Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Friday, February 7, 2014
This is an excerpt from my newest book, Buddhism & The Twelve Steps: A Workbook for Individuals and Groups. Available on CreateSpace or Amazon.
Monday, January 13, 2014
This is an excerpt from my book Buddhism &The Twelve Steps Workbook, available on CreateSpace.com at https://www.createspace.com/4580491.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Friday, August 31, 2012
Right IntentionKevin Griffin
Once we see the truth with clarity, Right View, we are motivated to change, Right Intention. This motivation is the key to our ongoing recovery process and spiritual development. While we may continue to make mistakes or even relapse, a strong intention will keep us on track, eventually bringing us back to the path.
When I first learned to meditate, my goal was peace and some kind of magical spiritual fix. For two years I did a Hindu practice mechanically, just sitting and repeating a mantra for twenty minutes twice a day. Not much happened, and I believe that the problem was my intention. I wasn’t committed to a real spiritual awakening; I just wanted meditation to make my problems go away.
When I then discovered Buddhism, I think my intention started getting closer to something skillful. I began to see the process as broader than just taking a “meditation pill.” But I still couldn’t acknowledge the depth of change needed, and I lacked the willingness to address those fundamental issues.
From the time I started that first meditation practice until I got sober was seven years. That’s how long it took for my intention to become clear and strong enough for real change to happen.
The 12 Steps and the Eightfold Path aren’t mechanical processes. We don’t just go through a series of actions to get a desired result. We aren’t just acting differently; we are becoming different people. Intention is at the heart of this change.
Initially, most people who work the 12 Steps go through them as a linear process, admitting they are powerless, working with the Higher Power idea, inventorying and then trying to let go of failings, making amends, and doing service. For many people this is an important exercise and one that helps to solidly establish them in their recovery. But simply going through the process isn’t enough. If it were, more people would be successful in their recovery. What the process is trying to accomplish is what Step Twelve calls a “spiritual awakening.”
I used to think the Buddhist parallel to this was enlightenment, but that term has so many meanings in different traditions and contexts, that I don’t find it specific enough. What seems like a clearer comparison is what’s called a “transformational insight,” an insight that changes who you are, how you respond, and how you behave in the world. While many insights may occur as the result of spiritual practice, only transformational insight actually changes you for good. And the underlying quality that transformational insight changes is your intention, that which motivates and gives purpose to your thoughts, words, and deeds.
(Of course, enlightenment is supposed to be transformational, but given the number of supposedly enlightened Buddhist masters who drank alcoholically or acted inappropriately in their sex lives, it calls into question the use of the term.)
It’s important to understand why the Buddha said that “karma is intention.” While the typical understanding of karma is that actions bring results, what the Buddha is saying is that what motivates the action is what determines the quality of the results. This means that following a simple mechanical process—like the Steps, like the Eightfold Path—isn’t enough for transformation. The spark of motivation must be there or the process will be hollow and ineffective. This is, of course, a good protection against hypocrisy.
This idea, though, seems to come up against the 12 Step idea that we need to “act our way into right thinking, not think our way into right action.” This suggests that we should “fake it till we make it,” another popular 12 Step idea. This goes back to people trying to think their way out of their addiction instead of just stopping using. The 12 Step program, then, is thought of as more behavioral than psychological. Nonetheless, if we look closely, we see that intention, or as the Steps talk about it, “willingness,” is essential for change to happen. We see this in Step Three, which says we turned our will over to “God.” We see it in Step Six, which says that before we can change we must “be entirely ready.” And we see it in Step Eight, which says once we’d made a list of those to whom we needed to make amends we “became willing to make amends to them all.” Obviously the Steps are asking us to do more than simply take action; they require us to change the heart of those actions, our motivations. No matter how many times we go through the mechanics of the Steps, until we become people who want to be sober; until we become people who want to live with integrity; until we become people who want to be loving, compassionate, and wise, we will never establish solid recovery.
12 Step/Buddhist principle: Change only happens with willingness.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [drugs, food, sex, etc], that our lives had become unmanageable.”
People often tell me that they have trouble with the word “powerless” in the first of the 12 Steps. They’ll say “I’m not powerless; there are lots of things I can do. “ They think they’re being told that they are helpless victims of their addiction. Others tell me that they think it makes for a victim mentality that pervades 12 Step programs.
The language of the Steps is often difficult to take in. There is the simple fact that language has changed a great deal since the Steps were written in the 1930s. But I also think that the founders of AA who wrote the 12 Steps were intentionally using somewhat extreme language to get our attention. If they’d said, “We admitted alcohol was a problem for us,” or even “We admitted we couldn’t control our use of alcohol,” it might have been more accurate, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact as saying “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” Questions of style aside, though, what these early members of AA found was that the best time to approach someone about their drinking problem was when they were at their lowest—hungover or at the end of a bender. Whether they were literally powerless or not wasn’t the point. That’s how it felt. And the admission of powerlessness leads to the response that the program is trying to evoke: surrender.
This struggle with the word powerless is often just the first of many complaints about the language of the Steps. And underneath the complaints is often just a desire to avoid the real issue: your problem with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or some other addiction. Focusing on the minutiae of the 12 Step language lets you sidestep the larger issue. This is why, ultimately, I’m not that interested in debating the language of the Steps. What I want to get at is the process that the Steps are pointing to.
Obviously the Steps were designed to help people stop their addiction and stay stopped. But I think that their underlying structure is based on a broader template for spiritual transformation. The function of the first Step then is more than just telling us we have a problem with addiction. It is the realization that the whole premise of our pleasure-seeking lives is flawed. Another classic template for spiritual transformation makes this same statement: the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha starts his teaching with the recognition of all the ways that life is challenging, physically and mentally—that we’re often stuck with what we don’t want or wishing we had something else; that we inevitably get old and sick and die. Just like Step One, he’s trying to get us to see past the surface to what’s really going on. The starting point of both paths, then is to see the truth: in 12 Step terms, to come out of denial; in Buddhist terms, to shed delusion. To begin on any spiritual path, and to deal with the destructive power of addiction, we have to be honest with ourselves.
For the addict or alcoholic this honesty is about admitting, as the Step says, that we have a problem, that our life isn’t working. For the Buddhist, this honesty is about recognizing that the way we have been approaching life is unrealistic. Until we come to this point, called “Right View” in Buddhism and “a moment of clarity” in AA, there’s no chance that we will change. As long as we believe that pleasure-seeking and acquisition are the way to happiness, and that all we have to do is get better at acquiring and holding on to things, we will never resolve the real problem. That’s because, as the Buddha tells us, what’s actually causing suffering is the very attempts to control and acquire, our craving and clinging. He points out that, since everything is constantly changing, there’s nothing that we can actually control or hold on to. His strategy, then, is to let go, to surrender—exactly the solution offered by the 12 Steps.
And this all starts with the honest recognition of how things work. When Step One says we are powerless, this is the idea that’s we’re being encouraged to see, that our attempt to create a perfect world out of imperfect parts is doomed to fail. We have to see what is happening, that drinking and using by their very nature cannot bring happiness, that pursuing pleasure is not a life strategy, and that surrendering to the truth and abandoning our addiction, though painful at first, is actually the beginning of the path to recovery, happiness, and spiritual transformation.
Exercise: The Cause of Suffering
Begin by sitting quietly for a few minutes. Try to consciously relax the body, and just be aware of your breathing. Once you’ve settled a bit, ask yourself “What am I holding on to that is causing me suffering?” This might be anything from an object, to a behavior, to a relationship. It might involve substances like drugs or food; it might involve a viewpoint or opinion that causes you problems at work or at home; it might be about some loss you’ve suffered. There may be multiple things you are holding on to. Once you have a sense of what these things are, ask yourself, “What would happen if I simply let go?” "What if I let go of the behavior or the opinion or the grief?"
Sometimes simply seeing the problem is enough to inspire us to let go. For many things, though, it’s a process, and that’s what the rest of the 12 Steps are meant to help us with.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
The other day I was talking with a therapist friend who has never been able to establish a regular meditation practice. He told me that after attending a recent workshop of mine, he’d finally been inspired to start meditating every day. He said the results were immediate and dramatic, notably that his blood pressure had dropped twenty points. He said he had also been able to lose weight and generally felt happier and more relaxed. All of this in a little over a month.
It’s all about practice.
I write books (and blogs) about meditation, Buddhism, and recovery, so I want people to read. But the truth is that my books and workshops, and all my work, is really directed towards getting people to do the work themselves. Reading is valuable, but it’s not a practice, it won’t lower your blood pressure. Meditation can and sometimes will.
How many books do you have on your nightstand that are supposed to help you?
It’s all about practice.
The hardest thing for people is to actually sit down and do the work. I hear over and over that people can’t manage to sustain a meditation practice.
I can’t do it for you. Nobody can.
What are you waiting for?
Sure, you can meditate occasionally, or go to a class or retreat and get some benefit. But for me the best analogy for a daily meditation practice is exercise. If you go to the gym once a week, you’ll get sore and tired, but you won’t get in shape. Sure, you might feel better afterward, but your overall healthy won’t improve significantly. The same is true of meditation.
If you only practice when you feel like it, you’ll have a very limited meditation practice. In fact, the truth is that meditating when you don’t feel like it is probably more valuable.
I think a lot of people get frustrated because they can’t quiet their minds, or they feel restless and can’t sit still, or they keep falling asleep, or they get bored. All of these experiences are the practice! If you can sit with your noisy, rambling mind, you are meditating; if you can stay in your seat when it feels like you have to jump up, you are meditating; if you can keep pulling yourself back everytime you nod off, you are meditating. The essence of mindfulness is simply to be with it, whatever it is. Can you hear that? Whatever it is. That includes everything.
Last week I was doing my morning meditation when my chin began to tickle. I’m not the most disciplined meditator, so there are times when I would simply scratch, but I chose not to this time. I just focused my attention on the tickle. The urge to scratch was intense, but I restrained myself, and in about a minute my mind went still. It was amazing! I’ve had this happen many times, when I paid attention to a pain in my knee or a noise outside, or some other “distraction.” These strong stimuli are great meditation objects because they are strong. They hold the attention if we are willing to stay with them.
This kind of practice depends on a certain letting go. We have to allow ourselves to surrender to the experience. For me it feels almost like sinking into the sensation or the sound. At a certain point, you become immersed and the experience that seemed unpleasant transforms.
This is practice. And it works. But you have to show up on a regular basis.
Does this mean that if you miss a day you’ve blown it? No, that’s just another rationalization, another way of giving up so you don’t have to do the work. It’s “progress not perfection” as the AA Big Books says.
The old Nike slogan is a cliché and it kind of irritates me, but in this case, it is the key: “Just do it”: Get out of bed early; or sit in your car during your lunch break; find a meditation group in your town; or listen to a guided meditation (there’s a bunch on my website, www.kevingriffin.net). You can do it! If you really want to grow and change, if you want the benefits of serenity and openheartedness that come from meditation, find a way to make it happen.
It’s all about practice. . .