Search Weekly Wisdom
Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Not Too Unhappy
Kevin Griffin is one of the leading lights of the mindful recovery movement, which applies Buddhist concepts of compassion and mindfulness to the journey out of addiction. A longtime meditator, teacher, and Twelve-Step participant, Kevin is the cofounder of the Buddhist Recovery Network. With Sounds True, Kevin has published the book Recovering Joy: A Mindful Life After Addiction, and the audio programs Recovery One Breath at a Time and One Breath, Twelve Steps: A Buddhist Path to Recovery from Addiction. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon and Kevin discuss the challenge of embracing joy after recovering from addiction. They also talk about the connections between Buddhist meditation and the Twelve Steps, as well as the importance of showing up for life’s events after addiction. Finally, Kevin and Tami speak on the changing relationship to happiness during and after the recovery process. (64 minutes)
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Kevin Griffin. Kevin is a longtime Buddhist practitioner and Twelve-Step participant. He’s a leader in the mindful recovery movement and one of the founders of the Buddhist Recovery Network. Kevin has trained with the leading Western Vipassana teachers—among them Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Ajahn Amaro. Kevin Griffin emerged as an innovator in the field of addiction treatment with his book, One Breath at a Time.
With Sounds True, Kevin has published a new book called Recovering Joy: A Mindful Life After Addiction, and he’s also created two new audio programs: Recovery One Breath at a Time and One Breath, Twelve Steps: A Buddhist Path to Recovery from Addiction—where he shares personal insights from his own struggle with addiction, and offers guided meditations and practices to support each step of the recovery process.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Kevin and I spoke about the special challenges faced by people who have recovered from an addiction when it comes to inviting in joy and happiness. We also talked about walking the talk—what it means to integrate our values with our behavior, and what Kevin calls “the bliss of blamelessness.” Finally, we talked about connections between the Twelve-Step journey and the path of Buddhist meditation. Here’s my conversation with Kevin Griffin:
Kevin, the opening chapter to your new book, Recovering Joy, is called “Not Unhappy.” I really liked that as a chapter title. “Not Unhappy.” I thought, “That’s a really good way to describe things.” I’d love to know—for you—what does that mean? “Not Unhappy.”
Kevin Griffin: Well, it was actually one of the titles I had for the book. But, it was probably wise not to use it. “Not Unhappy”—to me, it’s about not having some idea of happiness that’s unobtainable and instead thinking in terms of when things aren’t painful, they’re OK. There’s such a tendency in the happiness business to oversell things. I wanted to undersell in a way, and say, “If you’re just not unhappy, that’s good.”
TS: I noticed when I read those words—”Not Unhappy”—I relaxed a little bit. I thought, “Oh, thank goodness. This is a book, and it’s going to be on happiness, but it’s not going to put all this pressure on me.” Which is, I think, part of what you’re saying.
KG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. That’s how it feels to me. It’s a double-negative, so I think it takes our minds a moment to process it. There is something about it that I feel the same way—it relaxes me. Just not unhappy? Oh, good. I can do that. Yes. Right now, am I unhappy? No? Good.
TS: OK. And then the actual opening sentence of the book: “I’m not really a happiness guy.”
OK, so given that—you’re not really a happiness guy—and this opening chapter is a double-negative, why did you write a book on happiness?
KG: Well, writers, of course, write what they need to hear. Teachers teach what they need to learn.
But, really the reason I wrote it—the initial inspiration—[was] I was teaching a retreat at Omega Institute. It was a really rich time. It was about a four- or five-day retreat and workshop, and people were really getting a lot out of it. It was intense and [there were] a lot of insights coming up. I could see that people were really learning a lot and growing. But, near the end of the retreat, I realized that there was still this feeling of heaviness in the room. I felt as if I had brought people to this dark place without bringing them through it to the other side.
So, a lot of my work around recovery—certainly around the beginning—was working with this dark stuff around addiction and all the problems in my life at that time—[as well as] all the harm I had done, and trying to grow up and change and all of that. And understand myself.
When I got through that work—not that it’s ever completely done—but when I really got the sense that, “OK, I’ve really done a lot of processing work for this stuff,” it was clear that I wanted something more than to just sit around taking my—as I say—“moral inventory” every day. I definitely saw recovery as a chance for happiness. I just realized that a lot of people get kind of stuck in this place in the recovery process.
This is a little bit—it’s one of those subtexts that gets instilled in the Twelve-Step world—in Twelve-Step meetings—that you better watch out. Don’t get too happy, because if you do you’re going to relapse. So, you have to kind of keep a lid on it and you have to be vigilant if you say something or do something that’s not wise or that’s harmful in some way—quickly take care of that. Make amends. Write an inventory. [It’s] as though we’re always ready to explode or something.
I just don’t believe that people who are established in their recovery—not newcomers, but people who have been in recovery for a while—need to live like that—with that sense of fear hanging over their heads.
TS: Now, help me understand that for a moment. I didn’t quite follow you when you say, “It’s unwise to not get too happy if you’re in a recovery process.” What’s the fear there? If you get too happy, then you’ll have a fall of some kind and you’ll re-engage with your addiction?
KG: Yes, because it’s kind of a sense that what we did when we were addicts and alcoholics was we were out there partying and having fun all the time and being irresponsible—which is true. If we just sort of try to pursue this life of fun, that’s going to lead toward that.
It’s like, “Oh, well, I’m going to go to a show tonight and see some music.” OK, great. You’re sober. Fine. But where are you going to see music? Well, at a bar. OK, so you go to a bar. It’s like, “Well, here I am. I’m having fun. I don’t really feel like I’m an alcoholic anymore. I haven’t had a drink in five years. I guess I’ll just have one glass of wine.”
There’s that kind of idea that, “Oh, there’s always this danger lurking for you.” I don’t know—maybe that’s not getting across the idea. Let me come at it from a little bit of a different direction.
Maybe it’s not so much about, “Don’t have too much fun,” but there’s definitely this sense of, “You really need to be careful of what we call our inventory.” So, in the Fourth Step of the Twelve Steps, we take a searching and fearless moral inventory. But, that’s not enough, because when you get through with that—and by the time you get to Step Ten—it says, “We continue to take inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
Which is great! I mean, that’s a good way to live. But, as I say, there can kind of be this culture in the program [where] you’ve got to be constantly be vigilant and watch out for any mistakes you make. Even that you are inherently flawed. You kind of constantly have to be confessing your sins to your sponsor or something. That sort.
KG: [Laughs.] Doesn’t sound very fun, does it?
TS: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t.
KG: I’m exaggerating, but I’m just describing a certain stream or certain attitude that’s sometimes underlying some of the Twelve-Step scene.
TS: Yes. And what you’re starting to point to—which I’m curious about—is to really understand when it comes to recovering joy or finding happiness—for somebody that has come back from an addiction, what are the unique challenges that such a person faces? That perhaps somebody who hasn’t gone through an addictive process and recovery from that addiction wouldn’t know about [or] wouldn’t understand?
So, I’m wondering if you can expand on that a little bit more. What’s unique about finding happiness for people who have recovered from addiction?
KG: Well, the first thing is that we have spent—many of us in recovery—have spent decades [and] certainly years with our only access to fun being through our drug of choice. Our only access to pleasure—whether it’s drinking or drugging or eating or sex addiction. Whatever it is, we’ve lost touch with any kind of simple human pleasures—simple pleasures of life.
Then there’s actual neuro-chemical stuff going on, which we hear a lot more about these days. I’m not at all an expert or particularly knowledgeable on that. But, when your body gets used to getting its dopamine fix from a drug, it stops making it for itself. So, when people detox, they’re often left in this deep funk because they’re not producing any of the natural happiness chemicals that their body should be producing.
So, between those two things, you’re kind of left with the feeling many of us have when we get clean and sober, [which] is, “OK, I have to do this because my life is falling apart. But, I’m probably never going to have any fun or be truly happy ever again.”
So, first of all, we have to find new ways to enjoy ourselves. Or, as I talk about, maybe dig up some of the old ways that we’d enjoyed ourselves before we were addicts. So, that’s a big part of recovery. It’s another one of those aspects of recovery which isn’t spoken about a lot or isn’t commonly understood—maybe even in the recovery world, but certainly outside the recovery world.
TS: In your own life, how did you approach this question of having fun? How did you discover that you could have fun without intoxicants?
KG: Well, yes—I was really surprised that I felt kind of happy as soon as I stopped drinking and using. Literally that day. There was this uplift right away for me. I wasn’t probably addicted to the point where I wasn’t creating dopamine anymore. I don’t know.
But, this is one of the little—I think I do it as an exercise in the book—reflections for people to sort of remind them that just by giving up that destructive behavior, there’s some happiness that comes out of that. That’s a fundamental Buddhist truth—that letting go is really the way to happiness.
So, for me, there was that. And then, for quite a few years—probably for a decade or longer—I just found my joy in work. For a while, I was really overworking—but enjoying it.
Fundamentally, to me, I found that there’s all kinds of things that are joyful in life. It’s not that I have to go out and buy a trampoline or something to have fun. When I went back to school, I was shocked. I loved this! I was like, “I’m having fun. I’m taking algebra. I’m sitting in the front row and raising my hand every five minutes. This is really neat.”
So, that’s a big aspect of what this book is about. Not about, “Here’s all of the ten things you should go out and do to be happy,” but rather about, “Look at how your life is already full of things that are potential ways to be happy—your relationships, your work, your inner life, your spiritual life, your community.”
So, in a lot of ways, I think this book is about shifting perspective more than even taking a lot of different actions.
TS: But, I want to put that shift in perspective—if you will—under a magnifying glass for a moment, because I can imagine someone having the experience of, “Look, when I was high on whatever, that was really fun. Now. you’re talking about appreciating my relationships, enjoying work. How do I make that shift? There’s a pretty big gap between potentially someone’s view of how much fun it is to be high on whatever compared to these simple pleasures. You’re talking about the pleasure of work. I mean, come on.”
KG: Well, to me, if you don’t find some pleasure in your work, you have to figure something out. But, the question: first of all, I think it’s really difficult for somebody to stay clean—to stay in recovery—if they really believe that there’s a lot of fun still to be had in their addiction. Most people who get clean and come into a program do it partly because it’s stopped being fun. There isn’t any real joy left in it. The belief that there is some is part of their denial. Usually, when they come out of denial and have that moment of clarity and realize they really need to change, there’s also an acknowledgment that this doesn’t work anymore.
People who really feel that, “Oh, it was more fun getting loaded,” than having a clean life—I think they very often have a difficult time maintaining their recovery. So, there’s that.
I guess that brings us mindfulness, though—your question about, “How do you find joy in work and relationships and the simple parts of daily life?” The quotidian existence.
That’s why mindfulness is in the subtitle of the book—the subtitle is A Mindful Life After Addiction. As you know, mindfulness is really about waking up to our life as it is, here and now.
That’s the other piece. It is another piece that’s somewhat missing the recovery world. It’s implied in the statement, “One day at a time.” That’s saying, “Stay here in this moment, at least in this day. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
But, mindfulness gives us that capacity to be one moment at a time—One Breath at a Time, as my first book was called. To be engaged and to find the joy in this moment, whether it’s walking the dog or working on a project or going to another meeting. Seeing the sun come up or go down. That’s the piece that I think can’t be overlooked. It’s so critical to happiness for any of us—to be present and to learn to be present in a comfortable way.
TS: I’m curious, Kevin, if you have a kind of go-to move—for lack of a better way of putting it—that you turn to when you feel down? When you can’t find the mindful appreciation of the moment. When you just feel sort of in a funk, if you will.
KG: You know, if there were one thing that always worked, I’d have everything figured out. But, because everything is impermanent, things work and then they don’t work. Talking about being in a funk—it’s complicated. I’ve struggled with depression much of my life.
There are times—well. Let me say that the thing that makes it particularly difficult to get out of those states is that the state itself is one of low energy, negativity, and a lack of belief in the possibility of feeling better right now. So, that’s kind of depression to me.
In that state, what’s so hard is to turn to anything. Really, many things will work. Anything from exercising to going to a meeting—to a Twelve-Step meeting. Sometimes, meditating. Picking up a guitar. Making a phone call to a friend. There are lots of things that will work.
The hard thing—I think—in those moments is to do anything positive, because those moments are so crippling. For me, the key is to remember, “Keep going. Just keep moving.”
I guess my go-to thing is just [to] show up for the next thing. So, I have a teenage daughter. I’m married. I teach. I have responsibilities here and there. When I’m feeling depressed, I just want to not be involved in any of those things. Fortunately, I’ve learned that the way to get out of the depression is to just do the next thing that I’m supposed to do.
That’s very much a Twelve-Step principle—showing up. I have this ongoing idea that there’s a lot of oral tradition of the Twelve-Step world that isn’t understood outside of it. People know about the Twelve Steps, and they know about powerlessness and the higher power and stuff. But they don’t realize that things like “showing up” are critical ideas in the recovery world, because addicts and alcoholics are flakes. When we’re drinking and using, we just don’t show up or we don’t bother. If we don’t feel like it, we don’t do it.
That was one of the first things that changed my life when I got sober—this idea that even if you don’t feel like it, you do it anyway. I don’t know if that answered your question.
TS: It does. It’s a beautiful answer.
In your book, Recovering Joy, I thought you did a beautiful job of emphasizing this idea of integrating values and behavior. You have a quote from that chapter: “We’re not hiding any part of our lives from those that are close to us.” I wonder if you can talk more about that—that “not hiding any part of our lives” in secrecy or some actions that we’re unwilling to share because we don’t want to be exposed.
KG: Yes. Well, I’m not sure what I can say about that—except that to see and creating these compartments—wasn’t that the Clinton phrase? “Compartmentalizing?” It’s one of the ways that we—how can I characterize it? I think that we create shadows. We create separation. We create a falseness in our lives when we’re living lies.
That kind of living a double life or having secrets has a really corrupting influence on us. It kind of builds up an internal pressure that sort of naturally comes out in addictive behavior.
There’s this freedom that comes with openness and honesty that’s really remarkable. I first experienced that when I started to share openly in Twelve-Step meetings. It was this remarkable feeling of relief—that I could be honest about what I felt and admit the problems [and the struggles] that were going on in my life, and share them with the group. It’s this kind of radical honesty that the Twelve-Step world encourages, that we don’t see anywhere else.
This makes me think of something that I talk about sometimes in some of my meditation groups—about my kind of “Dharma and Recovery” groups that we often called them. When I talk about the Five Precepts in Buddhism—the precept not to kill, not to steal, not to harm with our sexuality, not to lie or harm with our speech, and not to use intoxicants. One of the things that I point out is that the Five Precepts—when I got exposed to Buddhism at first, I thought, “Ah, the precepts. That’s kind of like the kindergarten version of Buddhism. Everybody knows that stuff. I want to get the enlightenment stuff. So, show me the special meditation that’s going to transform me.”
But now, I kind of see it almost opposite. The precepts are really the heart of Buddhism in many ways. What I like to point out to people is that—even though most of the people who are probably in my class aren’t going around breaking these precepts to any significant degree—if everybody in the world followed one precept—and since we’re talking about the truth, if everybody in the world told the truth all the time; if there were no lies—the world would be completely transformed. That’s just one precept.
For some reason, I find that very moving. The idea [that] if everybody in the world just followed one—even if nobody used intoxicants, the world would be a very different place. Certainly if no one killed, obviously things would be a whole lot better. Or if no one stole. Just one precept.
So, that puts a spin on honesty that shows how powerful it is in some very real ways.
TS: One of the linkages that you made in your book was between ethical behavior, you could say—or being truthful; what we’re talking about here—and feeling joyful. I wonder if you can make that explicit for our listeners. How will confessing and telling the truth to people—how is this going to lead to joy, do you think? Or how has it led to joy for you?
KG: Yes. Well, there’s one translation of one of the Buddhist suttas that describes “the bliss of blamelessness.” I like that alliteration and the idea that a lot of us walk around with some sense of something that’s not quite right.
Particularly for addicts, addicts are usually doing something illegal and/or immoral on a regular basis. They typically don’t feel how much of a burden that is until it’s removed. Really, it’s just very freeing to not have this sense of guilt or fear of being found out.
My little description of how this can work is: When you’re used to drinking and using a lot and you have been operating a vehicle under the influence a lot, when you sober and you’re driving alone at night and all of a sudden the flashing lights go on in your rearview mirror, as you’re pulling over, you realize that the worst that can happen is I get a speeding ticket. Whereas when you’ve got that booze on your breath or you’ve got the dope in the glove compartment, it’s just, “Whoa!”
So, that can actually be this wonderful moment—when you go, “Ah! Wow. It’s good to not be going around breaking the law all the time.”
So, I don’t know how happy that makes people. I guess that’s part of my “not unhappy” philosophy. It’s not exactly a thrill. But, it’s this kind of relief. It just makes life simpler. It’s interesting that adulthood is associated with all these behaviors that complicate life—I mean, beyond the ones that we have to do. The ones we take on—drinking, being intoxicated while trying to function, fooling around with your neighbor’s partner, wasting your paycheck at the casino. All these things that are supposed to be fun, [but] really . . . I don’t know.
TS: Now, I really like this phrase that you’ve offered: “the bliss of blamelessness.” It’s one thing to start living in a way that’s ethical and in integrity and not creating any new harm. But, in the Twelve-Step process—from what I read about it in your book, Recovering Joy—there’s actually quite a deeper investigation where you go into your past and make amends for things in one’s past. That’s very interesting to me, and I wonder if you can share a little bit about how that process worked for you—and how you think that might relate to happiness.
KG: Yes. It’s a critical piece of the Twelve-Step process and the Twelve-Step program. The Fourth Step, saying we made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. And then the Fifth Step is admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
I avoided that step for almost a year. Then, when I got a sponsor around the time I was a year sober, he immediately got me working on it. What I did was I just went back as far as I could remember—to my early teenage years—and wrote about all the ways I had hurt people. One of the things that I realized was that seeing I was capable of hurting people surprised me. It gave me some sense of my own power—that in a way I had diminished in the past.
But, obviously that wasn’t what I was seeking. It wasn’t really the main outcome. The main outcome for me from that was a sense of—how can I describe this?
Again, it was like shining a light on something that I didn’t want to look at. But, once I looked at it, I could accept it. I could accept myself. I could forgive myself. Of course, part of that process—the further steps—one goes on and makes amends for the things that one can. But, most of the things I had done I couldn’t make amends for.
So, it harks back to before I got sober, when I couldn’t admit the ways that I hurt people—when I had to blame others. That tension and feeling of being closed off and incomplete—sort of fighting with the world—that that creates. Being able to just go, “I just did all this stuff.”
Finally, what I think that does—and particularly after I shared it with my sponsor, and he kind of showed me and helped me to see and feel—that what I had done was just something that human beings do. Things that humans do—not uniquely “Bad Kevin” things. But, they were just, “Oh! I’m not the only one to do this.”
It’s another reason that going to meetings can be so important. You realize you’re not alone in your feelings and your behaviors. And yes, you screwed up. But, you’re not the worst person in the world. You’re just—in my case—another alcoholic addict.
That, for me then, ties into the Buddhist world again of “not-self”—of seeing that my identity is this construction and that I’m not really separate from the world. There isn’t this unique thing called “Kevin” that has some failings. But, rather that, “I’m just a human being who does things and makes mistakes.”
Of course, at that point, being clean and sober—and now trying to live a moral life across the board—it’s easier to accept my mistakes when I’ve changed. I’m not making those mistakes anymore.
TS: Now, is the idea that after you do this moral inventory that if there’s any action you could take—like writing somebody a letter and apologizing, or saying you wished you’d acted differently in XYZ situation—are you supposed to do that? Write what could be hundreds of letters?
KG: Now you’re onto Step Nine, which is, “Make direct amends to those people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” It could be contacting a lot of people. First of all, you realize—and this is why you need a sponsor, somebody who’s experienced in the program to take you through this process. They will point out to you that calling up your ex-girlfriend to say you’re really sorry you were mean to her isn’t helping her. She probably doesn’t want to hear from you.
So, just apologizing to people—there’s a lot of cases where that just doesn’t help. So, there were only a few direct amends that I made. Mostly to my family. I think they may have all been to my family.
So, yes—it’s not so much that you’re going to chase down every person that you ever insulted or every lover that you jilted, or whatever. The point of making amends is for them, not for you. As I say, a lot of times saying you’re sorry to people isn’t going to help them. The best thing we can do, really, is change our behavior and not keep doing that stuff.
TS: Now, Kevin, as someone who is so deeply steeped in both the Twelve-Step work and also being a teacher of Buddhist meditation, have you found that there were any places in working both with the dharma and Buddhist teachings and the Twelve-Step program where you were just like, “God, these things are contradictory. I can’t put it together. It doesn’t work. There are irreconcilable differences here.” Or did you never hit such a point?
KG: Well, a lot of my work has been finding those connections. In fact, when I got sober, I was already a Buddhist practitioner. When I saw the Twelve Steps for the first time—and for several years—I couldn’t see any correlations. But, I kind of felt like, “Well, I’ve got to stay sober. So, I’ve got to do these steps. And I really love the dharma. I love Buddhism. So, I’m going to keep meditating and going on retreats and studying that. But, I’ll just keep them separate.”
But eventually, when I was about five or six years sober, I started to feel like I needed to integrate these things. That was quite a lengthy period of time. It wasn’t a struggle, but it was a lot of reflection and conversation and really trying to make the connections.
Certainly, there are people who will argue with me today about my ideas about God, because I’m very comfortable of the idea that dharma is a higher power and we can use it as a higher power in the Twelve-Step program. Other people—I’ve had people say, “God is God, and to equate God and the dharma is sacrilege,” or whatever.
But, there have definitely been times when I’ve had to dig. Finally, I do feel that the Twelve Steps and Buddhism can be reconciled across the board. It takes imagination and also takes—for me—looking beneath the surface of both. What I’m interested in is really trying to find the archetypal path that any spiritual path is trying to describe. That’s what I kind of feel like I’m drawing from when I connect the two.
TS: I’m curious to know what some of the most important connections have been for you. Sitting there five or six years studying both paths and then finding that archetypal point of connection—if you could elucidate that for us.
KG: Well, the starting point is the Buddhist teachings on the Four Noble Truths that tell us that suffering is caused by clinging and craving. That clearly is speaking to the same issue that the Twelve Steps are addressing.
So, that gives us a real foothold on connecting them. They both recognize the same truth. In the Twelve Step world, addiction. But in the Buddhist world, clinging. Again, synonyms I think. They both agree that that’s the problem. So, that means that if they both have a solution, they must be in some way talking about the same thing as a solution. At least, that’s my argument.
So, just to get back to how the steps work. So, the steps start with acknowledging the truth of your lack of control over your addiction. That’s what we call powerlessness. In the archetypal sense, I think of that as starting in the darkness—starting with the problem. Again, first Noble Truth starts with the problem—the truth of suffering.
So, what we see is that both traditions are saying, “We have to start by seeing very clearly, acknowledging, and accepting that there is this inherent problem.” In addiction, it’s a problem that we’ve created. In Buddhism, it’s more like the problem of existence—it’s more of an existential problem.
But, I really like the fact that they both start with the difficulty rather than starting by making promises of everlasting life, happiness, or joy, or whatever. They both start by saying, “We need to look at the dark side first and see that clearly.”
In Buddhism, we discover when we start to meditate that we’re powerless over our own minds and bodies—that our minds keep spewing out these thoughts and feelings, and our bodies have these sensations. All this stuff is just going on.
Here I am, sitting down. I’m going to meditate and follow my breath. Ten seconds later, I’ve forgot all about it. I’m thinking about dinner. You realize very quickly that you’re not really running the show.
So, I like to make that connection with Step One and the Twelve Steps—that we’re kind of powerless, not just over drugs and alcohol but in some way over our mind and our thoughts. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have some influence over them.
In the same way, when we say that we’re powerless over alcohol for instance, we’re not saying, “Oh, that means I have to drink.” So, when I say I’m powerless over my thoughts, it doesn’t mean I have to think. It means that I have to change my relationship to my thoughts [and] I have to change my relationship to alcohol.
The shift that happens is that there’s an acknowledgment in both traditions that it’s ego trying to run the show that gets us in trouble, and that we have to find another path. The Twelve Steps is very explicit: “We turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” In Buddhism, we see this in taking refuge. We say, “We take refuge in Buddha-dharma-sangha.”
Now, that’s how I understand turning my will and my life over—is that I’m taking refuge. What that means to me is that instead of following my ego-driven impulse and addictive cravings and self-centered thinking, I’m going to try to act according to the principles of the dharma. I’m going to try to see my experience through the lens of dharma rather than through the lens of Kevin.
So, that’s turning it over. That’s saying, “OK. In this moment, I want to go get drunk and screw the lady next door. Instead, I’m going to not drink, and going to meditate.” Or whatever. That’s a little extreme. But, the dharma gives us this wonderful guidance for how to live our lives. Turning our lives over means that we try to live our lives in accordance to that.
So, that’s kind of the beginning of the process—of Steps One through Three. I see the inventory process as being very much what happens when we are meditating. You sit down to meditate and your story comes up. So, it’s like a real-time inventory. It’s a real-time self-examination of what’s inside me—what my tendencies are, what my habits of mind are.
So, for me, meditation is a daily inventory and process of letting go—which is what Steps Six and Seven are about.
So: is that enough?
TS: Well, I love the fact that you’re describing it in archetypal terms—that you’re getting to the essence. I think that’s really beautiful and means that you’re drawing also on the depth of your own experience. So, I really appreciate that.
KG: Yes, thank you. One of the principles of my teaching and of my work connecting Buddhism and the Twelve Steps is that if two things are both true, then they must agree with each other. So my job is just to figure out how they agree with each other.
A lot of that, then, becomes about language. That’s certainly a lot of what I have to do around the Twelve Steps, because people really struggle with the Twelve-Step language. The Twelve-Step literature—I mean, the steps were created in the late ‘30s. [Much of] the literature was written before 1950, and our culture has changed so much since then. Language has changed so much since then that people often feel alienated by it.
We were a very homogenous culture—at least, we thought we were—in 1935. I don’t remember that, but from what I understand. Clearly now, there’s a wide swath of the American public that doesn’t identify with any of the Abrahamic religions. So, when they hear language like, “Turn your will and your life over to the care of God,” their hackles rise up. Whatever hackles are.
So, I have to work with people a lot on translating that kind of language—or even terms like “powerlessness” or “moral inventory.” These are all things that tend to really get people alienated. And I find that really interesting, because I love language and that’s one of the reasons I’m a writer. I like to drill down into meanings of words and find correlations.
TS: Now, Kevin, one of the things I’m curious about is your own study of addiction in your own life as a Buddhist practitioner. What I mean by that is it’s one thing to be addicted to alcohol or an intoxicant, but there are so many subtle levels of addiction that I think many of us start to become aware of in our life. I’m curious how that’s unfolded for you—that investigation into subtle ways that you might be addicted.
KG: Well, first of all, I’m kind of careful about the way I use the word “addiction” because it becomes trivialized when I say, “I’m addicted to watching that TV show,” or something like that. So, my definition of addiction includes the idea that this behavior—whatever it is—is harmful to me and/or others.
So, although I certainly would say I’m—OK. So, the basic, core Buddhist addiction—we could say—is addiction to self. I guess we can say that that does cause harm. But, it’s so subtle that most of the time you can’t do a whole lot about it. Maybe that’s abdicating my Buddhist responsibility, but I’ll start by saying that and then I’ll see if I can work around that a little bit.
So, if you’re meditating and if you’re in a really deep space with your practice—which for me, that mostly happens on retreats—and you get to that place where things are very still, you can start to see—and you probably know this from your own experience—the arising of ego, see [the] self constructing itself. In those moments, there is the possibility of letting go. But, as soon as the bell rings or the retreat is over, it’s pretty hard to maintain that clarity and that perspective.
What I think we do, then, is try to bring those insights into our behavior, into our relationships, into our conversation. [We] intentionally [remind] ourselves—and this is what I mean by turning your will and your life—I don’t know if you can make this connection or understand this connection. The Third Step in the Twelve Steps is so key to me. Turning your will and your life over to the care of the dharma—to try to [see], “OK, wow, my ego’s really jumping in there. Can I back off? Can I look at this situation differently? Can I handle this interaction differently? Can I drop my selfing? Can my behaviors not be so self-centered?”
So, that brings me back as well to the precepts. The Five Precepts are, to some extent, about letting go of self. Self wants what it wants, and it wants it now. That’s how we harm people—by acting on self. So, to have these guidelines to behavior and to relationship then help us to do less harm. I say that because I think it’s hard to not do some harm around ego and that kind of clinging.
Now, I don’t know if there were other kinds of addictions you were thinking of.
TS: I really just wanted to understand how you saw it at subtler and subtler levels in your life.
KG: Yes. Well, I think that’s the most subtle level. I think it’s the most important level.
I’m actually teaching a retreat at Kripalu with Bill Alexander on this topic—on addiction to self. Yes. I think it’s kind of the core addiction. The breakthrough into enlightenment is a breakthrough in relation to that form of clinging, that form of addiction.
TS: OK, Kevin. I want to ask you just two final questions. Both are a little personal. Which is: you said, “I wrote the book in some way that was the book I needed to hear—these teachings on happiness—because I’m not really a happiness guy.” I’m curious to know: After writing a book that contains dozens and dozens of different exercises for reflection and suggestions for self-examination, has your relationship to happiness changed?
KG: I don’t think so. Well, yes—in the past year, I actually have started to take more responsibility for my happiness. I did realize at a certain point last summer that I was kind of coasting. My tendency is to fall into, “Whatever happens, happens.” [I realized] once again that I was getting stuck fundamentally because I wasn’t engaged in the process.
So, yes. That is something that I have been working at. I’m not sure if it’s exactly—you know, it’s funny, writing a book. I don’t look back a lot after I write a book. So, I’m not looking at the book and going, “Oh, should I do this?” I feel like things that are in this book are things that are integrated into my life in some way.
But, I think spiritual life is almost always about renewal. There’s this constant renewal. Again, because everything is impermanent, you get it and then you lose it. You can’t recreate it in exactly the same way. No two periods of meditation are exactly the same.
So, [I think] that realization that I really need to stay engaged was the most important insight that I had in the last year.
TS: Tell me what you mean by that—”stay engaged.”
KG: First of all, keep doing the things I know help my mood. Also, stay open to different ways of staying emotionally healthy.
TS: OK, Kevin. One final question. Our program’s called Insights at the Edge, and I’m always curious to know what someone’s “edge” is. Meaning, their personal growth edge, if you will, that currently is what’s up for them—that they’re really working on at the moment.
KG: I think it is what I just said—that is, being willing to stay engaged. I think there is a certain kind of fatigue that sets in after you’ve been engaged in a spiritual practice for many years [or a] recovery program for many years. You’ve written these books and you’re an authority, so you can forget that each day is a new day and you need to stay present for it.
I did just have a wonderful retreat with Venerable Analayo on the Satipatthana—the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. That really engaged my mindfulness practice.
So, that’s about it.
TS: Staying engaged.
TS: Kevin, it’s really been—I’m going to say it—a joy. It’s true! I’m going to go further than not just being unhappy. It’s really been a joy to talk to you. Thank you so much.
KG: Yes. Thank you, Tami. It’s really great to talk to you. Hopefully in person before too long.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Kevin Griffin. He is the author of a new book called Recovering Joy: A Mindful Life After Addiction. He has also created a new audio series with Sounds True called Recovery One Breath at a Time. Thanks again, Kevin. Thank you so much.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.