Let me be heretical for a minute: I don’t think that AA (or NA, or Life Ring, or any other structured recovery program — I’m a drunk, so for my purposes I talk about AA) is a good way to stop drinking.
I promise I’m not being controversial for its own sake; let me explain what I mean.
So there are 12 steps in AA “which are suggested as a program of recovery,” right? How many of them talk about alcohol? One. The first step, which reads: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.” That’s it. It doesn’t even say “and so we stopped drinking.” The other steps maybe presume that we’ve quit drinking, but maybe not: The third tradition of AA states that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” I see nothing in the official AA literature (I’m referring here mostly to the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve; there are other AA books that I haven’t read, but those are at least the Big Two) to suggest that one couldn’t be a lifelong, earnest, productive member of AA, working all of the steps and getting full use out of the program, and still also be a lousy drunk. Certainly there are some unofficial AA “rules” that would prohibit such a member from, say, leading a meeting, or heading certain committees; those usually require a certain amount of clean time, and it’s usually suggested as well that those without a certain amount of time not take on sponsees, but there’s also nothing in the 12 steps to suggest that these are necessary parts of the program.
So is this what I’m advocating? No, certainly not, for practical reasons if nothing else: when I was drinking, I had a hard enough time mustering the energy to do the laundry, let alone doing such emotionally rigorous things as being honest about my faults and making amends to the people I’ve harmed. I don’t doubt that most addicts are similar: We stopped using because our addictions made it increasingly impossible for us to have anything approaching a “normal” life, let alone a productive one.
Still, I think it’s a fascinating situation. We have a program whose ostensible purpose is to enable alcoholics to stop drinking, but whose actual program, the 12 steps, doesn’t talk much about it. So what I’m suggesting, what makes sense for me, is that quitting drinking is not the goal of the 12 steps, but a presupposition to them. First this, then that. And once the idea of that as a goal is stripped away, I think what’s left amounts to the AA dharma.
Here I should explain. I talked a bit in my last post about the idea of buddha mind, or buddha nature. I won’t rehash everything that I wrote, but to briefly summarize, I understand it as something like being utterly immersed in being exactly what I am. And, according to Zen, everyone has it (or maybe everyone is it). For Zen master Eihei Dogen, this posed something of a puzzle: Why practice if we’re all buddha nature? Sitting on the cushion, reading the sutras, finding a teacher — great, but if enlightenment is already available to everyone, all the time, then why do it? Dogen reversed the matter: because we are buddha nature, we practice. The practice is the manifestation of buddha nature. There isn’t a “why” to practice, it isn’t for anything, it’s just what you do. He wrote:
Do not practice buddha-dharma for your own sake. Do not practice buddha-dharma for name and gain. Do not practice buddha-dharma to attain blissful reward. Do not practice buddha-dharma to attain miraculous effects. Practice buddha-dharma solely for the sake of buddha-dharma. This is the way.
This is how I understand the 12 steps: We don’t practice the 12 steps to get sober; we’re sober, and so we practice the 12 steps. The practice is a manifestation of sobriety. It’s not for the sake of stopping drinking, or mending relationships, or becoming a better person. That’s all within us the moment we decide to practice the 12 steps. By practicing the 12 steps, we actualize those things within us.
Or maybe that’s just the Zen talking. I think that there’s more that I want to write about this, but exactly how isn’t coming to me easily, and this post is late already. So I’ll throw this out there and see if it sticks.