For dharma teacher Laura Burges, Buddhism didn’t cure her alcoholism. “I turned to Zen to change my life, to align myself with the sangha, and to find relief from the suffering of addiction,” she writes. “But until I opened my heart to the principles of recovery, I was cut off from the deepest source of my own being.”

As a lay-entrusted teacher in the Soto Zen tradition, Burges has been teaching retreats on recovery at the San Francisco Zen Center for over twenty years, weaving together Buddhist insights and the teachings of recovery. In her new book, The Zen Way of Recovery: An Illuminated Path Out of the Darkness of Addiction, she shares her own experience of addiction and offers concrete tools and practices that can support a sustainable path to sobriety and freedom.

In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg sat down with Burges to discuss the synergies between recovery and Zen practice, how surrender can open us to freedom, and how atoning for past wrongs can free us to live more fully in the present. Read an excerpt from their conversation below, and then listen to the full episode.

James Shaheen (JS): How did you first come to Buddhism, and how did you first come to recovery?

Laura Burges (LB): In the early seventies I was living up in Juneau, Alaska. I had gone up there to see the wilderness and be a wild, independent woman, but I found myself spending a lot of time drinking with my friends at the Red Dog Saloon. Juneau is the land of the midnight sun, so the sun was shining in May when I arrived, but as the months went by and my drinking increased, I spiraled downward into what I call the heart of darkness, which is alcoholism. As my mind and my body descended into this darkness, Juneau descended into darkness, and by December, it was dark all the time.

Looking back, I realized that I was manifesting many of the symptoms of alcoholism from a very young age. I was painfully shy, and when I drank, I could talk to other people. I felt that alcohol melted the painful boundaries between me and others. But like many people who drink, I descended into isolation, and I got to the point where I didn’t want to go out and drink with other people because I didn’t know what would happen.

One day, a very frightening thing happened to me: I came to out of a blackout crawling in the snow. That really got my attention because I knew that people died that way. I decided that Juneau, Alaska was my problem, so I came back to San Francisco. I found out later in recovery that that’s called doing a geographic: you think, “I’ll just go somewhere else and everything will be better.” But of course, when you get there, you’re there, too.

When I came back to San Francisco, I had a glimmer of hope that there might be another way to live, and I started looking for a spiritual solution. I ran into a woman, Deborah, who had been my best friend in fourth grade, and she was practicing at the San Francisco Zen Center. We stayed up all night talking about Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I started practicing Buddhism, and I stopped drinking very abruptly.

As we say in Zen, I practiced as if to save my head from fire. Very soon I was living at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the Zen Center’s monastery in the Los Padres wilderness, getting up very early in the morning, practicing zazen many times a day, studying Buddhism, doing demanding physical work—as we say, “chop wood, carry water.” I loved the rigor and clarity of monastic practice, and I loved the clarity of not drinking. To me, monastic life was the opposite of the way I had lived in Juneau, Alaska.

When I left the monastery, I didn’t intend to start drinking again, but somebody offered me a drink and I took it. And very slowly, alcohol started insinuating itself into my life again. I drank on and off for five years. So I had five years of practice without drinking and another five years of drinking secretly and surreptitiously because it was no longer acceptable for me to drink like I used to.

At that time, I went back to school to get a teaching credential. As I was sitting in a classroom at San Francisco State University, I had a blinding moment of clarity. I realized that I was 35 years old. By this time, I had a beautiful daughter. And here I was shaking and sick from having been drinking the night before. I conceded to my inmost self that I needed to change my life—and that I couldn’t do it by myself. So I got up out of that classroom and I went and made a phone call [to a recovery program,] and I haven’t had a drink since September 28, 1985.

Sharon Salzberg (SS): You also say that getting sober helped you come to Buddhism more fully, as you actually found out who you were. Can you say some more about that? 

LB: Well, addiction is automatically a double life. Those people who struggle with addiction have a very deep understanding of how to be one person in one setting and another person in another setting. I’d present one face to society, but I knew in my heart that I was struggling with this addiction that I couldn’t seem to let go of.

There’s no way to practice Buddhism with clarity and integrity if you’re living that double life. I remember Katagiri Roshi used to say, “Let the flower of your life force bloom.” When our life force is obstructed by the craving of addiction, it’s impossible to let the flower of our life force bloom. And what I found was when I stopped drinking for good, I had a new insurgence of energy and integrity and openness, both to the teachings of practice and to other people in recovery. There’s a wonderful humility that comes to us in recovery because we can learn from anybody, no matter what their life is like. When I walk into a recovery meeting, I’m nothing special. I’m just another alcoholic in a group of people who want to stay sober one day at a time.

I dropped my story when I came into Zen practice, but I retrieved it in recovery so that other people could identify and learn from what I had learned.

JS: Throughout the book, you explore different meanings of freedom, and you write, “We may have once believed that freedom meant doing whatever we wanted, without a thought for the consequences. But the principles of recovery teach us that to experience true freedom, we need to cultivate an ethical life so we aren’t undermined and distracted by guilt, shame, and remorse.” So how can discipline and restraint actually open us to a truer sense of freedom?

LB: I came of age in the sixties and the seventies, and I think a lot of people in my generation were suffering from traumatic stress from the assassinations in the sixties, from the war in Vietnam, and from what we experienced in the civil rights movement. For us, discovering this initially spiritual experience of using drugs or alcohol to open our minds and our beings to new experiences was a revelation. But for me, I came to find that very soon, it started taking away that sense of freedom and expansiveness. My life became very, very narrow.

When I came to the San Francisco Zen Center in 1975, I loved Dogen Zenji’s teaching of settling the self on the self. To settle our small, grasping, frightened, selfish self on a bigger self, a bigger ground of being—there’s a wonderful freedom in that. Opening myself up to the teachings of the Buddha and the demands of living in a sangha, I found the freedom of Zen practice.

We used to say that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, like the freedom of the Beat poets or the freedom of the road. But there’s something very freeing in just following the schedule. When the wake-up bell rings, you get out of bed, you wash your face, you put on your robe, and you go to the zendo. And that was a way for me to settle the self on the self in the way that Dogen Zenji so beautifully articulates.

Now, I can’t explain why that wasn’t sufficient for me to stop drinking forever. I felt that when I came to Buddhist practice, I could drop my story. I could put on a black robe, chant in Japanese, and become somebody else—or a better version of myself. What I learned in recovery is that I had to go back and look at the roots of my addiction, and I needed to make amends to the people I had harmed. And in doing that, I found freedom. I found a freedom in taking responsibility for my life and in making amends to my daughter by offering her a different life than she would have had if I had continued to drink. This was a whole new kind of freedom.

Very early in my Zen practice, I came across a wonderful quote by Dogen Zenji: “To have faith means to believe that one is already inherently in the way.” What those words came to mean for me was that none of my unskillful behavior before I came to Buddhism was lost or deluded. It was all part of the path. All my painful experiments with drugs and alcohol and other unwholesome behaviors were like a kind of compost for the rest of my life. And to be able to tell other people the story of how I was able to finally come into recovery and stay sober redeemed all those experiences.

I dropped my story when I came into Zen practice, but I retrieved it in recovery so that other people could identify and learn from what I had learned. I found out that I wasn’t lost, deluded, or upside down; I was finding my way as a human being in a human body. Looking back, it makes a lot more sense than it did when I was going through it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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