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Posted by on in Alcoholism


Next week I will celebrate 36 years of sobriety. As I approach the eve of my anniversary I am reminded of the model of recovery that has made this milestone possible.  When I got sober my grandparents (both of whom survived Auschwitz) asked me to develop a mission statement that would guide my sobriety which I would like to share with you: staying sober is the single most important thing in my life, and if anything jeopardizes my recovery, it's eliminated.  This kind of commitment and absolute focus has supported me to remain sober through hardship and loss, through sadness and despair.  Absolutely nothing else is as important as staying sober.

I am grateful I found a homegroup where I feel comfortable and feel like my contributions are valued. In the last two years I've seen an increase in membership and a significant amount of relapse.  While relapse can be part of recovery, it certainly doesn't have to be a part of your story. A casual review of the people who have relapsed in the last year demonstrates a startling pattern: every single person that relapsed gave a detailed version of their relapse, and without question they placed more importance on other aspects of their life versus the need to stay sober. 

I have mentioned the following concepts in another article I wrote for this site, but I believe it's worthy of restating them here: I attach a tremendous amount of emotional pain to the thought of using and a tremendous amount of pleasure to the thought of remaining chemical free.  Not only do I stay sober because I made a commitment to my grandmother (pleasure) I do not use chemicals because it creates more problems than it solves (pain).  I was able to quit as the people I knew who used drugs and alcohol had different goals than I did.  I wanted more from my life than I was currently getting.  I no longer saw drug use as fun, and everything I wanted in my life conflicted with using alcohol and drugs. I did not want to be asleep on my life.  Anything I wanted in my life and the relationships I created are vastly more important than any chemical I would use or alcohol I would drink.

Oftentimes I hear people suggest they don't like the program because all they hear is pain.  I don't see pain when I attend meetings, rather, I see possibility.  I am reminded of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist in the novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a story about a prisoner in a stalinist labor camp in the 1950s. The story offers a stark parallel to an AA member trying to stay sober.  Ivan does whatever he needs to do to make it through the day so he can eat.  He endures hardship and trouble as he understands the reward for existing one more day. He exists because he knows that staying alive and pursuing freedom is its own reward.  The protagonist in this story also draws a parallel to Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and the author of Man's Search for Meaning.  Frankl' noted that we must endure, and that suffering will, with a proper attitude, bring light.  He recounted that the will to survive (a man's attitude) and not the conditions of a particular camp, generally determined if this same man survived.  Frankl' believed that possibility is the natural outgrowth of pain.


Posted by on in Drug Addiction

SufferingAlthough it is our natural tendency to turn away from suffering and wish for happiness, it is actually the suffering itself that leads to wisdom. It is inevitable that we suffer and experience discomfort. When we just run from it, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from it. However, our suffering really can be the gateway to freedom.

People have suffering in one place, so they go somewhere else. When suffering arises there, they run off again. They think they’re running away from suffering, but they’re not. Suffering goes with them. They carry suffering around without knowing it. If we don’t know suffering, then we can’t know the cause of suffering. If we don’t know the cause of suffering, then we can’t know the cessation of suffering. There’s no way we can escape it.

These words from Ajahn Chah put it another way. If we don't take the time to know our suffering, we won't be able to understand it. If we don't know and understand the roots of our suffering, we can't experience the cessation of suffering. Looking at it this way, it is a wonder that we ever deny our suffering.

Why Do We Turn Away from Suffering?

The answer to this question is fairly simple. We turn away from suffering because it is unpleasant and doesn't feel good to us. When we are suffering, we are uncomfortable, discontented, and generally dis-eased. It seems natural that we turn away from such feelings.

One of the reasons we turn away from the suffering is this natural instinct. For survival, we are programmed to avert from suffering. In nature, if we feel some sort of pain or suffering, it is often in our best interest to move away from it. If humans didn't move away from the pain, we may have been hurt or killed. This natural instinct lives on today, and we move away from even the slightest discomfort and unpleasantness.


Posted by on in Alcoholism

Compassion vs. Loving-Kindness

In meditation practices, we are advised to have compassion for any suffering. Whether it is ours or somebody else's, the wise response to suffering is compassion. Compassion is often defined as "the quivering of the heart." Metta or loving-kindness is unconditional friendliness directed toward everyone and everything, while compassion is taking this same feeling and specificallySelf-Compassion directing it toward suffering.

Self-Compassion and Unpleasant Feelings

When we have a feeling that we find unpleasant, our first reaction is often to avert. We hate it, and wish that it wasn't there. We either run from it or push it away. In meditation, we often have unpleasantness arise. Whether it is in the form of a physical sensation, a thought, or an emotion, unpleasantness happens. However, our reaction of aversion does not need to happen. The Buddha taught that this aversion is one of the Three Poisons, or one of the chief causes of suffering.

Every time I sit, I experience unpleasant feelings, thoughts, or emotions. I have practiced the brahmaviharas and am quite familiar with the idea of compassion. After practicing for quite some time, compassion was something I understood from an intellectual standpoint more than an experiential one. I understood that when we have an unpleasant feeling, we are to respond with compassion. I also understood that in compassion, we don't avert from our unpleasant feelings.

On my recent retreat, I was having a rather unpleasant few days. Sitting in meditation, I had many unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations arising. On the second night, one of the teachers gave a dharma talk on self-compassion. For the first time, I truly understood compassion from my own personal experience.

In the past I had thought of compassion as a response to suffering that was better than aversion. However, a part of me expected that with compassion, the pain would dissipate. In this experience, I had the realization that with compassion, I am allowing the unpleasantness to be a part of my experience.


Posted by on in Alcoholism

thinking errorsDo You Make These Ten Widespread Thinking Errors?

There are particular mindsets or points of view that can be counter-productive. These errors in thinking, especially if taken to the extreme, can inhibit the personal growth and development in relationships.

1. All or absolutely nothing pondering: You see items in extremes, everything is black or white. This can be evident or subtle, for instance saying 'He is always late, but I never get angry about it'. This mindset can be that of the perfectionist also. This thinking error is common amongst addicts.

2. Minimizing or catastrophizing: You exaggerate the relevance of modest issues. 'The whole meal was ruined since the desert was not served promptly.' Is this a catastrophe? An illustration of minimizing is taking a substantial problem or occasion and minimizing its value so it seems inconsequential. People often do this so as not to have to deal with uncomfortable feelings or consequences. It is a form of averting from discomfort and confrontation.

3. Overgeneralization: You get a single event and draw basic conclusions that it is universally true. If your date is late you say 'No guys/girls are ever on time'.

4. Minimizing or qualifying the optimistic: If an individual says you did well, you reply by saying 'I could have/should have done better'. These thinking errors are often a result of low self-confidence.

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Posted by on in Alcoholism

When I am suffering, my tendency is to blame something outside of myself. As a first reaction, I look to external phenomena to put the responsibility on. As I practice more and more, I am able to look inward for the causes of my suffering with less resistance. My reaction of blaming an external circumstance or person is more easily brought into my awareness, and I am able to look deeper at my suffering.

In his book Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama states, "In truth, it is always and only the mental afflictions that agitate our minds, yet we tend to blame our agitation on external conditions, imagining that encountering unpleasant people or adverse circumstances make us unhappy." This insight is something that I have understood intellectually for quite some time. However, I have only had the experiential understanding recently, although I have been practicing for years.

maraI have had this experience on retreat, but also in simple 30 minute sits. When I am sitting, all of my basic needs are met. Generally, I am in a safe and comfortable position both in relation to the outside world and with my own posture. However, I can still experience great suffering. Things that happened weeks or months ago may arise. Thoughts of my own actions arise. Thoughts of craving, delusion, and aversion arise. Emotions arise that are clearly based on my own MENTAL afflictions, not any physical afflictions.

In meditation, I have found that the root of all of my suffering is within my own head. A teacher of mine often tells the story of the Buddha's encounters with Mara in which the Buddha simply says, "I see you Mara." I have a tattoo on my forearm to remind myself of this story and its lesson: that by simply bringing attention in a compassionate manner to our suffering, clinging, aversion, and delusion, our ability to let it go is greatly increased.

The other day, after a sit with my girlfriend, I opened my eyes and simply said. "Mara is in my head." I had a painful sit with many unpleasant emotions arising, but I did not suffer greatly. As the unpleasant emotions and thoughts arose, I looked at them and simply stated repeatedly, "I see you Mara."


Posted by on in Drug Addiction

May Peace Prevail on Earth Buddhist Meditation GardensWhen we think of meditation in relation to the Twelve Steps, we often think of the Eleventh Step. However, I have found that my meditation practice has much to do with my Tenth Step. Step ten encourages us to continue to take personal inventory. People do this in a number of ways: writing, talking to a sponsor every night, or by honest self-reflection.

I have found that meditation is crucial for me in my personal inventory. As I meditate sometime during the day, I try to be mindful of whatever is arising. When I feel a tension in my body, I look for the cause of it. It often is anxiety, fear, or worry about the future. My meditation practice has helped me become more in touch with my body, allowing me to use it as a barometer of where my mind is.

Furthermore, when an emotion arises, I am able to deeply touch the root of this emotion. Rather than run from my feelings or wonder why I am feeling a certain way, meditation has allowed me to meet my emotions head on. I am not perfect with this, nor am I able to do it every time I sit. In general, my meditation practice has allowed me to greatly increase my awareness of what is going on within, of taking an inventory.

As emotions arise, I try to take an objective look at them (as difficult as this may be). When I investigate my emotions, I often find that they are dependent upon my karma, my actions. When I don't make my bed, don't call someone back, or tell a small white lie, I often feel slightly off. Before I began meditating, I did not truly notice how these actions affected me. I may have understood the effects intellectually, but had not truly experienced them. Similarly, I notice the way I feel when I act wisely and wholesomely during my day.

Meditation has been a crucial tool in my recovery. I recognize everybody works the steps in his or her own way, but I do share from my experience that meditation is a great way to check in with ourselves.

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Posted by on in Alcoholism

IMG_4306Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva) is the practice of earning a living in a mindful and compassionate manner. At its foundation is not violating the Five Precepts. The Five Precepts teach us not to kill, not to steal, to abstain from sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to use mind-altering substances. In making our living, we must not violate these precepts. It has been explained by one of my teachers as not harming others in the way you make your living. We should not deal in arms, human beings, meat, intoxicants, nor unlawful labor.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says on page 104 of his book The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings, "To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others... Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living."


As the Fourth Precept says, we should abstain from using false speech. As discussed in the Five Precepts article, this is more than simply not lying. It also involves not using half-truths nor exaggerating. We must be careful that our professions do not require us to violate this precept of honesty. If we are to observe Right Livelihood, we must make our living through honesty and Right Speech.

Not Stealing

We also must observe the Second Precept and not participate in stealing in our work. More than just not stealing, we must "not take that which is not freely given to us." Obviously, we should not steal from our employer, co-workers, or employees. We also must be conscious of the social impact of the business or industry we are in. If we are hoping to learn to live in Right Livelihood, we must not work in businesses that utilize inhumane labor, deceive customers or suppliers, nor take advantage of the ignorance or cravings of others.

Not Harming

In earning our living, we must be mindful of the people we may be harming. Are we dealing in weapons, intoxicants, or breeding ignorance? Our jobs cannot cause harm on others; we must be compassionate and loving with our work. Practicing loving-kindness in our career, we cannot possibly harm others in any way.


Posted by on in Alcoholism

In recovery, we go through the steps with our sponsor.  However, the steps also must be worked in our daily lives.  As the Twelfth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous suggests, we must practice these principles in all our affairs.


The principle of surrender that is behind the Third Step must be practiced throughout our daily lives. As we discussed in Step Three: Surrender and the Three Jewels, surrender is about turning ourselves over to a power other than ourselves, whatever that may be. However, step three is not just about making a decision and leaving it at that.

We must turn our surrender into a way of life. If we are being honest, most of us are not in surrender for the majority of our days. Anytime we are upset, anxious, or not in acceptance, we are not in surrender. To be in surrender, we must constantly remind ourselves that something else is in charge. Earl Hightower gives the example of a soldier surrendering to an opposing army. The soldier lays his gun down and puts his hands up. The soldier is fully surrendered at this point; he doesn't suddenly turn and pick up his gun again. In a similar way, we must fully surrender.

It is only natural that we are not in surrender all the time. However, when we aren't in surrender we must catch ourselves. As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous reminds us on pages 87 and 88, "As we go through the day we pause, when agitated or doubtful, and ask for the right thought or action. We constantly remind ourselves we are no longer running the show, humbly saying to ourselves many times each day 'Thy will be done.' "

Surrendering means to let go of our self-will, and let something greater direct our thoughts and actions. As we have discussed, what this power is does not matter. What does matter is that we cease fighting anything and anyone. We surrender to the way things are, and opt to learn from life. Some people believe everything happens for a reason, while others believe everything is chance but we always have the opportunity to learn. Either way, surrender is about staying out of our own way, learning to live in harmony with life, and cease trying to control things.


Posted by on in Alcoholism

The Third Step of Alcoholics Anonymous states, "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." The principle behind this step is Surrender. The 3rd Step and is also closely related to the Three Jewels of Buddhism.

Step Three and Surrender

In Step Two, we open ourselves up to a bit of hope and faith. In the third step, we surrender our lives to something greater than ourselves. The Oxford English Dictionary defines surrender as to "cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority." In this sense, we are ceasing to resist running our lives, and submitting to the authority of a power greater than ourselves. Where we previously resisted and turned away from any sense of a Higher Power, we submit to its authority.

It is important at this step to investigate what the term "power greater than ourselves" means to us. For those of us that enter the program with a religious background, it may be a good idea to use our previous concept of a Higher Power. However, most of us do not enter the program with an existing Higher Power. If we are agnostic, we may investigate the power of the twelve-step rooms or of our sponsor. We recognize the rooms hold more power than we do ourselves, as we were not previously able to stay sober alone. For those of us that enter atheistic, we may find trouble with this step. However, this does not mean we must shy away from this step at all. For example, as a Buddhist myself, I use the Dharma as my Higher Power. It is not a greater person nor a sentient being. Rather, the Dharma is a Higher Truth. Merriam Webster defines the word God as "the supreme or ultimate reality," which the Dharma absolutely is for me. I, daily, turn my will and my life over to the practices that the Dharma lay out for me.

When we turn our will and our lives over, we are submitting to something greater than ourselves. Whether it is Jesus Christ, the universe, a Twelve-Step room, or a set of atheistic teachings, we must surrender completely. To do so, this decision must be made at once, and fulfilled in our everyday life. We must give up running the show ourselves, and allow our thoughts and actions to be run by something greater.

Step Three and the Three Jewels

In the Third Step we surrender to a power greater than ourselves. One might say we "take refuge." In Buddhism, we surrender to the Three Jewels. This is called taking refuge. The Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. As we surrender and turn our wills and our lives over to a Higher Power in Step Three, we turn to the Three Jewels for refuge in Buddhism.


Posted by on in Alcoholism

The Second Step of Alcoholics Anonymous states, "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." The principle behind Step Two is hope. The 2nd Step is also closely related to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, especially the Third Noble Truth.

Step Two and Hope

In Step One, we admit powerlessness over drugs and alcohol. We concede to our innermost selves that we are addicts, and practice rigorous self-honesty. In Step Two, we essentially do the opposite. We are offered hope for a seemingly hopeless state. The phrase, "Came to believe" tells us that our faith does not always happen instantly. It takes time. We slowly open our minds and hearts to see what the Twelve Steps have to offer us. As we know we are powerless over things and our lives are unmanageable, we are being offered a way to live a life manageable by a power greater than ourselves.

Step Two not only gives us hope in terms of a power greater than ourselves. In the Second Step, we are offered hope in a more general sense. We feel quite hopeless and as if there is nothing that will help us. Step Two is the door that once we begin to open, we are presented with a beautiful path of work toward a joyous and free life.

Step Two and the Third Noble Truth

In the First Step, we have our limits brought to light, and are practicing Right View. We recognize the first two Noble Truths of suffering and the causes of our suffering, which are our addiction and own powerlessness. In Step Two, we are presented with the reality of the Third Noble Truth: that the cessation of this suffering is possible. Just as the Second Step is beginning to open the door to the rest of the steps, the Third Noble Truth leads us into the Fourth Noble Truth of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Third Noble Truth teaches us that ending suffering is indeed possible. Once we have learned to understand our suffering and see it clearly, we have the potential to eradicate it completely. The Third Noble Truth, like Step Two, is of hope. The possibility to progress and leave behind the suffering is a reality for each and every one of us.


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