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Jan 08
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The Love for Truth: Buddhism and Recovery

by Shelly Webb

When I started my recovery process over five years ago, I would tell a dear friend of mine, a dharma sister, about how amazing my Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor was, how much I was getting out of the 12-step meetings I was going to, and how much I liked being part of Shambhala’s Heart of Recovery group. She could see how much I was getting out of recovery and how supported I felt. In fact, she looked at  me and said, “Oh, I wish I had an addiction then I could do all of that!”

The truth is that many of us do have addictions. I’ll use Gabor Mate’s definition of addiction here from his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts – “Any behavior, substance related or not, that brings temporary relief or pleasure, a behavior one craves but is unable to stop despite negative consequences.”

Almost any human pleasure can become addictive – in one of the Buddha’s long discourses he said “Some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to attending such shows as dancing, singing, music displays…combats of elephants, buffaloes, bulls, rams…military parades, debates…shampoos and cosmetics…unedifying conversation about kings and criminals…wars, food, drink, clothes, even talk of being and non-being.”

Our list today would look not that much different – we could add iphones, social media, Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime, watching the news, drugs, reality television, white privilege, work, etc., etc. The problem is not these behaviors in and of themselves, but our relationship to them.

So this article is for anyone – not just those who are in recovery from addiction and/or those who are Buddhists –  but anyone who is interested in waking up and recovering. 

What does the word recovery mean to you?

Recovery is a “return to a normal state of health, mind and strength” or “the process of regaining possession of something stolen or lost.”  It is a return to health, a restoration to a former and better state; it is healing, it is loyalty to sanity.

I am a Shambhalian, a grateful alcoholic and a hospital chaplain. I’m going to share some of my experience, strength and hope here by sharing some thoughts about Buddhism and recovery. There are many people in our own Shambhala community, and Buddhists everywhere, who are thinking, writing and teaching about these two paths.

In fact, in thinking about writing this article, I came up with an ever growing list of topics on Buddhist Recovery that I could explore. In true Shelly fashion, I was bouncing all over the place. Ideas on top of ideas, notebooks and sticky notes, books piling up, plans and people to talk to. Then the thoughts began piling up too – someone else should be giving this talk. What if my friends show up, what if they don’t. What do I know about recovery anyway? I ate a whole bag  of corn chips on Friday.  I want to talk about everything. I don’t know what to talk about.  I could talk about this, I should have read that, if only I had done that.

This was spinning out, this was alcoholic thinking, this was “monkey mind” with an open cage. This was not sanity, it was not recovery. Something was off about the way I was approaching this.  I noticed this moment of “gap” and decided to do things differently.

Sigh. Stop. Breathe. Breathe again. And again. I need to be in recovery from myself. To get out of my own way. To stop the endless expectations I have of myself. As my friend Dennis says, the war is over – all we can do is surrender and make offerings.

This is my simple offering.

I have learned that on both the Buddhist and Recovery paths, the invitation is to wake up, to live more in the present – one day at a time – and to stop living  in the past or the future. On both paths, there is a letting go of a solid sense of self. We are willing to give up old ideas, patterns, behaviors and identities.

On both paths we surrender our self-will to something that has worked – in the case of Buddhism, to meditation practice, which for 2,500 years has been passed on from teacher to student. As the Sakyong jokes, these Buddhist teachers wouldn’t still be doing this if it didn’t work.  In the case of recovery, to the framework of the 12-steps, a grassroots lineage that has been around since 1935 and has helped millions through meetings and sponsorship.

Both Buddhists and 12-steppers know this: We are no longer running the show, no longer deluded into thinking we are the center of the universe. We clearly see our ego and let it know that we’re doing something different now, we’re off of the “me plan.” We become gentler and more compassionate, concerned about helping those who are suffering.

In both Buddhism and Recovery we step on a path that allows us to fully realize our innate nature, to be returned to our true selves. We are, in fact, restored to sanity and thus be able to touch our original Buddha nature and access basic goodness.

When we sit in meditation practice, our “own true nature resumes itself.”  When we sit in recovery meetings, we come back home to our original self. We feel the breath of the breath.  We see things as they are.

On September 12, 2015 I got sober. My recovery started with being able to see clearly the truth of my life – that I was an alcoholic, was living in an insane way, and needed to recover. There were good people who supported me in going to AA meetings and to the Heart of Recovery.  I did not know then, as I know now, that the path of recovery would not just complement my Buddhist path but would illuminate it.  Recovery changed my life in profound ways – including that I could recite the Bodhisattva vow without feeling like a fraud,  could show up in a more honest way with others, and that I could train to be a hospital chaplain who works with many patients who are addicts.

This morning I learned from a friend at a recovery meeting that, actually, “recovery begins when you first start doubting what you’re doing.”  Think of “doubt” here as gap, as a heads up, a little red flag to yourself. I think it’s something we probably all experience. That moment of gap when we see ourselves clearly, see the ways in which we are trying to get comfortable and secure and maybe even numb.  I had doubts that it was a good idea to eat a whole bag of corn chips. I knew something was off about the way I was approaching this article, so I pulled back and paused. I want things at the hospital I work at to be different, but I see that now is not the right time to press for changes.

I knew on that September morning five years ago that I wanted to wake up the next morning and have my life be different. There was an innate wisdom there that helped me realize that I needed to change my situation, that things were off. Recovery is about emotional sobriety; like Buddhism, it is about becoming familiar with our minds and seeing things clearly.

There is a journey of recovery ahead for all of us – whether it is helping to heal the deep wounds in the United States, or face our own fears and delusions, deal with health issues, fight for racial justice, or just learn to love ourselves. The gifts of Buddhism and the process of recovery are there for us, right in front of us.

What do you need to recover from? What are you doing that might be worth doubting? How willing are you to discover freedom?

If you would like more information on Heart of Recovery programming in Shambhala, visit: https://shambhala.org/community/heart-of-recovery/.

This page also includes recommended books, and links to online Heart of Recovery meetings happening across the mandala: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1MiHnSqaVUo9M4E-vXI_EE8iJzarXmLU_beoghbr3K3s/edit

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3 responses to “ The Love for Truth: Buddhism and Recovery ”
  1. Johanna Lunn
    Jan 15, 2021

    Beautifully written Shelly. So kind and so helpful of you to share your experiences. Thank you.

  2. Insightful article. It’s very encouraging to think recovery begins when you first start questioning what you’re doing.

  3. Janet Lyons
    Jan 8, 2021

    Nice, Shelly

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