Buddhism and the Twelve Steps
By Kevin Griffin
Kevin Griffin is the author of ONE BREATH AT A TIME: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, meditation teacher, and also leads 12 Step workshops and retreats. Kevin has written the following article for 11thStepMeditation.org. You may learn more about Kevin and his work at www.kevingriffin.net
On this page you will discover:
The Four Noble Truths – the fundamental teaching of Buddhism
Buddha’s Eightfold Path to end suffering
How to do a Vipassana Meditation – Insight Meditation
How to do a Metta Meditation – Lovingkindness meditation
Buddhism was founded over 2,500 years ago in India, and over time spread over much of Asia. It has taken different forms as it moved into different cultures. Today there are considered to be three major school: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada (The Way of the Elders) is predominantly in Southern Asia, Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Mahayana is found in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and includes Zen. Vajrayana is found primarily in the Himalayan region and is sometimes called “Tibetan Buddhism.”
The fundamental teaching of the Buddha is called the Four Noble Truths. They are:
- The Truth of Suffering
- The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
- The Truth of the End of Suffering
- The Truth of the Way to the End of Suffering.
The Truth of Suffering was the Buddha’s recognition that every attempt to find lasting satisfaction in conventional life was doomed to fail. He said that “aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering; not having what we want is suffering and having what we don’t want is suffering.” Essentially he said that, since everything is changing all the time (the Law of Impermanence), it’s impossible to “arrive” at some static point where everything remains pleasant. Our tendency, then, is to go round and round in the cycle of samsara, trying to find that which will always allude us.
The Cause of Suffering, then, is craving and clinging. Because we’re always trying to make things better, or less bad, we are in constant discomfort or unease. Because we are trying to hold on to that which is in constant change, we suffer.
The End of Suffering, then is to let go. When we stop clinging, we see that it’s possible not to suffer. This is counter-intuitive, though logical. Our natural human tendency is to want to feel good. When we feel desire or aversion, we naturally act on that to make ourselves feel better. However, these teachings make clear that this very movement is where suffering arises. Desire, which tells us that it must be satisfied, is lying to us. When we get what we want, we will not be satisfied, but rather will just want something else. This is how addiction arises.
The Truth of the Way to the End of Suffering is the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, his prescription for how to let go, and thus to end suffering. The path is typically divided into three sections, sila, samadhi, and panna, or morality, meditation, and wisdom. Morality, following the basic moral precepts, is the basis for spiritual life. Meditation brings peace and openness to experience wisdom. Here are the elements of the Eightfold Path.
- Wise View – the basic understanding of the Four Noble Truths, Impermanence, and that Law of Karma (cause and effect).
- Wise Intention – once we have Wise View, we become motivated to fulfill this understanding.
- Wise Action – the Five Precepts, not to kill, to steal, to harm with our sexuality, not to lie, not to use intoxicants.
- Wise Livelihood – finding work that is non-harming and is of service.
- Wise Speech – to say only that which is true and helpful.
- Wise Effort – bringing appropriate energy to our meditaion
- Wise Mindfulness – paying attention to our experience with clarity and openness.
- Wise Concentration – learning to hold the mind steady on an object of attention.
The Eightfold Path is in complete harmony with the Twelve Steps. Morality and healthy lifestyle are seen as fundamental in recovery; spiritual growth through prayer and meditation is a guiding principal of recovery; and developing wisdom is the only way we can be of service to others in recovery.
For anyone who’s hung around Twelve Step meetings for long, it’s clear that meditation is somewhat under-emphasized, at least in meetings. The Twelve Step literature gives very little specific guidance, so people are left to figure it out for themselves. It seems to be very common that people express an interest in meditation, and yet can’t manage to make it part of their program. There are many forms of meditation, and these days lots of resources, but the starting point is showing up. We need to make meditation a part of our program, whatever form we practice. So here are a few hints on how to establish a meditation practice.
- Set a specific time each day when you will meditate. I find it helpful if I plan it into my schedule the night before. Just as I have to figure out how long it will take to show, get dressed, eat and drive to work when I decide when to get up in the morning, I have to plan in the time to meditate. Then, when I wake up, it’s easy to follow through. If I wait for the “right time” to meditate, it may never come. We need to see meditation as something we do no matter what, not just a special activity. Sometimes you’ll feel good, sometimes you won’t; sometimes you’ll be sleepy, sometimes you’ll be restless; sometimes you’ll be happy, sometimes depressed. No matter what, we just show up and sit. We learn to sit with whatever is happening to us in that moment.
- Set up a meditation spot in your home. If there is space, make it in a room outside of common areas in the home like the living room. It can be nice to set up a little altar or table where you put special objects. Keep some spiritual books nearby that you can read after your meditation.
- Commit to sit, to at least get your butt onto your cushion or chair each day. Whether it’s for a minute, ten minutes, twenty minutes, or however much time you can make, just do it.
For beginning meditators one of the most important things to realize is that there is no special thing that’s supposed to happen. With mindfulness meditation we are just trying to be aware of whatever is happening in our experience. So, if there’s loads of thoughts or you are having a hard time sitting still, or you keep nodding off, just try to be as aware as you can—“progress not perfection.” While it’s very nice when the mind quiets down some, and that does happen sometimes, it’s more important, especially at first, to learn to be non-reactive, to just sit with all the stuff that comes up. You are developing what’s called “personal power,” the ability to be present through all kinds of life experiences. This is especially valuable for the addict/alcoholic because it’s those tough moments that trigger our addictive behavior, and if we can become less reactive, we can head off slips and impulsive and destructive actions.
Theravada Buddhism emphasizes two forms of meditation: Vipassana (Insight meditation) and Metta (Lovingkindness meditation). Vipassana is based on mindfulness of the breath and noticing our passing experience; Metta focuses on developing unconditional love for all beings and functions as a concentration practice.
Begin by finding a comfortBuddha’s Eightfold Pathable place to sit where it’s relatively quiet and you won’t be disturbed. You can sit on a cushion on the floor with your legs crossed, or just in a chair. What’s important isn’t the position of your legs, but your posture. Your back should be straight without creating rigidness in the body. You may have to experiment with posture for a while to find what works best for you. Many futon stores sell the round meditation cushions called zafus. If you don’t have a teacher, you might look for a book with illustrations of how to sit in a lotus posture or a variation of a lotus posture. If you sit in a chair, sit with both feet on the floor.
Besides having a straight back, the most important thing with posture is to sit still. No matter what, if you sit still for very long some discomfort will arise. Working with this, learning to be present with uncomfortable sensations is part of meditation, and a valuable thing to learn.
Once you’ve got yourself into your posture, it can be helpful to do some conscious relaxation to ground yourself. Begin by relaxing the muscles in your face; let the jaw relax; relax the small muscles around the eyes; relax the forehead.
Now move down, relaxing the neck and shoulders. Relax and arms and hands.
Relax the chest, getting a sense of openness there; relax the belly, letting it be soft so the breath can move deeply into the body.
Relax through the hips, into the legs and feet.
Now take a moment just to feel the whole body sitting.
Now, bring your attention to the sensations of breath. Pay attention to the breath either at the nostrils, where the air goes in and out, or the belly as it rises and falls with each breath. Choose the place where the breath is easiest to feel and to stay with, and then let that be your regular focus.
Feel the breath just as it is. Don’t try to breathe in any special way or to create any special experience. Each breath has its own unique life, a beginning, middle, and end. You can pay attention to each element or feel the whole thing as a continuous process.
As you breathe and feel the breath, it can be helpful to make a soft mental note of “In, out,” if you’re feeling the breath at the nostrils, or “Rising, falling” if you’re feeling the breath at your belly. Let the words be soft, in the back of the mind, while the experience of the sensations of breath is in the foreground.
Let yourself become intimate with the breath, coming right up close to it with your attention, getting inside the experience.
It’s quite natural for the mind to wander. At any point, if you realize you’re not paying attention to the breath, just acknowledge where the attention is, then come back to feeling the sensations of breath.
It can be helpful to name or note where the attention has gone. So, if you find that you are thinking, just note “Thinking, thinking” softly in the back of the mind.
Do the same with sounds that interrupt your attention to the breath, noting “Hearing, hearing,” with sensations, noting “Sensation” or “Feeling.” The words aren’t that important. They just act as an aid to awareness, clarifying what our experience is instead of just letting it go by. This keeps our attention “honest.”
As you sit, just keep directing the attention to the breath. No matter how often it wanders or how long it goes away, whenever you notic that you aren’t on the breath, make a note, and then gently come back. This means, try not to add a judgment like “Why can’t I stop thinking?” or “I’m such a bad meditator.” Just notice what’s happening and come back.
It’s important to try to be compassionate and forgiving of ourselves when we meditate. We are dealing with a mind that has spent its life thinking, judging, spacing out, and all the rest. We can’t expect it to suddenly behave with discipline and precision just because we want it to. The “first Step” of meditation is seeing that we are powerless over our thoughts, over our own mind. Accepting this makes it easier to just be peaceful even with the wandering mind. If we sit and take the time each day, serenity will come. But we can’t force it. We have to do the footwork and trust the process.
When your time is up (a good period of meditation when starting out is 20 minutes) slowly open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Even if your mind was wandering a lot, you’ll usually feel more relaxed or rested than at the beginning of the meditation.
Now is a good time to do your prayer and reading for the day. With your heart and mind opened up, you may find that your prayers feel like they are coming from a deeper place, and that you are able to take in spiritual writing with more depth.
Metta, or Lovingkindness, is unconditional love. This is a natural human quality. With metta practice we try to dissolve the boundaries that separate us from others–the resentments, demands, prejudices, and expectations–and open us to the heart’s hunger for connection.
Traditionally this practice uses phrases, as in the Mudita practice in Step Ten. This formal practice is often used to build concentration. Sharon Salzberg’s classic book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness describes this practice in detail. I highly recommend it.
Instead of repeating her teaching, I will offer another approach to metta that is adapted from the teachings of Ayya Khema. Instead of using phrases, this practice seeks to evoke the feeling of metta directly.
Begin by focusing the attention on the Heart Center, the middle of the chest just beneath the sternum. Feel the breath moving there, rising and falling. Soften the heart; let yourself be open and receptive, letting down any defenses.
Now think of someone who is very dear to you, someone who it is easy for you to love unconditionally: a child, a parent, a teacher or benefactor, or some other loved one. You might imagine his or her face in your mind, or just have the sense of their presence here with you.
Let the love you have for them flow naturally into your heart, just enjoying the thought of your beloved.
You might even imagine that you are holding or being held by this beloved person, warm and safe, comforted.
Once you have evoked this feeling of metta, turn it around and offer it to yourself. Give yourself the same lovingkindness you feel for your beloved.
Fill yourself with lovingkindness; permeate your heart, mind, and body with this feeling of warm, open love; envelop yourself in this unconditional acceptance.
Rest in this feeling until you have the sense of fullness of heart.
Now think of others who are dear to you–family, partner, friendsand offer each of them the same lovingkindness you give your beloved. Let their faces appear in your mind, one by one, or just the sense of their presence or their names. Let unconditional love flow out of your heart, filling each one of them. You might imagine that you are embracing each one of them, holding them and filling them with lovingkindness.
Your heart is open; let the love you feel for your beloved flow forth naturally.
Now think of other people you know: neighbors, colleagues, people you encounter in your day at shops or meetings, people whom you don’t know well. Let these people come to mind, their faces or the sense of their presence, and offer each of them the same lovingkindness you give your beloved. Fill each of them with the unconditional love that flows naturally from your heart, embracing them, holding them in warmth and kindness.
Now think of a person (or persons) who is difficult for you. Someone who you fear or resent, or someone who has harmed you. It may be someone you know or just someone you know of, like a public figure. Keeping your heart open, bring their face or the sense of their presence to mind and offer them the same lovingkindness you give your beloved. Just for this moment, let down any resistance or barriers to loving them and let the love in your heart flow naturally to this difficult person, embracing them with warmth and kindness.
Now begin to radiate out love. Spread lovingkindness outward through the building you are in, touching everyone in the building; then outward into your neighborhood, touching all the beings nearby: people, animals, birds, insects. Fill each of these beings with the same lovingkindess you give your beloved.
Keep spreading this lovingkindness outward, across the land, touching all beings; spread it out to the sea, touching the beings that live in the sea; spread it across the continents and through the oceans; envelop the Earth in lovingkindness, touching all beings on the planet with the same lovingkindess you give your beloved.
You can spread lovingkindness to places where you know there is special suffering, wars, famine, oppression, or devastation. Permeate the planet with lovingkindness, filling all beings and the earth itself with unconditional love.
Now spread lovingkindness out from the earth into the universe. Let your heart become vast, spacious, touching all beings in the universe with the same lovingkindess you give your beloved.
Limitless, boundless, lovingkindness permeating the universe. See the universe aglow with unconditional love, all beings and all things touched by the power of this love.
Rest in that vast ocean of warmth, kindness, acceptance, and love.
Now, begin to come back. Come back to the room you are in; to your body; to your breath; to your heart. This vast, boundless love comes from your own heart; lives in your own heart; it is available to you whenever you call upon it.
Take a few moments to open your eyes, and end the meditation.