Ordinary Recovery: Mindfulness, Addiction, and the Path of Lifelong Sobriety

A Tricycle Book Club Discussion with William Alexander

Let me offer you two autumn fragments from a larger story, many seasons long.

Fragment One—I had just begun working with the idea of using Buddhist principles in dealing with the dilemmas of long-term freedom from addiction, this process I now call Ordinary Recovery. I wanted to check it out with people whose understanding of both the problem and the solution was greater than mine. To that end, I visited with Don Hewlett, the program director of Fellowship House in New York. Fellowship House is a rehabilitation and ongoing care center established by the Hazelden Institute. Don, a former Franciscan monk, is a man of remarkable energy and compassion. We talked at length-weaving theory, story, and opinion-about the pitfalls faced by recovering addicts and alcoholics in the haste and jangles as this bloody century hobbled to an end. Although Don and I are from very different backgrounds, we are both active in spiritual practices that include an emphasis on silence and periodic retreat. And as our talk and storytelling that day went on and afternoon shadows lengthened, we discovered a deeper shared understanding of grave obstacles to simply trying to live an ordinary life in such difficult times and circumstances. We agreed that, although our concern was for addicts and alcoholics, it's an ordeal for anyone just to have some sense of connection and heartfulness in such mean times. It was somber talk. Not long before I had to leave to catch a train, and after a silence that had stretched comfortably for several minutes, Don said, "You know, what we all need is an altar on every street corner."

Fragment Two (One Year Later)—At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, there is a small chapel with a striking and mysterious Earth Altar. When I first saw this altar, on the day of the Feast of St. Francis, I could not approach it. The larger cathedral was filled with several thousand people, many of whom had brought animals—dogs, cats, screeching parrots, mice, snakes, and gerbils. Just outside the great bronze doors of the cathedral were a full-grown male elephant, two llamas, a goat, monkeys, and myriad other creatures awaiting their dramatic procession to the high altar. My own overstimulated "monkey mind" chattered in fractious harmony with my animal mates. I stood outside the little chapel, hidden away behind the high altar and breathed deeply, centering and quieting my mind. I entered it, away from the high energy of the great cathedral, with a mind of awe and wonder. As I approached the altar, I recalled Zen monks approaching their altars, robes whispering, bare feet slipping on polished floors as incense swirled, while the dharma hall became preternarurally quiet and attention was focused on the figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, seated eternally, flanked by flowers, bowls of water, candles, and brass incense holders. I remembered, as well, the words of a Greek Orthodox priest who spoke of the "otherness" of the priest as he approaches the altar. In this small chapel was not alone. Zen and Orthodox priests crowded behind me. The Earth Altar sang its earth songs.

The light was brilliant; it shone on the altar and shone from within it. Edges blurred. I stood in the stillness, absorbed in the creative power of this little place. Nothing stirred. Sound faded. I was content and at peace. I felt right-sized. I needed to go after too few minutes. My son Willie was sharing the pulpit with the dean of the cathedral that day and I couldn't miss it. As I left, I glanced back briefly and saw a hand-lettered sign haphazardly attached to the iron-grated lattice-work door. It said, "An Altar is a Place of Transformation."

We are building an altar at every moment. Every moment can be a moment of transformation if we can learn to live voluntarily. When the rush of traffic has your brain in a swirl, build an altar at the corner. When you are angry at your spouse, build an altar in the kitchen and breathe, in and out. When you see the devils, transform them. As you read on you will see how it has worked for me and for others and how it can work for you. There are altars at every turn when you know how to look for them.

As times change and the spiritual focus shifts, there are many recovering people who, like me, are looking for a more meaningful spiritual practice. Buddhist practice, Anglicanism, and AA are not the same, but they are not different. They share a common ground of awareness of suffering and the relief of suffering through persistent spiritual practice. Ordinary Recovery is just such a practice.

In a wonderful and paradoxical way, the gift of addiction is the possibility to walk the path of freedom from addiction. If I were not an addict, I could not be free. Everyday life is the forge of freedom. Long-term freedom from addiction is not something that takes place outside of everyday life or only in Twelve Step meeting rooms, therapists' offices, or in occasional conversation with other recovering people. The freedom offered in Ordinary Recovery is not about "not drinking" but, rather, about the discovery of one's deep humanity. In Ordinary Recovery, imperfection is revealed and its delights are savored rather than despised. In the life of Ordinary Recovery, there is no self-disparaging talk of "defects of character," but, rather, a dedication to self-discovery, warts and all. Compassion is born from the ashes of isolation and recovery is happening in every moment. "One day at a time" includes Wednesdays.

William Alexander
is on staff at the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota, where he teaches meditation and leads workshops on Ordinary Recovery.

Excerpted from
Ordinary Recovery (Shambhala Publications, 2010). Click here to purchase the book from the publisher.

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Bill Alexander's picture

Thank you, my fellow anonymice. It's fun, often not knowing people's first names here since I spend so much time in a culture where I know no one's last name!

@K - my teacher once said that the final addiction is to the illusory self.

And @Sean - I like your version of Thay's chant. When I was at Plum Village we said that as we did mindful walks with Thay at noon each day. Merton remains well toward the top of my list of teachers. His books on Eastern practices are insightful and very useful. In the spirit of transparency I will come out of one little closet here - when I was first sober, my prayers at night were basically conversations with "Tom" as I called him.

In that context - I leave tomorrow for a long weekend with Jim Finley, a remarkable master, my term, of contemplative prayer. He was with Merton for 6 years at Gethsemane and stayed on after Merton's death. Now he works as a "contemplative therapist". It will be an intensive weekend for professionals, learning to work on healing trauma through contemplative practice. I reckon all addicts have experienced trauma. Just like everyone else. Everyone is broken. I think Bob Dylan said that.

I'm beginning to share my friend Clark Strand's sense of the return to the ground of my childhood spirituality. Thay often suggested that we make just such a return. Honest, Open and Willing are beginning to resonate in some deeper places in this broken heart, which mends as it expands.

I'm happy with the direction we're going here. An online meeting with loving and gentle crosstalk.

I'll be off the radar beginning tomorrow morning, through Sunday.

Metta to all. Bill

Philip Ryan's picture

Thank you, Bill, and thank you everyone for taking part!

kklisch's picture

I've been taking a class on the precepts, and this week we discussed intoxicants. My teacher started his talk by saying, "The biggest intoxicant most of us deal with is our own self-centered dramas."

shikantasean's picture

I am up to the God's will chapter of your book. So far I have had many moment's of AHH! Me too!! Holy crap this guy is in my freaking head!
You talk about Thay, and Merton, two of my most favorite teachers. (through reading, but the connections are deep) One of my impovised prayers was from something Thay wrote.
I have arrived. (Into the fellowship)
I am home. (my homegroup)
In the here and now, (one day at a time)
I am solid (in my program and spiritual practice)
I am free (from the bondage of alcohol)
In the ultimate I dwell (In the kingdom of God, like the waves in the ocean and water, many waves, all are water.)
I made these notes in the back of my 12/12 book. Along with my own analogies of the four noble truths and the relationships that I saw at that time of my understanding of my alcoholism.
Have you read The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton? So many connections. I attended a talk given by the Dalai Lama at Rutgers stadium in 03. It was about peace and forgiveness particulary in light of 9/11.
He mentioned Merton, (I hadn't yet read the asian journal, but had read the seven storey mtn and no man is an island)He said that meeting Merton changed him. He said that before he met Merton, his thinking was. "Buddhisim is best", But after three visits with the "American Monk, Merton" he knew that the religions could be transcended and they could learn from each other as human beings. I was blown away, and from then on I lost my hostility toward the Catholic church and actually began a course of embracing my baptimal roots.
I totally related to your Short hills mall event as well. (I live on Long beach Island, where many of the Short hills crowd have million dollar summer homes)
I'll stop rambling now. I love the book, I will continue...

jman17's picture

Just happen to log in and see the Title of the book. Wow, nice to see the wealth of information and experience being shared. It's comforting to know and seems to heal the soul....thank you.

Bill Alexander's picture


Thanks for your post. I would call it complete, rather than long-winded. And I appreciate the effort it took.

First - my teacher's statement was in response to my question of "why" something very painful happened in my life - not why I was suffering as the result of it. Let me put it another way. I was angry and looking for someone to blame for what happened. Her response said to me that there are so many factors, karmic factors all, involved in any situation that to try to understand them all was like the man the Buddha spoke of who had been shot in the leg with a poisoned arrow and wondered what village the archer was from, rather than pulling out the arrow. I was stuck in looking for causes outside of myself. Her response set me off in a more beneficial direction. I pulled the arrow out of my leg and got down to the selfish and self-centered causes for my suffering, in this particular instance.

Atman? No. No separate self.

As to what I rather cavalierly refer to as true self, my thinking is based in the understanding of "self" being me in the world I'm in. I have occasionally had a moment of pure and simple awareness without the imposition of my opinions on what is present. They are rare. Haiku practice helps.

I'm told that Shunryu Suzuki repeated to his Sangha the statement, "You are all perfect and complete, exactly as you are, lacking nothing". Then he paused and added, "And there's a lot of room for improvement." Certainly true of me.

Thanks again. I hope this brief note addressed your concerns adequately.

Be well, B

wtompepper's picture


Thanks for your response. I think it clarifies where we differ.

I’m struggling for a skillful way to put this, but skillful means is not my strength, so I’ll just give it a try. On my understanding, what you are explaining is the most difficult and subtle form of a clinging to atman—the kind when we think we are doing exactly the opposite. Certainly we need to begin by discovering the reason a particular event makes us feel suffering—without uncovering that, we can’t do much else. But we must not get stuck on the idea that the causes are all inside, not outside, the self. First, cure the wound, then, go ahead and find out who shot the arrow and why. You don’t need to ignore the guy running around shooting arrows at you.

Certainly, not all causes of painful occurrences are the result of karma. Think of the earthquake in Japan: human karma doesn’t move tectonic plates. However, once the immediate suffering is relieved, we need to also examine how much of the suffering was caused by karma: it was human karma that built cities and nuclear power plants on fault lines, and made it economically unfeasible to move them.

As Peter Harvey explains, “When a person lets go of everything, such that ‘his’ identity shrinks to zero, then citta expands to infinity” (The Selfless Mind, 62). Any time we divide the causes within our selves from those without, we are holding onto a subtle idea of atman.

We think we can let go of “ideas” or “opinions” and hold onto thoughtless experience, but there is no such thing. Our every “awareness” is a product of social formations; the Freudians tried to explain this a century ago—even the deepest secret experience of our unconscious is a product of our history, our language, our culture. We have no deep self, just the illusion of one. Those rare moments of awareness are not devoid of opinions, just of the ones you aren’t too attached to. And the very idea that we have experiences too deep for words (to paraphrase Wordsworth) is itself a socially produced opinion designed to strengthen the illusion of an autonomous self. Don’t think, just feel, and hopefully you won’t notice that even your feelings aren’t “you.” Even looking at a flower, we should practice true mindfulness, true sati, and know all the causes and conditions that make us enjoy it as beautiful: the biologically programmed connection between flowering plants and food, the socially produced privileging of the temporary, non-productive, and expensive, etc.

As Suzuki said, there’s room for improvement. Buddhism requires diligence—and so does sobriety. I think I go on and on about this because it seems, to me, so terribly important. If we keep holding onto that subtle sense of an atman, and don’t notice it, it isn’t possible to do the kind of improving Suzuki was talking about. And for my recovery, that kind of improvement is absolutely crucial.

Now I’ll go work on acquiring the skill of brevity.

Bill Alexander's picture

Tom, I appreciate your humor. I think that qualifies as skillful means. Please forgive my absence over the past few days. It's the price I pay for living in a part of the country where snow storms are still the norm in late April. My "suffering" took advantage of my weakened immune system and a life long attachment to really rotten colds.

As to your argument: I certainly understand where you are coming from. And it is just such questions that keep a practice alive. Well done. When I was preparing for Jukai, three of us spent the week together, sewing Rakusus, chanting and with daily opportunities for meetings with our teacher, both as a group and individually, in Dokusan. At one point in the group meeting, I said that it seemed to me that all the ten grave precepts were contained in the first of the pure precepts: cease doing evil. Our teacher sat silently for a moment and said, "I don't know. I haven't given that any thought".

Sometimes that is the most honest response. So I will have to say here that I'm in that spiritually powerful place of "I don't know".

I hope that we can begin to see additional posts here as I don't want our colloquy to dominate what Kate wisely identified as a meeting, by asking the question "How is this NOT AA?" and then answered with great clarity. It's rarely useful for a meeting to be dominated by one or two participants.

Thank you, Tom. May your life go well.


wtompepper's picture


I’m a little more than halfway through reading the book, and was wondering if I could ask you about it. While I like much of what you say, there is something nagging at me as I read, and I think I’ve begun to sort out what it is.

On an earlier post here, you mentioned a letter from your teacher that said: “You can never possibly understand all the millions of vectors of cause and effect that are impinging on your current situation. You can only use what happens in fulfilling your primary purpose of freedom and awakening.” On my understanding of Buddhism, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, it is exactly this complete understanding of the “vectors of cause and effect” that is liberation. The language of “millions of vectors” makes it sound just impossible, and so too easy to give up on, but it is possible to understand the causes of our present situation, and without this knowledge we are never liberated, from suffering or from causing further suffering.

I think this understanding runs throughout your book, in a tendency to fall back on a notion of “true self”(49) or “transcendent self”(68) or some other positive notion of a self that is “revealed” when the “body and mind fell away.” (32) Even when you try to insist on the idea of anatman, you explain it only as simple bare awareness of your surroundings, as a “blissful connection with the pin oaks and Japanese maples”(84). But anatman requires that we understand the causes and conditions that produce our “conventional” self, and those causes are not found in “blissful connection with pin oaks,” as essential as that might be to the health of that conventional self, to its continued successful functioning. You are dodging the question of anatman, filling in the gap with an idea of a “true self” that is really abiding. The “true self” is simply those very causes and conditions you say we cannot possibly understand!

I completely agree with you that there is a problem of moral judgment in A.A., that it is contradictory and will lead to trouble for anyone not believing in a morally judging God. I just think that problem isn’t escaped by displacing the higher power with a new-age soul called “true self.” I really think Buddhist recovery needs to fully accept anatman in order to escape that trap.

In many books claiming to have a Buddhist approach to recovery, there is a thoroughly positivist explanation of the human mind, and of addiction. So often, addiction is explained as hedonism, as self-indulgent pleasure-seeking and lack of long-term perspective (e.g., Bien and Bien say this explicitly, as does Chonyi Taylor in her new book). As you point out very clearly in your book, many addicts are far from indulging in sensual pleasures. I was in intense physical and mental pain every minute of the last six years of my drinking. We need to escape this positivist notion that drinking is motivated by reward, but not by replacing it with an equally positivist notion of “it’s in my genes, like bad teeth or grey eyes.” Instead, it is motivated by a lack: the lack of insight. The particular structure of my ignorance and delusion drove me to endlessly self-destructive behavior. Knowledge of that structure, and of its causes and conditions, is what set me free.

Sorry for such a long post. I guess what I wanted to ask, in my long-winded way, is: do you accept the idea of atman, of a true self underneath the dross of our conventional self? Your book seems contradictory (sort of like the message of A.A.) both wanting to deny it, but assuming it exists.


avalmez's picture

I once told a psychiatrist whose office was lined with shelves containing figurines of doctors, nurses - medical stuff - that I guessed we all have our addictions, implying of course she is addicted to collecting medical related figurines.. She was not pleased by my remarks. In fact, she was decidedly displeased by my comment.

Of course, it is true that we all have addictions of some form or other, and it must be true that in some way our addictions intoxicate us, are intoxicants. Many of us make addictions out of basic needs, out of the need for food for example. And, if I understand the meaning of the 12-step program regarding "old ideas" correctly, all of our addictions are based on "old ideas" we have about them.

"I can quite anytime I want and on my own!" Or, "I don't have a problem, you do!". Ideas of both types are kinds of insidious enablers "allowing us" (an idea) to remain addicted to behavior or thoughts that can cause of great harm, to ourselves and others.

So, as Bills writes (at least, as how I understand what Bill writes), we all undoubtedly have well aged, vintage ideas stashed in our heads that we find difficult to let go, even when we are aware of them.

Got to start digging through my cellar!

Bill Alexander's picture

The fifth grave precept as I learned it, is "Proceed clearly. Do not cloud the mind." According to Bodhidharma, "...not allowing the mind to become dark is called the precept of refraining from using intoxicants." I don't drink, I don't use street drugs, psychedelics, narcotics or cigarettes. Is that refraining from using intoxicants? What is it to be intoxicated? What about my "old ideas" that I am cautioned to let go of in 12 step programs? Intoxicants? How old must an idea be in order to fit the intoxicant category? I'm tickled, at the moment, by the idea of having a cellar full of well aged, vintage ideas. I'm eager to read your thoughts on this. Bill

Bill Alexander's picture

In 1987, I was on vacation in the Outer Banks. There was one 12 step meeting a week in this small town. The day of that night-time meeting, there was a terrible storm, just off shore. A hurricane was on the way. Me and my friends went to the meeting, through the blowing rain. The electricity was off, so we set a flashlight upright in the middle of the room. The three of us were the only attendees, at first. After 15 minutes or so, a young man came in. He said he had just gotten out of rehab in Florida a few days previously and when he got home, his drunken family did not welcome him. He began hitch-hiking to this specific spot because he had relatives on the island. He had already found out about the meeting. It was his first. I go to meetings because I need them, certainly. But I also go because some one else might. To me, this is part of being the path for everyone. That night was when I began the arduous process of getting over myself. It's not only about me, not now.

carolmg's picture

Thanks, Bill. That makes sense to me

carolmg's picture

I am so grateful for this discussion. I came to sobriety through insights achieved through counseling 21 years ago. I became a practicing Buddhist of the Theravadan tradition 11 years ago and came to the 12 steps through Alanon 5 years ago. I've recently joined a 12 step Buddhist book study and discussion group in order to integrate the steps with my knowledge of Buddhism. This discussion has proven very beneficial for me. My question is: In applying the Buddhist teachings on craving and the Four Noble Truths with the 12 steps, the Alanon meetings, the working of the steps with my sponsor, and the 12 step Buddhist meeting I attend, do people in AA believe that I would still need to attend AA, if this has all worked for me and if so, why?

katemack's picture

I guess my question is "How is this NOT AA?". Here we have an assembled group of people with a common history of addiction,m discussing it openly, lovingly. They are teaching where they can, being taught where they can.

I don't think AA lives in church basements or hotel conference rooms. It lives where there is a fewllowship of addicts who are examining their addictions, the addictive process and the nature of the addictive mind in a loving and supportive manner.

For me, recovery has been tilling and re-tilling the same field and with each pass, we uncover new rocks. Are we ever done the steps once and for all? Do we ever stop practicing?

Bill Alexander's picture

Thank you for your teaching, Kate. Yes, it seems to be very much a case of fall down, get back up, fall down, get back up. Bill

carolmg's picture

Thank you, Kate. I appreciate your clarifying response. I truly love my Buddhist practice and my 12 step Program. My life has always been in the service of others and now I'm attempting to balance care of "self" with service. In this, the sunset of my years, my life is full and blessed. And yes, I continue to till and re-till the soil of my life to keep it fertile for ongoing and blossoming growth.

ClarkStrand's picture

Well put, Kate.

Bill Alexander's picture

I need to amend the previous post. Where mindfulness has been immensely useful for me is noticing when I'm off, certainly in large part because I am increasingly familiar with my unskillful thoughts, actions and speech, largely because I have given them names, but it goes even deeper. Through the non-judgmental bare awareness that I have learned, I don't judge them as good or bad, right or wrong. When I do judge them, it's as if they fight back. Dammit, I am through eating chocolate cake! It's bad! Soon - old Slick kicks in and reminds me that it's definitely time for a big hunk of chocolate cake. Big! And right now! The greatest promise of the 12 Steps of recovery is, "we have ceased fighting anything or anyone..." We have tamed those opinions, the snakes of the mind. Bill

Bill Alexander's picture

Marilyn and Tharpa, Thank you. I'm reminded of a letter that my teacher sent to me years ago when I was foundering. I seemed to be steeped in Samsara and was looking, fruitlessly, at the "why" of it. The letter had a profound influence on me. I remember it, word for word, to this day. "You can never possibly understand all the millions of vectors of cause and effect that are impinging on your current situation. You can only use what happens in fulfilling your primary purpose of freedom and awakening." To this day I contain the seeds of resentment and the seeds of generosity. So the fourth and fifth, and nowadays, the 11th serve in helping me see which ones to water. My program goes something like this, one day at a time. I fall down. I get back up. I fall down. I get back up. The fourth step at least showed me the rocks in the path. My baseline question is, "is this (behavior, thought, speech) getting me closer to a drink or a drug or is it getting me further away." . I consider that to be prudent judgment. And then, of course, additional troublesome facets of this flawed diamond show up. Fall down. Get back up. Bill

namdog.tharpa's picture

hi Marilyn, hello Bill,
thanks for your question, Marilyn. and thanks for leading this discussion Bill.
my name is Tharpa and i'm an alcoholic
i've done the steps as they're found in the BB of AA.....
and i've been a practicing buddhist for a while now; (Refuge Vow in 1977 Karma Chöling, ( Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche); bodhisattvha Vow in 1982 at KTDC ( Jamgon Kontrul 3 ).
i contracted alcoholism in 1954 or so by trying to make myself feel better by drinking alcohol.
i didn't give up trying that trick until 2002. But as i had nowhere else to go i tried AA.

in Step four, approached as a bodhisattvic cleansing ---- for the benefit of others --- i found out EXACTLY
how much i was resentful at Brown and 425 other people.
also Why and What those feelings affected in "me" .....
that took me about a year of writing under the guidance of someone who'd done this equally rigorously before. ....and then i took a 3year look at my part in those 420 resentments. I found out that they were mostly about my "self" problems ..and my dishonesty and fear.. selfishness about most everything; lying to my"self" to try to protect my"self" from the karmic consequences of the stuff i did and thought.....and that always hounded me. and always fear .... a lot of fear of not being loved ..... etc.
In doing this examination i quickly began to find myself feeling joyously relieved and liberated for finally seeing the transparent and non-solid nature of my "demons" .... when i clearly saw my own "stuff" written down on paper i felt good .... and encouraged to believe that the rest of the steps would have equally efficacious effect on me.
i did the Step 5 confession and felt enormously "lighter". i did six and seven in 1 hour of deep and comforting meditation .....and determined to begin immediately to make my amends to those i had harmed.
i find that now that i have honestly done that work i am fit to try to help others who are in as deep trouble as i was.
it's just like Machig Labdron's 5 slogans which begin:
1) confess your hidden faults. step 4 to find out what exactly they are & step 5 to say them out loud to your sponsor or guru or the like.
2) Approach that which you find repulsive. ( making amends??? ---- plenty of things fit this at this point)
3) Help those you think you cannot help ( or you don't wanna help ). Step 12
and then, having done those things Give up anything you're attached to. and 5) Go to places that scare you.'
----spending the rest of your life doing like Guru Rinpoche ..... "dredging the depths of samsara".
thanks for letting me share.....
gotta go wash up, meditate and get ready for a nite-time meeting.
tharpa alcoholic

marilyn's picture

Aloha everyone,

I've been enjoying the discussion threads here very much. Let me introduce a question I've been exploring. I'm in AA, have been for a while, and am seeking new ways of merging my newer practice of Buddhism with my rather traditional understanding of the 12 steps. Bill, I loved the recipe (metaphor) of the Tofu Miso Stew in your book. But if each of us contains the seeds of perfection, how do we use Step Four to realize this condition of integrity? I'm asking for some directions here to capture that spirit of abundance to supplant the old "I'm resentful at Brown because . . . ." narrative of defects of character.

Haven't finished the book yet, so kala mai (excuse me) if I'm jumping the gun. Would love to hear the thoughts of others on the subject of practicing Step Four in a mindful way that polishes our compassion.


Bill Alexander's picture

I have seen some other parallels here as well. There was quite a famous case in NY AA a number of years ago where one fellow had become a "bleeding deacon" sitting in the back of the room on what is sometimes called Inventory Row and passing judgment on all that was said which he disapproved of. I got called out, for example, for mentioning my drug addiction. While now I understand better the need for a certain purity in AA, at that time I needed a place where I felt safe to unload whatever was eating at me. This gentleman was eventually the subject of a kindly intervention and was asked to find other meetings to attend. Some time later, I heard him speak at a closed meeting on the East Side. He spoke at length of his bleeding deacon days and said that being asked to leave that meeting was the best thing that had happened to him in decades of sobriety. Perhaps someone can help me with this - has that level of clarity and humility been in evidence when senior members of a Sangha or the head of one been asked to leave? Whether yes or no - what is the teaching here? For the one asked to leave and for those who remain?

Tom, I am a member of a Sangha here with a majority of members being also in AA. I see the seamless interpenetration of the two happening on a regular basis. Our priest regularly makes it clear that he is a trusted servant. One effect of that is that the other members have a far greater say in the direction of the group. Without meaning to do so, we seem to run by the traditions. I think I am seeing an interesting container for so called "American Zen".

And, Clark, I have managed to start three meetings in two separate towns and have never had a coffee pot. Resentments? Oh, certainly.

wtompepper's picture

Clark Strand mentioned using the traditions of A.A. as a model for an American Buddhist Sangha. I couldn’t agree more.

I am a member of A.A., and one of my regular weekly meetings for a couple of years has been a traditions meeting.

I am also a member of a very democratically organized sangha, in which our founder and leader, to use A.A. speak, suggests, but doesn’t insist. Our group is very diverse, and very active, with weekly gatherings, and also a Buddhist 12-step group, a monthly Buddhist film festival, a prison dharma project, and many Buddhist “courses” throughout the year, where we can read and discuss sutras and books on Buddhist thought and practice. The group, like an A.A. group, has no “endowment” or temple, and functions only because people keep coming, and becoming better Buddhists.

If A.A. were to dissolve, I might be able to stay sober, but it wouldn’t be easy. Without the sangha, I would still be a Buddhist, but it would be much more difficult. Both only work because they are, as Clark Strand puts it, “reverse-dominant hierarchies.”

Years ago, I was reading Trevor Ling’s book “The Buddha,” and came upon his description of the early Buddhist Sanghas: “while it was accepted that differences of opinion were likely to develop, what was regarded as of greatest importance was that each local fellowship, which provided the actual, day-to-day experience of common life, was to be a unity, undivided by any controversial issues. If controversy did arise--and it was recognized that it could and would--the method laid down for dealing with the situation was that the dissenting group should remove itself and form a new settlement. . . . It was recognized that honest differences of opinion had to be allowed for, but not at the expense of the structural unity of the local sangha.” Substitute “group” for “sangha,” and this could be right out of the Twelve-and-Twelve.

ClarkStrand's picture

Tom, re: your last paragraph. Doesn't it remind you of how 12 step groups sometimes "hive off" (a term also used to describe how paleolithic groups sometimes divided) when there is a disagreement, but without compromising the commitment of either group to the 12 Traditions? It's sometimes said in 12 Step communities, "All you need to start a new group is a resentment and a coffee pot," and while this could be interpreted in a glib, somewhat cynical way, the truth is, such disagreements are inevitable. Therefore, a non-hierarchical structure that allows groups to divide and reform, while remaining committed to the same steps and traditions, is probably both a more realistic and a more flexible alternative to the dominance hierarchies we often see in later Buddhist tradition.

Also, I wholeheartedly concur with what you wrote about how difficult it would be to remain sober or to remain Buddhist in the absence of community. Very well put. Thank you.

Bill Alexander's picture

My friends. Thank you so much. I think the sheer Metta and poetry of this discussion thus far, as well as those same properties in the discussion also on this site called We Are All Addicts, speak beautifully to Clark's penetrating question. In addition, I just led a seminar on what I'm calling Sober Mind, Beginners Mind, at Hazelden. I am a member of this conversation. I do not seek to control it - only to watch it closely and occasionally make minute suggestions. My co-conspirators at Hazelden today led the discussion, with "great doubt, great faith and great effort." Forgive the analogy, but it's rather like Suzuki Roshi's advice about livestock (as metaphor for the mind): To control your cow, give it a bigger pasture. Now if you will forgive me, I would like to submit all of your comments and questions to the Koan master who sleeps with me each night and will sometimes present me with vivid dreams that contain unimaginable answers to my questions, urgent and mundane. I will endeavor to say more here on these questions tomorrow. Just this one additional remark: The steps begin with this boundless act of compassion toward the self. The polishing and refinement I refer to are ongoing. A kind of unfolding enlightenment. That process gives rise to the deep identification with the ten thousand things, and, as if it had never happened before, to the traditions, as the pasture. The herdsman, through continual surrender of his authority, as outlined in the traditions, becomes, by tradition 12, totally a-nonymous. Without a name. She is powerless in a more profound way that understood way back there in the first step. And then, to stretch the analogy of the Oxherding pictures, disappears, only to, later, enter the marketplace with bliss-bestowing hands. Stripped of power and authority, she continues to serve, never to lead. And is therefore unimaginably powerful.

Kuya Minogue's picture

I'm ordering the book.

shikantasean's picture

In regard to the how do I know if I'm an alcoholic question. For me. If I have the first drink I know that I cannot predict the outcome or consequences. Every time that I drank bad things did not happen. Every time bad things happened I had been drinking.

ebland's picture

Here's my 2 cents (after 7 years in sobreity and dedicated dharma practice). First, in the program literature of AA, alcoholism is sometimes characterized as the combination of "mental obesssion and physical allergy." This made a lot of sense to me, both the nagging, obessive mental energy and the physical sensitivity. Some people have one more than the other, but in my experieince, most alcoholics/addicts relate to both aspects. Second, amounts consumed vary hugely! Most alcoholocs would concur that the sense of "more" is triggered with the first drink/smoke/whatever. For some, this can get quenched after a few drinks; for others it is insatiable every time. My personal rule is can you have 1 drink? I could not - maybe 2 or 3 or 10, but virtually never 1. Lastly, can you honestly take it or leave it? Some people can take it occationally and have no significant mental or physical craving that pulls them back to their substance of choice. Many others develop a healthy balanced relationship w/ alcohol and other substances. Still others end up with a problematic dependency. If you find yourself pre-occupied with the question and/or are stuck with a devel of dependency, try going to an open AA meeting or reading some of their literature to see if you can relate to the principles and/or stories. Bill or Kevin Griffin may have other thoughts, especially on maintaining a fulfilling dharma practice with these substances. With much Metta...

indigomoonbc's picture

I have a very basic question. Could you please tell me....how does one know if they are an addict/alcoholic? Or just someone who just enjoys wine. Can a person have a fulfilling practice yet drink wine 2 or 3 times a week...or not at all. I'm hoping there are no foolish questions here :) ...though I feel pretty foolish asking this :) Thanks for your understanding.

Bill Alexander's picture

Pardon my tardiness in responding. First off - there are no foolish questions here! People who I've had the privilege of working with, learn that early on. I had a friend, years ago, who joined a 12 Step program when her one small evening Sherry became two. And she was mindful of the fact that she looked forward to those drinks all day long. It's not the behavior that defines the problem - it's the longing. If one's life is filled with a persistent unsatisfactoriness that the wine/vodka/pot/work etc allays momentarily, then there might be a problem. I was not an alcoholic when I first went to AA. But after hanging around long enough, I contracted the illness. And I'm very grateful for the exposure. Bill

katemack's picture

For me, in determing the nature of my own addiction(s), it was could I walk away. For me, the answer was "no". When I was taotally honest with myself, I knew that I had a problem and no amount of rationalization or justification could let me escape from teh cold harsh reality that I was addicted.

I guess that only you can answer the question for yourself but I would suggest that if the question has arisen in your mind, then there's at least a possibility that your wine enjoyment is no longer a 'take it or leave it' proposition.

Bill Alexander's picture


I want to thank those who have posted thus far and I also want encourage some more discussion here. Several interesting topics have been raised. I appreciate being directed back to Eliade, by the way. Long time.

Please let me offer a topic, as well. The first step is often spoken of as a "surrender" step and I certainly could make an argument for that. But it occurred to me recently that in fact, that admission of powerlessness and unmanageability can easily be seen as giving rise to the mind of compassion and wisdom. In one shattering moment, that which was within us was brought out and saved us. I'm sure some of you recognize my awkward version of a verse from the gospel of Thomas. "If you bring forth that which is within you, that which you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, that which you do not bring forth will destroy you." The illness is the medicine.

In that context, if we see taking the first step as an act of boundless compassion for the self, however misunderstood, where does that lead us next? When we give rise to Bodhicitta, the mind of awakening and enlightenment, it sets an inevitable course of practicing compassion for all beings. I suggest that the steps, taken as a group, can be seen as an ongoing polishing and endless expansion of that original act of compassion. First we learn the steps. Then we embody the steps. Then we embody the steps for all beings. What are your thoughts?

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Bill. You wrote: "I suggest that the steps, taken as a group, can be seen as an ongoing polishing and endless expansion of that original act of compassion. First we learn the steps. Then we embody the steps. Then we embody the steps for all beings."

I couldn't agree more. It's the reason why I've taken on the 12 Steps as a format for my Tricycle column "The Green Bodhisattva." Furthermore, I would like to suggest the 12 Traditions of A.A. as a model for how bodhisattvas function together as a group. American Buddhism could do a lot worse than to model its social structure after 12 Step groups.

In some ways, A.A. and the other recovery programs that work off the same model are a reversion to the old "reverse dominance heirarchy" that tended to govern human interaction in hunter gather societies of paleolithic times. The object of a reverse dominance heirarchy, as the name suggests, is just the opposite of the dominance heirarchies we see today. In the former the object is to protect the group spirit from getting hijacked by any one person's (or group of persons') agenda. In a dominance heirarchy, some form of hijacking is the rule. I know you've thought a lot about this, so maybe you'd be willing to share some experience, strength, and hope on how to develop the bodhisattva version of this model.

shikantasean's picture

I totally agree. I was at my regular step meeting tonight. We read and discussed step 12. We recieve the gifts of the the program through the "practice of these principles in all our affairs" So yes, we learn, we embody, and then we reach out to others, and we become, through no planning or strategy of our own, capable of being present for those that still suffer.
Thank you

devinrench's picture

Very much an appropriate topic for me as I mark my first sober "birthday" on 4.11.11. Upon reflecting back over the last year of recovery I am very grateful to have integrated Buddhist practice, mindfulness, and meditation into my daily life and into the AA program. I find many resonant qualities in the steps and Buddhism, especially regarding the eight-fold path, which may not be immediately obvious to people outside of AA. Looking forward to a furthur exploration of this topic. As for the alter references I can't help but conjure up Mircea Eliade and his writings about the establishment of the fire alter to mark sacred space in the physical world in order to establish a community...good stuff.

avalmez's picture

Although I've had a fascination of sorts with Buddhism for many years, my interest became an active interest shortly after I started down the road to "balance". And, to be honest, I looked to Buddhism, Zen Buddhism in particular, as an alternative to my Christian upbringing because I feel that Christianity carries a lot of baggage in terms of dogma and tenets that I found difficult to accept - in short, miracles and God as the source of all things that happen to humans. Ultimately, i feel, one can't put one's arms around Christianity (any religion) without making a great big leap of faith which I equate to leaving reason behind (and, that applies to science as well, in an ultimate sense). I have a long ways to go before i can claim to have a more than surface understanding about Buddhism, but so far, it seems that subscribing to mainstream Buddhism imposes a similar leap of faith on the potential believer. That notwithstanding, something that has proven true in my case is that i am realizing benefits from "my practice". I do feel more at peace with myself. I am able to observe reactions welling up in my mind and body before they become actions. I do feel more connected to my fellow human beings and empathetic to their situations. These few yet profound benefits from what is of as yet a very immature and not quite disciplined (ok, that's the same as writing undisciplined) practice. I'm not sure I quite see a direct connection between the 12-steps program and Buddhism, but there's certainly a "spirit" of connection between the two. I look forward with great anticipation the remainder of this "retreat". Thanks for bringing to us!

shikantasean's picture

Kevin Griffins "One Breath at a Time" was a profound confirmation for me that I was on the right path when I read it about 3 years into sobriety. It has now been 8 years and I the path is still open ahead of me. I too look forward to reading this book.

andapeterson's picture

After I went to my first Al-Anon meeting thirty years ago, I told my friends "It's Buddhism! It's so much like Buddhism!" I was delighted to find the similiarites. For the past few months I have been writing a blog (http://walkswithyogi.wordpress.com) about such things and the more I read Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Ajhan Chah, the more I now say, "It's just like Al-Anon and the 12 steps!" Truth is truth, whether it is found in a poorly lit church basement filled with friends and family of alcholics or in a Buddhist monastery. Same truth: Let go and seek the truth for yourself, step by step, breath by breath.

I look forward to reading the book!