Practicing Buddhism and recovery, we learn to live from the inside out. We learn to cultivate an inner integrity that guides us rather than being blown around by our impulses like branches torn apart in a cyclone. We have a sense of coming home. Even if we have been abandoned by others in the past, we learn that we don’t have to abandon ourselves. Once we have learned to recognize and yet not to act on our addictive impulses, we learn how to cope with strong feelings when they arise rather than denying them, pushing them away, or self-medicating. 

I think I felt that, with Buddhist practice, I could glide over difficult feelings and experiences with a serene smile on my face. That I could put on a black robe and chant in Japanese and be someone else. I thought it might be easier to become someone else than it was to be myself. But that didn’t work for me. I needed to feel things deeply and fully so that I could live deeply and fully. What I learned in recovery is that I don’t have to act on my feelings to be authentically myself. Paradoxically, that means that I can confront feelings honestly, knowing that they won’t destroy me or the people around me, because I can decide when it is appropriate to act on them.

Vine Deloria, the Native American author, theologian, and activist, is credited with saying, “Religion is for those who don’t want to go to hell. Spirituality is for those who have been there and don’t want to go back.” If you have a history of struggling with substances, self-destructive behavior, or the addictions of those you love, you have been to hell. This gives you a unique ability to connect with others who are in hell and offer a hand in the darkness. It is only by being true to what we see in the dark that we can emerge into the light, whole again and able to reach out to others. Much of this strength comes from finding and practicing with others who want what we want.

My first Buddhist teacher stopped me in the hall outside the meditation hall one morning and told me, “You have everything you need. Just stop looking for answers outside yourself.” This was an invitation to start living from the inside out. In that moment, the true gift of Buddhism began to manifest for me because I came to understand that this ancient path doesn’t ask me to withdraw my common sense, to subscribe to a particular set of beliefs, or to follow a teacher mindlessly.

In Soto Zen, the emphasis is on just sitting. Just sitting down in the middle of our lives. Each time we sit down, we honor and affirm our own gift of awakening, our own inherent ability to wake up. We honor those who went before us, both in practice and in recovery, because their persistence and dedication come down to us as a gift. We sit with our whole selves, with this very mind and body, not with some ideal self that we might achieve some day. Dogen said, “This very mind is Buddha.” Not some other, better mind that awaits us.

When I stepped into the zendo the first time, I did so with the hope that Buddhism would fix me, make me better, help me live a better life. I would dive into the ancient stream of Buddhist practice, leaving my broken self behind. This is “outside-in” thinking, using practice in a mechanical “fix-it” kind of way. 

That was how I had used alcohol—bringing something outside myself into my body to make me feel better. The word intoxicate means “to bring poison in.” When I used Buddhism in this same way, as a kind of antidote to the way I actually felt and who I actually was, trying to fix myself and deny the rejected parts of myself, my practice was hollow and—though well-intentioned—lifeless.

In Buddhism and our work in recovery, we can start living dynamically, from the inside out. In “Fukanzazengi,” Dogen says, “Take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.” This is counter to everything our culture tells us. We are told that happiness and success lie in getting all the good stuff that is out there. It doesn’t matter how you get it; you can lie, cheat, and steal. The most important thing is not to be a “loser.” When we step onto the path of practice and recovery, we can stop looking outside ourselves for satisfaction; we can mine for riches at the vivid center of our own lives.

Buddhism teaches us that to be alive is to lose. “All that you love will be carried away.” (I wish I could say that I read that in the sutras, but this phrase appears as graffiti in a phone booth in a Stephen King story.) The things we cling to and identify with and think will last, don’t. Yet we can find peace and serenity amid that loss. The only place we can rest is in this very moment, living deeply and richly and fully right now, meeting each person and event with an open heart. This is where we have a chance to meet joy, to come home to our breath and our true nature. And we can do this with others rather than in a stagnant pool of self.

Whenever I get the blues and sit down and watch that happening, I am often engaging in outside-in thinking. Judging myself by some outside standard. Regretting the past. Fearing the future. This is when the corrosive habits of resentment and self-pity take root. When I begin to expect things of others that they probably don’t even know about. When I start to expect things of myself that I haven’t yet taken the time to put in place. Forgiving myself, forgiving others, recognizing that we are all just doing the best we can, helps me return to living from the inside out.

I couldn’t fully come to Buddhism until I got sober and did the work—the self-examination and the actions to be taken—that recovery required.

First, I had to do that from the inside out. Not because I wanted to please people I loved. Not to be a better mother. Not to become a better person. I had to admit deeply this fundamental truth, that I am an alcoholic and can never drink like other people, something I proved to myself time and again. I have met other Buddhists who reject the word alcoholic or are uncomfortable with it, maybe because they don’t want to label themselves. Maybe because they feel that, to practice Buddhism, they need to drop their personal story.

For me, all my freedom and joy spring from being able to honestly admit this undeniable fact. I had to be willing to become who I actually am. I knew I couldn’t do that and continue to drink. I needed to remember my story and tell it to others, so I would never again forget where I came from. And to give others the chance to identify with my story so they would know that recovery is within reach.

Second, I had to be willing to ask for help. At the very end of my drinking, something called out from the depths of my being, “Please, please help me.” I didn’t know then that I was on the threshold of awakening to a power within myself that I hadn’t been able to access.

Third, I had to be willing to accept help. This required the annihilation of any form of intellectual pride. I had to put aside everything I thought I knew about myself and be willing to open myself to, and learn from, other people who had discovered how to stay sober. In many cases, these were people who seemed to be very different from me. Yet we shared this disease and the potential to overcome it.

Fourth, I had to be willing to offer others the same help that had been so freely given to me. I had to reach out into the darkness and help pull other suffering people into the lifeboat of recovery. 

In the actions I took in recovery, I began to find a deep inner resource within me, because of this path of rigorous honesty, self reflection, and action, that had not been available to me, despite years of meditation and Buddhist study.

Finally, I had to not be afraid of the word God, which often comes up in recovery programs. I had to cultivate the humility to accept things that my intellectual pride might have rejected. For someone who had turned her will and her life over to the care of alcohol, it seemed a little hypocritical to think that I couldn’t get sober if I had to be in a room where people say that word. The word God simply points to a mystery that, to stay sober, I don’t need to define or resist. In Zen we say, “A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” The word God is a finger pointing at something we can never fully comprehend with our limited human understanding.

The collective intention to stay sober that I find in the rooms of recovery gives me the strength to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the Three Jewels of Buddhism. Taking refuge in Buddha is having faith in my own inherent awakeness. Taking refuge in Dharma is letting go and accepting what Suzuki Roshi called “things as it is.” Taking refuge in Sangha is finding solace in connection and community. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is a power greater than myself and that is all I need to know.

Reflections and Practice

• Sit quietly in zazen posture for a few minutes, coming back to your breath. Write about these reflections or invite a friend to explore them with you:

• At what times in your life have you felt abandoned?

• At what times have you abandoned yourself?

• When did you have to find your own way, going against what others thought you should do? What was the outcome?

Excerpt from The Zen Way of Recovery: An Illuminated Path Out of the Darkness of Addiction by Laura Burges © 2023 by Laura Burges. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

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