Bill Alexander: 56, New Jersey, sober since 1984, Zen practice since 1991, author of Cool Water Alcoholism, Mindfulness, and Ordinary Recovery

Mollie Brodsky: 35, New Jersey, sober since 1981, Zen practice since 1991, program director of a statewide substance abuse care initiative providing treatment for welfare-to-work clients

Linda Jones: 41, Massachusetts, sober since 1987, Tibetan practice since 1986, certified social worker and Director of Quality Management for Mental Health Services, Riverside Community Care

Lida Sims: 52, Georgia, sober since 1997, Tibetan practice since 1977, founder of the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta, Georgia

Richard Walker: 67, New York, sober since 1970, vipassana practice since 1974, real estate broker

Sandra Weinberg: 62, New York, sober since 1974, vipassana practice since 1977, psychotherapist and addiction counselor

BILL: Which came first for you, recovery or practice?

SANDRA: Recovery. Jack Engler said, “You have to have a self before you can lose it.” Had I heard the teachings of no-self when I started Alcoholics Anonymous, I would have dissolved. I was so fragmented that when I would say, “My name is Sandra. I’m an alcoholic,” it gave me a core, a sense of self, an identity. And it gave me the beginnings of some self-esteem.

LIDA: I was grounded in Buddhism before I went into AA, but meditation practice alone was not enough. I needed something that specifically addressed the issue of being drunk. I needed a Twelve Step program for a sense of urgency. And it’s an incredibly motivating factor in terms of practice, because I realized that if I didn’t practice, I’d be dead. The phrase I remember hearing is “Practicing like your hair is on fire.” Suddenly, it’s not just a nice idea and a way to be a nice person. It’s suddenly very, very vital.

MOLLIE: I know people who began meditation after three months of being sober, which I find amazing, because I couldn’t find my proverbial ass with both hands at that point in my sobriety. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go into a zendo at that point and sit for five minutes. When I finally did start sitting, after ten years of being sober, it was excruciatingly difficult. I needed program before I needed practice.

BILL: Where do Buddhism and the Twelve Steps both come together, and where do they diverge?

SANDRA: The eleventh step starts with “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand him.” That to me is where these two come together so strongly. To improve our conscious contact. To be real, in life, in the moment, which is where it all takes place. Jung had said that alcoholism was a spiritual disease. So it needs a spiritual recovery. The AA program actually reflects that. It is about stopping drinking and then asking, “What do we do to fill up that existential hole or that psychological wound that’s left?” And it is the spirit then that fills that up. The Twelve Step path is similar to the Eightfold Path in many ways.

Image 1: The Illuminated Man, Duane Michals, photograph, 1968. Courtesy Sidney Janis Gallery, New York

BILL: But could you go the distance in filling that hole if you weren’t a Buddhist in a Twelve Step program? Are the Twelve Steps enough?

SANDRA: There are many forms of spiritual recovery. The dharma is the path I’ve chosen. Some people who have been meditating for many, many years still go to AA as their spiritual program.

BILL: I think it’s important to realize that the Buddha-dharma didn’t get us sober and it’s probably not going to keep us sober. Direct treatment of the illness and the recovery community are also necessary. It’s hard to go straight from the barstool to the zafu. We have to have that interim time of program, of uncertainty, ambiguity, hopelessness. Recovering from the effects of an illness can create fertile ground for realization—often disease is a turning point in people’s lives—but it’s not necessarily realization. It may follow, it may not.

LINDA: I use the Twelve Steps as a daily practice, but I agree that the Twelve Steps are not realization for most people. When I first started meditating, I didn’t come in with a very strong or healthy ego. I had three years of sobriety, but a very tenuous control over an eating disorder. No one was asking me about my ability to take care of myself off the cushion. Some centers are now paying attention to these “recovery” issues. At IMS, before you sit down on the cushion, you fill out a two-page form. They ask you, “Are you on medication?” “Have you been in a hospital?” “Do you have a therapist?” If you get into a place in your meditation where you can’t take care of yourself, they are prepared to intervene. It’s like they say, “Go, dissolve, be empty, be enlightened, but you also have to know how to tie your shoes, feed yourself, and function.”

SANDRA: Many years ago I arrived at IMS totally stoned on sugar, having desire, aversion, and delusion happening all at the same time. And I finally wrote a note to the teacher and said, “I’m really in trouble. May I see you?” And he immediately did see me. And I told him, “I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’m a compulsive overeater. I’m bingeing. I can’t stop.” I was hysterical. He looked at me very dearly and said, “So what?” I said, “You don’t get it. I’m having real trouble here. I feel like I’m falling apart.” And he kept saying, “So what?” In this particular case, his response to me was so jarring that it jolted me right out of my hysteria. But I could have gone down the tubes, because I was almost ready to go home at that point. This was a particular teacher’s response, not an official IMS response, mind you.

BILL: Do you think that the American teachers are more or less sensitized to these issues than the Asian teachers?

LIDA: All of my teachers have been Asian. My principal teacher has been living in my home since the founding of our particular Tibetan center seven years ago. So he was as affected by my alcoholism as anybody could have been. But in all honesty, I don’t think he was any more or less bewildered by me and my behavior than any Westerner who’s not an addict would be. He was bewildered—but so were my friends and relatives—that, despite my practice and in spite of what I knew about my alcoholism, I still continued on my path of self-destruction.

SANDRA: I know people who have sat with some of the Asian teachers and they’ve gotten very sick, and the teachers say, Go back and sit. Watch aversion. Be with the sensations. Be with what arises. That’s a tried-and-true, centuries-old way of being with things.

BILL: But are we asking the teachers to be something they can’t possibly be—that is, medical doctors or mind-readers? If we say that this addiction is a physical problem or a physiological problem, why would we expect them to know how to take care of it? We wouldn’t ask our teachers about bronchitis. They’re not doctors.

MOLLIE: But wouldn’t we expect a dharma teacher—no matter what culture he or she was from—to call 911 if someone was having a heart attack in the zendo?

BILL: Good point. As the culture becomes more accepting of alcoholism and addiction, the teachers can learn. That brings us to another crucial issue: How does the nameless, faceless way in which we approach addiction affect this learning process? Recovery doesn’t have a “face” like “heart attack.” There is not the same degree of shame that there used to be, but issues of anonymity make it tricky.

RICHARD: This business of having no name relates to Jung’s idea that this disease needs a spiritual recovery. It seems to me that in AA we don’t actually have anonymity, because we give our name all the time. And one of the effects of giving myself a name, as in “I am Richard. I am an alcoholic,” is to limit myself to the Richard that has been Richard. Because if I am indeed nameless, I am free.

BILL: Does the freedom from the name suggest freedom from identity?

RICHARD: For me, “I am an alcoholic” is the single shred of identity that is absolutely essential to retain. If I am an alcoholic, I have to be truly insane to pick up alcohol. I think if one does pick up a drink it is because one has momentarily forgotten that identity. And it’s also a very thin identity, because the person who is able to say, “I am an alcoholic” in that way is a person whose identity is based on the non-existence of alcohol in their life. So it’s an identity based on non-existence. And there is no identity to the basis of that. There is only the absence of alcohol as the basis of that phrase.

BILL: In AA we say, take what you like and leave the rest. But it might not work that way with what we call our identity. Can we keep one shred of it and dispense with the rest? Isn’t saying ”I’m so and so, and I’m an alcoholic” a way of making room for that part of myself, too? Certainly, lots of people have found that believing the words “l am not an alcoholic” has disastrous consequences.

LIDA: My reaction to identifying myself as “Lida, I’m an alcoholic” was like, “No way.” No way was I going to limit myself, identifying myself as an alcoholic. No way I won’t do it. And I fought it until I realized that every time I said, “I’m Lida, I’m an alcoholic,” I was getting more in touch with something that was real and coming out of a kind of samsara into a sense that this is what really is, right this minute.

SANDRA: About five or six years after I was sober, I was with a group of practitioners, and I was saying that I’m a recovered alcoholic, and somebody pointed out to me, “But you’re still using alcohol to identify who you are.” I was very angry because I felt that somebody was taking something away from me.

LINDA: I think there is no dichotomy in bringing recovery principles to Buddhism and bringing Buddhist principles to recovery. They are both path. Just like my practice, the Twelve Steps are never done. I can’t count how many times I’ve worked the steps through, for drugs, for eating issues, for alcohol, for self-hate. The steps are a profound teaching in themselves and a journey without a goal. This is all path that we are talking about, whether you’re in the dharma and get into a recovery program, or whether you do it the other way around.

RICHARD: I am not of the opinion that the steps go on forever. For me, most of them have run out of usefulness, with the exception of the last three, which themselves could define practice. It somehow leads me into the question of “What is the difference?” Why is it different for an alcoholic than it is for someone who has been practicing Buddhism for a long time? And the difference for me is that there is, indeed, no difference between addictions and attachments. The difference is one of direction. I was going, shall we say, steeply downhill with the alcoholism until I hit the bottom or bounced or changed direction and started going in the direction in which the practice directs you. Something had to switch me around.

BILL: What’s the something Richard is talking about? What specific things in practice have been useful in recovery?

MOLLIE: I subject myself to a teacher who is always telling me go deeper. You get something, and as soon as you get it, you get a little bit of realization and you can stay with that, but you’ve got to let it go and keep going. The fact that we don’t have that formal organization in AA is one of its strengths, but I think it’s also one of the difficulties for some people because there’s nobody who checks you at the door to see that you’ve got some one person, like a sponsor, or another addict who’s doing work with you.

LIDA: The biggest help for me has been the visualization practice that I do, a Tibetan Buddhist practice called guruyoga—a specific visualization, a cleansing technique that keeps reminding me that I’m more than just what I don’t like about myself. And being relatively newly sober, there’s a lot I don’t like about myself.

Image 2: Don't Forget, Squeak Carnwath, oil and alkyd on canvas, 1994. Courtesy Nion and Ira McEvoy.
Image 2: Don’t Forget, Squeak Carnwath, oil and alkyd on canvas, 1994. Courtesy Nion and Ira McEvoy.

SANDRA: I find working with the brahma-viharas very helpful. This is a system of four different forms of meditation: working with lovingkindness, equanimity, compassion, and sympathetic joy. To really be happy for another person’s happiness, to be able to teach what compassion really is. Not just fixing somebody or taking care of them.

BILL: Do you see a difference between substance-abuse addiction and the attachments or mind that keep us unenlightened, unrealized, limited, neurotic, unhappy, and filled with unimaginable suffering?

MOLLIE: I would have to say that it has to do with the immediacy and the urgency, the sense that your hair is on fire. Not to say that people who don’t have addictions also don’t suffer in other profound ways. However, once you’re in recovery, practice becomes the maintenance of that recovery. But the reality is that for most people who have a problem with substance abuse at some point in their lives, they will in all likelihood continue to be vulnerable if they begin to abuse substances again And so that’s the thing that’s sort of hanging over your head. The price that I pay for not learning how to take care of myself is going to be even more suffering. So there’s a real practical motivation there.

LINDA: The Dalai Lama once asked, “Who suffers more? A butterfly whose wings you tear off or someone who gets shot and killed in Bosnia?” Suffering is an intensely personal experience.

LIDA: It seems to me that addiction is a microcosm of samsaric existence. It’s a focused intensification somehow of everything that that process is about.

MOLLIE: I think about sitting here right now trying to decide whether I want a chocolate chip cookie and letting go of that. And you could say there’s suffering there. And then I think that somewhere right now on the streets of this city there’s a sixteen-year-old girl who is having sex with some guy so she can go buy some crack. Are my suffering and her suffering the same kind of suffering?

BILL: Isn’t the question, then, Who is more attached to suffering? The truly hard part is to let go of suffering.

LINDA: I think we should be really specific about addiction. It’s not attachment. It’s a form of attachment. There is not an equal sign between the two.

RICHARD: But if I think that the world as I see it is the way that I see it—that this is a solid table and so on and so forth—is that kind of deluded thinking an addiction or an attachment?

LIDA: I think it’s an attachment.

RICHARD: No, I think it’s an addiction, because I know of no way to release it with my own power. The only way it occurs to me to release it is to practice, is to sit and practice. That’s where I think the dharma is so useful. Where the heck is somebody who’s got ten years of sobriety going to go? There is nowhere. After ten years, the steps had run out of steam for me. I didn’t have anywhere to go, and things weren’t that damn great. And then I refocused on the practice, and it allowed me to pass through some of the difficulties. Sobriety by itself was no longer sufficient.

SANDRA: So much of addiction is grabbing to feel better. We grab to get rid of the craving for the moment. At that point you need something else. I think for me the place where it gets a little separate is that for the addict, the craving will, if left to its own devices, destroy the body and the mind. That’s not what happens in other cravings. Usually you stay on the wheel, but it’s not a total breakdown.

BILL: Do you see differences between yourself and other members of your sangha and how you’re pursuing your practice in terms of your hair being on fire—this kind of urgency?

SANDRA: I’m not different from anybody else as long as I do what I need to do to not pick up that drink. So in that sense I feel like I’m like all the other people in my sangha at this point in my sobriety. There’s something very freeing in the prayer “May all beings be free from suffering.” I know whenever there’s suffering, it’s a very narrowing perception. And one of the senses I had in AA was that a lot of people felt that the recovering alcoholics had a monopoly on suffering. And there was a real attachment to this thing about how much we suffer.

RICHARD: There’s a difference in intensity. My addiction to alcohol was so powerful that to cure it, it was like lifting the Empire State Building. It needed something beyond intense. Curing myself of certain other patterns of thinking involved a more subtle approach. When I get into the more subtle areas of addiction, I need something with the depth, the sophistication, the vision that practice has. But the practice cannot get you sober if you’re an alcoholic. For me, it took the vision of something transcendent to motivate me, because drinking was just so wonderful. I think of what we say in AA about the ways we stay sober: “You’ve got to give it away to keep it.” There isn’t usually a framework for that sort of thing or an acceptance of that sort of thing in generalized society. It’s one of the great benefits for me, because I learn the most when I’m doing that, because the dharma has become the most active for me when I am passing it on. Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, called it a spiritual kindergarten, and I think that is so. And I think that the dharma fits beautifully as a sequence after kindergarten and can take us on to much more comfortable places.

BILL: Some would say we’re no different. Drunk or sober, we’re all hungry ghosts. Doesn’t the program encourage you to step out but not away, to have a full life, to test, to fail, to do well? Those of us in this room have chosen Buddhist practice as our spiritual path. So, in that sense, there’s no difference between us as recovering alcoholic Buddhist practitioners and other Buddhist practitioners. But even that is a false distinction. There’s this tendency—which we seem to have avoided—to say, “As a Buddhist, I’m different I’m special.” Or “As an addict, I’m different. I’m special.” Where is the compassion in that? The humility? If you’ve taken a vow to save all sentient beings (the Buddhist way) or if you’ve declared yourself ready to practice these principles in all your affairs (the Twelve Step way), it’s time to go to where the suffering is and get off the pedestal of “terminal uniqueness.” What compelled the choice ultimately is irrelevant. The fire is raging no more in our hair than in anybody else’s. It has nothing to do with being an addict and has everything to do with being a human being.

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