Many years ago (circa 1995), I read The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck. He was a reknowned psychiatrist who held several high level positions at both military and civilian psychiatric facilities.
He once wrote, “After many years of vague identification with Buddhist and Islamic mysticism, I ultimately made a firm Christian commitment – signified by my non-denominational baptism on the ninth of March 1980.” So there was a spiritual component to the recovery and mental fitness practices and strategies that he advanced in his writings.
This drew me to his his works like a moth to a candle’s flickering flame. As an Alcoholic and Addict with Bipolar Disorder, I was desperate for a long term, sustainable, meaningful, and profound way of living. And at that time, The Road Less Travelled, coupled with John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You, became my roadmaps and bibles for recovery.
Even with the help of therapy, medication, and these two excellent books, my sobriety and stability were unstable and inconsistent.
Depression was an occasional visitor. Mania and hypomania were frequent companions. Grandiosity, impulsivity, and self-destructive behavior were, more often than not, the soupe du jour. And it was neither palate-pleasing nor affordable.
This repetitive and vicious cycle of a revolving door of poor to mediocre therapists, an ongoing trial and error process with a bevy of psychotropic drugs, applying Cognitive Behavioral Techniques, doing my best to live according to the wisdom of Peck and Bradshaw, and tenaciously scratching and clawing to stay afloat, perpetuated for 15 years.
There were several times that the emotional pain was so intense and my thinking so distorted that I doubted my ability to continue to function as an independent adult. I contemplated cashing in my chips on more than one occasion. And these experiences occurred with the completely undiagnosed and untreated Addiction BEHIND me.
I wasn’t thriving. I was surviving. Barely at times. For a long time I wasn’t even aware that there was so much more to life than this miserable existence -limping along with a severe mental illness and managing to keep my head above water using palliative measures and the faulty coping mechanisms I learned to survive my childhood.
Buddhism teaches that suffering exists; it has a cause; it has an end; and it has a cause to bring about its end. I had that First Noble Truth down. Suffering, mostly emotional, was a near constant for me. And somewhere along the way I developed the notion that enduring it was a virtue. Besides, I didn’t think I had a choice. And I had a natural penchant for manufacturing my own misery.
Living that way worked. Until it didn’t. By September of 2010 I had created so much chaos, drama, instability, and so many unbearable circumstances that I was driven to my knees. A crisis of overwhelming proportions broke me. My efforts to run solely on self-will had run me to the very edge of a deep and terrify abyss.
And that, I though, was the end of the road.
Yet with this excruciating ending came the beginning of a life I never imagined existed. Little did I realize that I was experiencing my Dark Night of the Soul. In preparation for something better.
Yet by grace and mercy, I stumbled into the metaphorical “last house on the block” of AA. Before I knew it, the root of my newly discovered spiritually based life of recovery was guiding me out of the pain and darkness. The unconditional love, the pragmatic and powerful spiritual practices, the comraderie, the friends, the Big Book, the experience, strength, and hope, and the mutual aid that I found in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous gave me the tools and support that I needed to build a life and to thrive with my Bipolar Disorder, Alcoholism, and Addictions. Rather than merely surviving.
Each day since has been an opportunity to practice and grow the pragmatic spiritual practices of AA, to retrain my brain to minimize deeply rooted maladaptive behaviors, to grow spiritually, and to hone my personal spiritual skills.
Over the years my life has gotten increasingly better. Not always with respect to external circumstances, but consistently with my internal condition. Comfort in my own skin, loving myself in healthy way, a diminished concern for what others think of me, a sense of belonging, enjoying giving and service, gratitude, acceptance, and surrender to a Power greater than myself are but a few of the priceless gifts I have received from working the spiritual recovery program of AA and from being a part of the Fellowship.
And over the last two years, Buddhism has become my newest spiritual and recovery frontier. Discovering a spiritual practice, that is not a religion, that is fluid, open-minded, adaptive, premised on compassion and wisdom, that acknowledges that we all suffer (and offers a way out), and that can be practiced with very limited focus on its cosmology – a cosmology that is broad-minded and non-judgemental, that has gifted me with more recovery tools and an even deeper meaning and purpose.
After years of struggle, pain, striving, and searching, I am now blessed with the Holy Grail of a triple, unshakable foundation on which to continue building my recovery.
Whether it was by design or not, CBT is rooted in 2600 year old Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness, meditation, detachment, Metta, recognizing impermanence, focusing on process, practicing the Eightfold Path, awareness, intentionality, and thinking and acting with wisdom and compassion are but a few of the elements of Buddhism that are not only enhancing my spiritual life and recovery immensely, but they are also akin to many of the coping strategies that I have learned in Westernized therapy.
Like AA, the goal of Buddhism is spiritual transformation. Minimizing self and ego, striving to minimize harm to others and to self, looking for one’s own role or character defects when conflict arises rather than blaming others, love and tolerance, detachment, compassion, a specific process for cessation of suffering, and a strong sense of interconnectedness with others are just a few of the analogs between AA and Buddhism.
Therapy, CBT, and suffering led me to AA. AA and suffering led me to Buddhism. And the joyous miracle for me is that none replaces the other.
They each serve to strengthen and complement the others as I employ them each day, one day at a time, to thrive and to keep suffering at bay in a way that is a gift to others (whom I used to harm) and to me.
For that I am eternally grateful.