One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps

One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps
Published: 2004
ISBN: 1-57954-905-5
Format: Paperback

Chapter headings:

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Surrender
    (Step One; Meditation Exercise: Vipassana; Step Two; Step Three)
  • Part Two: Investigation and responsibility
    (Step Four; Meditation exercise: noting the hindrances; Step Five; Step Six; Step Seven; Step Eight; Step Nine)
  • Part Three: Fulfillment
    (Step Ten; Step Eleven; Meditation exercise: cultivating the wholesome: mudita and karuna; Step Twelve; Back to Step One)

Selected excerpts:

“Six months before the holiday retreat with Ruth Denison, I went on a solo retreat for a week at a Buddhist monastery in the hills above Santa Cruz. The first couple of days of sitting I continued my usual prayer rituals, morning and evening. But, as I got deeper into practice, I found praying to something or someone outside myself started to feel false and artificial. I asked myself what “God” felt like. As I meditated day after day, the idea of a being called God faded and was replaced by a sense of spirit that was in me and in everything. The name Great Spirit sprang to mind. This sounded almost silly, as if I were adopting a Native American belief system, and yet, these words best fit my sense of a Higher Power: a vast, subtle energy pervading all things – a Great Spirit.”
“So, for some years, I adopted these words when I prayed. My Higher Power was both inside and outside. Today, verbal prayer sometimes falls away entirely, replaced simply by the effort to be aware and awake, to be mindful in each moment. At other times I use Buddhist forms of prayer (which I’ll explore in Step Eleven).”
“I don’t mean to say that I’ve got the Higher Power thing all figured out and I’m on the right side. Rather, this is where I’ve come to. Buddhist practice, in one way, strips everything away, so it’s hard to hold on to concepts like “God”. On the other hand, the practice gives you such powerful inner resources that another kind of trust may supplant the formal faith in God.”
“The idea of a Higher Power changes; like everything, it’s impermanent. We learn to trust our own understanding, and to let it evolve. Sometimes our inner landscape is so parched, there’s no sense of power or life; at other times we feel a gentle hand guiding us. Mindfulness, developed in meditation, helps us to see our relationship to our Higher Power in this moment and to work with that relationship in the most helpful way. In fact, mindfulness itself can be used as a Higher Power, as we shall see in Step Three.” (pp. 41-42)

“Looking back, I see how in meditation it was possible to deceive myself. In silence, in my own mind, what appeared and disappeared was not seen or heard by anyone else. I got no feedback, and besides that, I didn’t recognize the “nature of my wrongs”, the destructive and dysfunctional quality of my thinking – not to mention my behavior. This is where the Twelve Steps have something to offer Buddhism.”
“In Asia, the monastery is the center of social life for many people. The monks are teachers for the lay people, even confidants. They offer guidance on matters large and small. Buddhism acts as a social and spiritual support system. However, for lay Buddhists in the West, we’ve largely lost this element…”
“What’s difficult to achieve is the kind of support that those in Twelve Step groups give each other. This may be because of a central difference in orientation between Twelve Step groups and Buddhist groups. In the Twelve Step groups, what brings people together is a common affliction, be it alcoholism, drug addiction, codependence, overeating, or something else. The members of these groups share a struggle, and also the willingness to engage that struggle with tremendous honesty. The Twelve Step tradition emphasizes the need for support, for “carrying the message”, for an ongoing fellowship as we deal with our failings. People in recovery also have the sense of having survived something together, and like any group of survivors, they share a bond forged in pain, struggle and eventual redemption.”
“In contrast, a Buddhist group is filled with people who, in some sense, are striving for Buddhahood, for perfection. Everyone is trying to learn Right Speech, Right Effort, Right Concentration, and on and on. In that context, there isn’t the same tendency to talk about one’s failings. You’re “supposed” to be meditating right and being a good little Buddhist. There’s a striving for this ideal. And in that striving, there may even be a touch of competitiveness. So, although the Buddhist teachings emphasize compassion and interconnectedness, in many Buddhist communities we haven’t found ways to bring the kind of immediate bonding that newcomers to the Twelve Steps can feel after their first meeting when they are surrounded by people offering their phone numbers and asking how they can help.” (pp. 124-125)

© 2004 Kevin Griffin

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Reviews posted:

Paul –

Reaching this title on the list, for me, is like walking through the doors of a beloved house. I think this is without doubt the finest book I have read on the topic. If you are trying to practice a Twelve Step program in conjunction with Buddhism you should get a great deal out of it. It is quite clearly the culmination of years of reflection, and he brings a wealth of personal anecdote to bear on the issues, vividly bringing them to life. His personal story is of a professional rock musician who slowly loses his battle with drugs and alcohol until a ‘moment of clarity’ at the age of thirty-five. An interesting aspect of his story is that he had developed a serious meditation practice over many years prior to recovery. One of the lessons he draws is that meditation can only be part of the answer for an alcoholic, and must be supplemented with other work (a conclusion drawn by other writers, particularly those influenced by psychotherapy). Having personally found meditation a key to sobriety, this was a timely lesson for me, and a reminder to broaden the scope of my practice. I found the writing style clear and accessible and, like almost every book listed here on Buddhism and recovery, it has been written with tremendous honesty. You can see why Noah Levine chose Griffin as his AA sponsor. If you are trying to arrive at a personal integration of AA and Buddhism, and can only find time for one book, make this book the one.

Michael –

I have never read a book that so strongly resonated with my own experience of being a Buddhist in recovery as this book by Kevin Griffin, a Buddhist meditation teacher and longtime recovery practitioner. This remarkable work is illuminated by the author’s true depth of experience and practice in both mediums, and brings a whole new level of understanding and clarity to Buddhist recovery practice. Interspersed with powerful and honest sharing from his own story, he writes with a passion, knowledge and deep sense of knowing that would be accessible to anyone. The sheer scope of this work is impressive, covering many aspects of Buddhism and recovery and yet integrating both in an enjoyable and almost organic way. For anyone interested in a Buddhist approach to recovery from addiction, this book in my opinion would have to be an absolute must.