Mindfulness and the 12 Steps


Review by Roger C.

There would appear to be much in common between Buddhist thought and the 12 Step recovery program practiced 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 rather well-known work, The 12-Step Buddhist.

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

Jacobs-Stewart got sober in 1975. “Now, thirty-five years later, I owe the programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon my life. I’ve stayed straight and can say I am genuinely happy.” She is a psychologist, a counsellor, an AAer and a practising Buddhist.

For Jacobs-Steward and these other writers, Buddhist practice is in sync with AA’s 12 Step program.

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 suffering could be reduced and eventually eliminated.

This is where the author introduces mindfulness, which can be defined as self-awareness writ large, built into every moment of our lives, as both a form of behaviour and through the practice of meditation.

Meditation is a mode of mindfulness and 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. (p. 52)

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

Last week 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 mindful 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)

Julie – and this was no doubt an important part of her first year of sobriety – often attends a Buddhist meditation session on Friday evenings that is hosted by a social worker, a member of the Buddhist community in Toronto, and a recovering alcoholic.

Jacobs-Stewart would certainly appreciate that particular Friday night group.

In 2004 she founded the Mind Roads Meditation Center which is home to Twelve Steps and Mindfulness meetings in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Each month, we discuss one of the Twelve Steps and how Buddhist thought, meditation, and mindfulness practice can be applied to our life in recovery… Seeking deeper serenity in our lives, (we are) grounded in sobriety by the Twelve Step program, inspired to awaken and live in the present by the practices of mindfulness meditation. (p. xv)

Jacobs-Stewart devotes a chapter in her book to each of the Steps. We shall look at just one of these chapters/Steps.

In the chapter devoted to a discussion of Step Three, she writes that the Buddhist approach to “turning our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” is to “take refuge.”

There are three refuges in Buddhism (also called the three jewels).

The first is taking refuge in the actual practice, which has earlier been described as a process of awakening. It is called taking refuge in the Buddha or in our Buddha nature. “Taking refuge in awakening suggests that many of the self-critical or self-important beliefs we hold are simply overlays, clouding and distorting our conscious contact with the (mind in its fullness)… I think of a carnival, with a loud, neon-lit, mental fun house, filled with mirrors.” (p. 32)

The second refuge is dharma. These are the teachings of the Buddha, which embody core principles such as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Dharma also consists of those methods and the teachings related to those methods that are “the arts and sciences” which enable us to open ourselves to a new way of life.

The third and final refuge is the sangha, the Buddhist community. There are plenty of these sanghas in downtown Toronto, for example (and all of these congenially welcome the agnostic and atheist) – Satipanna (formerly Spring Rain), Toronto Zen Centre, Friends of the Heart, Shambhala, True Peace Toronto – where regularly scheduled guided meditations are practiced. These meditations are most often followed by a “dharma” talk, a brief presentation on some of the principles of Buddhism. While there are not as many Buddhist sanghas in Toronto as there are AA groups and meetings, there are still quite a lot of them.

The reliance on a community or a fellowship will be quite familiar to those of us with experience in the rooms of AA. There are some who, when they stumble onto the third step, decide that “God as we understood Him” is a Group of Drunks, the fellowship itself.

Buddhism places a great deal of emphasis on interdependence (all being and phenomena depend on all other beings and phenomena) – as one will discover reading Jacobs-Stewart book – and thus has no difficulty whatsoever with the principle of “one alcoholic helping another alcoholic,” the core mandate of AA.

As noted earlier, this mindfulness approach to dealing with the affliction of alcoholism has grown exponentially over the past two decades. Indeed, it is doing so with or without Buddhism. In 1990, Jon Kabat-Zinn 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 Toronto from a number of hospitals and doctors and are used to deal with a wide variety of afflictions, including alcoholism.

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-Zinn MBSR model that she had taken in early sobriety at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Of course, many looking for meditation and mindfulness to deal with the affliction of alcoholism turn directly to Buddhism. The Buddhist Recovery Network has been in operation since 2009. It “supports the use of Buddhist teachings, traditions and practices to help people recover from the suffering caused by addictive behaviors… The organization promotes mindfulness and meditation…”

On one of its pages it lists 14 published works that take a Buddhist mindfulness approach to working the 12 Steps. One of those, of course, is the book by Jacobs-Stewart.

Mindfulness And The Twelve Steps

Click on the cover to read more about the book on Amazon.

There are many stories out there, from many diverse perspectives, about recovery from alcoholism that are both inspiring and helpful.

Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart’s book, Mindfulness and the 12 Steps, is one of those works. If you are interested in how a Buddhist might interpret the 12 Steps, then this is a wonderful book. It is also a landmark document in terms of understanding how the practice of mindfulness meditation can help in dealing with some very severe afflictions, including – and maybe especially – alcoholism.

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