Buddhism isn’t easy, and even the best, most seasoned masters have to set things up with some rigorous constraints in place to get students on the right track. I am no such master. But I am an addict, a yogi and a long term Buddhist.


By Darren Littlejohn

This is just a little bit of background about what brought me to the notion of a new paradigm for recovery.

While my experiences may make it appear that I’m discompassionate to existing frameworks, that’s not the case. I’ve always been a proponent of a “whatever works” philosophy. The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for anything in life.

After more than 30 years in AA, NA, Alanon, ACA and running The 12-Step Buddhist groups and retreats for more than five years, I came to the awareness that there needs to be a new way to look at and be in recovery.

I was in my 20th year sober, and going through a relationship that left me on my knees. I went to the only place I knew, Alcoholics Anonymous. The regular meeting was a solid group that met nightly and studied the AA Big Book. I spent a year going almost every night. I shared. I read the book. I reached out for help.

This got me nowhere.

When I tried to connect, the people “in the rooms,” quite literally turned their backs and walked away. Their idea of being of service was to put the chairs away, but when it came to saving the life of someone who had  fought alcoholism and addiction for over 30 years, well that was apparently too much to ask. This is all based on fear and I don’t blame people for being afraid of what they don’t understand.

But let’s not talk like we understand it—speak truth. That’s what I’m attempting to do here. I’m here to speak my truth about experiences in recovery and ideas for easing the suffering of addicts and the people we affect. Even if just a little, it will be time well spent.

I more or less gave up gave up on those meetings after about a year and a half and focused primarily on my yoga practice. I’d been doing two classes a day for over a year, going to therapy, AA, the gym, climbing and of course my regular Tibetan Buddhist practices. It seemed that the 12-Step mentality failed me, and not for the first time. So, I took my meditation inward and kept doing all of the other wellness practices that had been my daily regimen for many years.

But as an alcoholic who relapsed back into drinking after 10 years sober the first time, I understand that it is vital to be in an active recovery program. Most people don’t get and stay clean on yoga and green smoothies alone. My Buddhist practice had been consistent for 16 straight years, so my approach to that was to deepen it. But we generally don’t send addicts to Buddhist monasteries (except one in Thailand that detoxes heroin addicts), to get clean. We need to be clean to practice Dharma well.

Noah Levine’s Refuge Recovery has been growing and has created a Buddhist form of recovery. That program is similar in nature to what I’d started in 2008 in Portland, but I’ve never been an advocate of starting a Buddhist only version of recovery. It’s too limiting.

After teaching Buddhism for nearly 10 years to people in recovery I realize that most people really have no idea what I’m talking about. Buddhism isn’t easy, and even the best, most seasoned masters have to set things up with some rigorous constraints in place to get students on the right track. I am no such master.

But I am an addict, a yogi and a long term Buddhist. I’ve also studied many esoteric systems such as Shamanism, Reiki, Western Magick, Taoism and the deeper aspects of Yoga. What I find works best in our Western culture is to work with principles, rather than traditions.

In AA we say, “Principles before personalities,” which means we practice these sort of laws or rules which take precedence over trivial details of individuals and interactions. The principle, such as rigorous honesty, is the guideline to our behavior. Mind over matter becomes morality over the madness of addiction, in some sense.

My idea for Compassionate Recovery is to create a program and a meeting space where individuals can be open and free to work with major principles common to different esoteric systems of spirituality. I’m not against purely cognitive approaches like SMART Recovery, but I’m not necessarily an advocate either. There is a lot that the 12-Step culture and literature has gotten right, and I think spirituality is a vital and necessary component of recovery. If you disagree, I’m okay with that. But this writing, program and story is based on my experience as well as that of recovering addicts that I’ve known in different places and times since 1984. That’s not an all inclusive sample, so it’s not able to be generalized to the whole universe of addicts. But it’s a starting point.

Unlike AA, NA or even Refuge, I’m not trying to create something that’s carved in stone and fixed in place for eternity. Anyone who’s participated in AA Service conventions and retreats knows how impossible it is to get them to change seriously sexist, monotheistic language to something more neutral and inclusive. I don’t want to own Compassionate Recovery; I just want to start it, get it down on paper, and see where it goes.

In 2008, I started a meditation meeting at the Portland Alano Club called 12-Step Sangha.

I’d thought that was going to be the title of my book, which became The 12-Step Buddhist. That meeting is based on an open format that includes readings from any book, a guided meditation that precedes sharing and the notion that the leader or chairperson of the week shares last, after everyone else. That meeting is still going, 10 years later. I visited last year and found that they still had the same format, books, Buddha statue and bell that I bought when we started.

Something there has gone right. I want to use components of that meeting in Compassionate Recovery.

In The 12-Step Buddhist groups and retreats I incorporated many teachers from many traditions and tried to expose practitioners, teachers and addicts to each other. That was moderately successful but as it turns out, people like a program to follow. Addicts like guidance and things on paper to guide them. I never wrote out a format for The 12-Step Buddhist, never put together a slide deck or a “package” for people to follow. I want that to be different with Compassionate Recovery. We’ll put it all on paper and set things up so the program can be followed but also leave it open to be modified, spun off from, changed, redone or whatever needs to happen.

Addicts know best. If you don’t believe it, just ask one of us.


Darren Littlejohn has graduate education in Psychology and is the bestselling author of four books on Buddhism, including, The 12-Step Buddhist (2009). With over 20 years of sobriety, he’s taught yoga and led groups and retreats for ten years. As a thought leader, his forthcoming work, Compassionate Recovery, offers an entirely new set of paradigms and practices for recovery. When he’s not teaching yoga and writing, Darren does web programming as Data Analyst and runs around San Diego chasing sunshine with his Shih tzu, Gizzy.


Photo: Pixabay 

Editor: Dana Gornall



Were you inspired by this post? You might also like:



Why “High Functioning” Can Be Dangerous (My Dry January Led Me to Realization)

  By Tanya Tiger As someone who identified as “high-functioning” when I drank, I can safely say that I thought I had my shit together. My drinking never interfered with work. I never got into trouble with the law. I always made sure that my family had their needs...

Mornings: Then and Now

  By Jay O   Then… I’m waking up in bed, my wife lying next to me, and I’m sweating. I’m prepared. I lean over and grab one of the t-shirts I placed next to my bed the night before and wipe my face. Very quietly, I take off the t-shirt I’m wearing and change...

Take Your Bodhisattva to Work Day

  By Holly Herring I have been told that I have a way of explaining complicated things in ways that are easy to understand. I think that comes from the way I use my imagination. I have imaginary people and things that I use to help me get through situations. I...

Gary Sanders: Grief, Equanimity, Recovery & Buddhism

  We finally got a chance to talk to Gary Sanders! Gary is a Buddhist teacher in the Insight Tradition and has a history working with people in Buddhism and recovery. He helped found Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist-based practice for people struggling with...