The G word
The other night I went to hear Kevin Griffin speak. Griffin is a teacher and writer from the East Bay who has written a couple of books that integrate the Buddhist path with the 12-step process suggested by Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups as a vehicle for recovery. Griffin’s first book, One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the 12 Steps, really helped me through a major stumbling block that some of us who come to 12-step programs encounter: The G word.
Now, one of the closest G-word experiences I ever had was when I was walking down Divisadero Street in San Francisco about 15 years ago with my then-girlfriend, who lived in that neighborhood. We were looking for a comic-book store on a lazy Sunday afternoon, heard a live version of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” blasting out of a storefront church, wandered in and noted the name “St. John’s African Orthodox Church” on the wall, saw the painting of the iconic sax player with the halo hanging on the wall, done in an early Renaissance style, with flames erupting from the bell of his horn, heard the priest blowing spirit-infused shards of free-jazz sounds on a tenor while a chorus line of nuns shook tambourines and chanted “a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme” and a band built and maintained the scaffolding below, and thought, or at least I thought, well, this is the kind of thing that could get me going back to church.
I’d already gotten sober, and I’d already been faced with the G word. When you start going to meetings, and you begin hearing that stuff about “go to a lot of meetings, don’t drink in between meetings, and get a sponsor and work the steps,” and then you hear the 12 steps read at every meeting — “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves,” “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God,” “admitted to God,” “were entirely ready to have God,” “humbly asked Him,” “sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God,” “having had a spiritual awakening” — well, if you’re like me, you start getting really nervous that there’s gonna be some kind of white-trash altar call with Reverend Jimmy-Bob Sneedleroy from some cowshit-caked Okietown somewhere between Visalia and Bakersfield preaching about hellfire and damnation and sulphurous smoke and poisonous snakes on everything, and son, if you cain’t abide by the blood of the lamb, then you best getcher damned alcoholic ass back into the gutter from whence you came, because these here are God’s people, and you’re not.
Hell, I’d been thrown out of more places than I care to admit, because whenever I got liquored up and ignited by other substances, it was like somebody flipped a switch and I went from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Yabba Dabba Doo Live Wire at the drop of a trucker’s cap, and I really, really wanted to stay continuously sober. I knew I could stop, and I’d tried over and over: stop, start, stop, start, rinse the encrusted vomit off, repeat. Any idiot can stop drinking or using, but it’s the staying stopped — and navigating past the dark shoals and iceberg-laden waters of emotional pain and raw fear that arise as a result of taking away that liquid ease and comfort — that’s the difficult part. I knew that Alcoholics Anonymous had the best track record for keeping people continuously sober, but once I got into meetings, all that I heard was GodGodGodGodGod. “You’d better get yourself a God.” “If you can’t find God, you’re not going to make it.” “God is what this program is all about.”
I was stuck with the concept of God that got funneled into my head by Protestant religion — raised Presbyterian, made an adolescent foray into the frothy emotional waters of fundamentalist and charismatic Christianity as a result of getting dislodged and discombobulated by chemically induced overimagination — and had come to the awareness long ago that that particular fear-driven path didn’t make sense or work for me. I didn’t even know what God was, or is. How the hell could I pray? I’d hear this stuff preached at meetings, and occasionally would hear people “rocking the J-man,” as I like to put it, and I would get pissed off and leave. Fuck this, I’d think. I’m not gonna drink, but if I have to be a miserable bastard as a result, so be it. I’m not going to submit, and then have some authoritarian preacher tell me that my politics are all wrong, and that I need to support God’s Own Party, the Republicans, and hate people who aren’t down with that program.
For me, God was a lot closer to what I heard coming out of Mr. Coltrane’s horn than anything out of the mouths of preachers, televangelists or the God Squad-ers at AA meetings. Fortunately, there were times when someone started rocking the J-man at a meeting, and someone else would speak up: “I just want to tell anyone in this room that you can get sober and stay sober without becoming a fundamentalist Christian, or a devout Roman Catholic,” guys like the two Davids — M and C — would tell the groups. “There are people here in this room who are practicing Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and Hindus, and even agnostics and atheists. The beauty of AA is that we each get to find our own path to God as we understand God, whatever that might be and wherever it might take us.”
That was enough to keep me coming around and not let myself get run out of the rooms by the Bible thumpers. I’ve had an aversion to authoritarian religious dogma for most of my adult life, and just knowing that there were Buddhists, a path I was attracted to, and practitioners of other paths in AA was all I needed. I gravitated toward those people. And, over time, I’ve become much more loving and open-minded when it comes to accepting once-despised forms of religiosity. I have friends in the program who are devout Catholics and others who are deeply committed Christians, and others who are resolute atheists. Whatever works for you to get you outside of your self-centered addictive personality, so you can begin contributing to the stream of life as one among many, is all right with me.
One of the ideas about God that Griffin puts forward is that, for a Buddhist, God is the law of Karma, which is like the law of gravity. We can fight either one, but eventually we crash to the ground. The most important thing about God for us to realize is that we are not God. Yes, God may be within each of us, or Buddha nature as some of us put it, and it’s our job to bring that into awakening and manifestation via setting foot on the path and walking forward. But permanent and everlasting Creator of the Universe? Not me, dude. I’m only here for a while. You, too, I’d suspect.
Griffin was at the recovery and spirituality store Sunlight of the Spirit on J Street last Wednesday evening to sign his recently published book, A Burning Desire: Dharma God & the Path of Recovery. I’ll probably get ’round to reading it one day. I’m really slow, and fragmented sometimes, and it takes me a while. Even incorporating the Buddhist path — the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Five Lay Precepts, Dependent Origination (or the idea that everything arises out of causes and conditions) and Impermanence — into my life takes time, and, like the 12 steps of AA, I don’t do it in consistently linear or perfect fashion. But I have been able to stay clean and sober, one day at a time, since September 1992. And I look forward to moving further along the path, and there’s lots of help for those of us who get turned off by some of the more overtly Christian aspects of 12-step programs — like from sites along the lines of Buddhist Recovery Network, for example.
Anyway, I hope this helped somebody. Cheers and blessings on your Friday and beyond. —Jackson Griffith