The Twelve-Step programs are at the forefront of addiction recovery. The 12 steps provide a framework for self-examination, acceptance, understanding, and action that can help someone overcome an addiction. The steps are similar to Buddhist practices, but Buddhism is more comprehensive and includes other spiritual disciplines. It was also founded about 2,500 years ago.
As Buddhist practices share a common path for overcoming addiction, it is the case that these belief systems offer tools that can be very useful in tandem with 12-Step programs. A book we recommend and really enjoyed if you are interested in the topic; One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps by Kevin Griffin.
Acceptance & Surrender
The first principle of Buddhism is also its foundation: life exists solely under the condition of change. Nothing remains static; everything changes over time. Acceptance of this condition is key.
The 12 Steps, on the other hand, provide a framework for finding strength and acceptance through achieving stability. This stability comes from a personal relationship with a “higher power”, for which God is traditionally understood. One can choose to interpret “higher power” as a source of higher inspiration, and not necessarily the Christian conception of God.
The 12 Steps also speak often of “surrender”, which is a Buddhist principle as well. Rather than fighting one’s addictions alone, one can achieve freedom by accepting the reality of one’s situation and working towards overcoming it. This is not surrendering to one’s addiction, but rather breaking through the barriers that keep them locked in; this could be described as having faith or hope that something better lies beyond these walls.
In Buddhism, one is able to manage this by meditating on what can be called “the true self” within us. By surrendering to a higher power and focusing on this true self, we can begin to see our external cravings as illusions rather than defining us in our identity. Through the realization that the lack of inherent existence in one’s mind and body, overcoming addiction becomes possible for many.
This idea of not having inherently existing self-ties into another of Buddhism’s central tenets: the idea of emptiness. Defining this is somewhat more complicated than it may seem, but roughly speaking one can say that nothing has its own independent existence.
Everything is interconnected and dependent on influential factors to exist as it does. Instead of thinking about life as a collection of objects separated from the whole— find gratitude is what you feel part of already. Your breath, the ground you stand on, the wind.
Prayer & Meditation
The 12 Steps also make use of prayer and meditation to help maintain focus and stability along the path to recovery and sobriety. Buddhist teachings hold that one should mindfully breathe in and out, observing the thoughts that arise without being carried away by them. Prayers are often offered to allow this mindfulness meditation to take place, as well as to recognize one’s interconnectedness with all things. A Buddhist monk once said that it is more important to be aware of what God is doing than to feel like you know what God is doing, and this may be a more accurate application of the 12-Step practice of prayer.
Another part of Buddhist self-examination that can be useful is to work on understanding one’s own suffering. The Four Noble Truths teach that all people suffer from not being able to attain what they want in life, and from always desiring more than they have. When we practice meditation, it begins to shed light on understanding the source of our own suffering, and this can help us seek further understanding in order to better bring ourselves into balance with life’s changes.
Share Your Light & Reach Nirvana
One more important Buddhist principle is that everyone possesses a Buddha-like nature within. This can be seen as having something in common with Christian ideas such as being made in God’s image or Jesus’ message of love and compassion but is distinct in that Buddha-nature goes beyond ideas of divinity or holiness. The idea behind this is that everyone is capable of achieving enlightenment. Thus achieving a closer relationship with the world around them and seeing themselves as part of something greater than themselves.
Similarly, the 12 Steps encourage one to realize their own inner light and to try to help others by sharing it. This is an important part of the Buddhist path as well. One should not expect praise or thanks for sharing their light, but rather they should do it because it is the right thing to do.
Buddhism has a number of different practices, most notably meditation. A central practice for Buddhists is to recognize the four noble truths, which are that all people suffer, that suffering is caused by ignorance or desire, that through enlightenment one can overcome their suffering and reach Nirvana (enlightenment). There are eight steps to following the path to Nirvana. This is similar to the 12-step path to a spiritual awakening. Join our free membership to get a deeper dive on the step with our AA 12-step Roadmap.
The 12 Steps can be summarized as follows:
1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4) Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5) Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6) Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7) Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8) Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9) Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10) Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11) Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12) Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Breaking Down the 12-Steps & Eightfold Path
The first step is about admitting that one is powerless over alcohol. This can be compared with how Buddhists admit their ignorance about the world around them, in hopes, it will lead them toward enlightenment. The second step is about believing that a power greater than oneself, such as God or Buddha. A higher power to help guide and achieve one’s goals. This idea of having faith in something larger than oneself can also be seen in Buddhist practices.
The third step is about deciding to follow God’s will rather than one’s own desires. Buddhists are expected to follow the path of attaining enlightenment. This can be thought of as following Buddha’s nature toward a greater connection with the world around them while still remaining nonreligious.
The fourth through sixth steps involves recognizing one’s wrongs and making amends for them. This is similar to the Buddhist practice of self-reflection and examining one’s actions.
The ninth step involves helping others get better, just as Buddhists are encouraged to help others reach enlightenment. The remaining steps are about maintaining one’s actions by taking a personal inventory, being grateful for what you have, avoiding self-pity, and recognizing that you are not the center of the universe. These ideas also have parallels in Buddhist practice.
These steps can be used to help people find sobriety and happiness in their lives. While Buddhism generally leads people toward more personal development, spiritual growth, and enlightenment. The article proves that these practices can complement each other well. This is why many Buddhists in recovery may also find value in these steps.
We’ve outlined the similarities between AA’s 12 Steps and other spiritual practices of Buddhism in this article. While these are different paths, they have commonalities that can be helpful to those struggling with sobriety. If you want help personalizing a path for your recovery, join our free membership! We offer live support groups as well as individual virtual sessions. We meet you where you’re at in order to create an achievable roadmap for your future happiness.
Alcoholics anonymous big book (4th ed.). (2002). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
Buddhist 12 Steps -. (2021). Retrieved 13 October 2021, from https://alcoholrehab.com/alcohol-recovery/buddhist-12-steps/