Buddhism and Addiction Recovery

Buddhism and Addiction Recovery

As many AA devotees know, spirituality plays a large part in the group’s philosophy on recovery. Despite the group’s welcome stance towards participants of any faith, AA has decidedly Christian origins and is built around the concept of a god or higher power. Six of the twelve steps refer to this explicitly.

What about those whose religious beliefs do not include the concept of a god? Is there a way to bridge the gap between a faith-based program such as AA and those who identify with non-theistic religions?

Buddhism’s foundations do not rest on a god but instead on a spiritual teacher. Many regard it as a way of life rather than a religion. It offers philosophical wisdom that can be useful to those in recovery from drugs, alcohol or behavioral addictions.

[Buddhism] offers philosophical wisdom that can be useful to those in recovery from drugs, alcohol or behavioral addictions.-Rebecca Kronman

“I find that using certain Buddhist teachings as higher powers—the power of karma, the power of mindfulness, the power of lovingkindness—is very useful for people who struggle with the kind of theistic tone of the language in the 12 steps,” said Kevin Griffin, a Buddhist teacher, writer of Recovering Joy: A Mindful Life After Addiction and several other books on Buddhism and recovery. He says that Buddhism provides the tools for people to go through the steps as an internal process, rather than an external process.

While the study of Buddhist philosophy can add a great deal to enhance recovery, many who have written about its usefulness in recovery also recommend using it in conjunction with a 12-step program. Bill Krumbein, author of The 12 Steps and Zen Koans blog, sees the two as inextricably linked.

“What I’m doing is not a substitute for working the 12 steps with a sponsor and going to meetings,” Krumbein said. “When you have a sponsor they can answer your questions. They are there to point you in the right direction and to help describe the steps.”

The link between Buddhism and recovery is a natural one.

Twenty five hundred years ago, the religion’s founder, Siddhartha Gotama—the Buddha—began disseminating his teachings across India. In his Four Noble Teachings, he states that human suffering is caused by craving and aversion, and that the path to the cessation of suffering can be achieved through the Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. The practice of each of these constitutes the practice of Buddhism and their mastery leads to enlightenment.

The Noble Eightfold path bears much resemblance to the 12 steps of AA, and many Buddhist scholars and practitioners have noted the similarities. For example, step 11—prayer and meditation—closely correlates with Right Concentration. Right Concentration is the practice of immersing oneself in a meditative practice, either through focusing on the breath, an object or a mantra. The principle of karma—that all our actions affect others and the world—corresponds with step 4, we made a searching and fearless moral inventory of our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Human suffering, the Buddha says, is caused when we cannot get what we want. Our understanding on addiction and recovery parallels this wisdom.-Rebecca Kronman

Human suffering, the Buddha says, is caused when we cannot get what we want. Our understanding on addiction and recovery parallels this wisdom. Suffering occurs when someone is not using substances or doing an addictive behavior but wishes they were. In addition, the use of substances or engaging in addictive behaviors is a method of staving off negative emotions, and continuing to use or do is also a way to avert the discomfort of stopping. This is when the cycle of addiction occurs.

One of the fundamental practices in Buddhism—meditation—provides a method for identifying and overcoming difficult feelings. In mindful breathing meditations, the practitioner focuses attention on his or her breath and gently lets go of thoughts. With regular practice, this can help release the holding that an addicted person feels towards substances or behaviors and can ease feelings of anxiety around no longer partaking.

In lovingkindness meditation, the practitioner recites a mantra of kindness towards him or herself, then directs attention outward towards a person that they love, someone they feel neutral towards, and someone they dislike. This type of meditation can help the practitioner feel more forgiving towards themselves, a very useful tool for those in recovery. As many people can attest, feelings of guilt and shame often only serve to exacerbate addictive behaviors.

Although Buddhism is not a philosophy that works for everyone, it does offer a complementary practice to the 12 steps and a deeper understanding of the more insight-based parts of recovery.-Rebecca Kronman

Although Buddhism is not a philosophy that works for everyone, it does offer a complementary practice to the 12 steps and a deeper understanding of the more insight-based parts of recovery. By offering an alternative way of looking at higher power, it can help those for whom the concept is a turnoff to stay with the program and meet their recovery goals. To learn more about Buddhism and recovery, visit:

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