on the 4th and 5th steps but Buddhism taught me to not look at my behaviors or past deeds as ‘sin’, to only see cause and effect with emotional detachment. AA is all about that in my opinion, figuring out behaviors that make us miserable and not judging ourselves so harshly while still developing a conscience and taking personal responsibility. There’s nothing religious about these concepts to me.

      When I came to AA I had already opened myself up to something bigger than myself which was Buddhist teachings, a very different way of thinking for me at the time and the Buddhist concept of the ego showed me the importance of getting out of my obsessive thoughts about myself. Developing more compassion has been a slow but steady journey for me and both AA and Buddhism aid in this in their own way. Buddhism showed me the value in participating in, or taking refuge in a sangha and I still see AA meetings in a similar way. Something I need to stay connected with even after two decades in the program. I have tried to drift away several times and focus solely on Buddhism but it pulls me back. I love sober alcoholics, they’re great fun, more fun than Buddhists most of the time!

    • David, if what you are saying here and elsewhere in this comment thread is true, Buddhism doesn’t seem to be an improvement over Christianity in the religiosity and dogmatism departments. Why would the average AA Agnostica reader be interested in hearing how to be a more correct religious follower, even if the religion in question isn’t the one they have specifically rejected? What you seem to be saying is that Western interpretations of Buddhism are less than useless. If that is the case, either you are wrong and arrogant or Buddhism itself is just another example of how narrow-minded and oppressive religion can be. I’m hoping it’s the former.

      • Buddhism is radically different in that it does not accept religiosity or dogma over reality.

        Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas

        Now, Buddhists are people too, prone to the very same bad habits as every else. But the teachings of the Buddha are designed to reveal reality, and turn the tables on those bad habits, not sugar coat things and give us the warm warm fuzzies we numb ourselves with. Most people, including most Buddhists, have a very hard time understanding just how radically different the Buddha’s teachings are from all other religious/spiritual traditions.

      • Thanks for your comments, JHG. Obviously, I am not a “Buddhist” as David describes himself, and what I know of Buddhism is what I have experienced in my 5+ years in Vietnam, and what if have read from such authors as the Dalai Lama (esp. The Art of Happiness), Thich Nhat Hanh (esp. Peace is Every Step), and Stephen Batchelor (esp. Buddhism Without Belief and Confession of an Atheist Buddhist).

        All of these authors, in my opinion, represent Buddhism as can be lived by any human who seeks peace and serenity in this life. That is what I have learned from their writings and that is how I apply it not only to a living philosophy, but also to my recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. There are certain aspects of the Big Book that I often refer to when faced with life’s problems, such as page 417: “acceptance is the answer to all my problems”; I firmly believe that. By the same token, I also turn to Thich Nhat Hanh, who has a portion of his book titled “Twenty-Four Brand-New Hours” for the comfort not shared in the Big Book, as well as to the other Buddhists who seem to have a handle on how to face life on life’s terms.

        Personally, I will continue to call on all resources to maintain sobriety and to find the peace in this life that always eluded me before.

      • David.

        I’m interpreting your post to be saying that AA expects religious belief and Buddhism does not. I’ve never felt forced to accept AA steps and other writings in a fundamentalist way, to reject my sense of reality. When I hear someone say ‘take what you want and leave the rest’, I believe they mean it.

        Buddhism does not tell me to believe in the Tibetan Book of the Dead without question, it tells me to question everything but it does seem like a religion to me when a monk assists a dying person to pass into the spirit realm, to prepare for their next incarnation. No more or less crazy than a 12 stepper praying to a higher power.

      • The Buddha did not pass down either the Book of the Dead nor methods for guiding the dying on to their next life.

      • Over the centuries Buddhism has evolved into something beyond the Buddha’s teachings. Attempting to define it for other Buddhists is not reality based. It reminds me of people who claim to know what defines a Christian or what defines good 12 step work. Spiritual paths are as varied and unique as people are. Buddhism and AA are inseparable to me.

  12. I don’t know much about Buddhism, so have nothing to contribute on that topic.

    I do, however, believe I know a little about The Twelve Steps.

    I have noticed in this forum that some unbelievers among us believe in the 12 step approach, and have modified it for their own purposes.

    What does this category of person think of someone such as I who thinks the 12 step dogma is shear nonsense?

    I am firmly in Dodes’s camp on why AA works when it does. It’s about fellowship and hanging with people who have a common affliction.

    I don’t believe the steps work no matter how much the believers claim they do.

    • The 12 steps can and do work for some people. Often as a form of “poor man’s” cognitive behavioral therapy. To say they never work is as dogmatic as saying they always work.

    • Lech,
      You commented “What does this category of person think of someone such as I who thinks the 12 step dogma is shear nonsense?”
      I’m confused! What do you mean by Twelve Step Dogma?
      Please demuddify the fuzzification.

      • I have no use for the 12th step, I sponsored someone once and it went OK but I never wanted to do it again. I’ve heard people go on and on in meetings about how much they’ve gotten out of sponsoring people, I believe what they say, some are quite passionate. I just don’t want to do it, I find peace in other ways and I don’t believe I would get the same benefit that others get. I don’t doubt someone who says the steps don’t work for them even though many of them have worked for me. Claiming to know what is not helpful to other people is a bit odd.

    • I would not say I modified the steps for my own purpose, rather I have interpreted them consistent with my understanding (or lack thereof) of how the cosmos works. The big book thumpers and AA fundamentalists might take issue with how I work my “program” – well, god bless them! While I agree that for many the fellowship and “hanging” provides the substitute for drinking as Bill W suggested it would, I do not agree that that is the only reason AA works for some. And as to whether the steps work or not, if there are 100 people working the steps, there are 100 ways of working the steps, and if all of them are sober, all 100 ways work. As a fellow here who just celebrated 45 years always says, there is no wrong way to stay sober. This from someone who says he has never read the big big or 12 x 12 or any other AA literature. To paraphrase that most erudite of Popes, “For methods of staying sober let fools contest – whatever works best (for you) is best.”