For some addicts, hitting bottom and having a spiritual awakening are the first steps along the path of recovery. That's why Alcoholics Anonymous, the oldest and largest of the twelve-step groups, calls itself a spiritual—rather than a religious—program.
Founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson, a New York stock market analyst, and Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron, Ohio, physician, AA is a fellowship of alcoholics who decided to "turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him."
Local AA groups reflect the culture from which they arise, which is why some of these gatherings have an evangelical Christian feel. Many AA meetings, for example, end with the Lord's Prayer.
So it's no surprise that a small but growing number of drunks and drug addicts have gone their own way—creating a grassroots network of support groups that use meditation and Buddhist teachings to overcome addiction.
"The Buddha said craving is the cause of suffering," said Kevin Griffin, the cofounder of the Buddhist Recovery Network. "And what is addiction but craving run rampant?"
Buddhism suggests the Noble Eightfold Path, which seeks to cultivate wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental development as a way out of our suffering. The eight steps along this path are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
These actions are not unlike the program of recovery outlined in the Twelve Steps, which asks the addict to accept his powerlessness over mind-altering substances and then examine his own “defects of character.” He is asked to take a “fearless moral inventory” of his views, intentions, speech, and actions, and then make amends to those he has harmed.
The eleventh step urges the addict to practice “prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him.” One way to work this step is through a practice of Buddhist meditation.
Perhaps I should reveal here that Griffin is a friend. Some years ago, when I finally decided that my drinking and substance abuse had spun out of control, he turned me onto a rag-tag group of addicts calling themselves the KooKoo Faktory. They met every Monday night in a warehouse/performance space off a dingy alley in San Francisco's Mission District.
It wasn't an official twelve-step group, but it served the same function. We'd meditate for half an hour, read something from a Buddhist writer, and then talk about whatever was going on in our lives that week.
Many people who turn to AA have issues with “the God stuff.” Griffin suggests they replace “know God’s will” with “let go of your ego.”
“This is about finding a way to deconstruct our old belief system, to deconstruct our old self,” he said. “We find the intention and motivation to align ourselves with another power. So take God out of it and just try to let go.”
In the eight years since I met Griffin, he has published two books on meditation and the twelve steps, and at least one hundred Buddhist recovery groups have sprung up across the US and around the world.
Don Lattin is the author of five books on spirituality and religion in America, including Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk. Visit him at donlattin.com.