Recently I was invited to lead an opening meditation at a regional 12 Step retreat. It’s gotten me thinking about Buddhism and the 12 Step program, although I’m not necessarily comparing all of their compatibilities and similarities. There are some good books available on that topic already. What I’ve been reflecting on is how the 12 Step programs are another avenue to paying attention and shedding light on those parts of ourselves we’d rather not see. What’s required here is courageous honesty. Which is, of course, what we cultivate in meditation if we’re practicing seriously.
I starting attending 12 Step meetings several years ago and went regularly for about three years. I wasn’t addressing substance abuse problems, though some would argue that my chocolate addiction could bear that kind of scrutiny. But since dark chocolate has now been classified as a health food, I’m not fighting that one any more. . Instead, I began attending the 12 Step program to address interpersonal issues that arose in part from growing up in a family of alcoholics. At a deeper level, I believe many of the challenges I’ve faced are actually part of the human condition; they are things most of us struggle with, whether we have substance abuse in our families or not. At the root is the very clinging and aversion of the mind that Buddha struggled with in his quest for enlightenment.
What I have discovered from many years of practice is that meditation alone rarely succeeds in fully opening the gates of the mind and heart, even though it is a powerful way to illuminate much of what’s been hidden to us. Buddhist meditation (on and off the cushion) is my foundational path and it has made a huge difference in my life. Along the way, however, I’ve utilized several adjunct paths to augment and deepen my practice. Any path that encourages us to face and tell the truth about our lives will only serve to enhance our dharma practice.
The 12 Step meeting I chose to attend was in Franklin, and I had to drive there during rush hour traffic. That alone was a good practice in patience for me. When I arrived, often I would ask myself what I was doing there, why I was giving up another evening during the week, when I could be home doing, what? Maybe reading or watching an old episode of the X-Files, or one of my favorite chefs on the Food Network? Most times when I took a seat at the meeting, a moment of awakening would occur, my mind would become clear, and I would see something that had been hidden. Often from these insights I would discover ways to begin undoing old patterns that had kept me locked in suffering. Sounds much like dharma practice, doesn’t it?
The word “dharma” actually has dual meanings. In the Buddhist tradition it has come to signify the Buddha’s teachings, while also pointing to “the truth of this moment.” For me, attending 12 Step meetings created a new avenue to work with difficult emotions and old patterns within the context of my dharma path; the meetings were another way of experiencing the truth of this moment.