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Buddhist teachings bring non-theistic approach to recovery

March 13, 2017
by Tom Valentino, Senior Editor
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Sober for four months after having battled alcohol addiction, it didn’t take long for Stephen Dansiger, PsyD, MFT, to recognize how the principles of Buddhism could aid in his recovery.

The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama—who eventually would become known as Buddha—centered on four noble truths:

  1. There is suffering.
  2. There is a cause of the suffering.
  3. There is an end to the suffering.
  4. There is a path that leads to the end of the suffering.

Addiction, Dansiger reasoned, is suffering taken to its greatest extent: an attempt to solve one’s problems with substances or behaviors, only to end up with more suffering.

“The tie to addiction becomes immediate and obvious with the second noble truth, which is that the cause of the suffering is craving, clinging, aversion—you can look at it as addiction,” says Dansiger, who has now been sober for 28 years. “I want more of what I like, and I want less of what I don’t like.”

Quickly after being introduced to the Buddhist teachings from 2,600 years ago, Dansiger realized he had found what he describes as “his spiritual jam.” Buddhist mindfulness has been instrumental in Dansiger’s sobriety, and it is an integral part of treatment at Refuge Recovery Centers, a program that includes detoxification, residential and intensive outpatient services in Los Angeles. Dansiger is the treatment center’s clinical director.

The eightfold path and the 12 Steps

The teachings of Buddhism and the 12 Steps, as traditionally understood within the addiction treatment field, have a complicated relationship.

Whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy—or neither—is a well-worn topic of discussion. By definition, religion is “a belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods,” per the Oxford English Dictionary, whereas philosophy is a study of the “fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.”

In his 45 years of teachings, Buddha denied that he himself was God, and, as Dansiger explains, Buddha placed little value in metaphysical questions in general. The primary focus of Buddhism centers solely on suffering and the end of suffering. The fourth noble truth—the prescription that leads to the end of suffering—bears a resemblance to the 12 Steps in some respects, despite the latter’s understanding of the existence of a higher power, because each is a program of action that starts with right understanding or wisdom, Dansiger says. The prescription for ending suffering is known as the eightfold path, which are eight aspects of life that lead to enlightenment. The eight aspects of the eightfold path are of equal importance, and, despite the name, not sequential. (See accompanying chart below for a full defined list of the aspects in the eightfold path.)

Developed in the 1930s by Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the 12 Steps were conceived specifically to not be aligned with a specific religion. And yet, despite Buddhism not falling within the understood definition of religion and the 12 Steps not having a connection to any particular religion, a disconnect around religion still exists for many within the treatment field who possess a traditional orientation on recovery, says Jamie Marich, PhD, a trauma therapy specialist who practices EMDR therapy.

“The thing with AA and the 12 Steps is that, on paper, it’s very open minded—‘God of my understanding’ and all that,” says Marich, who is also a contributing writer for Addiction Professional. “But so many sponsors and treatment center providers are colored by the Christian experience of God that it bleeds through.

“To me, the teachings of Buddhism fit in beautifully here and can help recovering folks to work on a spiritual solution who have a hard time putting faith in a ‘God.’ Clients with traumatic experiences in Christianity can find the spiritual freedom of Buddhism to be very liberating for this reason.”

Of note: The language of the 12 Steps has been adapted by several resources into non-theist versions, which can be easier to follow for Buddhists.

Marich is not a practicing Buddhist, but says she has drawn strength from Buddhist-inspired mindfulness practice, and that it has taught her to trust the process.

“In some way, trusting the process can work instead of trusting a deity as a higher power,” Marich says. “That works for me and many of my clients on days when faith in a deity may not feel particularly strong.”

Beyond Buddhist teachings, Marich says she has observed resistance in regards to mindfulness practices, yoga and breathing practices, and EMDR therapy from treatment center executives and clinicians who are more traditional in their orientation.

“As professionals, we have a duty to explore all potential solutions that may help our clients find freedom from suffering,” Marich says. “There are a lot of solutions in Buddhism that can be gleaned if the field would be willing to put their biases and preconceived notions aside.”

Tools of recovery

Some Buddhist recovery programs exist as wholesale alternatives to the 12 Steps, with the Refuge Recovery program as one example. Many in recovery, however, have used Buddhist teachings as a supplement to their work through the 12 Steps.

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