1. Has It Come to This?
2. Strangers Loved Me Back to Life
3. One Step at a Time
4. Promises of Things to Come

PART TWO: Buddha
5. Looking for the Buddha
6. Changing My Mind
7. The First Noble Truth
8. The Second and Third Noble Truths
9. The Fourth Noble Truth

10. The Four Sober Truths: Alcoholism Is Dukkha
11. Taking Sober Refuge in the Steps
12. The Eightfold Sober Path
13. The Dharma-Promises
14. Sublime Abiding
• Works Cited and Suggested Readings
• Brief Glossary of Selected Terms in Buddhism


From the Foreword, by Sylvia Boorstein

The idiom of the 2,500-year-old Buddhist tradition and the idiom of contemporary Twelve Step teachings are different, but both paths share the powerful message of the possibility of peace and happiness. The author of this book has used her own experience in decades of Twelve Step work and as a Buddhist meditator as the vehicle for presenting both practice paths. As I read these parallel reflections, echoing the promise of the end of suffering back and forth between them, the promise of liberation from suffering sounded stronger and stronger, as if two familiar voices were calling out “Yes!”and “Amen!”to each other. I finished the book inspired. It renewed my zeal. I think it will do the same for you.

The author, writing under the pseudonym Laura S., offers this book anonymously, in respect to the Twelve Step commitment to anonymity and in the understanding that no one does anything alone. Everything anyone does is an expression of all the circumstances, connections, and communities that have been part of that person’s experience. Laura S., Bill W., the Buddha, and We all wrote this book. May all of us and all beings share in its merit.

From The Author’s Preface

On my thirty-third birthday I swallowed a bottleful of sleeping pills and died: In the ambulance to the hospital, I stopped breathing and my heart stopped beating. No one who knew me could comprehend what had driven the person they saw as an intelligent, attractive, successful businesswoman to such a desperate act. On the outside, everything about my life looked rich. Inside, I was emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I woke up every morning crying because I was still alive. I was in unbearable emotional pain and I couldn’t imagine that anything would ever change. I just had to hang on as long as I could, then find a way to end it and me. In the next two years I made more serious suicide attempts, spent time in locked wards of mental hospitals, and lost all the things that had made my life look good on the outside—career, partner, home, car, sailboat, and above all, heavily defended facade. I was broke and broken.

After I lost everything that propped up my facade, I was able to cut through my denial, one of the most pervasive characteristics of the disease of alcoholism, and come face to face with the fact that I was a drunk and that the “medicine” I took to get through my life was fueling the depression that almost ended it. Destitute and unable to work, I was finally brought to my knees and I reached out for help. I did what until then had been unimaginable: I went to Alcoholics Anonymous. There I was surrounded by people who told me that they knew how I felt, and I knew that they did, and I let them love me back to life.

When I started out in AA, I thought I could carefully read the Twelve Steps and master the program of recovery. When I began to investigate Buddhism, I thought I could thoroughly study the Four Noble Truths and master the teachings of the Buddha. I was wrong in both cases. For me, the process has been something like nurturing an orchid seedpod, which takes seven years to bloom. If a seedpod is from an existing, well-established species, we can anticipate what its flower will look like –just as we can see around us examples of what recovery is like for someone in AA or how practice transforms someone who is a Buddhist. But if we’re creating an orchid hybrid, we have no idea what we’re going to get at the end of the seven years. It may look as if nothing is happening to the seedpod for years, but on the inside rare beauty is being created if we continuously nurture the seedpod and our own faith.

AA and Buddhism became inextricably linked for me when I began to seriously study the Four Noble Truths. My experiences as an alcoholic confirmed the Buddha’s teachings, in detail, about suffering, its cause, and its end. I realized that all dukkha is a form of addiction to something--perhaps to a sensual pleasure, a person, an object, or even life itself. When I was imprisoned by alcoholism, I was not free, nor did I believe that I had choices. Imprisoned by dukkha, I was powerless.

The journey through recovery has been an astonishing passage through strange and frightening territory, but it has made me joyous and free, as well as the kind of wise and compassionate person I always wanted to be. The hybrid has been more beautiful and enriching than anything I could have ever imagined. I’m so pleased that you’re joining me for some steps on its path.

May all beings be well, happy, and free, one step at a time, one moment at a time.

~ Laura S.

From Chapter 1: Has It Come to This?

I slithered into St. Luke’s—peeking out from under a large floppy hat that almost met my upturned collar. I was in disguise. I had taken a seat in the back of the room before I realized there was a coffee urn, and I didn’t want to get up again, because someone might guess that I hadn’t known the meeting had coffee. Besides, my hand was shaking too much to hold a cup without splashing the coffee. I was like a teen-ager again, self-consciously sure that everyone was looking at me. When the meeting started, people turned their attention to a man in the front of the room reading something called the AA Preamble, so I risked glancing around. The room was crowded and smoky, but I didn’t see too many of the self-righteous Bible-thumpers or derelicts I had expected. There were people of all ages, and most were African Americans. Some were well dressed, but I focused only on the relatively few obvious street people. The man finished reading, smiled, and said, “I’d especially like to welcome the newcomers here tonight.” My heart sank and I thought, “Has it come to this?” Yes, it had. He asked if anyone new would like to introduce themselves, and I submerged even deeper into my collar, certain that no one would mistake me for one of them.

I went home that night and called the woman I had asked to be my AA sponsor that very morning, obviously a major mistake in judgment. I was totally steamed and whined, “Why did you send me to that meeting? I have nothing in common with all those people?”

She paused, then responded, “You’re right. You don’t have anything in common with them. They know how to keep things simple, and you don’t. They know how to be grateful, and you don’t. They know how to stay sober, and you don’t. Keep going back.” Then she hung up.

I’d had my first lesson in that rare species of honesty known as tough love.

From Chapter 2: Strangers Loved Me Back to Life

I called my sponsor back that first night with another complaint: “And what about ‘God this’ and ‘God that’ and people pretending that you don’t have to be a Christian by referring to the ‘Higher Power’? I hate anything to do with religion.”

“It will take a while, but you’ll see that there’s a difference between religion and spirituality,” she patiently replied.

“But how will I know I’m getting the spirituality part of AA if it isn’t religion?” I persisted.

“You’ll stop seeing it as part of AA and realize that the whole program is spiritual.”

“But where do I start?”

“At meetings every day. With Step One.”

And so I learned another lesson: willingness to “act as if”—not to pretend but rather to take the actions as if I believed in them. I went to a meeting every day and gradually moved from the back of the room closer to the front. People began to learn my name, even if I couldn’t remember theirs.

From Chapter 3: One Step at a Time

Step Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This was the first step where I had to deal with “a Power greater than ourselves.” Though unwritten, God was the word I had to accommodate. At first I went with a fairly common reading of the step: Came—Came to—Came to believe. I had indeed come. I was coming to, and I was coming to believe, in the sense of “coming in order to believe.” What I was believing is that if all the people I heard sharing their lives at meetings could make it, perhaps I could too. I was beginning to have the tiniest flickers of spiritual fire: I was beginning to feel hope.

I heard a number of people grappling with the idea of a Higher Power and using such acronyms for G-O-D as Good Orderly Direction. I decided on Group of Drunks. The consensus was that everyone needs to recognize a greater Power and to realize that they aren’t it. I was comfortable using the people at the AA meetings as the power that could restore me to sanity. On the question of sanity, when I first came to AA I didn’t think I was an alcoholic but was convinced that I was crazy—as proved by my stays in psychiatric hospitals. When I latched on to the concept of alcoholism as a disease, I decided that I might be sick but I wasn’t crazy. Then one day I heard myself say, “I’d be crazy to drink again,” and I realized that I had been insane when I was drinking and would be again if I picked up.

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From Chapter 10: The Four Sober Truths: Alcoholism Is Dukkha

The nature, cause, and cessation of suffering are startlingly clear when we revisit the Buddha’s account of dukkha in the Four Noble Truths and highlight its parallels to alcoholism. According to the Buddha in the Four Noble Truths, suffering is “the five aggregates affected by clinging”; the origin is craving; the end is rejecting and letting go of craving, and the way to let go is the Eightfold Path. The Four Sober Truths are: Alcoholism is a threefold disease that affects us physically, mentally, and spiritually; the disease is activated by drinking alcohol; it can only be ended by abstinence; and the path to abstinence is the Twelve Steps.

Much research into alcoholism has established that there is a physical, probably genetic, predisposition for the disease—it seems to run in families. Those of us who have this disease manifest characteristics of a physical addiction to and a mental obsession with drinking: craving, clinging—we are ensnared in dukkha.

When I first went to AA and asked how I could have possibly become an alcoholic, one man answered, “You’re like a cucumber: If you dip a cucumber into brine, then pull it out, then dip it in again and keep doing that, eventually when you pull it out it’s a pickle. And once it’s a pickle, it will never be a cucumber again. You dipped into the bottle enough times that you’re a pickle. You’ll never be a cucumber again.” The more I learned about alcoholism and the clearer I became about my own drinking behavior, the harder it was for me to understand why I repeatedly drank so much that I became a pickle. Finally, when I seriously studied the Buddha’s teachings, the answer became obvious: The theory of dependent origination plainly explained why I drank myself into physical addiction and mental obsession, even as I denied that I had a problem. Even as I kept trying, unsuccessfully, to stop drinking.

The Dependent Origination of Drunk Dukkha

Parts of the scheme of dependent origination related to the five aggregates were obvious from the beginning of my drinking:
...• I (material form) would go to a party.
...• I would see (sense gate) that everyone was drinking and having a good time.
...• Someone would hand me a drink and I’d take the first sip (contact).
...• A pleasant feeling would envelop me (feeling).
...• I would want more of that feeling, more to drink (craving).
...• I would have one drink after another (clinging) until I was drunk (being).
...• I would go to another party (“rebirth”) as soon as there was an opportunity.

Talk about reruns--I played out the same scenario time after time after time, and nothing ever changed. When I went to AA, people told me to avoid people, places, and things that made me want to drink. That meant, for a start, not taking my material form to parties, bars, or any occasions where the primary activity would be drinking and my eyes, nose, ears, and mind would be sense gates that could lead me to drink. Perhaps the most critical link was to avoid contact with alcohol—to not take that first drink, which would trigger craving and binging by activating the physical disease. And because the mind is a sense gate, whenever I allowed myself to obsess about drinking, I would set off the mental part of the disease.

When we recast some of the Buddha’s simpler statements about dependent origination, active alcoholism is a perfect fit for the alcoholic:
...• When this [contact with alcohol] exists, that [active alcoholism] exists.
...• When this [contact with alcohol] arises, that [active alcoholism] arises.
...• When this [contact with alcohol] does not exist, that [active alcoholism] does not exist.
...• When this [contact with alcohol] ceases, that [active alcoholism] ceases.
AA members phrase the principles of dependent origination this way:
...• If you don’t drink, you won’t get drunk.
...• It’s the first drink that gets you drunk.
“If you don’t drink, you won’t get drunk” seemed simplistically obvious, even if I didn’t realize for quite a while that it was factually accurate only if you are an alcoholic. . . .

Just as AA is an action program, so too within Buddhism there are actions, or tasks, for each of the Four Noble Truths:
...1. For dukkha, our task is to understand it.
...2. For the origin of dukkha, our task is to eliminate it.
...3. For the end of dukkha, our task is to realize it.
...4. For the path to the end of dukkha, our task is to follow it steadfastly.

To recast these statements in terms of alcoholism for the alcoholic:
...1. For alcoholism, our task is to understand that it is a threefold disease.
...2. For the origin of alcoholism, our task is to eliminate it by not taking the first drink.
...3. For the end of alcoholism, our task is to realize sobriety.
...4. For the path to the end of alcoholism, our task is to follow the Twelve Steps steadfastly.

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From Chapter 11: Taking Sober Refuge in the Steps

In Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism is self-diagnosed, and attendance at meetings is voluntary, with no membership lists or dues. I am an alcoholic and a member of AA if I say I am. In much the same way, I am a follower of the Buddha’s teachings if I say I am. I don’t have to commit to anything or sign anything unless I take vows as a monastic.

Taking Refuge

The word refuge is especially interesting because it connotes some inner or outer danger from which we seek protection. Every day when I sit down to meditate, I first repeat the Three Refuges as a Buddhist and as a sober alcoholic. Here’s what they mean to me:

...• I go for refuge to the Buddha, to my own possibility for freedom and happiness as long as I do not drink.
...• I go for refuge to the Dharma, to my own possibility to see what is real and true in sobriety.
...• I go for refuge to the Sangha, to my interconnectedness with all beings and especially with other sober alcoholics.

Today, the broad connotations of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are treasured facets of how I work with AA’s Twelve Steps.

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From Chapter 12: The Eightfold Sober Path

The Twelve Steps describe what the first hundred sober members of Alcoholics Anonymous did to get and stay sober—in other words, the steps demonstrate how people who get sober act. The Eightfold Path exemplifies what an enlightened being has done to become enlightened and how she or he behaves. I’d like to revisit the Eightfold Path discussed in Chapter 9 and see how the wisdom teachings (wise understanding and thought), the morality teachings (wise speech, action, and livelihood), and the mental discipline teachings (wise effort, mindfulness, and concentration) play out in terms of sobriety.

Sober Understanding

Within the Dharma, the term wise understanding means grasping the Four Noble Truths, impermanence, dependent origination, karma, and not-self. In AA, wise understanding, in the salty expression of my Greenwich Village home group, means “You don’t drink if your ass falls off. If it falls off, you take it to an AA meeting and find a new way to sit.” The corollary is “There’s no situation so bad that a drink won’t make it worse.”

When I meld the Dharma and AA, I attain sober understanding. The basic concepts of the two ways of living fit together so comfortably that for me, they are inseparable.

With sober understanding, if I consider the Four Noble Truths and substitute the word addiction or alcoholism for dukkha, I get an accurate picture of my life as an active alcoholic. In the First Noble Truth, the Buddha said that dukkha was pervasive in our daily lives. My disease, my dukkha, sometimes in small, sometimes in large ways, was certainly present in all aspects of my life. Like the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, my dukkha’s origin—whether genetic or sociological or a combination of the two—lay in unrelenting craving: the insatiable thirst for alcohol that underlies the disease of alcoholism. The Buddha, in the Third Noble Truth, said that cessation of dukkha was possible only through the “remainderless extinction” of that craving. Without doubt, the only way I could achieve relief from the dukkha of my disease was by following a path of Truth analogous to the Eightfold Path--using the Twelve Steps as the roadmap for recovery—and going to AA meetings and not drinking.

Wise understanding of dependent origination and impermanence enabled me to finally, truly achieve sober understanding that the happiness I thought drinking would bring me could not last unchanged. There might be a short time after the first drink or two when I had fun, but—through the phases of dependent origination that made me powerless over alcohol—I would continue to drink well past the fun part. I came to see clearly that as long as I continued to drink alcohol, my karma would always be to end up saying and doing things that caused me and others embarrassment and pain. Dukkha.

No matter how much I had rationalized and lied about my drinking to others and to myself, sober understanding cut through any possible delusion I may have had that I could ever safely drink again.

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From Chapter 13: The Dharma-Promises

We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.

The Serenity Prayer was my life mantra during early sobriety, but it took on a remarkably intense meaning for me within the framework of the Four Noble Truths and their underlying understandings:

...• Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change: the Four Noble Truths, impermanence, dependent origination, not-self, and past karma.
...• The courage to change the things I can, by being mindful in the present moment so that my thoughts, speech, and actions will not harm myself or others.
...• And the wisdom to know the difference between doing what is skillful and what is unskillful.

I was able to open the door to this penetrating understanding of serenity through the consistent practice of insight meditation, which nurtures the ability to see things as they really are (the definition of insight). When I could see things as they really are, the difference between the things I could change and the things I could not became clear. It was this clarity that brought me the serenity and peace of equanimity.

©2006-2017 Laura S. All rights reserved.