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.

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.

Artwork by Edouard Fraipont.
Artwork by Edouard Fraipont

So 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.

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