Filed in Zen (Chan), Sickness

Just Shut Up

An Interview with Robert Chodo Campbell

Wisdom Collection

To access the content within the Wisdom Collection,
join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

Robert Campbell Chodo began using amphetamines and alcohol at age 16. He continued using amphetamines until age 24, before moving on to cocaine for the next 10 years. In 1988, Campbell got sober after seeing a psychotherapist and joining Alcoholics Anonymous, where he attended meetings 3 times a week. While Campbell says that “AA unquestionably gave me the tools to make the life changes,” it wasn’t until he began his Zen practice in 1993 that he began to get “really, really sober.” Today Campbell is one of the Executive Directors for New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, an organization that provides direct care to the sick, dying, and suffering.

Just Shut Up

What’s your experience with addiction? For me “addiction” is an odd word, because it’s such a catchall. When it comes to addiction we’re usually talking about alcohol or substance abuse, but there can also be an addictive quality to our thinking. When I latch on to thoughts, either positive or negative, and they become obsessive, it has the same quality as getting the fix—“I hate this, love that, want it, don’t want it; why is this happening to me, why is my life so difficult, why can’t I be more this or less that?”— and on and on.

As a kid I can remember thinking, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” I come from a long line of addicted family members, running the gamut from smoking and drinking to gambling and drug dealing. More often than not there is a fair amount of violent behavior that is the norm in this kind of environment. So my earliest thoughts were of running away. The endless loop was, ironically, a healthy stream of obsessive thinking: “This is not healthy. I am not going to survive. I need to get out of here in order to survive.” And later that turned into “All I have to do is survive.” And then that opened the door to the life of addiction. In order to survive, I had to anesthetize myself with substances or behaviors.

Did Buddhism play a role in your recovery? Not in the beginning. I was five years sober before I found my Buddhist path and met my first Zen teacher, Dai En Friedman. I was in supervisory training at an analytic institute on Long Island, and every week when leaving supervision I would see this woman coming into the office. She was really amazing-looking—bald with piercing blue eyes— and I thought, “Wow. She’s someone I’d like to know.” The next time I saw her, I said, “Hi. I’d love to introduce myself to you,” and she said, “OK.” And I said, “My name’s Bob. I’m living out here, training in this institute, and I hear you’re a Buddhist monk.” She said, “Yes,” and I said, “Well, I’d love to learn a little bit about that.” Then for some reason I just blurted it all out: “I’ve been sober for five years, and I’m having a really hard time with it. I’m so depressed, and my childhood was terrible with incest and drugs and this and that. And I come from this long line of alcoholics and violence.” Basically, I just vomited all over this woman. Her response was the catalyst for my shift in consciousness: “You know what you need to do? You need to shut up. You need to shut up, and shut up long enough to hear your story, because it’s just a story, and you’ve been carrying it around now for what, 35 years, 40 years? And that’s what you’re living out of, so how about rather than acting out of it, listen to it and take a look at it?” “How do I do that?” I asked “Just come to the zendo,” she said, “and let’s see what happens.”

She told you to shut up. Yep! And you know, sometimes we need to shut up. Actually nobody cares as much as you do about your story. It’s not that interesting to anybody else.

That moment was as important on your path as the Twelve Step program? Oh, yes. It turned my life around. I was sober, living a very comfortable life, and I was depressed as hell. I remember thinking, “If this is sobriety, I’m going back to drinking, because this is not fun. This is not the life I had imagined being sober was about.” Sure, I had the material gifts, but I was so unhappy. I hadn’t yet found the spiritual component you hear about in the Twelve Step programs. Yes, I knew all about Higher Power and didn’t question the concept, but it just wasn’t enough for me. When I started to meditate, things started to become clearer for me, and I was listening to someone who was speaking to me in a language that I could understand. I was listening to me with a fresh understanding of life. We could call it acceptance. It was real to-the-gut: “Sit down, shut up, stop with the story, and just take a breath. You’re addicted to the story. Start to unravel all that.” And that’s when I think that I really began to get sober, really sober.

You were five years sober before finding Zen. Did Alcoholics Anonymous work? I vacillate back and forth over this question. Did AA work, or did I walk into the right place at the right time and hear the right words? I went to my first AA meeting in a church on Park Avenue, with all these women in fancy coats and business guys from Wall Street, and here’s me from my world, which was very different from that. And the minute I walked into the room, I’m thinking, “What am I doing here? This is not me.” But someone was telling their story, and I thought, “Wow. Actually, you know what? This is me—the same story, just dressed up differently.” So for a while I kept going back, as they say, to more meetings. So did AA help me? On one level absolutely: it kept me out of the bars and gave me a direction, but at a certain point I was like, “I can’t hear any more of these stories.”

When you talk about Zen practice and the Twelve Steps, it makes me think about self-power versus other-power in dealing with addiction. Can we say that Zen emphasizes self-power and that you believe that you have to deal with your addictions yourself? I would hate to come across as saying that I could’ve done this without any help from AA and the other programs. For sure, in the first years of sobriety what kept me coming to the meetings was the friends I made—the other comrades in the battle, if you like—who were also fighting their own addictions. We had this beautiful group of addicts together in recovery, and that’s what kept me in the rooms. It was not so much what I was hearing from the Big Book [Alcoholics Anonymous, the Twelve Step sourcebook]—in fact, I hated Big Book meetings—but what I was hearing from other travelers on the road, all their war stories.

Could I have done it by myself? No. The rooms definitely got me to a certain point. But as I said, at five years sober I still did not feel that I was alive in the world.

Just Shut UpSo maybe the other-power doesn’t have to be God, but it’s there. Perhaps that’s where the sangha comes in. The power for me is definitely not God. God played no part in it. Perhaps one day I will change my mind about that but a lot more healing has to take place. For me the power was the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, the community. My community was in the zendo. When I moved back to Manhattan in 1998 I was fortunate enough to meet my current teacher, Enkyo Roshi. She has had her own experience of addiction, so it was an easy fit. I could bring my questions about practice as a recovering addict to interview.

If “addiction” is a catchall, as you say, should we employ different techniques when trying to work with our various addictions? Or is there a common approach that we can use, whether we’re addicted to, say, alcohol or compulsive eating or thinking or going to the gym? I think it’s in realizing that we always have a choice. Even when we’re at the height of our addictions, most of us might think, “I have no choice, so this is all I can do.” I think we always have a choice. My path was that I chose to do more cocaine. I chose to do more drugs. I chose to behave in ways that were not skillful. I chose to put myself into dangerous places, knowing all the time that I didn’t have to do that.

We always have a choice? Many people would say that being addicted to something means that it’s out of our hands. I know that it’s not a popular foundation to stand on. I can only speak about myself, and I always knew I had a choice. My choice was to get fucked up. My choice was to do whatever I needed to do to put myself in another place physically, emotionally, psychologically. When I reached my bottom, to use Twelve Step terminology, that was the bottom that motivated me into to go into Twelve Step recovery. But was that my worst bottom? Was that the worst situation I’d ever been in? No. I actually woke up after a blackout on the corner of Thompson and Bleecker Streets, after being out all night. Was that the worst situation I’ve ever been in? No. And it certainly wasn’t the most dangerous. But I came out of that blackout, and I very vividly remember thinking, “This has to stop. I don’t want to do this anymore.” It was a very definite choice on my part to not continue in that way.

I’ve worked with so many addicts over the years, from crackheads, prostitutes, and ex-prisoners to crystal-meth addicts and overspenders, and what I’ve almost always found is there’s a part of that person that doesn’t want to do it—whatever that “it” is. Doesn’t want to shoot up again, doesn’t want to go out on the streets to cop, is tired of the meth scene. To me, that implies that they realize they have a choice. If I think to myself, “This is all I can do. This is all I know. There’s no other way,” then I’m leaving choice out of it. But if I have the capacity to think “Actually, it could be different. Do I have to do this?” there is a choice.

But I would also say: Don’t confuse choice for control. You don’t approach this head on and say, “I’m in charge now. I’m going to stop,” and everything is hunky dory from then on. Ego is not going to give up so easily. But something is going to happen. You reach the point where the only thing to do is to not do it, and stop talking and shut up. You shut up. You put your money where your mouth is. Don’t tell me you want to stop and then not stop. The talking is smoke and mirrors. Why would you talk about it?

In Buddhism, within the framework of karma, yes, there is a choice. But there’s a certain sense of serendipity when a person says “enough,” or when that moment of choice presents itself. Why now and not before, or later? There’s a window of opportunity that somehow opens up because of causes and conditions that we don’t quite understand. Is there room for the idea of a moment of grace? Or karma? Maybe there is an opening into...My Buddha nature was there as the alcoholic. I was in Buddha nature in my blackout. But yes, in coming out of that blackout there was grace.

How do you understand this moment of choice from a Buddhist perspective? We learn the first noble truth: There is suffering. And we can look at our dependencies, if you like, as a form of suffering. I now understand that suffering is not permanent, that nothing is permanent. This is not going to last; I can move away from this. These feelings, these cravings for alcohol, cocaine, sex—whatever the drugs—these feelings aren’t undying. They will subside if only for a moment. In the early days of recovery, a moment of relief felt like a lifetime.

The other side of that coin is that the relief isn’t permanent. I could be sitting there thinking, “Wow, I’ve got this totally licked. I haven’t had a drink today,” and then in the next breath I’d be saying, “Fuck, I don’t want this. I want a drink.” So it’s not only the suffering that is impermanent; it’s also the relief that’s impermanent. It’s a constant back and forth. Drink, don’t drink; shoot up, don’t shoot up; wake up, don’t wake up. For all of us, not just the addict, it really is life and death in each moment. The choice is yours.

—Sam Mowe and James Shaheen

Artwork by Edouard Fraipont.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
sallyotter's picture

I have remained sober one day at a time in a 12 Step program. I practiced the Steps but struggled with a concept of"god". Tried various religions. Then some 11 years ago I read a book by Pema Chodren, When Things Fall Apart, that filled in the gaps for me. I have been studying Tibetan Buddhism since but continue to attend AA. It's all part of my spiritual, mental, physical recovery. AA's Third Step prayer says, "Relieve me of the bondage of self". It all makes sense. We each walk the path of our understanding, but still together.

Robert Jusei Chodo Campbell's picture

"It is for all alcoholics that I have responded as I have."

Dear John
Your response is for the alcoholics that agree with your approach, not all alcoholics.
This is the kind of statement that drove me away from the 12 step rooms.

Having recently celebrated 28 years of CONTINUED sobriety I have found that there are great meetings in NYC with a slightly less rigid approach and am enjoying a new relationship to the 12 steps.

John Haspel's picture

Dear Robert,

My response is not for alcoholics who agree with my approach. AA is a 12 step program meaning that when you come to AA you take the 12 steps and then help others through the 12 steps. To characterize AA as “women in fancy coats and business guys from Wall Street” telling their stories of woe is a narrow view of AA born of failing to understand and take the 12 steps. To present this view of AA in a public forum can and will mislead many alcoholics and drug addicts into thinking that your experience with AA accurately represents AA.

There was a time in AA’s history when the success rate of alcoholics achieving and maintaining comfortable contented sobriety was around 70%. (Source cited on my web site) This is when alcoholics were taken through the steps BEFORE they went to a meeting and BEFORE they could decide that AA should be anything they wanted it to be.

You are certainly free to characterize me or AA any way you want but please consider where your characterization arises. Perhaps if you had actually engaged in AA as a 12 steps program and actually taken the 12 steps as intended you would not have struggled for as long as you had. You would be able to describe accurately what recovery in AA is based on. I commend you on 28 years of continued sobriety. Length of sobriety does not make one knowledgable of the 12 steps or the AA program of recovery.

Thousands of alcoholics and drug addicts that would otherwise have an opportunity to recover lose the opportunity because of the false and misleading characterizations about what recovery in AA is. Many die horrible deaths. I don’t care to promote my approach. I do care that AA is portrayed accurately. What I am concerned about in this public forum is that those that actually need what AA has to offer will not be left thinking that recovery in AA is as you described. It is not.

If you would like, I would be happy to meet with you and take you through the 12 steps as they are meant to be taken. I am in New Jersey, not far from you, and I am certain we could arrange a time and place. We would need about 2 or 3 hours.

John H

shaunak's picture

Robert, thank you for your honesty and enlightenment as to what worked for you in your recovery. I look forward to intertwining some of your concepts and ideas into my own personal recovery. Upon reading this article tonight, I received some answers that I had long been searching and patiently awaiting.

With absolute gratitude,
Shauna K., Ontario, Canada

mantragirl's picture

I have been in a 12 Step program for 16 years . meditating the last 7 years, following the Buddhist philosophy the last 5 years... AA is more than going to meetings and listening to each others stories...this type of fellowship will keep one sober for a while but will not bring lasting relief from our addiction,,,
.. the answer comes by including :
going through the Steps with a firm yet compassionate Sponsor, going to Big Book and 12x12 Step studies to understand the Steps, clearing the wreckage of our past, finding balance in our lives, learning healthy alternatives to our dysfunctional ways of interacting with our self and others, finding a Power greater than ourselves ( not necessarily "God" ) , meditation, a daily checklist of our behaviour, and being of service to others..these are the Steps we go through continually...Buddhism is a wonderful companion to that process as well as helping me learn different methods of meditating and learning that clinging to how I'd like things to be , instead of accepting the reality of how things are, understanding the impermanence of feelings I used to drink over to "make them disappear", feeling that I had no choice... is what caused much of my suffering .
AA and the Steps work when you do them thoroughly to completion..and then keep repeating :)

cboshelle's picture

I recently lost my best friend for all of my life to alcohol. It seems to me that he was actually addicted by his story, animated by it, terribly attracted to it. Early trauma was the catalyst for this story and for over 50 years the wheel kept turning, bringing more trauma until the story seemed to take over the man. The story was pain, the alcohol kept the story going and now it's over. I deeply appreciate the perspective you have on the shadow of addiction, of how easy it is to confuse choice with control. I won't ever know if there was a point of decision or even if my friend did chose to die. I can't help but think it was really about playing chicken and finally losing.

John Haspel's picture

I am a Dhamma teacher and 12 Step workshop leader. I am also a recovered alcoholic who recovered from alcoholism through the 12 steps and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. After many years of sobriety AA is still a part of my life. AA is much more than just listening to others tell their stories. AA is where I can continue to help others still suffering from addictions through an understanding of the 12 steps.

It is as irresponsible to describe AA when you know nothing of the actual AA program of recovery as it is to talk of Buddhism when you have only a conceptual understanding of what the Buddha taught. AA is not listening to the stories of “women in fancy coats and business guys from Wall Street.”

AA is a 12 steps program so with any mindfulness one would realize that in order to benefit from the 12 steps one would actually take the 12 steps. AA meetings are not where those in 12 step recovery go and listen to endless stories or as a way of avoiding sitting in bars. AA meetings are where those that have taken the steps go to find others to take through the steps. Of course, this implies that you take the steps.

Mr. Campbell talks of being very depressed and of not having found “the spiritual component.” The spiritual component is found by actually sitting down with someone and taking the 12 steps. The 12 steps are a very effective way to stop thinking (selfishly) how miserable you are and take effective measures in changing selfish views.

There is no doubt that many AA meetings have devolved to where “shut-up and listen” is heard more than “can I help you” but to have been in AA for 5 years and not understand that the 12 steps are meant to be taken and shared with others is simply aversion to recovery and being stuck in concepts.

The steps are a simple 2 or 3 hour process that anyone can do that is very similar to the diminishing of self-centered views that is found in non-conceptual dhamma practice. The 12 steps are a way of looking at what compulsive and addictive self-centered views are a part of anyone’s “story.” There is no over-emphasis on “looking at one’s story.” The self-inventory (the 4th step) is simply a dispassionate look at what self-centered views have lead to the establishment and maintenance of the story.

There is certainly choice involved in continuing with addiction or choosing recovery but this is another useless concept when stuck in addiction. The notion that due to suffering one would then choose to stop using alcohol or drugs is again irresponsible. Many alcoholics and drug addicts use to the point of death believing conceptually that they will choose to stop at some point.

The Second Noble Truth describes the cause of suffering: clinging. An extreme form of clinging is addiction. The path developing abandoning clinging and the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path brings recognition of self-centered views and abandonment of those views. The 12 steps do exactly the same thing, when taken as intended, specifically for the addict and alcoholic.

The 12 steps can be a strong foundation to dhamma practice and there is no need to abandon the 12 steps. In fact as a recovered alcoholic there is great virtue in continuing to help alcoholics, drug addicts and all others with problems of addiction, by first taking them through the 12 steps and not confusing them with concepts.

This also insures from drinking and using again.

I don’t concern myself with thoughts of “F.. I don’t want this, I want a drink.” I don’t struggle with aversion to drugs and alcohol and I don’t cling to thoughts of drinking. I am not caught up in conceptual recovery. I took the 12 steps and I take others through the 12 steps. This is how AA works.

For the addict/alcoholic/dhamma practitioner there can be a beautiful connection between the 12 steps and the dhamma. I have found this to be so. I had to first take the 12 steps in order to benefit from them.

John H

shiloh24601's picture

Im sure you mean well, but your post comes off as condescending and arrogant. It is fantastic that the 12 steps have worked so well for you, but to act as though everyones recovery will mirror yours is irresponsible. So you dont concern yourself with "F it, I want a drink"? Well, as you should know, a lot of people do, recovery is difficult even years after being sober. My father was an alcoholic, was a dedicated to AA for years, and remained sober for 18 years before falling off the wagon. He eventually went back into recovery, but years later fell of again and stayed there until he died 8 years ago. AA isnt a cure all for everyone and even the most dedicated can have weak moments. Please dont downplay the very real human struggle involved with addiction.

Russosharon's picture

I completely agree with your opinion on his posting and was about to write almost exactly the same thing until I saw you had already mirrored my reaction to his post. Much metta.

John Haspel's picture

I am certainly not downplaying recovery in AA. I am pointing out the grave responsibility to know what you are talking about when it is a matter of life and death.

I am truly sorry for your father’s struggle. It is for all alcoholics that I have responded as I have.

The sad truth is that many do not hear a clear message of recovery through actually taking the 12 steps. Many are told that AA is a matter “shutting their mouth” and attending endless meetings sharing their problem. Furthering this misguided notion developed by one's own failure to participate fully in AA is then acting as an authority on AA. This furthers the real human struggle and downplays a very effective method for any alcoholic to recover.

I cannot downplay the human struggle involved with addiction - I live it everyday with the hundreds of folks that I work with. What I can also do is point out that if one is an addict/alcoholic there is real hope in a program that works with an 85% recovery rate when it is engaged with as intended. True freedom from the "F.. it I want a drink” is possible for anyone and to paint a picture as hopeless as the one presented here truly downplays the struggle and minimizes this grave disease.

If I have come across as condescending and arrogant to you that is your perception and judgment. Is Mr. Campbell not arrogant and condescending by his mischaracterization of AA because his limited experience in AA did not provide him with the recovery or the "spiritual experience " he expected.

What I am hoping to get across to those that may actually need recovery is that AA works extremely well when one engages with it mindfully, as the Dhamma does. Is it condescending or arrogant to speak from a true personal experience of actually participating in AA fully and be actively involved in showing others how it works?

I speak from the confidence of knowing through personal experience that recovery works for the great majority of people who actually take all 12 steps. Those that have no understanding should not negatively influence others, but should simply admit they don’t know because they have never tried.

I am also a Dhamma teacher and when someone comes to me suffering from addiction I don’t initially present the Dhamma as their method of recovery. I take addicts and alcoholics through the 12 steps and then, if interested, I invite them to come to a Dhamma class.

To anyone struggling with addiction, the 12 steps work. The 12 steps are simple and very effective.The 12 steps are meant to be taken as soon as one comes to AA. You owe it to yourself and your own life to find someone who is successful in AA to listen to and take guidance from - not someone who has little understanding of how AA functions.

John H

shaunak's picture

I like your websites and the passion you hold for both your practices. I can tell you hold a great deal of gratitude for the AA Program. I can appreciate all perspectives on this topic, as 2 1/2 years ago upon entering the Program, I lacked both humility and open-mindedness. It was my second time entering the rooms, as the first time around I thought I could get away with NO spiritual practice, whatsoever. Today, thanks to both AA and Buddhist principles, I encompass honesty, open-mindedness and willingness, and have come alive again. As long as I'm willing to go to any length for my recovery, and adopt a spiritual practice that works for me, I know that my Higher Power will guide me in the direction I'm meant to go.

erictaekwondo's picture

I've had a similiar experience with A.A. It helped me to get sober and get back on my feet but at some point hearing the crusty old timers tell their story for the 40th time was no longer serving the needs of my life and all the catch phrases and cliches in the program were only making my depression in life seem harder to deal with. I needed silence in my life and not more stories and I needed a place where I would be treated with compassion for the mental health issues I was having. Some A.A. groups dont deal well with dual diagnosis they think that mental illness is just a problem in the way your working the program and they give you advice and slogans rather than true compassion. I still find that an occasional meeting is helpful but I have found my sangha experience and my practice to be the core of my recovery as it addresses my depression with an openness I didn't find in A.A.

Eanne Spiotta's picture

Gasho, Chodo, for the honest telling of your story. It resonates in a part of my body I've yet to completely pay attention to and I thank you for shedding light on it for all of us.

Sukha's picture

Great interview. I had a similar experience with my own recovery -- with things not really gelling until I was introduced to Buddhism. It just made so much more sense to me than any of the other recovery lingo I'd heard. I would disagree, though, with the idea that addicts ALWAYS have a choice. I think that, certainly, there comes a time when whether to engage in our harmful behaviors is a conscious choice, but early in my own addictive patterns, I wasn't even awake. I was a walking zombie clueless to what I was doing or why -- I was just so terrified of whatever it was that I was running from and I simply HAD to get away. And that meant using my behaviors. I was not aware of an alternative. Eventually, yes -- I woke up to what I was doing and yet continued to do it, until finally I began choosing NOT to do it. But before that, the awareness simply wasn't there.

Riverphile's picture

I am approaching 8 years sober. My experience in recovery has revealed my long held desire for things (feelings) to be different and I was doubtful or distrustful of my own feelings. The only thing I could do was blot them out. Today I am learning how to recognize my feelings, trust them, and welcome them as opporunities to uncover facts about myself and find my authentic being. Penetrate the source and follow the path...
My zen practice has been a wonderful complement to my recovery work. By releasing my doubt and my desire I am able to experience this life in wonderous and ordinary ways.
As Suzuki Roshi has said... somethng like..."before enlightenment it is something wonderous, after enlightenment - nothing special"
In gassho.

P.S. - I agree with needanap's comment about tradition 12

tusk2112's picture

"If I think to myself, 'This is all I can do. This is all I know. There’s no other way,' then I’m leaving choice out of it. But if I have the capacity to think 'Actually, it could be different. Do I have to do this?' there is a choice."

This is the way addictive thinking and getting caught up in your own story can then create and reinforce addictive behavior, at least it certainly has been true for me. Meditating every day is changing those thought patterns and has helped me see that I do have choices where before I thought I had none. Also, I have started to see more clearly those specific moments when I need to make a choice between something healthy and something unhealthy. Which is also to say I understand that I can, each and every moment, choose between happiness and suffering. I am now choosing to be happy each day, and that is so liberating, it is beyond my capacity to describe. Namaste.

needanap76's picture

12th tradition??

erniehood's picture

Tradition Twelve-Anonymity is the spirtual foundation of all our Tradition s, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Hannahla's picture

This is so well said.
Thank you!