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.

Artwork by Edouard Fraipont.
Artwork by Edouard Fraipont.

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.

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