Why Buddhism Is Perfect for Addicts - Page 2

By May Wilkerson 08/21/12

Longtime AA member Josh Korda runs Dharma Punx NYC, a spiritual group with an edge. Here's how Buddhism became both his higher power and core program.

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Josh Korda has far more banjos than he needs. Photo via

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Are there similarities between the 12 steps and Buddhism?

In virtually every step there is an equivalent Buddhist practice. Accepting that we are powerless over something is very much the Buddhist approach to seeing suffering—or
dukkha—in our lives, and acknowledging it rather than running away. Certainly the third step [is similar], which is basically being liberated from the "small self": our will. And opening up to a different way of turning this self/will over is very much akin to Buddhist teachings on how we have to let go of what [the Buddha] called sakkaya ditthi—or our views of who we are and what we are capable of. Instead, we open up to an understanding that is far deeper and far more transpersonal than our small fears, our small eye. The work that you do with a sponsor in AA is very similar to the work you do with a teacher in the Buddhist practice. And in terms of the 11th step, it goes without saying that meditation is one of the centerpieces of Buddhist practice. 

What are some of the differences?

One of the core things Buddhism has that AA does not is that Buddhism focuses so much on working with the body and the breath to bring about peace of mind. It talks about learning how to read your body to note where you carry vedana dukkha—uncomfortable feelings. Feelings of sadness. Buddhism talks about how to become aware of how you are holding your stress and bringing it from moment to moment in different places in your life, and how to relieve yourself of suffering.

"I think it's preferable to start with AA, simply because it's best in one's early years to surround yourself with as many people as possible who are going through similar struggles."

This is very counter to the 12-step model. Because in 12-step programs, they say your higher power has to be different than you—it has to be external. In Buddhism, the idea is that the mind is a committee: you’ve got good voices and bad voices. When we're drinking, the fear voices are in control and running the show. But the very fact that we get over that and take care of ourselves—we come to meetings, we reach out for help—means there are also healing voices in there as well. So rather than seek an external power only, Buddhism is also about finding inner voices of reason, healing, compassion and love.

Is it possible to stay sober through a Buddhist practice alone? 

I know people who do. But I think it's preferable to start with AA, simply because it's best in one's early years to surround yourself with as many people who are going through similar struggles [as possible], because it tends to help with those feelings of being isolated or unique.

What about someone who feels their 12-step program is in a rut?

If you find AA uninspiring—if the only thing it's giving you is access to other alcoholics to share with after the meeting—and you are not hearing what you need to hear to find lasting happiness, do not feel that that is all there is. Because there is so much available. Even within Buddhism, there's the Theravada I study and practice, and also Zen to Tibetan. Beyond Buddhism, there are yoga practices, to Quaker, to Unitarian—so many spiritual paths that talk about other tools for finding happiness. If there is one message I can get across it is do not—do not—stay in a rut. You do not need to. 

What are some of the least Buddhist things you do in your own life?

There are lots. I love really super Bond and British mysteries with serial killers. I love Slayer and Meshuggah and Metallica... Well, I don't know if I'm a fan of Metallica. But Lamb of God and these bands that inspire all kinds of craziness and unskillful behavior. I probably have far, far more material goods than Buddha had envisioned. He talked about having just enough to live comfortably, but not so much that you get caught up and attached. I have far more banjos than I need, for example. 

Also, to be completely honest, a lot of times after an [AA] meeting, I will go hang out with my friends and engage in what the Buddha called "idle chatter"—it does not unite, it is based on creating distance or difference from other people.

But in Buddhism, instead of giving up if you don't meet your goals, you just notice your shortcomings and try to engage in some skillfulness without suffering being readily apparent. Right now, I am totally capable of being happy and talking shit now and then. In the future, I might have to become one of those super-virtuous goody-two-shoes that never talks shit about anyone. That is fine—but right now, I am nowhere near that.

May Wilkerson is The Fix’s associate editor. For more about how Buddhism can be applied to sobriety, check out Josh Korda’s multi-part “online retreat” via Tricycle magazine, “Making Friends With Your Demons and Hungry Ghosts: Buddhist Tools for Recovery.” 

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.