Taking Refuge (Part 2)

An Eastern Approach to Step Three

We made a decision to turn our will and our lives of God as we understood [God].
–Step Three of Alcoholics Anonymous

There's a buddha—an awakened, enlightened essence—in each of us. The question becomes how to find our way through the illusions that fill our everyday mind? Especially if we are in the throes of active addiction or codependency, or working on our emotional sobriety in recovery. How, then, do we realize our beautiful, true inner nature?

For centuries, Buddhists have answered this question in two ways: By "taking refuge" in mindfulness and understanding, also known as "the dharma," and in the community of others, also known as "the sangha."

When we decide to study meditation, we rouse our drowsy, addictive mind with the bell of mindfulness. Meditation practice etches new neural pathways in the brain, opening conscious contact with our true nature, leading us to greater happiness.

For me, this required actually sitting down on a meditation cushion, becoming familiar with and observing the mind. Not just reading about mindfulness. And, it wasn't easy: At first, I nodded off during nearly every meditation period. Gradually, after a number of months, the exhaustion of my now amphetamine-free-but-still-full-speed-ahead busy life seemed to run its course. Still, there were problems.

Even though I was no longer hazy with drugs, the underlying addictive mind was still fierce. It took several hours each day in meditation to quell the ceaseless self-criticism and corresponding depression of my youth. The healing came by resting in "bare attention," without judging, pushing away, or chasing down my thoughts. I learned to welcome the whole range of feelings, perceptions, and sensations—feelings of grief and anger, clutches of panic, nastiness, dreaminess—and watch them pass through my mind.

I didn't know then, because the research hadn't yet been done, that meditation was changing the very chemistry of my brain. I was realizing the same truth attained by both the enlightened ones of old, and our ancestors in the Twelve Step program. If we commit wholeheartedly, "the teachings of awakening will come alive."

But we can't do it alone. Beautiful Buddhist texts talk about the treasure of fellowship, or "sangha." The teachings describe sangha as a group of people living in harmony, "beings we turn to for support, encouragement, and teaching" as we learn to be in the present moment, in the midst of the messiness of life.

My life experience had been quite different. I learned about relationships in my family of origin, which meant they were unsafe, cruel, disappointing, and scary. I walked through life holding my breath, waiting for the next betrayal or loss.

Then I found a Twelve Step meeting, where I was accepted without judgment. People were kind and giving, and we had a common purpose—staying sober and practicing the Twelve Step program in hopes of greater serenity. I began to experience what Buddhist teachers meant when they said community brings "peace and happiness to life."

Taking refuge in a community, or sangha, is a conscious decision to learn how to do relationships differently than we learned as children. Relationships are a profound crucible for personal growth. For people with addictive personalities, this often means learning to be less self-absorbed. For people with codependency, it may require developing boundaries, taking in and taking on less of other people's feelings, needs, or blame.

Even thorny relationships and difficult people can be powerful teachers, if we dare say yes to the lesson. Once we open our heart to sangha, we realize that we are not a separate bump off to the side of life. Rather, we are part of a whole web of interbeing—a state of connectedness. When we see this, something inexplicable happens.

As meditation teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson puts it, "When you take refuge in and give your devotion to [a spiritual path], there is always a response. All buddhas and ancestors say, ‘Welcome home. Glad to see you. We've been waiting.' Now the family is back together. It's a concert, not a solo performance."

Author photo of Therese Jacobs StewartThérèse Jacobs Stewart, M.A., L.P., has been a practicing psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and international consultant for more than 25 years. In 2004, she founded Mind Roads Meditation Center, a neighborhood practice center integrating contemplative practices from both East and West and home of the Saint Paul, Minnesota, chapter of 12-Steps and Mindfulness meetings. Her third book, A Kinder Voice, Releasing Your Inner Critics with Mindfulness Slogans, will be published by Hazelden in May.
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