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Living in active addiction can be exhausting and stressful. However, living out the steps while getting clean and working a program with a goal of long-term recovery is no walk in the park, either. To help, 12 Step programs like AA and NA incorporate the concept of a Higher Power as a way to develop an understanding of each step. People who do not formally follow the 12 Steps and for those that do may discover their own way of leaning on a defined Higher Power in their journey to recovery.
Whether or not you adhere to the concept of a Higher Power and no matter your religious beliefs, there is an abundance of powerful wisdom to be found in the philosophies of many belief systems. The principles of Buddhism in particular are extremely relevant to the walk of long-term recovery. I was not previously familiar with these principles, but have found them both tremendously enlightening and easy to incorporate into daily life.
Let’s explore Buddhist wisdom for people struggling with addiction.
A Natural Link Between Buddhism and Recovery
If you have ever been in rehab, you have likely experienced group and one-on-one therapeutic approaches to treatment. Both are valuable and continuing to see a therapist in the later stages of recovery (or for any reason you may need family counseling) can be extremely beneficial. Group and direct therapy settings in the addiction treatment environment frequently utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
CBT is one of the most renowned and widely-used forms of therapy, often utilized in the treatment of anxiety and depression, as well as various substance use disorders (SUDs). Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing the negative thoughts that can contribute to and exacerbate depression, anxiety, and SUDs. I believe this is relevant because Dr. Alan Beck, the respected psychiatrist who is known as the “Father of CBT”, has himself acknowledged a link between CBT and principles of Buddhism. It is no surprise, then, that the two are intrinsically linked for those experiencing addiction recovery.
Is Buddhism a Philosophy or a Religion?
You may be wondering—is Buddhism a philosophy or a religion? Well, the short (if not simple) answer is that it is both. There are several “Buddhist countries,” which are defined as countries where more than 70% percent of the population practices Buddhism. These include Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. To the practicing Buddhists in these locations and around the world, Buddhism is a religion. People visit temples, hold certain firm beliefs, and carry out rituals, such as making offerings to shrines.
However, certain people may be agnostic or even atheistic and refer to themselves as Buddhist. In these cases, Buddhism simply means they believe in and live by Buddhist philosophy. Much like a Higher Power can take many forms for various individuals in the 12 Steps, Buddhism can mean different things to different people.
A (Very) Brief History of Buddhism
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If you are as unfamiliar with Buddhism as I was, here are a few quick facts. Buddhism encompasses a variety of spiritual beliefs based primarily on teachings by the philosopher Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama), who sought enlightenment. It originated in ancient India between the 4th and 6th centuries BCE and spread rapidly throughout Southeast Asia.
Though Hinduism (which is related to Buddhism in a similar way to Christianity and Judaism in that they share stories and some beliefs) and Islam became dominant in India, Buddhism continued to flourish in southeast Asia. In fact, there, it is still a dominant religion and cultural focal point. Today, scholars recognize two primary forms of Buddhism, including Theravāda (“The School of the Elders” in the Pāli language) and Mahāyāna (Sanskrit for “The Great Vehicle”).
Using Buddhism for Addiction Recovery
In simple terms, the gist of the Buddhist philosophy is this: we crave and cling to impermanent things that are incapable of satisfying us, causing us pain. This suffering is called dukkha, which keeps us caught in saṃsāra – the endless cycle of being reborn. To Buddhists, the cycle consists of dukkha, dying, and rebirth, more dukkha and dying, another rebirth, and so on. However, the Buddha teaches that there is a way to liberation from this endless cycle[through reaching a state of nirvana, achievable by following the Noble Eight Fold Path.
This can also be summed up in the Four Noble Truths:
1st Noble Truth – there is suffering
2nd Noble Truth – suffering is caused by attachment and cravings to things that are impermanent and don’t exist in the way we think they do
3rd Noble Truth – there is a way to overcome attachment
4th Noble Truth – one can overcome these attachments through the Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path
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The Eightfold Path is 8 steps outlined within the 4th Noble Truth. The goal of embarking on this path in Buddhist philosophy is to reach Nirvana. For those who follow AA or NA, the Noble Eightfold Path reads like a “mini 12 Steps.” Even if Nirvana is not your goal or something you believe in, the Eightfold Path incorporates naturally into a 12 Step program and many other recovery philosophies.
Following are those 8 parts and how they relate to addiction recovery.
1) Right Understanding
The first principle in AA is honesty. However, it might be said that before you can get honest, you have to understand what you are being honest about. The Buddhist principle of right understanding helps you to understand your addiction, which—for those in recovery—might be a combination of scientific, medical, emotional, or introspective understanding.
2) Right Intention
In the context of addiction recovery, the Buddhist tenet of having the right intention means to commit to a new sober life. This must occur for yourself, your loved ones, and because you know it is a “right” thing to do.
3) Right Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a powerful tool as both a tenet of Buddhism and a general therapeutic practice. It means to become less of a prisoner to your thoughts and temptations, which is imperative for overcoming patterns of addiction.
4) Right Concentration
Mindfulness leads to a place of deep concentration. If you have ever tried to practice meditation, you know that “thinking about nothing” and finding peace takes serious concentration—at least until you get proficient at the practice. Concentration is a powerful tool for deep reflection on your inner thoughts, as well as for overcoming cravings and triggers.
5) Right Effort
In this step of the path, pursuing sobriety becomes the most critical goal in your walk of life. Much as with concentration, sobriety through mindfulness and surrender does not come without great effort on the part of the person battling a SUD—something myself and others who have struggled with addiction know all too well.
6) Right View
Through treatment and therapy, you begin to let go of beliefs and opinions that have been holding you back in your daily life—not just in what you do but in who you aspire to be. Right view relates not only to how you view yourself, but to how you view others, your situation, and your future. Where do you see yourself in recovery?
7) Right Livelihood
When it comes to livelihood, you can think about the principle literally. Is how you make your living in line with your goals in recovery? If not, it may be time to reflect on a change of career or workplace. Though the process can be daunting, the effort is worth it if it keeps you sober. An obvious example would be dealing drugs, but a more common example would be working in an office over a bar or nightclub that you and your coworkers used to frequent.
8) Right Action
Just as with the 12 Steps, taking the “right action” is essentially having the strength, honesty, and humility to take a million little “right actions” today and every day. Recovery gets easier, but it doesn’t stop. Getting good at doing the right thing when it’s difficult was/is a part of just doing the right thing, and it’s likely to be various degrees of difficulty for everyone. My first sponsor always said “ practice, practice, practice”. The only way forward is through!
The Way To Freedom
If you’re currently traveling the path, your own road of recovery, I hope you have enjoyed this post outlining Buddhist wisdom. Maybe you can pick up some inspiration or relate to some of this. To summarize, you don’t have to be a religious Buddhist to live out these wise philosophies (though you can be). The most important thing is for you to find your Higher Power and your sources of strength.
I’ll leave you with an encouraging quote by Thai Buddhist Monk, Luang Por Teean, “To see our own mind clearly, without being caught up in its movement, to watch thought without trying to do anything with or about it, simply seeing it and letting it go, this is the way to freedom.”