This is a revised draft of an article on Buddhism and recovery that I wrote last year. Hope you enjoy it (again)!
“What was it about Buddhism that helped you the most when you were first getting on the path to recovery?” my sister-in-law asked me a while back.
I had to take a pause and breathe for a moment. I had to take a trip back to about four years before when I was on a short vacation in San Diego during those first days of sobriety.
I had just come out of the closet and had taken a few short steps on the path of both recovery and the Dharma. But after just one month, I was already slipping. I had let my guard down and I thought: What harm is there in one or two beers?
Within a week, that “one or two” had turned into ten or twelve along with the usual supporting cast of jagermeister and tequila shots. When I got home after the end of the trip I knew that I could never be a social drinker. It was all or nothing for me.
That was a powerful realization and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had already taken the first step. I was able to admit to myself, without shame or self-loathing, that my drinking and using were never going to be something I could control.
That was the first of many big reliefs. I didn’t have to control my addiction. I just had to accept it.
There were a lot of actions I took after that. I started to journal everyday as a way to check in with myself, a kind of authenticity-meter that kept me honest about my state of mind and my cravings. I reached out for help by going to therapy and 12-step meetings. I started to take care of my body through diet and exercise.
Then I dove into the Dharma. I mean headfirst. I set up a little shrine in my room. I started a daily meditation practice. I went to Buddhist teachings and practice groups. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, to Robert Thurman’s Inner Revolution, to a half dozen biographies of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
All the while, I knew that I was on to something and that it wasn’t just a phase or a fad. For the first time in my life, I was certain that what I was hearing and reading were true. At least for me.
So what was it about the teachings that really grabbed me? What one note, if any, had rung so true?
As I thought about my sister-in-law’s question I didn’t have to look too hard for the answer. It was always, and still is, unconditional and universal love and compassion. Bodhicitta as it’s called in Sanskrit, and it is the foundation of the whole Dharma.
“You are not the only person in the world,” the teachings say over an over again. “Just open your eyes and you’ll see: There are countless others out there who, just like you, want nothing more than to be happy and to be free from suffering.”
It was a profound realization. And it still is. Even now, my heart melts again and again when I think about it. I feel myself waking up right here, in this moment, as my eyelids crack open to let in just a sliver of light.
My old ways of thinking, thinking about me and only me, crumble and fall away to dust.
Look at my suffering, I would always say. Look at my short end of the stick, my shitty hand. No one has it as bad as me!
That was the broken record of my old life.
But when I first became aware of the idea that that’s a flawed way to think and live in this world, that the real joy of this life comes from helping and serving others, I totally broke down. It was such a relief! Here I was, bearing the burden of being the only person in the world who suffered, and the teachings were telling me I could put all that down. It was nothing short of revolutionary.
It was a revolution not in the least because it helped me to realize that my suffering, especially my addiction, was not unique. It didn’t make me a bad person. It didn’t make me broken. It didn’t even make me special. It just made me human and, therefore, worthy of my own love and compassion.
So although I hesitate to say that it’s the Dharma alone that keeps me sober, it does do a lot to keep me on the right track. Not through trumpets ringing from some high heaven. Not by some divine hand reaching down through the clouds to lift me up and out of misery. But by reminding me again and again that I am not alone in this world. There are countless others in the same boat and every one of them needs me as much as I need them.
This is what keeps me on the path.