Whoever coined the phrase, “there are no stupid questions”, probably never interacted with a Zen Master. I say this because I was recently involved in an interchange with a Zen teacher that, in retrospect, should have resulted in my receiving a hearty whack from him with an awakening stick. As usual, after his dharma talk, he opened the floor for questions, and I asked him about the purpose of the ego – specifically, “if it is so problematic, why is it the norm instead of enlightenment?”
From the Book of Serenity, koan 25, the theme of brokenness is explored:
One day Yanguan called to his assistant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The assistant said, “It is broken.”
Yanguan said, “In that case, bring me the rhinoceros.”
I have come to view the years I spent in active addiction as my having been trapped in state of perpetual unconsciousness. That is not to say there was no mental or emotional activity. On the contrary, whether I was getting high or not, my mind raced incessantly and my emotions swung to extremes. I say that I was unconscious because all of this mental and emotional activity occurred without much if any apparent effort on my part as if it all were happening automatically. I have since learned that these reactive patterns were conditioned in me from a very young age and were likely reinforced by both genetic and other biological factors. Initially, alcohol and drugs soothed the perpetual state of anxiety (or, dissatisfaction, discontent, dis-ease, or dukkha, if you will) which pervaded my existence. However, these powerful chemicals ultimately turned on me as they acted upon vulnerable reward, memory, and motivation circuitry in my brain to ensure that I would fall into the vicious downward spiral of addiction. Thus the trap of addiction is complex and composed of myriad personal and environmental risk factors which conspire to form the trance of automaticity. And so, for me the process of recovery has essentially entailed an awakening to the causes and conditions of these automatic reactive patterns. More importantly, it has also been about learning to step out of and interrupt these patterns through cultivation of mindfulness.
Last December, when I learned that Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul, Minnesota would host the 6th Annual Buddhism and 12-Step Retreat, I immediately began making plans to attend. It was with great anticipation that I boarded a plane on March 7 and flew to the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the 3-day retreat. What follows are my initial thoughts and reflections from this remarkable event; but first, some background information is in order…
Upon reaching the 8th Step last summer, I had made substantial progress in freeing myself of the closed-mindedness towards spiritual matters that had previously blocked my recovery. Leading up to that point, while working the 3rd Step, I had come across Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and for the first time felt that I could honestly trust the process of recovery — an experience which I wrote about in an essay entitled An Appeal for Pantheism. However, as I moved forward with the work of Steps 4 through 7, further spiritual investigation was forestalled in favor of Albert Ellis’ rational approach to cognitive restructuring. Ellis’ techniques proved practical and effective. But as I began to consider the 8th Step, I was drawn back to the search for a spiritual underpinning from which I could make sense of the amends process which I was about to undertake. It was time for me to face, once and for all, the deep-seeded shame and resentment which had fueled my addiction. And so, the search for a spiritual antidote to these problems resurfaced.
“I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me the first Zen lesson,” said he to the Zen master.
“Have you finished eating your rice porridge?” asked Joshu.
“Yes master,” replied the disciple.
“Now go and wash your bowl,” said Joshu.
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
Those who work the 12 Steps are promised to have a spiritual awakening — a notion which, at first, seemed to me to be unattainable if not outright fanciful. After all, how could someone like me, with all of my prejudices, ever become awakened to the mystery and beauty of this life? Looking through the prism of active addiction, life appeared bleak, purposeless, and vacuous. However, faced with no other alternative than to surrender or die, I set aside my prejudices and opened my mind to new possibilities. Now, having undertaken the work of the 8th and 9th Steps, I have no doubt that a spiritual awakening is not only possible for me, but that it has been happening all along.
In the final scene of the epic film, The Wizard of Oz, the heroine Dorothy learns a surprising truth from Glinda the Good Witch — that the elusive power to get back home had actually been right there within Dorothy’s reach all along her journey through the Land of Oz. Ultimately, Dorothy never really needed the assistance of the Wizard, nor of anyone else, to return to her beloved Kansas. When the Scarecrow angrily asked why this critical information had not been revealed to Dorothy sooner, the wise witch laughed and stated:
“Because she wouldn’t have believed me; she had to learn it for herself.”
As I look back on my own life journey, now in the light of Steps 6 and 7, I am certain that many of the problems that I have faced persisted because, like Dorothy, I too was ignorant of the solution which was within my reach all along. Far astray from home, I looked outside of myself for quick fixes and for roads leading away from the despair. I was told, but I did not believe, that my method of attempting to align people and circumstances to my liking would prove fruitless. I was duped by the illusion of control created by me in my own Oz-like fantasy world in which I was the absolute center of attention. The fact that I did not end up flattened by a falling house as did the Wicked Witch of the East, nor ravaged by her sister’s winged monkeys, is an indication of true grace.
Fortunately, my honest surrender came before my certain demise. It was only then that it became possible for me to learn — and more importantly, for me to believe — that the elusive power which I had sought for so long was always right there inside of me. This I could not be told, but had to learn from my own experiences along the Yellow Brick Road.
Step Three: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” For the addict, the analogy of the stage of life — so eloquently drawn by Shakespeare — could not be more apropos. That being so, the Third Step thus presents a choice — will the actor star in a new role, or will the tragedy continue to unfold under the current script?
STEP 2: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
While the First Step left me in a position of defeat and subsequent surrender, it is in the Second Step that I am given the opportunity to embrace the hope of recovery. It is now that I can begin to shift my beliefs from reliance on self to reliance on a way of living that has proven to bring peace and happiness in the lives of others. Taking the Second Step gave me the opportunity to explore the insanity of my addiction, the concept of belief, the potential for my own restoration to sanity, and to begin to conceive of a power, or powers, greater than myself.