A Recovering Addict's Journey to Meditation Practice
Thérèse-Jacobs-Stewart is a mindfulness-based psychotherapist in private practice in Saint Paul, Minnesota. This is an excerpt from her latest book, Mindfulness and the 12-Steps (Hazelden Publishing, 2010, based on her experience as a long-recovering addict and mindfulness meditation practitioner for over twenty-five years. She has a unique way of integrating the practices of the 12-Step Program and Buddhist meditation, looking at how each enriches and informs the other.
I learned about meditation after I stopped imbibing white crosses and other street junk. The drugs had become my refuge after I enrolled in a private school I didn't want to attend, keeping up a high grade point average because I had to. My alcoholic father expected no less. I used speed to erase the need to sleep, to achieve more and more, to be the life of the party. All limitations vanished.
The insanity ended when I woke up in a hospital isolation ward with a 104-degree fever and a severe case of mononucleosis. I was 22 years old and burnt out.
My doctor told me I was very ill. He advised me to take a semester off from college, put some weight back on, get eight hours of sleep every night, and take vitamins.
I had a friend named Skip who went to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. I asked him what he thought I should do. He said maybe meet up with him at AA sometime; most people stop using drugs before they end up in the hospital for a month. With time and lots of support from people like Skip, I stopped using amphetamines, started working the Twelve Steps of AA, and stumbled into a steady sobriety.
After I'd been in recovery for a couple years, a friend, Father Tim Power, told me about a monastery he went to on retreat. He painted pictures of towering red rock and deep green, sweet-scented juniper pines surrounding a rich quiet and peace. Complete silence, no talking allowed. Six times a day, bells rang to call everyone to meditation. It was some kind of Christian-Zen hybrid, a contemplative community started by a Carmelite priest.
I felt a fierce desire come up like a rush, refusing to be ignored, as if a magician had told me to turn into a chicken and all I could do was cluck. I had to go to that monastery, see it, and feel it for myself.
The place was called Nada, Spanish for "emptiness." It rested in the foothills of the Spirit Mountains in Arizona, near Sedona, on old Hopi Indian worshipping grounds, land so majestic and beautiful it was sacred and used only for religious ceremonies.
Thinking about Nada, I imagined a place of joy, simplicity, and peace. I craved a natural high. I wanted to rise above it all, floating on the clouds of spiritual bliss.
As it turned out, this was not the cosmic plan. Arriving at Nada for a long retreat, I saw a tired collection of hermitages sprinkled across acres of high desert cacti, red rock, and rolling, craggy brush. My dwelling was a one-room shack with a mattress on boards held up by two sawhorses, a bare wooden desk, hooks for clothes, and a one-burner hot plate. There was a small refrigerator in one corner, a toilet and sink in the other. My fellow retreatants and I grew what we could in the huge garden, producing massive amounts of zucchini. The rest of our groceries came from the food shelf in Phoenix: peanut butter, cheese, rice, soup, and cartons of expired yogurt.
The chapel at Nada was a round stone structure without windows, cool and dark and still, dug into the ground, like a Hopi kiva. On Saturdays there was an all-night vigil. Each of us signed up to meditate for one hour, from dusk until dawn. Being an unreformed night owl, I volunteered for the 2:00 to 3:00 a.m. shift. When the moon was full, its light was so bright I didn't even need my flashlight to walk from my hermitage to the chapel. Grand rock formations, twisted firs, and the stone-lined pathways were aglow in the dark. Shadows were exposed in the soft blue light of the moon.
Members of the Nada community talked on Sundays after Mass, visiting and playing volleyball or flying kites on the rooftops of our hermitages until early afternoon. And I had a once-a-week meeting with Father Michael, my spiritual director.
The rest of the time—silence. No distractions. No TV, no telephone, no computer, no talking. We ate alone in our hermitages, did manual work in the morning, had study time for reading, writing, or walking in the afternoon. Bells rang six times a day for meditation, following the old Catholic tradition of Divine Office. The simplicity and routine of the eremitic schedule meant that all decisions about what to do were already made. All I had to do was give myself over to it.
For the first six months I routinely fell asleep in meditation. Then memories from childhood began to slosh around at the edges of my awareness—fuzzy at first but gradually coming into focus. Instead of an escape into bliss, I experienced a profound encounter with myself. There were flashbacks to my childhood, feelings of fear, feelings of helplessness, and anger, anger, anger. The dark edges of my psyche, illumined.
In the past, I'd been overwhelmed by the intensity of my emotional pain and taken refuge in drugs. Now, with nowhere to go and no chemical bypass, I could run away screaming. Or, I could simply stay with my inner turmoil and breathe while my feelings stormed.
Eventually the velvet silence held me in its arms. Gradually, I started to unwind. Until then, I hadn't noticed that my muscles were rigid, braced against life, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. I didn't know there was any other way to be. But after weeks of sitting meditation and meeting each Friday with Father Michael, my body began to relax. My practice was to sit on the meditation cushion and do nothing; let memories, thoughts, and feelings pass on through; be held in the support of the community, the practice of meditation and the great field of kind, meditating beings through time.
As the logjam of repressed emotion and shame about my alcoholic family released, I discovered space for something else: the simple routines of monastic life; the sweet smells of spring in the desert; ; the friendly company of chipmunks at my door; the twittering birdie who visited my heritage in the early mornings, begging for bread crumbs. I had an inkling of tranquility. It wasn't ethereal or grand—just a feeling of being safe and coming home to rest.
That experience at Nada transformed my experience of AA's Step Three: "We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood [God]." An Eastern view of this Step is to take refuge.
In Buddhism, taking refuge means beginning the spiritual path of transformation in earnest. For me—an addict in recovery and an adult child of an alcoholic family—it was a decision to surrender, to give up looking outside myself for happiness, to stop running away from difficulties. I stopped following in the tracks of my family members, including four generations of Irish alcoholics going all the way back to the "old country." In the great holy and ordinary beings of many faiths and traditions, I found new ancestors to follow. Every time I sat on the meditation cushion, they joined me in silent assent.
As Step Three reminds us, taking refuge is active. We decide to let go of our delusions of control, and we open up to sources of help outside ourselves. Buddhist practices bring us to a deeper experience of this Step by pointing us in specific directions—toward the "Three Gems," or "Triple Treasure."
The First Gem is taking refuge in awakening (buddha). Discovering this treasure means waking up to our true self and recognizing that within us is a spiritual essence. Buddha called it our "buddha nature." Alcoholics Anonymous, known as the "Big Book" to members of that fellowship, describes it in similar words: "We found the Great Reality deep down within us."
The Second Gem is taking refuge in the teachings of meditation, understanding, and love (dharma). We enjoy this treasure when we study the Twelve Steps, the Buddha's Four Pure Insights into the Way Things Are, and other spiritual teachings. All of them guide us to release our addicted ways—a way of life that the Big Book describes as "self-will run riot" and Buddhists describe as self-centered craving.
Equally profound is the Third Gem—taking refuge in community (sangha). This treasure includes our relationships with family, friends, the fellowship of a Twelve Step group, and other spiritual communities. These bonds create a profound crucible for personal growth: taking refuge means here learning to do relationships all over again. For people with addictive personalities, it often means learning to be less self-absorbed and more aware of our effect on others. For people with codependency difficulties, it calls for developing boundaries—taking in and taking on less of other people's feelings, needs, or blame. And for all of us, it means choosing to trust people again. After all, we need their help to fully recover from our addictions and codependency.
This is a path of continuous learning where we aim, as the old AA slogan says, "for progress, not perfection." Safe in the buddha, dharma, and sangha, we walk with open eyes and an open heart into the chaos of daily life. Eventually Step Three and Buddhist practice merge into a single path—simply being awake and aware, no matter what arises, knowing that we are supported in this moment. Staying sober for one more day and staying mindful for one more breath. Taking refuge.
Excerpt from Chapter 3, "Taking Refuge".