“What was it about Buddhism that helped you during that time you were first getting sober?” my sister-in-law asked the other night.
I had to take a pause and breathe for a moment. I had to take a trip back to about four years ago when I was out here in San Diego during those first days of sobriety.
I had just come out of the closet and had taken a few short steps on the path of both recovery and the Dharma. But after just one month, I was already slipping. I was on vacation and I thought: What harm is there in one or two beers? Within a week that turned into ten or twelve along with the usual supporting cast of jagermeister and tequila shots. When I got home after the end of the trip I knew that I couldn’t ever be a social drinker. It was all or nothing for me.
That was a powerful realization and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had already taken the first step: I was able to admit to myself, without shame or self-loathing, that my drinking and using were never going to be something I could control.
That was the first of many big reliefs. I didn’t have to control my addiction. I just had to accept it.
There were a lot of actions I took after that. I started to journal everyday as a way to check in with myself, a kind of authenticity-meter that kept me honest about my state of mind and my cravings. I reached out for help by going to therapy and a few 12-step meetings. I started to take care of my body through diet and exercise.
Then I completely dove into the Dharma. I mean head first. Sure I had dipped my toes in the water. I read Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I read Inner Revolution by Robert Thurman. I read a few biographies of the Dalai Lama. But I knew from the very first words that I was on to something. For the first time in my life, I was certain what I was hearing and reading was true. At least for me.
So what was it about the teachings that really grabbed me? What one note, if any, had rung so true?
As I thought about my sister-in-law’s question I didn’t have to look to hard for the answer. It was always, and still is, unconditional and universal love and compassion, bodhicitta as it’s called in Sanskrit, and it is the foundation of the whole Dharma.
“You are not the only person in the world,” the teachings say over an over again. “Just open your eyes and you’ll see: There are countless others out there who, just like you, want nothing more than to be happy and to be free of suffering.”
It was a profound realization then and it still is now. Even now I break down again and again when I think about it. I feel myself waking up right here, in this moment, as my eyelids crack open to let in just a sliver of light.
My old ways of thinking, thinking about me and only me, crumble and fall away to dust. Look at my suffering, I would always say. Look at my short end of the stick, my shitty hand. No one has it as bad as me! This was the broken record of my old life.
When I first became exposed to the idea that that’s a flawed way to think and live in this world, that the real joy of this life comes from helping and serving others, I totally broke down. It was such a relief! Here I was, bearing the burden of being the only person in the world who suffered, and the teachings were telling me I could put all that down. It was nothing short of revolutionary.
It was a revolution not in the least because it helped me to realize that my suffering, especially my addiction, was not unique. It didn’t make me a bad person. It didn’t make me broken. It just made me human and therefore worthy of my own love and compassion.
So again, I hesitate to say that it’s the Dharma alone that keeps me sober. But it does do a lot to keep me on the right track. Not through trumpets blaring from some high heaven. Not by some divine hand reaching down through the clouds to lift me up and out of misery. But by reminding me again and again the I am not alone in this world. There are countless others just like me and every one of them needs me as much as I need them.
This is what keeps me going.