AA as “stealth Buddhism”
By Thom L
I’ve sometime heard at meetings in western Massachusetts that AA is “stealth Buddhism”. I like to think of the historical Buddha as one of the first addictions counselors. He observed that the “dissatisfaction / anguish” we all experience in life is a result of our cravings, and that there is a way out of our constant lurching between desire and aversion. Seeing clearly the true state of our minds through meditation and acting on this awareness (dharma) can free us from being slaves to our addictive behaviors.
Back in November at the We Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers (WAAFT) convention, I had volunteered to write about the workshop “Buddhist Precepts or Vows as They Relate to Recovery”. The workshop was to have been led by Darren Littlejohn.
Unfortunately, Darren didn’t make it. For those of you who have never heard about Darren, he wrote a popular book about Buddhism and AA in 2009 called The Twelve Step Buddhist.
A volunteer at the workshop asked if there were any “practicing Buddhists” in the room who could address the topic. Paulette, Joann, and I volunteered. We were impressed by the strong interest that those assembled had in the subject.
Along with 24 years of sobriety, I’ve been practicing meditation for over 19 years. I had an interest in Buddhism in my late teens and early 20s but had “converted to alcoholism” for about 25 years. Then when I got sober, I felt the need to rekindle this interest as part of my Step Eleven work. I started sitting regularly with a group more than 17 years ago, and consider Thursday nights with the Still Pond Zendo one of my recovery meetings. In fact, about half of the members are also in recovery, and the topics we discuss after our first 30-minute meditation are no different than what we talk about in many AA meetings: how to navigate life without getting trapped by conditioned behaviors and thoughts.
After the meeting, I gathered together some of my observations about Buddhist practice as a part of my recovery in AA. I hope that they may be helpful for others interested in enriching their recovery with elements of Buddhist practice.
- “Buddha” means one who has awakened. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, born in northern India around 500 BCE, had a profound epiphany of seeing through his illusions. He’s not the only one who has had this experience. It’s possible for all of us if we can let go fully of our conditioned thinking.
- Grappling with the impermanent nature of everything – including our own lifespans – is the central challenge. (The average lifespan in North America is about 650,000 hours!) Remembering this helps me pay avid attention to the present moment. All else is memory or fantasy.
- Acting on the illusion of a permanent, independent “self” keeps me crazy. Or, as I’ve heard in meetings, “My biggest problem is my misperception of myself”. Also, “Don’t believe everything you think”.
- I think my real addiction has always been wanting things to be other than they really are. My ego has invented a feature-length movie – The Story of ME! – written and directed by ME, starring ME, playing on the Big Screen of my mind! (And if I could arrange it, “Coming to a theatre near you!”) Seeing and accepting things as they are is a lot more challenging (and no popcorn). In many ways, the “Power” that keeps me sober and sane is the power of acceptance.
- Opening myself to the interconnectedness of everything is how I experience a “higher power” – a power beyond my own ego. In my body right now are atoms that were in the bodies of stars, dinosaurs, Buddha, Jesus, Hitler – and maybe even Peewee Herman. (It’s a “wow” factor – see “prayer” below.) Recognizing this makes me feel a bit less of the isolation many of us experience.
- I heard someone at a meeting at the convention use the term deeper power instead of Higher Power. Not so hierarchical, closer to the notion of cultivating my “Buddha nature”, from within. It’s an inside job.
- A question arose in the workshop about how prayer fits into a practice that has no real sense of “god” to whom to beseech. I think of meditation as “inspiration” and prayer as “aspiration” – that is, it’s what I hope for: for example, “May all beings be happy and safe”, and so forth. But really, my two prayers are just “Thanks” and “Wow!” Gratitude and awe are the focus of my “prayer”. And the Buddha said, “The greatest prayer is patience”.
- Joann spoke about using dharma practice in her business life. That was such a good reminder that this practice doesn’t stop when we get off the cushion. It often has profound effects on those around us when we’re not defensive, reactive, or scared.
- Compassion is the highest virtue in Buddhism. Having had the privilege of being entrusted with several men’s Fourth and Fifth Steps, I really get that “There but for the grace of a Group Of Drunks go I”.
- Paulette noted when she described her dharma practice that Buddhism sees humans as intrinsically whole and healthy (unlike the original sin idea of the Abrahamic traditions or the idea that we’re diseased). Seeing ourselves as humans whose view of the world has been skewed by confusion and addiction allows us to use what Buddhists term “skillful means” to see things as they really are.
- Quit taking it personally. Or as Bill Wilson’s physician Dr. William Silkworth said, “There is a tendency to label everything that an alcoholic may do as ‘alcoholic behavior.’ The truth is, it is simply human nature… Emotional and mental quirks are classified as symptoms of alcoholism merely because alcoholics have them, yet those same quirks can be found among non-alcoholics, too. Actually they are symptoms of mankind.” Dharma practice is a method of exploring human nature and seeing clearly how it plays out in our personal sitcoms. Steps Four, Six and Seven, Ten and Eleven provide this opportunity.
- Don’t get hung up with concepts and ideology. The Buddha cautioned his early followers, “Don’t believe anything anyone says, even if I say it, unless it makes sense to you”. For example, I remain thoroughly skeptical about the notion of reincarnation.
- Direct experience trumps theory every time. Don’t be a Buddhist, be a Buddha!
Buddhism can be a practice and not a belief system. I think this is an important distinction for WAAFTs.
Stephen Batchelor wrote in Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening that “While ‘Buddhism’ suggests another belief system, ‘dharma practice’ suggests a course of action. The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act”. It’s the practice, and not the belief system, that helps us stay clean/sober/sane.
It is worth noting that quite a number of books speak of the link between AA and Buddhism. In 2004 Kevin Griffin wrote One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. And this year (2014), he published a follow-up called: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps: A Recovery Workbook for Individuals and Groups.
And there is a wealth of more information at this website: Buddhist Recovery Network.
AA as “stealth Buddhism?”
Maybe they’re on to something at those meetings in western Massachusetts.
Thom L has been sober in AA since 1990. He is a “devout nontheist” and has had an agnostic Buddhist meditation practice since 1995. Living in Berkshire County in western Massachusetts, he is one of the co-founders of his agnostic AA home group. He attended the WAAFT IAA Convention in Santa Monica CA and immediately fell in love with 275 other sober agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers.