Addiction, Eastern-Style

Local writer J.K. Mountain reviews the 12-step recovery process through a Buddhist's eyes.

The 12-step addiction recovery movement, one of the great social experiments of the 20th century, originated in 1935 with the advent of Alcoholics Anonymous. Currently one of the primary models for addiction therapy, the 12 steps have bred a multitude of programs addressing all kinds of problems from compulsive eating to Internet addiction.

J.K. Mountain, Tucson writer and student of Buddhism, tells us that long before the appearance of A.A., the teachings of the Buddha offered another model for understanding and treating addiction. In The Joy Beyond Craving: A Buddhist Perspective on Addiction and Recovery, Mountain, an active participant in 12-step programs, examines some of the basic elements of Buddhist thought, points to a number of parallels between the 12 steps and Buddhism, and tenders a revised version of the steps.

The underlying assumption of this book is that addiction is the fountainhead of human woe. Reflecting on Buddhism's Second Noble Truth, Mountain says that we "bring suffering on ourselves by our incessant desires, to which we readily become attached." Attachments, he declares rather circularly, are nothing other than addictions.

Mountain contends that "nearly everybody is addicted to something," and cites what he sees as our obsessive-compulsive relationships with just about everything--including mind-altering chemicals, sex, money, religion, television, gambling, violence and even gossip and smalltalk.

Matters are made worse, he adds, by a culture fueled by unchecked consumerism that "daily bombards us with instant-gratification messages."

Mountain writes, "Buddhism doesn't teach that we must overcome all desire." Rather, it urges us to seek a life free of grasping "between self-indulgence and extreme asceticism." He expounds on the Eightfold Path, the Buddhist "program" intended to help people relinquish their cravings, declaring that "only by letting go of your addictive desires can you find everlasting peace and joy."

Mountain also introduces readers to such difficult but fascinating concepts as the illusory nature of the self and the Buddhist notion of emptiness. The unreal self, he says, is "who you think you are," the static "character you've concocted in your imagination and then identified with." It must go, he notes, if we're to realize emptiness, "the pure Beingness that we experience after we drop all our games."

Mountain laments that today, Buddha-worship often overshadows the Buddha's message, and that Buddhism has "not adapted well to the needs of people living in a complex society ruled by craving." Consequently, he tells us that many Buddhists with addiction problems take refuge in 12-step groups.

A most incisive aspect of this book is its comparison of these two seemingly disparate philosophies, one ancient and Eastern, the other modern and distinctly American. While there are obvious differences--the 12 steps are steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition and Buddhism is essentially non-theistic--Mountain recounts numerous similarities that suggest the timeless character of certain spiritual concepts.

Both stress the importance of self-knowledge, living in the moment and service to others. The 12 steps testify that life is often unmanageable, while Buddhism points to the omnipresence of suffering. Both see the self as essentially powerless, and both affirm that setting the self aside will lead to a spiritual awakening.

Mountain writes that the original steps have a "distinctly Christian flavor" that may pose an obstacle to some people. Therefore, he changes the word "God" to "Higher Consciousness," not so different from the term "Higher Power" already widely used. He also deletes terms like "moral inventory," "wrongs" and "defects of character" because they echo the "traditional, sin-obsessed form of Christianity." He replaces them with phrases such as "examine ourselves as we really are" and "personal weaknesses."

The steps suggest that we make a list of people we have harmed so that amends can be made. Mountain encourages us to add our own names to that list and to make amends to ourselves. He also recommends making a list of people who have harmed us and taking steps to forgive them.

In a novel twist on this part of the steps, Mountain writes that he evaluates "the various sub-personalities that make up the fictitious creation I call my 'self': the adult, the little boy, the teenage girl, the young adult, and so forth," determining how "these various characters abused and mistreated each other," and how they can mend fences.

This book is by no means a comprehensive study of addiction. Rather, it is a personal and somewhat doctrinaire testimony regarding the recovery process, reflective of a 12-step talk. However, it is also an empathetic and perceptive work, with the potential to spark moments of satori.

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