12 Steps on Buddha’s Path - Preface
On my thirty-third birthday I swallowed a bottleful of sleeping pills and died: in the ambulance to the hospital, I stopped breathing and my heart stopped beating.
No one who knew me could comprehend what had driven the person they saw as an intelligent, attractive, successful businesswoman to such a desperate act. On the outside, everything about my life looked rich; inside, I was emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I woke up every morning crying because I was still alive. I was in unbearable emotional pain and I couldn’t imagine that anything would ever change. I just had to hang on as long as I could, then find a way to end the pain—and me. In the next two years I made two other serious suicide attempts, spent time in locked wards of mental hospitals, and lost all the things that had made my life look good on the outside—career, partner, home, car, sailboat, and above all, my heavily defended façade. I was broke and broken.
After I lost everything that propped up my façade, I was able to cut through my denial, one of the most pervasive characteristics of the disease of alcoholism, and come face to face with the fact that I was a drunk and that the “medicine” I took to get through my life was fueling the depression that almost ended it. Destitute and unable to work, I was brought to my knees and then I reached out for help. I did what until then had been unimaginable: I went to Alcoholics Anonymous. There I was surrounded by people who told me that they knew how I felt, and I knew that they did because they too had been trapped in the despair-filled cycle of alcoholism, and I let them love me back to life.
Slowly, fighting the desire to drink again, sometimes fighting the program that was helping me not give in to that compulsion, I eventually experienced “rebirth”: a new life unlike any I could have imagined. My struggle with the disease of alcoholism as I began my spiritual journey in Alcoholics Anonymous is portrayed in Part One of this book. As rewarding as my recovery was, I still found myself in a spiritual search for something to fill the black hole inside that was smaller but still there. Much to my surprise, because I had intellectually rejected it as a teenager, I found what I was looking for in Buddhism. As the result of some extraordinary experiences in the Himalayas, that attraction to Buddhism finally made the crucial twelve-inch drop from my head to my heart, a passage described in Part Two.
When I started out in AA, I thought I could carefully read the Twelve Steps and master the program of recovery. When I began to investigate Buddhism, I thought I could thoroughly study the Four Noble Truths and master the teachings of the Buddha. I was wrong in both cases. For me, the process has been something like nurturing an orchid seedpod, which takes seven years to bloom. If a seedpod is from an existing, well-established species, we can anticipate what its flower will look like—just as we can se e around us examples of what recovery is like for someone in AA or how practice transforms someone who is a Buddhist. But if we’re creating an orchid hybrid, we have no idea what we’re going to get at the end of the seven years. It may look as if nothing is happening to the seedpod for years, but on the inside rare beauty is being created if we continuously nurture the seedpod and our own faith.
In AA I was never asked to take anything on blind faith—I was urged to find evidence among other recovering alcoholics for everything I was asked to believe. So too had the Buddha repeatedly told his adherents not to accept anything he taught without testing out its truth for themselves. What was common to AA and Buddhism was the idea that if I do what I did (surrender to my attachment to alcohol or anything else), I’ll get what I got (great suffering); but if I do what liberated beings do, I’ll get what they got—in the case of alcoholism, a recovery that is happy, joyous, and free. In both cases, it helped me enormously that rather than some authority figure telling me what to do, there were wise beings who had achieved what I wanted and were telling me what they had done. If I wanted to be a joyfully recovering alcoholic, all I had to do was follow in the footsteps of those who had climbed the Twelve Steps before me. If I wanted to be a bodhisattva(“enlightenment being”), all I had to do was walk in the footsteps of those who had mindfully followed the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.
AA and Buddhism became inextricably linked for me when I began to seriously study the Four Noble Truths, and the flowering of that hybrid is described in Part Three. What first erupted into my awareness was the obvious truth that all forms of addiction are dukkha (the Pali word for “suffering”). I also realized that all dukkha is a form of addiction to something—perhaps to a sensual pleasure, a person, an object, or even life itself. When I was imprisoned by alcoholism, I was not free, nor did I believe that I had choices. Imprisoned by dukkha, I was powerless.
My first “miracle” in AA was learning that I do have choices—as long as I do not pick up the first drink—and even that I have a choice whether to pick it up. In Buddhist terms, I encountered the “law of karma,” which states simply that every intentional action (the definition of karma) will produce an effect when the right conditions arise. I gained the crucial understanding that I can’t change my past karma—my past intentions, my past actions, and their accumulated results—but I can change my future karma if I am mindfully making choices in the present. In AA terms, if I don’t pick up a drink, I won’t get drunk. It was the same lesson from different perspectives.
In addition to the familiar Twelve Steps, AA also has the lesser known Twelve Traditions (see the Appendix), which are excellent guidelines for AA groups, just as the steps are for individuals. The Twelve Traditions have also been very helpful to my personal recovery, especially the twelfth, which states: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 184). Unfortunately, far too many famous “personalities” have exploited their sobriety through AA by self-aggrandizement, taking all the credit for themselves in some cases or—well-meaning but misguided—trying to “promote” AA by telling how it has changed their lives. All too often, these people in the spotlight have picked up drinking again, giving themselves and Alcoholics Anonymous a black eye. Many struggling alcoholics who are resistant to going to AA and repeatedly have relapses excuse their own “slips” by pointing to these well-known people and saying, “You see? AA doesn’t work.” Reading tabloid headlines may give a relapser the rationalization to stay away from AA, and the miracle of recovery may never happen for her or him.
Anonymity is also a priceless gift for newcomers to AA. Most of us have a fairly high shame quotient—and in some cases are legally vulnerable for our past actions—and we need for AA to be a safe place for us to share aloud whatever may be threatening our sobriety if we choose to. The guideline is that each of us can tell another individual (but not at the level of print, film, video, or other media) that we are in AA, but we may not break the anonymity of another person.
Anonymity, for each of us personally, is the basis of humility in recovery: Only through our anonymity can we give credit where credit is due: to all those drunks who have gotten sober and stayed sober before us. Through anonymity, all us garden-variety alcoholics become a We instead of an I and know the blessing of joining the human race in sobriety. Out of respect for the tradition of anonymity I have used the pen name “Laura S.” and have avoided using the real names of other people in AA.
Other Twelve Step Programs
For more than seventy years, the success of Alcoholics Anonymous in helping supposedly hopeless drunks to recover has inspired the founding of other Twelve Step programs for people addicted to a wide variety of substances and behaviors, and other programs for the people who love someone in recovery. The first of these “other As,” now called Al-Anon Family Groups, was established by Lois W., AA cofounder Bill W.’s wife, during the earliest days of Alcoholics Anonymous. While Bill and other drunks met in their living room, Lois and the others’ wives (all the earliest members were men) sat around the kitchen table exploring the emotional devastation theyhad experienced as the result of the disease of alcoholism in someone they loved. As Al-Anon took shape and name in later years, it relied heavily on the Twelve Steps of AA for its program of recovery, as has Ala-Teen, a program for young people affected by the drinking of their parents or other adults. Since those early days, it seems as if as many organizations as there are addictions have arisen: Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous—the list goes on and on. All of these organizations have based their recovery programs on AA’s Twelve Steps—modified only slightly in some cases, changed greatly in others.
I have often been asked to speak at such meetings, especially about the Twelve Steps. So although this book describes my recovery from alcoholism, the discussions of the steps and other parts of AA’s program can easily be used by anyone in any other Twelve Step program.
As AAs love to say, the steps work if you work them—for a remarkably wide range of recoveries.
My journey through recovery has been an astonishing passage through strange and frightening territory, but it has made me joyous and free, as well as the kind of wise and compassionate person I always wanted to be. The hybrid of AA and Buddhism has been more beautiful and enriching than anything I could have ever imagined. I’m so pleased that you’re joining me for some steps on its path.
How to cite this document:
© Laura S., 12 Steps on the Buddha's Path (Wisdom Publications, 2006)
This selection from Twelve Steps on the Buddha's Path by Laura S. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/12-steps-buddha's-path.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.wisdompubs.org/terms-use.