Rev. J.J. Kyoji Anderson
I have been a sober member of AA for 19 years and a Zen student for a relatively shorter period, close to 10 years. I am constantly struck by the interconnectedness of the two paths, which for me are really not separate but a continuation of the same path. For me, the movement from AA into Zen practice has been a natural flow, a deepening of my own spiritual quest. The core teachings of AA and Zen Buddhism are essentially the same: “ego deflation in depth” in AA terms or, in Zen terms, the killing of ego, which brings about transformation. Simply put, zazen contains the core principles of AA.
What brought me, and what brings all alcoholics to AA, was a feeling of total spiritual and emotional bankruptcy—as my sponsor used to say, “Being sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This mirrors the experience of a beginning Zen student. Nyogen Roshi talks about his own spiritual bankruptcy—his pain and desperation in the world of samsara—which was the motivation for his spiritual search. I think most Zen students have similar feelings and experiences when they come to the practice; I know I did.
The first step in AA is kin to the First Noble Truth: life is suffering. Both have to do with powerlessness—admitting, “My life is unmanageable.” I think all Zen students and alcoholics in recovery have to realize the First Noble Truth to some degree.
My understanding of step two, the belief that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity, has changed over the last 19 years. Since I began to study at the Hazy Moon, my perspective has transformed dramatically. I used to think that a “power greater than myself” was something bigger and all-powerful that was outside of me. Now my interpretation of this step has evolved from a “power greater than myself” to my “true self” or “Buddha nature,” which is not something outside or separate from me. I see the self in this step as my egocentric self, which is always driven by the three poisons (greed, anger and ignorance). My insanity is born of my ego—always grasping and rejecting, never accepting things as they are. Roshi tries to get us to see how everything ego-driven leads to suffering. But he also tells us there is a way out, which is the Third and Fourth Noble Truth (and step three in AA).
We “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” This step is the heart of my Zen practice, which is basically an endless act of surrendering. By surrender I mean letting go of ego-driven clinging, constantly letting go of my notion of how I think it should be. I have to let go of the planning and judgment that keeps me separate from life unfolding all around me. This is not easy; most of the time I only surrender if I am in extreme pain and suffering. The good or bad news, depending on your point of view, is that I am now less tolerant of the discomfort I cause myself, which means I surrender with less of a fight. When I stop fighting everything and everybody, my life flows and things fall into place. “The way knows no difficulty,” a teacher in our lineage once said. The way is zazen.
On page 449 in the Big Book we hear, “Acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today… accepting life on life’s terms.” As it is, we say in Zen. If I have expectations, I am not here, present in this moment, and therefore I suffer and cause suffering. That’s so simple, yet so difficult to actualize. Roshi tells us that the most wonderful treasure is right here for all of us. We don’t have to go anywhere to get it because it’s “closer than the skin on your nose.”
When I first came to AA, I could not live without alcohol. AA saved my life by giving me a solid spiritual foundation, which has naturally and seamlessly evolved into my Zen practice at the Hazy Moon.
October 2, 2005: One of the worst hangovers I ever had (trust me, I’d had many). What made this hung-over morning different from the others? I guess I decided that I was very tired of being sick and tired.
That afternoon I walked into my first 12-step program. There I was sitting in a room full of people who were addicted to alcohol and drugs. So this is what I have become, I thought. A drunk and a loser with no self control.
I listened to the stories of people who were facing all kinds of addictions. After hearing their stories, realized that I could relate to them. I realized that I was one of them.
The next realization, however, was a little tougher to grasp. I was advised that I also had a spiritual problem. Me, the one who attends church every Sunday? Still, a question kept nagging at me. Why did I feel I needed to drink a bottle and a half of wine the night before? Maybe there was something to this spiritual thing.
The people in my program talked about how they learned to connect to their spiritual source. They called it a higher power, but they told me I could call it what ever I wanted. Since I was a Catholic, God seemed to be the appropriate word for me to use. For others it was the forest or the ocean. Some people even found their higher power in the rooms of the 12-step programs they attended.
I worked through the 12 steps and got a great deal out of them. But after a while, I felt that I was still missing something. I was beginning to feel stagnant. Worst of all I still had these awful thoughts and feelings. If anyone talks to a group of alcoholics and asks why they drink, the most common response is, “So I don’t have to feel or think anymore.”
Looking back at my years of drinking, I would say that this was probably my number one reason for hitting the bottle. I don’t think I realized this until I quit. When I stopped drinking, a sudden flurry of feelings and thoughts hit me. What was I suppose to do with them? I had been numbing myself with alcohol; now I had to learn how to tolerate feeling and thinking. No one had ever taught me how to do that.
At that point I was working on the 12th step, which encourages you to connect to your higher power through prayer and mediation. That’s when it occurred to me to try zazen.
My husband had introduced me to Zen in the 1990s. He had practiced for several years under Maezumi Roshi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles and then under Nyogen Roshi, one of Maezumi’s successors, at the Hazy Moon. I had occasionally tried to meditate, and I’d listened to a few Dharma talks by both Maezumi Roshi and Nyogen Roshi, but after two sober years of 12-stepping, I was finally ready to take a good long look at the teachings of Zen.
Nyogen Roshi instructed me to count my breath from one to ten and then start over again. This is done to quiet the mind--to give the thinking mind something to focus on. If you’re alcoholic, you know how difficult it is to keep that brain in your head quiet.
This practice really works for me. When I find myself starting a storyline of “pity and woe” or “what if this and what if that,” I go back to counting my breath. I’ve learned that I can’t stop the thoughts from coming up, so I shouldn’t try to stop them. The good news is that I am also learning that my thoughts aren’t me.
I finally have glimpses of peace. There is nothing really earth-shattering about it. It’s more like an underlying feeling that everything is okay. I’m okay, everyone around me is okay and the world is as it should be. Whenever I start getting fearful or angry or “edgy,” it’s usually because I have started attaching to my thoughts—I’m in my head again. But now I can recognize what’s happening. I can use my practice to get out of my head and ease the pain I create for myself.
In a recent Dharma talk, a senior student related a story about how, when she had accidentally scalded her hand with hot water, she realized, “Oh, this is real pain, not the stuff I create for myself.” I could so relate to that! Now, when I realize that I’m dishing up painful thoughts for myself, that’s the cue for me to start counting my breath again.
I enjoy meditation, even if I’m still just scratching the surface of it. I still get scared, angry, and edgy--I still get stuck in my head now and then. But I keep coming back to my breath, and things keep getting better. That’s why they call it a practice!