Taking the Seat of Truth
by Lisa Ernst
Recently I was invited to lead an opening meditation at a regional 12 Step retreat. Everyone there was eager and interested to spend several minutes in silent meditation. As I scanned the room during the meditation, I saw the faces of nearly everyone there in quiet repose. Afterward, many people sought me out to comment on how helpful those quiet moments were before launching into the activities of the day. This experience led me to reflect on Buddhism and the 12 Step program, although I’m not necessarily comparing all of their compatibilities and differences. There are some good books available on that topic already. What I’ve been reflecting on is how the 12 Step programs are another avenue to paying attention and shedding light on those parts of ourselves we’d rather not see. What’s required at 12 Step meetings is courageous honesty. Which is, of course, what we cultivate in meditation if we’re practicing sincerely.
I starting attending 12 Step meetings several years ago and went regularly for about three years. The most familiar 12 Step program is Alcoholics Anonymous, but many other 12 Step meetings exist to support those struggling with addition and the fallout from addiction. I wasn’t personally attending to address substance abuse problems, though some would kindly argue that my chocolate addiction could bear that kind of scrutiny. But since dark chocolate has now been classified as a health food, happily, I’m not fighting that one anymore. Instead, I began attending the 12 Step program to address interpersonal issues that arose in part from growing up in a family of alcoholics. At a deeper level, I believe many of the challenges I’ve faced in my life are part of the human condition; they are things most of us grapple with, whether we have substance abuse in our families or not. At the root is the very clinging and aversion of the mind that Buddha struggled with in his quest for enlightenment. On a practical level, I found the 12 Step program assisted me in working with the lasting effects of my upbringing in an alcoholic family. This is something meditation practice alone didn’t fully address.
What I have discovered from many years of practice is that meditation alone rarely succeeds in fully opening the gates of the mind and heart, even though it is a powerful way to illuminate much of what’s been hidden within us. Buddhist meditation (on and off the cushion) is my foundational path and it has made a profound difference in my life. Along the way, however, I have utilized several adjunct paths such as psychotherapy, support groups and 12 Step programs to augment and deepen my practice. I have found that any path that encourages me to face and tell the truth about my life, and find the courage to respond in a more constructive and compassionate way, will only serve to enhance my dharma practice.
The first 12 Step meeting I chose to attend was in Franklin, Tennessee, a town about thirty minutes outside of my hometown of Nashville. The meeting’s start time meant I had to drive to Franklin during rush hour traffic. That alone was a good practice in patience for me as I’ve never welcomed long commutes. The nearly interminable waits at countless traffic lights also led me to question why I was giving up another evening during the week when I could be home doing, what? Maybe reading a magazine or watching one of my favorite chefs on the Food Network? Ok, maybe not such a good argument to stay home. I also questioned whether the meetings would be so far removed from Buddhist practice as to feel alien and incompatible. As I mulled these questions, a twinge of anxiety arose and I nearly convinced myself to turn around and go home. But my years of meditation practice allowed me to recognize the voice of anxiety without getting caught in it. So I stayed my course to Franklin and attended the meeting.
When I arrived, I was greeted by many welcoming and friendly faces and I immediately felt at home. During the first meeting I kept quiet and just observed, but I appreciated the honesty and courage of the people in the room. They were clearly committed to telling the truth about their lives and exposing the hidden parts of themselves that led to suffering and even destructive behavior. Everyone who speaks at a 12 Step meeting must share directly from their own experience rather than from a conceptual understanding of their suffering. This direct and honest sharing is nearly always met with empathy and acceptance by the others in the room. There is no room for judgment. This allows an atmosphere of honesty to flourish. Twelve Step groups also cultivate a sense of community and compassionate support, much like a Buddhist sangha. Moments of meditation are often included in 12 Step Meetings, although most of the time is spent in group sharing.
Over the course of several meetings, I found myself responding to the emphasis on personal experience and honesty in a way that helped me with my own struggles. The approach felt quite compatible with my own Buddhist practices. Soon the meetings became a regular part of my week and I even made several new friends. Most evenings just as I took a seat at the meeting, a moment of awakening would occur: my mind would become clear and I would see something within my own heart that had been obscured. Often from these insights I would discover ways to begin undoing old patterns that had kept me locked in suffering. Sounds much like dharma practice, doesn’t it?
The word “dharma” actually has dual meanings. In the Buddhist tradition it has come to signify the Buddha’s teachings, while also pointing to “the truth of this moment.” For me, attending 12 Step meetings created a new avenue to work with difficult emotions and old patterns within the context of my dharma path. Although not a substitute for meditation, the meetings provided another way to experience the truth of this moment.
After attending 12 Step meetings for several years I found that I was less bound by the effects of my upbringing in an alcoholic family. I had become more at ease with others and the old stories of pain and despair that swirled in my mind had diminished to a whisper. I realized the meetings had served their purpose and it was time to move on with gratitude and appreciation.