The power of using the principles of Buddhism is in how the mind can change through practice. Buddha committed his life to addressing the suffering of others (Adarkar & Keiser, 2007), and Buddha's story parallels the journey of recovery with the suffering, enlightenment, letting go, acceptance, and commitment to helping others. Five Buddhist practices—enlightenment, compassion, acceptance, daily practice, and the spiritual community (Sangha)—serve as the foundation for the Integrated Recovery Model (see Figure 1). Although similar in form to the Advocacy Serving Model (Warren et al., 2011, p. 138), the Integrated Recovery Model applies to recovery, not to self-care in advocacy.
Figure 1. Integrated Recovery Model
Note. Buddhist practices are shown in a visual diagram representing five interconnected parts of recovery. At the center is the moving self nurtured by the heart, mind, practice, and community. The heart, mind, practice, and community care for the self like leaves, roots, water, and oxygen for a tree (see Meyer & Ponton, 2006).
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The Moving Self: Enlighenment
The moving self represents enlightenment. In the Buddhist view, the enlightened self is simply a reflection of perception and action (Warren et al., 2011). “The crumbling of the false self occurs through awareness” (Epstein, 1995, p. 73). In the AA tradition, self-examination is essential to recovery when a fearless and moral inventory is made and shared with others (AA, 1976; Stevens & Smith, 2009). The mind stays closed when attached to perfection (Epstein, 1995). Openness helps the recovering person see beyond her or his own grandiose worldview and provides a framework for understanding the impact of the addiction on the self and on others. “Simple but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness” (AA, 1976, p. 14). The unaware person is like the retired business man who relaxes in Florida complaining of the sad state of the nation (AA, 1976).
Recovery is about being humble: “As we awaken we discover that we are not limited by who we think we are” (Kornfield, 2000, p. 55). The person in recovery must not become inflated by her or his sense of importance. A story that demonstrates the impact of self-grandiosity is the Emperor Wu and the Bodhidharma. Emperor Wu ascended to his throne by overtaking the previous monarch. After a battle and while sitting in his garden, he had a sense of being small and unimportant. However, with this momentary experience he also felt free. Feeling crowded by the walls of his life around him, he sought wisdom from a famous wise man from India, Monk Bodhidharma. This monk was a legend. When the monk arrived, he was dressed modestly and wanted no recognition. The emperor noticed that while in the presence of the monk, his own thoughts became simple, like remembering the taste of vegetable soup. The emperor was seeking a deeper meaning of his own life, so he asked the Bodhidharma, “I have funded many monasteries. What merit have I earned?”“No merit,” said the Bodhidharma. For a moment, the emperor pulled back into his ego self but thought perhaps the monk did not understand. He then asked, “What is the point of your holy teaching?” The monk responded, “Vast emptiness. Nothing holy.” Then the emperor asked, “Who are you, standing in front of me?”“I don't know,” said the Bodhidharma (Tarrant, 2004). The monk seemed not to be overly attached to anything. The story represents the potential traps in seeking recognition and praise, which contributes to the fear that our lives are insubstantial and to the habit of trying to measure ourselves. The humbled self does not demand an identity and, thus, can openly love others. Opening the heart to the world can mean witnessing harsh realities of human despair and destruction from addictions.
The Open Heart: Compassion
The open heart culminates in compassion. Compassion is unconditional acceptance of others and self. Rogers (1957) epitomized compassion when he wrote, “I feel neither approval nor disapproval … simply acceptance” (p. 98). He set the stage for the essential elements of the healing relationship with unconditional positive regard, empathetic understanding, genuineness, and congruence. In recovery, compassion is evident in the healing powers of caring relationships (Breggin, 2008; Rogers, 1957). Contact with those who suffer allows intrinsic understanding of life's difficulties such as poverty, discrimination, illness, and oppression (Moxley & Washington, 2001; Roysircar, 2009; Warren et al., 2011). Compassion is “active caring” (Kumar, 2002, p. 42), and one single empathic encounter can have such a substantial impact that it can lead a person to change (Miller, 2000). “Individuals in recovery can be valorized as heroes” (Moxley & Washington, 2001, p. 256). How genuine caring affects others is not clearly known; it may simply be a relationship condition that enables corrective emotional experiences and allows another to be an “active self-healer” (Greenberg, Watson, Elliott, & Bohart, 2001, p. 383).
Compassion in recovery is giving a voice to pain, moving beyond the walls of treatment settings and going into jails, homeless shelters, homes, courts, and AA meetings (Warren et al., 2011). Stories of recovery can be painful and difficult.
The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept the home in turmoil. We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough. He is like the farmer who came up out of his cyclone cellar to find his home ruined. To his wife he remarked, “Don't see anything the matter here, Ma. Ain't it grand the wind stopped blowin?’ (AA, 1976, p. 82)
The recovering person listens compassionately to the stories of others and from those stories empowers change in self and others (Moxley & Washington, 2001). Compassion for others fosters acceptance.
The Understanding Mind: Acceptance
The understanding mind is manifested in acceptance. Buddha suggested that attachment creates suffering. Expectations imprison. With acceptance, the metaphorical cage of expectations transforms, analogous to being let out to a large and open meadow where there are no walls, no structural protections, only light, space, and openness, which provide no answers (Tarrant, 2004). With the right view, action, effort, and focus, a peaceful way of being results, as if each day were the first day of life. With this perspective, the recovering person can move with tranquility. Although suffering is inevitable, the enlightened view perceives suffering as simply part of living (Groves & Farmer, 1994). Enlightenment is realizing that peace and suffering are “One” (Simpkins & Simpkins, 2001, p. 6), and every feeling has an opposite. Avoidance of uncomfortable feelings can increase cravings (Cleveland & Harris, 2010) whereas acceptance is experiencing a feeling fully without avoidance (Philippot & Segal, 2009).
And acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation … unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. (AA, 1976, p. 449)
A story reflecting the experience of acceptance is regarding a powerful prince who hated the wind (Warren et al., 2011). Because of his power he could demand his desires. He wished the annoying wind to be gone. The wind disappeared. The prince felt satisfied. Soon, however, no clouds came, no rain fell, and all was dying. The prince then begged for the wind to return. The wind returned (Kornfield, 1993). As in life, both pain and joy exist; both are needed. Acceptance that change needs to happen is foundational to recovery. Recovery is change (Groves & Farmer, 1994).
It takes courage (Goud, 2005) to change old habits and recognize how people grasp, cling, judge, and fear. “The shame, fear, and guilt associated with alcoholism and other drug addictions could be overcome by acceptance and admission of unmanageability of an addictive life-style” (Okundaye et al., 2001, p. 76). Habits are like the story of the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion, who always bites and kills frogs, asked the frog to take him across the pond. The frog inquired, “But would you not kill me, that is in your nature?” The scorpion responded he would not, given if he did, they would both drown. The frog agreed and upon moving across the pond, the scorpion bit him and they both drowned. While going down, the frog asked the scorpion, “Why?” and the scorpion responded, “Because that is what I always do.” Old habits, maps, fictions, and stories are like “bad art” (Tarrant, 2004, p. 169). Without change, death may result.
The person in recovery is wise to flow with life events. Suffering is not permanent and is a transformational force. The Japanese word for a Zen monk is unsui, meaning clouds and water. Lives are similar to the rain, which nurtures the world and ultimately transforms. “Eventually we flow, passing beyond intention, clinging to nothing, while nothing clings to us” (Tarrant, 1998, p. 194). The Greek philosopher Heraclitus understood the experience of change when he said that we can never step in the same river twice nor meet the same person again; every moment is unique and not repeated (Kornfield, 2000).
In Buddhist thought, rigid attachment to limited goals and preferences leaves one vulnerable to suffering (Robins, 2002). Assuming that a problem should be easily solved or, conversely, that it cannot be solved, is a demand that can set up burnout or learned helplessness (Toporek, Lewis, & Crethar, 2009). “I must keep my magic magnifying mind on my acceptance and off my expectation, for my serenity is directly proportional to my level of acceptance” (AA, 1976, p. 452). Relapses, loss, stress, fear, and conflict are part of a sober life just as they are part of an addicted one (Moxley & Washington, 2001). Acceptance in recovery embraces every small step in the direction of desired change even if it seems slow (Warren et al., 2011). The AA movement had 100 members in its 4th year (1939) of existence, and by 2007, the fellowship reported more than 1.2 million members in the United States (AA, 2007). The growth of AA took many years of incredible patience and effort; consequently, today “wherever you can find a liquor store, you can find an AA group” (Stevens, & Smith, 2009, p. 290).
Daily Practice: Meditation and Mindfulness
Recovery is a daily practice. Lives are full of distractions, complications, and demands. Time is needed to breathe, quiet the mind, be in solitude, and find beauty in life. In Buddhism, meditation is one of the primary ways to bring about change (Groves & Farmer, 1994). Buddha purported that no one can attain wellness and enlightenment without practicing meditation. With meditation there is “no purpose,” (p. 71) only enhanced awareness and mindfulness (Ray, 2004). The natural world meditates. In the fall, trees go dormant. Bears hibernate. Humans can learn from nature.
Two common ways to meditate in the Buddhist tradition are samatha (concentration) and vipassana (insight). Samatha meditation focuses on one idea to the exclusion of all else. This type of meditation can lead to mindfulness—experiencing the world in an open way, cultivating awareness in daily activities such as walking, eating, and bathing. Vipassana meditation results in new views, like bringing a lamp into a dark room (Groves & Farmer, 1994).
Mindfulness meditation enables awareness and acceptance of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations as they arise and allows recognition that they are impermanent. To acknowledge and accept rather than to modify or suppress experiences enables nonjudgmental acceptance of moment-to-moment life events (Germer, 2005; Groves & Farmer, 1994; Kabat-Zinn, 1990, 2003; Kumar, 2002; Marcus & Zgierska, 2009). Mindfulness skills can provide effective coping strategies in the face of high-risk situations (Bowen et al., 2009; Carlson & Larkin, 2009; Witkiewitz, Marlatt, & Walker, 2005; Zgierska & Marcus, 2010). Kabat-Zinn (2003) considered mindfulness as a form of medicine for treating “dis-ease,” which has been characterized as “three ‘poisons’: greed, hatred (aversion), and ignorance/delusion [unawareness]” (p. 145).
Mindfulness develops and deepens over time. Mindfulness is not about getting anywhere or fixing anything; instead, it is an invitation to be where one already is and to know the inner and outer landscape of the direct experience in each moment. Simpkins and Simpkins (2001) and Batchelor (1999) offer creative suggestions for mediation, yoga, and mind relaxation exercises, which are useful for any person in recovery. Mindfulness skills enhance wellness (Baer, 2003; Marlatt, 2002; Robins, 2002). Part of staying sober is the use of daily reminders through meditations, slogans, and readings: “One day at a time” and “Let go and let God” focus the recovering person.
When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest, or afraid? Do we owe an apology? Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? Were we kind and loving toward all? (AA, 1976, p. 86)
The Healing Community: Sangha
One of the most important strategies for maintaining recovery is connecting with others. Sangha means spiritual community and includes nature, art, and others (Warren et al., 2011). Connectedness is being with others, breathing the same air and feeling the energy that together enables the recovering person to transcend the self and realize the interdependence of all lives (Purdy & Dupey, 2005).
Connecting to nature can be likened to a plant's need for water. Nature teaches acceptance, change, and perseverance, skills that are critical to recovery. There is guidance in nature, which can be witnessed easily. Rain forests teach of medicinal healings, deserts teach endurance, and wolves teach resiliency. Nature teaches wisdom about life and nurtures the soul (Warren et al., 2011, p. 141; see also Elkins, 1995).
Art offers wisdom, perspective, and companionship (Adarkar & Keiser, 2007; Tarrant, 2004). To apply art to recovery means being with art. Art teaches individuals to recognize perspective in paintings, musical performances, photographs, quilts, and dance (Warren et al., 2011). Books provide doors into colorful, light, and dark worlds that have not yet been personally experienced; however, these experiences may be faced eventually by many individuals. Authors become sponsors when they share stories of change, hope, success. Poetry offers an alternative lens to see the world (Adarkar & Keiser, 2007) and allows the person in recovery to question, see the invisible, and hear the silence of snow. Poet means “maker” and poetry nurtures the imagination (Tarrant, 1998, p. 231). For recovery, imagination of what could be is critical (Warren et al., 2011).
Of course, the recovery journey includes peers and mentors who may be sponsors, comembers in AA, or friends who will not let us lie (Moxley & Washington, 2001). Tarrant (2004) suggested that “to connect, to help, to be of use in this world, you have to walk with people. You have to let them act upon you also, and you won't remain unchanged” (p. 82). Through community, mentors emerge to guide individuals through blind spots and coach them when they need to be encouraged (Warren et al., 2011).
Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends—this is an experience you must not miss. (AA, 1976, p. 89)
Being awakened allows the heart to open as if it were the first day of life, just being born, not knowing anything, and experiencing it all (Kornfield, 2000). To the wise heart, everything can make sense. Recovery is an integrating experience (Moxley & Washington, 2001) that includes the self, the mind, the heart, the practice, and the community.