We all are on a continuum of addictions. On one end are the most obvious addictions to substances and very harmful behaviors. In the middle of the spectrum are our habitual psychological and behavioral patterns that cause trouble for our fellows and ourselves. Finally, close to the opposite end of the continuum, existentially speaking, is our addiction to our solid sense of “self.” Moving toward an awakened life, we cultivate an awareness of how these patterns distract us from the NOW, and we begin to play with interrupting these patterns. Learning how to dismantle these coping mechanisms and connect with the essential energy of the moment is the universal practice for all spiritual seekers.
To be free of “turning away” from the moment is a very difficult task. We all identify strongly with our stories, histories and hurts. Sometimes we cannot bear to acknowledge and hold the feelings that arise from our stories. But sooner or later, when on a spiritual path, we have to face the conditions of our life straightforwardly and with determination.
Buddhism and Twelve Step recovery programs have the same goal: to help us stop turning away from life and gain a better understanding of living. The Twelve Steps are a skeletal structure for bringing about a transformative spiritual experience. This archetypal spiritual structure includes surrender, self-examination, meditation, prayer and service. This structure runs through most of the major religions and can be transposed into the Buddhist vocabulary.
What is unique and often appealing to Buddhists about the Twelve Steps is the direct way they deal with cleaning up our past, our karmic consequences. This directness is sometimes hard to find in American Buddhism. The steps that are specifically directed at untangling karma are numbers 4–9:
Step 4 Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5 Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step 6 Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step 7 Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
Step 8 Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9 Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
This is an explicit path to interrupting our karmic energies and the repetitive patterns that produce our suffering.
Although the Christian language of the Steps may make it harder for Buddhists to relate to them, if we look at their underlying focus on transforming patterns, we can find parallel teachings and practices in Buddhism. One such practice is the Tibetan teaching called the “Four Rs”: Recognize, Reliance, Remedy and Resolve.
RECOGNIZE: Through mindfulness and awareness, we can recognize the habituated patterns that cause us trouble. We learn what they are by taking a searching and fearless moral inventory (also Step 4), becoming intimate with our patterns. Through that intimacy and acceptance, we come to “see” the moment a pattern arises, and we can then choose differently. Acceptance of a pattern diffuses the intensity of energy that it can sometimes produce. Through practice, we can also recognize that a pattern is not “ourselves,” and our identity as the person who “always does that pattern” can die.
Another aspect of “recognize” is to make a declaration about a habit. This element is shared with Step 5: we speak the problem out loud. In Buddhist practice, this is often called repentance or starting anew. In each sect of Buddhism, there are different rituals to acknowledge our transgressions.
RELIANCE: To take refuge in that which is beyond our egocentricity is to trust in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Steps 6 and 7 also depend on this trust. In order to heal from our addictions and our character faults, we need to feel held in a huge, universal perspective and to feel a sense of connectedness, or in Buddhist terms, interdependence. Through this sense of unity with life and union with others, our need for our habits can drop away.
REMEDY: After we become aware that our pattern is present, how do we act at the next moment of decision? Teachings on karma tell us that the more we repeat a pattern, the stronger it gets, and the stronger it gets, the more we repeat it. Conversely, every time we say no to a habituated pattern, we strengthen our ability to say no again in the future. Breaking an addiction, then, is using the law of karma to help us interrupt habituated behaviors. Practically speaking, we can employ a predetermined spiritual practice at the moment a habituated energy arises. There are myriad antidotes: saying a slogan or phrase from Dharma teaching, using a breath practice or metta practice, changing one’s focus, bringing awareness to body sensations, etc. Interrupting a habit is sometimes called “cutting with a practice,” and it has the same effect as Step 7—“removing our shortcomings” and helping us to change in fundamental ways.
The powerful remedies of apologizing, making amends and restitution—common practices among all Buddhist traditions—are some of the strongest ways of letting go of the past and redirecting our future. This cleaning up our past mistakes corresponds to Steps 8 and 9.
RESOLVE: Patterns don’t change overnight. “Resolve” is the vow to forever try to interrupt a pattern. The key is consistency and patient endurance—picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off, over and over again. The strength and steadfastness of our vow to free ourselves from our karma is what is most important. This corresponds to the Twelve Step resolution framed as “just for today,” a recognition of the necessity to reaffirm our resolve each day, not relying on yesterday’s vow to get us through today.
Sometimes, we just “can’t” change yet. Maybe we are too afraid or simply not strong enough to take the action required. Both Twelve Step and Buddhist teachings address this similarly. Each approach has a very compassionate, kind response. They pair our desire to change with two aspects of aspiration. In Buddhism, these can be described as “intentional bodhicitta” and “active bodhicitta.” Bodhicitta is the pure arising of aspiration for freedom that comes from our sincere heart. The first aspect, intentional bodhicitta, is becoming willing or getting ready to take an action. The next aspect is being able to do or manifest the changed behavior or difficult task. (Steps 6 and 8 are also “becoming willing” steps.) Intentional bodhicitta asks us to bring our attention back inside and work on our thoughts and beliefs in order to strengthen ourselves into action. When our psyche has been prepared, often we can move into action fearlessly. It may take months or even years of keeping our attention on willingness before we can actively do what we aspire to do—active bodhicitta—but both aspects are included in the dynamic working of a vow.
We begin to unravel the root of our suffering not by aggression and self-hatred but by using our intelligence, wisdom and love. A spiritual awakening is essentially a learning to see the world in a new way that comes from a deep and satisfying experience of interconnectedness. In a “recovery program”—whether the Twelve Steps or the Four Rs—we don’t have this sense of wholeness in the beginning. We work the steps and go through the process. Through a connection with the essential energy and harmony of life, we are nourished in a different way, and the need for our addictions can drop off. As we learn to change how we conceive of life, we can tap into the abundant, ever-flowing energy of the truth that can satiate our desires and be a balm for our anxieties. In finding a deep interior peace in our lives, we are able to contend with whatever arises in our ordinary life. We have the strength to cope and the spiritual nourishment to relax. We can finally say, “This moment is enough,” and we don’t need to “turn away” from any experience. Our karmic flow has been disrupted; our escape route has been changed. Our satisfaction and refuge can now be found in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
My deep appreciation and gratitude to Pema Chödrön and Ken McLeod for many of the teachings in this article.—BJR