A Buddhist’s Views on AA


The difficulty the program struggles with isn’t in its basic prescription. The trouble instead resides in the way that message is often presented.

By Taiyu

Hungry Ghosts

Hungry Ghosts

In Buddhism there is a myth about a hell-realm populated by beings whose appetites exceed their capacity for satisfaction. Their stomachs are huge but their throats are tiny. No matter how much they try to eat, their hunger remains. In ancient India, they are called hungry ghosts. We call them alcoholics and drug addicts.

In the United States prior to the 1940s, efforts to help addicts and alcoholics relied primarily on prison, hospitals, sanatoriums, and evangelical religion. Outcomes were terrible. Locking up or converting hungry ghosts at best kept the sufferer sober in the most basic sense but ultimately did nothing to resolve the deeper issues that make drinking or using clearly appear as a very good idea. External force and appeals to higher truths rarely reach the psychic depth necessary to support real change.

Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1930s changed everything. Through it, recovery became a meaningful possibility. Within a few short decades, AA and its progeny (Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and so on) grew to be the hallmark and solution of choice for anyone struggling with addiction. Since then, AA has continued to serve as the primary avenue for recovery in America. It exists in most communities, its literature is published in all major and many minor languages world wide, and the fellowship has helped literally millions of addicts and alcoholics return to sober productive lives.

Even the medical community, with its emphasis on primary treatment, recognizes this. Nearly all hospital-based and free-standing programs throughout the US follow a 12-Step model of recovery. Indeed, the standard modality for helping hungry ghosts everywhere involves a few days to a week or so of medically supervised detoxification, a longer period of intensive immersion in the principles of AA, and an aftercare model that funnels graduates towards the fellowship.

This is so if for no other reason than because AA members understand first hand the real work of recovery doesn’t involve getting sober, it involves staying sober. For most of us, the effort to sustain recovery quickly assumes an order of magnitude that dwarfs any life endeavor previously or subsequently undertaken. Indeed, quality sobriety entails a kind of commitment that is simply incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t actually done it. And with the success of AA’s recovering community, there finally appeared an ongoing community whose singular commitment and capability was and is to support, educate, and enable addicts to get and remain sober through life’s ups and downs.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a wonderful thing. It embraces the scope of ongoing change people in recovery must undertake. It provides an easy functioning and accessible kinship system. Its program is comprehensible and accessible to nearly anyone. And its willingness to welcome newcomers is close to perfect. The collective wisdom of the fellowship serves as a goldmine of truths that resonate deeply within the hearts and minds of recovering people everywhere. And the loving commitment it fosters for suffering addicts may very well exemplify the purest kind of compassion in action the world has ever seen.

But AA isn’t perfect. Its language and underlying principles, to varying degrees, are outdated and sometimes petrified, its message seems at times far too simplistic, and its insistence that recovery requires a commitment to an external higher power (implicitly and often explicitly “God”) increasingly fails to resonate even with theistic members. The AA tradition favoring mentorship of newcomers by more seasoned members sometimes fosters cult-like tendencies, and ultimately, for better or worse it’s very easy for recovering persons to simply substitute an AA addiction for their initial drug of choice. And while no one ever died from participation in the fellowship, without the deeper inward effort recovery requires, the allure of resuming active addiction frequently becomes overwhelming.

After all, if merely subscribing to a new outward identity were sufficient, AA wouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

To recover is to escape the realm of hungry ghosts. And we who have addiction find ourselves in this realm not because our throats are in fact too small nor our natural appetites too large, but because we’re utterly and beyond all doubt convinced we’re doomed without some external substance. Our lives are the experience of profound insufficiency. The belief we simply cannot survive without some sort of relief colors reality in such a hue that without more we are literally blind to everything else.

This delusion regarding the necessity of addiction is, for us, so deeply entrenched in our identity that it thoroughly covers and colors every last bit of our waking and sleeping moments.

Even in sobriety, we continue to obsess and wallow in the collective belief we’re broken people with few redeeming capabilities. We litter our talk with discussions of core character defects, addictive tendencies, and fundamental flaws. We actively run from life’s commitments and opportunities. And we habitually insist without more the doom we evade through ongoing recovery lurks just beyond our conscious reach. This nearly universal experience flows not from anything we did during the years of active addiction. It precedes those times and serves as the cognitive basis for why we used in the first place, and continued long after its limitations became apparent.

These perceptual truths don’t just disappear when we swear off our substances of choice; indeed they intensify after sobriety. People who are new to all this sometimes experience a bit of a honeymoon during which they find satisfaction in being sober, attending more fully to the details of their lives, making amends, and participating in the fellowship of recovery. Almost invariably, however, that experience ends. In its place comes increasing sensitivity and emotional pain, a myriad of discouraging thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions, and a sense of meaninglessness and lack of purpose that easily becomes overpowering.

AA’s diagnosis and prescription, at heart, grapples with all this rather nicely. We’re invited to accept whole heartedly that a life of continued active addiction dooms us, that there is a way out which leads to a meaningful and fulfilling destiny, and that we can and should embrace with a deep sense of hope, faith, and commitment the idea that this better way is indeed accessible to each of us.

At once, we’re then invited to turn our attention inward and begin to fearlessly examine our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and history. We’re asked to review and accept the past, to identify our mistakes, and to try and clarify the patterns and habits that fueled our behavior. We’re encouraged to directly or symbolically clean house and make amends, and we’re advised to adopt a far more honest and transparent approach to daily life.

Finally, we’re urged to internalize and continue this reflective process on a routine ongoing basis, and to turn our attention to helping others with the same problem come into and remain in recovery.

These ideas aren’t controversial. Viewed from a distance the foolhardiness of active addiction should be obvious. Clearly there exist innumerable ways to navigate life more effectively. Just as surely lives based on honesty, integrity, openness, and decency prove more beneficial than the insanity we once embraced. These are AA’s values. No one – addict or not – who embraces such ideas ever willingly discards them.

So the difficulty the program struggles with isn’t in its basic prescription. The trouble instead resides in the way that message is often presented. AA’s founders inherited a primitive religious view of addiction they accepted as basic reality. Seen through this prism, addiction became primarily a spiritual sickness whose symptoms involved character defects, moral insufficiency, and lack of faith. They viewed belief in God as an absolute necessity. They thought the path to a recovered life flows from cognitive and behavioral change in favor of new, more honest, and wholesome ideas. All this can be learned through meetings, sponsorship, the Big Book, and prayer. In the end, so this vision teaches, recovering alcoholics have the opportunity to graduate not from addiction itself, but into the fellowship of the spirit, a place where – but for routine maintenance – recovery is largely complete, and where thereafter the primary task is service and mentorship to less evolved members.

Some of these mistakes are mitigated by the efforts of the larger fellowship, the actual experience of recovery by the founders themselves, and the structural openness AA emphasizes. But the program nevertheless routinely risks becoming quasi-religious, institutionalized, and bent upon its own survival at the expense of actually helping people recover.

In a sense, AA has acquired an ego and now finds itself in the difficult struggle to sustain relevance in a Universe that no longer fully subscribes to its world view. Whatever the founders meant by “character defects,” “moral inventories,” and “spiritual sickness,” we now view these ideas with justified suspicion. We often experience meetings less as an opportunity for sharing experience, strength, and hope, and more as evangelizing and cheerleading. We sense a tendency to elevate the literature to sacred-text status that makes even the most benign constructive criticism unacceptable. We endorse a de facto leadership defined by years of sobriety and charisma that allows some individuals a great and improper ability to define the meaning of recovery. And all this, to varying degrees exists at the expense of the founders’ original goal: to zealously and by any effective means help addicts recover from the horrors of addiction.

What were envisioned as the collective living truths learned through one addict joining with another have tended to evolve towards a dogmatic insistence that recovery requires rigorous attendance at meetings, full acceptance of hyper-active sponsorship, early securing and defining of a higher power, and then turning individual autonomy (often mediated by the sponsor’s intercession) over to that entity. Failure to sufficiently undertake this behavior leads to judgment and criticism. To resist such efforts is to be in denial, to allow our addiction to speak for us, or to be unwilling to accept real recovery. Those who don’t fully subscribe to the orthodox view face ostracism and exclusion. And in the end, when this process gets loud enough, people who might have recovered simply don’t.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine what recovery might consist of were it not for the fellowship and program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

To be released from the shackles of active addiction is to escape the realm of hungry ghosts. There’s no particular one-size-fits-all “right” way to do it. We’re all, in this sense, pilgrims on an unknown journey to the new world. If the vision of recovery just criticized here does in fact work for particular addicts, they’d be fools not to rely upon it. That being said, for those of us who find great value in the fellowship of AA and its core program, yet struggle with its less helpful tendencies, this is a reminder:

Recovery is a broad avenue of increasing choices, opportunities, and solutions. AA is a community of explicit equality. The Big Book is but one of an entire library of texts. And no single member, group, or larger recovering community has the capability or authority to define what anyone’s continued sobriety requires.

Abstractly, the work of recovery involves an initial deep and abiding commitment, based almost wholly on personal faith alone, to significant fundamental change. Usually at first we simply commit to attendance at AA meetings and promise not to drink or use in the interim. Later, and again based largely on hope and faith, we’re asked to do much much more. That is to say, right away and always we do whatever we can simply not to drink or use. But it takes time – a lifetime – to turn and attend to those aspects of the ego self whose needs required drinking and using in order to survive. Without this larger effort, simply going to meetings and not drinking usually ultimately fails. So does memorizing the Big Book, performing service work, talking to our sponsors every day, talking to sponsees every day, and trying to discern what our ego’s notion of God would have us do in perplexing situations.

Recovery is the grandest of endeavors. It calls on those who enter the path to turn and face their demons in ways people who don’t have addiction simply cannot fully understand. There is a sensitivity in alcoholics and drug addicts that, before sobriety, we manage only through the numbing authority of chemical substances and addictive behavior. Removing our drug means removing the best solution to meaninglessness, sadness, anxiety, and massive suffering we addicts ever encountered. There’s something about hungry ghosts that makes life loud and unhappy with or without the substance, so much so that drinking and using past the point of addiction and well on towards death itself seems at times like a very very good idea.

And so, ultimately, the work of sobriety is the task of finding meaning, purpose, joy, and satisfaction in life without the searing anesthesia of active addiction. How that happens is as unique to each person as snowflakes on a winter night. While some in AA argue there’s only one true path, the real truth is no one recovers the same way as anyone else.

There are however, certain principles in recovery that carry a tremendous amount of force for nearly everyone. The sense of doom, hope, and commitment outlined previously are centerpieces to most people’s ongoing efforts. Likewise, the program’s middle steps, having to do with fearless and loving introspection, end up being the ongoing primary requirement of continued success in long-term recovery. And as we resolve our issues and meaningfully reconnect into the world as it is, the last requirement of AA – helping others who come after us – becomes a wonderful method of reinforcing our own life journey while also assisting our brothers and sisters to find and remain on their path when times get hard.

Buddhism teaches that life has suffering that comes not from outside us but instead from what’s within. By letting go these internal struggles we overcome pain and find fulfillment. This isn’t (or shouldn’t be) at odds with anything anyone encounters in recovery nor in AA. Indeed, those of us with addiction have no trouble understanding from the very beginning the nature of suffering. Time and work usually leads to the second truth, that the genesis of pain lies within us and in our responses to experience. And, although AA teaches that it’s God who lifts our delusions, the texts also provide a conceptually concise method of manifesting that change which is God-neutral and completely consistent with what the Buddha taught.

And so, only in ultimately trivial and easily overcome ways does Buddhism not fit squarely within the same process as 12-Step programs in general. Indeed, the spiritual solution of AA is the same solution any serious meditation practice uncovers, and if we come to understand all the talk about character defects in 12-Step programming is really talk about ego-self and delusion, even this aspect of recovery becomes uncontroversial. After all, the Buddha himself probably holds the copyright on the idea we need to see, accept, and let go any aspects of ego that lead to suffering.

AA redeems itself whenever members speak from the heart about experience, strength, and hope. Buddhism too, as well as all religions, all psychologies, and all personal disciplines and practices are saved in the ongoing effort to honestly discern truth and wisdom. It is a fluid process, not a static thing. Words, ideas, concepts, and proclaimed truths ultimately don’t reach the Universe because they always come after the fact, after the experience, after the awakening. And whether we’re active or recovering addicts, whether we’re awakened or deluded, and even if we’re the proverbial and illusory well adjusted perfectly normal individual with no issues or concerns whatsoever – none of this ultimately changes the far deeper truth which is simply that we are all seekers on the path to wisdom, redemption, and peace.


19 Responses

  1. James R. says:

    I was drawn to Buddhism some 12 years ago and have been in and out of AA for 32. I now sit twice daily. I would say that it was a natural evolution of thought and practice (for a very hungry ghost). AA contains many Ideals compatible with Buddhism with it’s emphasis on honest introspection, attachment and letting go. I of course would like to see the BB re-written to reflect the experience of all (it would be a very BIG book indeed) but the net is doing a good job of that. Good article….

  2. Christopher G says:

    This is by far one of the best articles I have yet read on this website. It encompasses my thoughts and feelings more than I have ever been able to express. Thank you. As an aside, sort of, as it seems to apply; I found a definition in a dictionary that so succinctly reveals meaning to me for the word RECOVERY, “to obtain something of value from waste”.

  3. Iris says:

    Thank you for this article. It helped me a lot. I have been a sober member of AA since 1977 but I haven’t attended many meetings in recent years because as a Buddhist, I have found it difficult as I feel the meetings have become so Christianized. But this helps me. I had never thought of my previous alcoholic existence as the Hungry Ghost realm but that does make sense and helps me to clear up many things. Thanks.

  4. Rodney says:

    Hi. Thank you for being there. Tonight I came out at my A.A. meeting. After 10 years in the fellowship the concept and need for God fell away from me. I was out walking the dog when it all vanished. Like a cliff falling into the sea. One moment there, the next… gone. I have been studying the Theravadan Buddhism of Ajahn Chah and his Western pupils for about 2 yrs. In the meeting there was a loving listening to me and several beautiful shares followed. I am glad to be with such people but I don’t see yet how I can Sponsor now or share at meetings. I am very happy and feel released from a great weight. Well… enough… Love and peace to you all.

  5. Michael says:

    I enjoyed the article very much but some of the points seem very generalized and do not reflect my experience in AA. I do not believe that AA is seeking relevance, it seems stronger and more relevant than ever. As a Buddhist and agnostic, I have never had a problem with the terms ‘spiritual sickness’, ‘moral inventory’ or ‘character defects’. These have been very useful concepts to me and do not conflict with my Buddhist beliefs. For me, meditation is largely about sorting out my ego centered flaws with emotional detachment, seeing cause and effect, flaws that can make me miserable. The 12 steps have shown me how to take action in ways that Buddhism has not. Referring to these flaws as ‘defects’ or referring to myself at my bottom as ‘spiritually sick’ does not seem like a negative thing and these concepts do not promote a belief in a ‘god’ in my view.

    In 23 years in the program I have never once felt ostracized, my beliefs and non-beliefs have always been respected. I cannot think of one incident that I was ever challenged at a group level. I heard the saying ‘take what you want and leave the rest’ early on and I still embrace it, people say all kinds of things at meetings, that’s the nature of AA.

    Perhaps I’m lucky, I got sober in San Francisco and I’m now in a large city in the Midwest where I attend mostly LGBT meetings. I don’t doubt that members of AA in more rural areas or deep in the Bible Belt have experienced pressure to conform to a more religious view but that has not been my experience. I see AA as imperfect but I can’t imagine changing it much. The language is old and outdated but the program is not promoting any particular religion, I have never felt it to be a Christian program. Perhaps some of the issues that come up reflect the current membership more than the founders.

    I do feel passionately about seeing more atheist/agnostic meetings in every district. A lot of people have not made it to recovery because of this issue so I support articles like this one and the discussion they can provoke.

  6. TorontoSally says:

    Good article, like the approach and the ideas. But – “We actively run from life’s commitments and opportunities” – I don’t. So please don’t write “we”.


    • denisk says:

      Good on you Sally for pointing this out. I dont like to be lumped in with generalities either.

  7. Mike M says:

    I like the views shared here. I got sober August 2008. God did not come down from heaven and strike me sober. I had to work at it while the biology of addiction was healed in my brain.
    The fellowship enveloped me while I did that.
    I hang with the democratic AA members. Those that let people have their own experience.
    Salutations from Southern California.

    Ps The Zen Of Recovery by Mel Ash is a cool book: a buddhist take on the steps.

  8. Dave says:

    After 4 decades in AA I’m only interested in 4 steps……one, two, three and twelve. The rest are of no value to me. Sometimes I want to warn newcomers when I see them being sucked into the blame and shame ringer (steps 4 through 11) but then I think, hey, it’s a twelve step meeting and it’s helped keep me from picking up a drink for forty years. So I gently suggest that they not be too hard on themselves or let some self hating whacko with 25 years of selfless devotion to the program push them down on their knees and hand them a whip. But I still have great faith that most recovering alcoholics will eventually figure it out and keep the good stuff and the ones who don’t will continue to speak at conventions. (I know, I know, some of them are great.)

  9. simon says:

    “(I)t’s hard to imagine what recovery might consist of were it not for the fellowship and program of Alcoholics Anonymous…”. It looks like Lifering, and/or Biblical Recovery, ACA, Women for Sobriety, SMART RECOVERY, CBT, Recovery International, Rational Recovery, Moderation Management, simple willpower, etc. I think AA is wonderful for those for whom it is a good fit, and I am fascinated at how the organization may be evolving (or not). But based on emerging science (and common-sense, really), it’s time to give up the myth that “AA is the only way”.

    • David H. says:

      Simon, it’s no myth that if not for AA there wouldn’t have been anyplace for me to go when I first tried to get sober. Those other places didn’t exist then. And even today show me the 24hr a day places all over the country, and even in other countries, where a still wet one can go hang out or just get in out of the rain, that are run by the groups you mention.
      More power and success to LifeRing, etc. May they grow and prosper and help millions.
      In the meantime, AA is more accessible and available to a degree that is hard to calculate. Here in Houston there’s places virtually across the street from each other, and multi-lingual.
      So yeah, it’s kinda hard to imagine what recovery would look like without AA. It would look a lot scarcer, for one thing.
      AA makes a point of saying that it’s not for everyone, and that it has no monopoly on getting people sober. Although there are individuals who think that way, there’s no myth that “AA is the only way.” Nobody said that as far as I can see.

  10. John F. says:

    My recommendation – go straight to the original article, of which this is a part. They are both worthwhile!!

  11. Thomas B., Seaside, Oregon says:

    Thanks for reposting this excellent essay which demonstrates so effectively the old metaphor that there are many paths up the high mountain of recovery. Hopefully, AA shall continue to be open to all ways, all paths, all processes of spiritual awakening and recovery, as both Bill and Bob advocated throughout their lives after founding AA.

    Hopefully, the General Service Conference Board shall focus upon insuring that AA embrace an open-ended spirituality, rather than rigidly insisting that there is only THE ONE way to redemptive recovery, as proclaimed by many religious dogmas across the globe. If AA continues to stress an inclusive spirituality instead of any brand of religiosity, then AA shall continue to evolve, so that anyone, anywhere who suffers from addiction will find a source for healing and recovery, as our Responsibility Pledge declares.

    • Eric T says:

      I couldn’t agree more Thomas! Inclusivity is a principle that I cherish in AA, and so I try to practice it myself. I’ve drawn on many different sources in my own spiritual progress, and that diversity continues to help me chip away at my own prejudice and close-mindedness. I’m certainly a work in progress, but without diversity, sobriety would sure be dull…

      • John M. says:

        And Bill Wilson in a number of instances suggested that AA was simply anarchy that works!

  12. Kevin B. says:

    Insightful article that brings up some very interesting points as a Buddhist and “recovering” AA member. I`ve always differed with the idea of recovery. The question I’ve always had is “recovery from what”? When I was in active addiction I was living my life. As a sober person I am living my life. There is nothing to recover from. I have found a kinship with other alcoholics in and outside of the rooms that I don’t always find elsewhere. However living a life of “principles” has allowed me to find that everywhere I am. The program steers us toward practicing “the principles.” These principles are life principles not AA principles. The idea that I am somehow different from the “normal people” is delusion and affirms the cult-like dictum that I see in AA all the time. Kevin Toronto

    • Kevin B. says:

      Apologies, I didn`t finish… This delusional idea that as an alcoholic I am somehow different leads back to the reason I needed to drink in the first place. This is the illusion of the separate self. It`s like a dog chasing its tail.

  13. Pat N. says:

    Many thanks for this article. I’m archiving it so I can print it out when I get home. I intend to highlight/underline parts and share it widely.

    IMHO, a Buddhist approach to sobriety, makes the most sense. It IS an inside job. This is also reflected in Martin Nicolaus’ book, Empowering Your Sober Self, the basic “text” of LifeRing. I like his paradigm: That we’re born with an entirely Sober Self, but over time, some of us develop an Addicted Self, which might be nipped in the bud but usually grows until we hit a bottom. But as long as there’s a shred of our Sober Self left, it can become the base of recovery/sobriety/growth. Again, it’s already in us, and while we need help finding our own way to refresh it, we don’t need an intervening deity to fix our imaginary sinful asses.

    And of course, there’s Gabor Mate’s wonderful book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which ties in the same concepts with his work on Vancouver’s Skid Row.

    Thanks again.

  14. Andy Mc says:

    Thanks for posting such an interesting and insightful article on AA and human psyche….when I read such articles I am in awe of those writers that have such deep understanding of the world within and outside of themselves.
    The thoughts and beliefs encompassed in this article are similar to my own but I do not posses such incredible insight to be able to put to pen.
    Most of the time I trudge through my life blissfully/belligerently unaware of forces guiding me to make the most of living a healthy lifestyle.
    Every Sunday I look forward to the link to blog.
    Thanks once again to all the contributors and the creator/s of this amazing blog.
    Andy McIntosh, London,On

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