When I was in my freshman year in college, I had a professor of English who liked to start the first class of the semester with the question, “What are the books that changed your life?” Not “What books did you enjoy, or really love,” but “changed your life.” Even as a voracious reader, it took some thinking to identify books that had really made a difference; but there definitely were some.
I don’t know if the book I’m going to talk about here is going to change your life. But I’m hoping it will make a difference for at least a few of you, and just might be very helpful for some.
I was thinking about doing a series of blogs this year on how each of the major religions in America deals with the issues of spirituality, meditation and recovery that we look at here. And lo and behold, a book suddenly fell into my hands that felt like the perfect thing to kick off such a series: The 12-Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery from Any Addiction, by Darren Littlejohn.
I’ve talked here before about how meditation can help in recovery, and even about the use of mindfulness, usually thought of as a specifically Buddhist idea, though it certainly exists in many other traditions. But a number of things intrigued me about Littlejohn’s book as I worked my way through it.
First off, he is a recovering addict who developed the unique approach he presents in the book himself, and was its first guinea pig. So his work is practical and battle-tested, not theoretical. Second, he advocates strongly and clearly for an approach that was important in my own healing: a triangle composed of recovery work, therapy, and spirituality.
I also like it that Littlejohn is funny, even as he’s blunt and straightforward—a trait sometimes missing in standard treatments of addiction. There’s a lot of humanity, and affection for humanity, in his work. Mandala Magazine describes the book this way:
The 12-Step Buddhist is a unique synthesis of the traditional 12-Step model and the liberating wisdom of Dharma, bridging the divide between traditional programs, which suffer from problematic terminology and pedagogy, and Buddhist teachings, which aren’t equipped to address some of the specific needs and concerns of the modern addict.
Right there is why I wanted to bring this work to everyone’s attention: from talking to people in program, and interviewing some of them here on their experiences with religion, I know there are those who fall between the cracks of what’s available in terms of help. And I agree with Littlejohn that addressing all of the aspects of who we are can be more powerful and effective than focusing in just one area.
Littlejohn’s first experience with meditation was while watching Karate instruction on TV. By his teens, he was already involved with drug use, so his interest in spirituality developed side by side with his addiction. The next time he encountered meditation, and received actual in-person training, was in a treatment center.
He found meditation brought up a lot of emotional material, so he “always kept a therapist around” to deal with it. This was the start of his integrated approach to the 12 Steps, spirituality, and therapy—not planned, but generated by life-circumstances.
Littlejohn also met a lot of people who relapsed after many years of sobriety. The “why” of that got him thinking, and led him to search for whatever would help. He relates that “my sponsor says that in order to stay sober, we need to have a spiritual thirst.” Littlejohn says “I know that it’s because I’m sicker than most that I’m more desperate for spiritual answers than many others. I’m lucky, because I have to practice.”
Littlejohn not only worked with a series of therapists, he also integrated the Voice Dialogue work of Hal and Sidra Stone. This is a method in which one identifies a specific inner voice—the Inner Child is probably the most familiar, but Littlejohn describes many others, including his Inner Addict—and, in a meditative state, engages the voice in a creative dialogue to see what’s really going on inside. He integrates this technique with his Buddhism, sometimes personifying “Buddhist” characteristics, such as “Basic Courage,” or deities, as part of his inner repertoire of characters.
Getting to know one’s inner voices this way can be seen as a part of doing “a searching and fearless moral inventory.”
In my view, 12-Step work deals most directly with the issues of addiction and recovery; therapy focuses on unresolved issues from our personal history; and Buddhism or other forms of spirituality widen our perspective to include our connection to the whole of life. I have known people who became too rigid or OCD in their pursuit of either program or spirituality because they didn’t do the work at the personality level, on emotions and relationships.
Littlejohn’s approach addresses the roots of addiction from a variety of perspectives and methods. He presents a series of meditations that bring Buddhist practices of mindfulness, the contemplation of ideas, visualizations, body-oriented techniques, and prayers together with the 12 Steps. These are presented in a way that lets the reader choose which practices they feel comfortable trying.
Basically, he suggests we meditate or journal on each Step. Explore them in a more relaxed, slower, more open state of mind than the usual one. You can deepen your experience, understanding, and acceptance of each Step. You can let the Steps sink deeper into who you are. “You are what you eat”—and also what you contemplate.
Littlejohn’s ideas include asking oneself powerful, challenging questions in an open, meditative state, drawing upon the Buddhist philosophy that we are connected to potentially limitless resources and possibilities, such as: “What if I could be free from suffering and the root of suffering?” He then suggests the intentional release of automatic, addictive patterns of mind as they arrive, via the breath.
These are “big ideas” that need to be broken down and digested slowly and carefully.
Buddhist practices introduce “breathing room” between us and our cravings, so that deeper and more mature aspects of who we are, of wisdom and compassion, can come to the fore, instead of our “Inner Addict.”
Buddhism’s teachings on impermanence and the way all things work interactively can help us break down the monolithic sense of our addiction—leveling our tendency to label things as all this or all that, “this is perfect!” or “this is terrible!” We calm down. We become more skeptical of our addict’s claims that a drink, a hit, a fix will be the great cure-all for our pain.
The accent that he stresses as linking the three major approaches together is that they all encourage us to get to know our own mind and its contents and workings; and to balance taking responsibility with compassion toward self. The Buddhist Metta or loving-kindness meditations may be of particular value, here, since many struggling with addiction either come from a background that never supported their self-worth, or developed such attitudes themselves as a by-product of seeing themselves caught in addiction. I also appreciate his clarity on the issue of addiction being a form of brain disease, and the supporting evidence.
The practice of setting “intentions” in Tibetan Buddhism also seems to have been especially helpful to Littlejohn, and may be valuable to anyone on a path of recovery, as we move from the necessary focus on now, “one day at a time,” and begin to shape the future we want.
Littlejohn’s integrative approach may also benefit those who find 12-Step language too Victorian, old-fashioned, moralizing or Christian for their comfort.
Littlejohn talks about how he had to work out a lot of this for himself—program, sponsors, Zen teachers and therapists were of limited help. This emphasis on self-reliance is very Buddhist, but may seem to conflict with Step 2 and program’s stress on relying on “a power greater than ourselves.”
My own experience confirms a lot of what he says, but I think that the process is really not either/or but both/and—shuttling between turning to trusted others (including Higher Power) and then learning, gradually, to trust oneself again, to digest and, in some cases, modify what one has learned.
Meditation on Higher Power is a way of processing any problems you may have with the idea, and deepening your understanding of and relationship to your Higher Power. Neither “self” nor “God” are solid, concrete “things” in the Buddhist view. Nothing is. To Buddhism, all of these are just ideas—labels for complex realities, some of which are beyond complete definition.
Some may find support in Littlejohn’s idea of “The Funnel,” which he defines as reaching a sense of “spiritual bankruptcy” and disillusionment with the 12 Steps. He believes this is what leads many with long-term sobriety to relapse: what used to work stops working, and alternatives aren’t apparent, leading to despair. For him, Buddhism and therapy helped him get beyond this stage,
He also believes that Buddhist meditation is good for easing and releasing resentments, the number one offender to our spiritual wellbeing and sobriety, according to AA literature.
Finally, a note of caution: I recommend trying Littlejohn’s exercises with the support of your sponsor, therapist, or meditation teacher—someone you trust and who knows addiction, recovery, and your personal issues. Frankly, I have some concerns that some of the practices, while sound in themselves, could inadvertently trigger flashbacks of painful experiences, or intensify cravings if not used carefully. Some, such as the meditation on death, the cultivation of humility, or the Tibetan practice of Tonglen, in which one “exchanges oneself for others,” taking on their pain and transferring one’s own wellbeing to them, are very advanced practices that require a lot of serious preparation and may be too much for many in recovery, who struggle with deep fears or building self-esteem. Littlejohn himself acknowledges that “What was different this time, from all the years of recovery and Buddhist practice, was that I could handle more intensity.” Italics mine.
The question of “Guru Yoga” is beyond the scope of what I can deal with here. I will only say I think it is very dangerous for anyone who has not cleaned out their emotional baggage and established a balanced life. Be wary of transferring your addictive tendencies from a substance or process to a person, in the form of a spiritual teacher or guru who becomes your “Higher Power.”
So I recommend checking out any 12-Step group, spiritual teacher, community, or therapist you’re thinking of working with. It could spare you a lot of disappointment down the road.
I also think you really have to be into Buddhism to work with mantra, deities, or complex visualizations. However, the practice of dedicating your meditation or service work you do might fit nicely with the 12-Step practice of Making Amends. Our experience of the suffering of addiction can form the basis of motivation to help our fellow sufferers, once we move beyond the illusions of difference and separation from each other.
People in program who have a meditation practice or are interested in seeing how meditation might work in combination with program might find Littlejohn’s “Meditation on the 12-Step Principles” at the end of the book particularly useful.
If working your way through a book isn’t your thing, check out Littlejohn’s website, 12stepbuddhist.com. And if you or someone you know is interested in bringing Buddhist meditation to those in prison, go to liberationprisonproject.org, a program started by one of Littlejohn’s friends.
It’s my fondest wish that these resources will be helpful to many. In the spirit of Littlejohn’s work, I dedicate whatever merits this blog may have to the increase of your well-being and joy.