Fifteen Years Clean and Sober Today – 12/4/97

 I’ve been relatively addicted to other things, like relationships, a Grande dark pour over in a Venti cup with an add shot and Sons of Anarchy. But it’s all relative. Sometimes I feel super sober, other times I feel like I’m in a waking dream. Lucidity isn’t a constant. But the path is. Most often if you go to 12-Step, and I realize that many people do not go to 12-Step, but you’ll hear people with long term sobriety say that they just keep doing the same things that they did when they first got sober. My understanding is a little different. My sponsor told me that since my disease is progressive, my recovery needs to be progressive. For this reason I’ve engaged myself in many esoteric as well as exoteric practices that contribute to my recovery. I wrote about a few of these in the 12-Step Buddhist and Perfect Practice. I’m finishing up another book, the Power of Vow, which should be out before Christmas. In addition to Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, I’ve studied shamanism, Reiki, Tibetan healing practices, yoga and other topics as they relate to my recovery. I drink green smoothies, take vitamin supplements, go to group exercise classes, teach yoga, go to various types of spiritual teachings, our own 12-Step Buddhist group and traditional 12-Step as well as psychotherapy. My recovery is progressive. Yours can be too – and the paths don’t have to look the same.

It’s a fascinating journey. I keep going to meetings on a regular basis. But I don’t put all of my eggs in that sober basket any more. It’s too disappointing and lonely. My peers become fewer as the years go by. A lot of people that I love don’t stay sober. Of those that do, many become rigid about 12-Step.

I think we can practice the fundamentals without becoming fundamentalist.

We addicts have a disease.  I found a lot of research to support the brain disease model when I wrote the 12-Step Buddhist. It seems to be a given in the medical community at this point. There are also complicated factors in the environment and personality and DNA which contribute to the development and progression of addiction. I’d add that in my experience, the disease of addiction is permanent. I relapsed with 10 years sober, thinking it was impermanent. That was a mistake – the disease had indeed progressed. My mission is to tell that story and help people find solutions which work for them. In my opinion and over 28 years of experience, it’s a mistake to tell addicts or for us to tell ourselves that we’re “former” or “recovered.” There are levels of the disease and variations in it’s manifestation which can cloud this issue. But once it passes a certain point, the choices seem to be limited to recovery or death, jails, institutions. In my not so humble opinion.

Knowing that we have a life threatening illness can make us a little paranoid. Our reaction may be to develop strict rules for ourselves and others. That makes sense in the early years of sobriety. I’ve found that in 12-Step, not many people evolve out of that stage. Your experience may vary but I don’t know very many recovering addicts that are truly happy, absolutely joyous or totally free. But I have met such people in spiritual communities. I try to follow these teachings. In applying them to my recovery, I’ve found that others are interested as well. People all over the world are working on adding new things to their recovery that contribute to a middle and perhaps even a late stage of recovery happiness.

In talking and writing about this, sometimes the sober tribe has lashed out. When we live from fear that’s what happens. Those who are different from the agglomeration can become the enemy. I try not to let it bother me. There are in fact more people that don’t do 12-Step than there are who do. The fresh, open minds of people in early recovery are able to think outside the box a little. It’s my hope that in 20-30 years, recovery will look a little more fluid and the rooms will be filled with people who have not only “time” but “quality time” in all areas of their lives. When I first got sober in the 80′s, people in meetings used to mock those of us who went to treatment. They were known to tell people that took psychiatric medications that they were relapsing. Some would try to make us feel silly for using therapists, which they called paid sponsors. People who tried to address issues such as codependency or being an adult child of an alcoholic were told to go somewhere else. The same thing happened in the 50′s when Narcotics Anonymous started in response to addicts being told not to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Many of these issues have worked themselves out over time.

Almost everyone I know in sobriety has been to treatment, on anti-depressants, knows they’re at least a little codependent and has used drugs in one form or another. There’s still rigidity and a bit of in-group/out-group mentality in 12-Step recovery. But in most places we can all sit together without too much alienation. My point is that I’ve seen these sober morays change over nearly three decades. That gives me hope that in the next years, people will feel better about entering recovery in a manner that is comprehensive, multifaceted and open. They won’t be afraid of the “God” concept or feel that they’re too different to be a part of 12-Step because they’re not traditional Christians. I know that others are working on this too. I’m not sure though, that developing a Buddhist only approach or any other approach that makes us different is all that useful in the long run. It’s important to take advantage of the existing worldwide 12-Step community. There we have a chance to meet each other on what is supposed to be the road to happy destiny.

May your faith in whatever higher power you have or don’t have be of benefit to you on the path, if you choose to join us.

handprint in sand

Addiction and Impermanence

handprint in sandOur bodies are impermanent. We already know this, but I don’t think too many people like to think about it. This morning a yogi friend of mine passed way from her second round of breast cancer. She was a good practitioner and a very solid member of our spiritual group. In the early 70s she lived with Yogi Bajhan where she learned her yoga. Every time someone near passes, and it seems to happen with some frequency, I find myself needing to meditate on impermanence. I’ve been meditating like this today and thought that the experience would be relevant to discuss as I was finishing up this article.

Impermanence is an easy concept to understand, on the face of it. Everything changes. Or as we say in 12-Step, “This too shall pass.” But to know it in our core we should experience deeper states of realization, or siddhi in Sanskrit. It seems to me that to get there, we need some life-jolts to shake up our normal state. It’s just too hard to “will” ourselves to the deeper levels. I think to do that may take many lifetimes. But if we choose to meditate during these heavy waves of suffering, we might find a more penetrating insight that we can feel deep in our hearts.

Our states of mind are impermanent, yet we cling to them. I’m an addict, with the predisposition to become addicted to mental states that seem to offer relief. Let’s call this the addicted state. It can be based on many components, e.g. childhood memories of wishes un-granted, love unrequited, critical validations that never came and our fantasies that those wishes are in fact coming true when in reality the opposite is happening. Perhaps it’s trigger by dangerous romantic relationship with someone who is as unavailable as ice in hell. Yet we don’t stop.

These states aren’t real, but we get hooked. We stare longingly into the eyes of a stripper as she gazes back like we’re her Messiah-the only one to truly understand her in a lifetime of confusion and her own addictions. Perhaps it’s the sparkle of the digital poker machine or the smell of sugary treats that triggers us into our addicted state. This state is supported by some far out ideas and feelings. Anyone around us can see that we’re stuck in pure fantasy. Maybe our addiction is codependent-we feel we can save someone-not financially-but spiritually. Some of us like the wounded ones, because it feels like they really need us: “Her eyes, her eyes sucked me in like a black hole sucks in all the light in a universe until you can’t see light, can’t even see the hole any more. It’s as if nothing exists, as if nothing ever existed.” But we don’t see it when it’s happening. In that moment, whatever the primary addiction, the smack of that “connection” fills our veins with ecstasy. But it isn’t real, isn’t permanent and is not healthy. This kind of blind spot takes lives.

In this situation, we’re somehow able to create a state of mind that, dream-like in it’s quality, seems to medicate the pain that we feel deep down inside. Who knows why the pain is there, but it’s there, and the more we meditate and observe what arises, our response to what arises and the repercussions of those responses, we see how pervasive our suffering really is. At least that’s been my experience as an meditating recovering addict. The pain relief of the object of our addiction isn’t an excuse to become an addict. It’s just a big part of the reason why it happens, why anything that offers temporary relief runs the risk of becoming an object of attachment. We can be a little attached or in full-blown addiction. But it’s a continuum of attachment and one that is hard to spot if we’re not on our game and working with someone who can point out our processes with enough insight, love, care and sufficient logic to help us see the light. But it’s so easy to be blinded by the light of love, be it love of a lady or a needle or an idea of a real, concrete self that truly exists.

In our brains we fixate on that state and try to duplicate that state and become willing to go to any lengths to create and maintain that state or even retrieve a short glimpse of that state. We think the state is bliss. But it’s not bliss. Bliss-the enlightened state-is permanent. This pseudo-bliss addicted state is based on agitation, fantasy, trauma and desire. We fixate on it, to the exclusion of all else-morals, ethics, basic needs, effect on others-as if our life depends on it. But our life does not depend on it. It drains us of our life sustaining energy. It depletes us of reason, self-control, integrity. Sometimes we even become fixated or addicted to the state of suffering caused by our addiction to false bliss or true pain.

The problem with the addicted state and our fixation on it is that we refuse to accept that it is not real, not permanent and not what we have convinced ourselves that it is. However, as anyone who has lived through teenage heartbreak knows, this too does indeed pass. But there’s knowing it on a mental level, where we tell ourselves that we understand the concept of impermanence, and there’s a deep, experiential knowing of this Buddhist principle, where we feel it at the core, at the root, at inception. That’s where delusion dissolves and we begin to break free. My Zen teacher used to say, “A little crack opens up..and the light comes in. That’s the beginning.” But the beginning of what?

If we merely learn that we’re addicts, that’s not enough to create lasting sobriety. We have to have a spiritual experience that is lasting. But that experience, however personally defined, has to be one of ongoing development. A one time white light is not enough and in the long run, has little power to save us. Yet, like the addicted state, spiritual enthusiasts may cling to the memory of said spiritual experience, ruminating, fantasizing, reliving-at the expense of Presence to life as it is and the further deepening of spirituality that can free us from suffering.

The first time I came across this idea was in Philosophy at community college. Patanjuli said in his Yoga Sutras that any spiritual “skills” such as clairvoyance should be abandoned as distractions on the path. If we went down the road of psychic skills as if it were the goal, we’d wind up back where we started. So when my teacher tells the story of people who come to him asking him what mantra he can give them to bring them back to some early moment of spiritual realization they may have had, I understand. He always says, that is not the main point. It’s another experience, yes. But the main point, the essence of all of our spiritual teachings is to become free. Even the concept of freedom has many people convinced that they’re enlightened. Let me share something with you, if you think you’re enlightened, you’re not. There are very subtle obscurations all along the path to total liberation and we need to be aware of them. That’s why Gurus exist.

In 12-Step we say, “We can’t do it alone.” That means we need a sponsor and a home group and a consistent presence in the sober community. Kind of like a super spiritual 12-Step sponsor, having been there themselves, a Master teacher can call us out on our fantasies. We have to be able to abandon our fantasies to become Buddhas-no matter how deep, how subtle, how enticing they may be. In fact, I submit that the potentiality of the state of addiction is just as powerful, if not more so, at the more subtle levels if for no other reason than for it’s sheer undetectability. That’s why Gurus have to operate on our minds, in our minds and in our dreams and deepest hearts. As we say in 12-Step, “My mind is a bad neighborhood to hang out alone in.”  Yet so often this is the case in the mind of the meditator who is committed to the path of compete realization. The more we probe, the darker the tunnel. We must ultimately find our own light, our secret treasure, our Truth. But a Guru in whom we can trust without question is indispensable. But having been damaged by authority figures, how can we possibly learn to develop that much trust in any human being? Good question. I dealt with it in the 12-Step Buddhist.

For now let’s end with the notion that all states except the state of enlightenment are impermanent states, empty of inherent existence and projected by the mind. Anything short of Buddha realization is obscuration. How do we cut through this ignorance, caled the root delusion? There are many ways to cut through these, some slow, some quick. But since none of these feed the ego, few of us, as Joko Beck would say, really want enlightenment. After all, the world of distractions is infinite. One of the ways to remove ignorance is the practice of the Six Perfections. But how can we practice these perfect ideals in recovery? After all, the literature says, “Progress, not perfection.” Below is the commercial for my new eBook. (-:

Perfect Practice: How Everyone Can Use Buddhist and Recovery Tools for Greater Happiness

At our Summer 2012 Retreat we walked through the Six Perfections (Paramitas in Sanskrit) as they relate to the “maintenance steps,” which are Steps 10, 11 and 12 of the traditional 12-Step program. That retreat was so powerful that I decided to write up a  practice manual that would enable anyone, Buddhist or not, addict or not, to practice with some of tools that we have in recovery, and in Dharma. This workbook is now available as a Kindle eBook on Amazon. It’s $2.99 and available at this link: http://tinyurl.com/perfectpractice It would be awesome if you would share this link with your peeps!

If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry. You can download a free app for any computer and most smartphones here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=sv_kstore_1?ie=UTF8&docId=1000493771

In a while I’ll put this out as a Print on Demand and most likely audio as well. But for now, check it out and let me know what you think. As always, Amazon likes and reviews are highly valued. Be sure to let me know if you post one!


There Are No Gurus?

There Are No Gurus?

In 12-Step we say there are no gurus. It may be true in groups like AA, NA, OA, CA, SA, GA and the other A’s. But in spiritual traditions the teacher is often called ‘guru’, which is  actually Sanskrit for teacher. In recovery we’re all kind of each other’s guru, though we try to keep the ego in check by claiming to be, ‘just another drunk’ among many. Since narcissism is at the root of our troubles, the practice makes sense. But it’s often more fallacy than reality. Some meetings have what we call ’bleeding deacons’ who secretly run the show behind the scenes. Anyone in 12-Step knows that sponsors can be very controlling and even codependent (see my recent article Codependent Once More). In fact, I’ve heard hundreds of stories over the years of 12-Steppers over 12-Stepping their bounds in violation of the boundaries of others. We tend to over inflate our self-importance to the point of offering advice outside our areas of expertise. Lines between authority roles and friendship are often quite blurry. That tendency may not be how it’s supposed to be but is still quite common, even if it’s not discussed openly. In contrast, the ethics of a therapeutic relationship between counselor and client prevent fraternizing outside of therapy sessions. But the relationship in therapy is not spiritual. When it comes to spiritual matters, the rules and roles can be very confusing depending on the context. The situation in 12-Step communities is no exception.

In 12-Step we do try however to keep some humility because the addict ego is said to be the cause of most of our anxieties. But we can overcompensate for this required ‘egoic’ regulation by shutting ourselves off from developing beneficial qualities, such as the ability to teach. My view is to keep my sharing of experience, strength and hope in 12-Step meetings and leave the teaching, lecturing, advising to other venues like my yoga classes, retreats and meditation groups. But this role switching may be confusing to some people. I’m a Gemini with a moon, rising and 7 planets in the House of Gemini. For me it’s fun and normal to wear many hats and have many moods. But for other recovery folk, if they see someone at a meeting sharing about their problems one day and on the meditation seat teaching Dharma the next they might not understand. This diverse application of principles and membership in different groups can leave some people feeling a lack of trust. They might say things like, “Who does this guy think he is?”, “He thinks he’s better than us, “Hey, that guy’s trying to make money off of 12-Stepping,” “I’m not going to yoga, he’s trying to start a cult,” and so on. This makes my situation somewhat complicated. While historically there have been many cults in the history of yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism and even in 12-Step, there is no Kool-Aid being served here. I’ve never asked anyone to follow me anywhere, except maybe to a meeting.

I’m a yogi on a spiritual path and I’m in recovery – also a spiritual path. Yogis in recovery need meetings too. To me, yoga and other Dharma practices are all part of this spiritual road. I work on integrating these practices into my life. It’s like working with common spiritual threads that weave into a garment that can be worn anywhere-no matter what kind of group I find myself in. I wrap myself in these teachings to take refuge from suffering. This is what I bring to my work, be it a chakra healing workshop, a Reiki energy healing session or a 12-Step Yoga class.

But the role of a spiritual teacher can be difficult to understand. The term ‘teacher’ means different things to different people at divergent times and contexts. In a classroom, we accept our teacher as having authority on some level. But something changes when it comes to spiritual teaching. It’s on a much higher level of authority and adheres to a stricter code. Our History professor isn’t expected to solve life’s ancient mysteries. Our yoga teacher may or may not be spiritually inspiring.

In yoga sometimes the lines are blurred. There we may see our teacher as a guide who calls out cues to get us into poses. But traditionally the yoga teacher has been seen as a spiritual guru. The disciples were expected to be extremely devoted. Today in the West the context changes radically if we’re in a yoga class at the local gym or a retreat at a distant ashram. The gym teacher may help us improve our physical fitness. But spiritual fitness requires coming to terms with challenging questions such as morality and mortality. In that case the teacher has a greater responsibility. Not many gym teachers will place themselves in that role, nor should they.

In Buddhism, it’s different. The topic is seen by many from the beginning as religious. I don’t agree that Buddhism should be religious. But some traditions have made it that way to preserve the teachings and for other reasons. I see it more as a spiritual than a dogmatic practice. Depending on the tradition, the teacher role varies a lot. In Zen, one of the lesser religious Buddhist traditions, some teachers have been seen as Masters to be followed without question. In the West that’s led to difficulties in some communities. Other teachers are less formal. But there is usually some air of mystique surrounding the one who ‘gets it’ enough to assume the role of instructing others. In the popular vipassana meditation communities founded by  S. N. Goenka, there is no guru per se, but the more experienced practitioners serve as guides. Sometimes in the evenings they listen to a recorded teaching or mantras by Goenka. But that’s about the extent of the teacher-disciple relationship in my understanding.

In Theravadin Buddhist traditions the monastics are often seen as the authorities on scripture and practice. To my knowledge they don’t try to solve problems for people except to steer them to the applicable teaching of the Buddha, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some counseling going on from time to time. But to be a teacher in this Sutra level of Buddhism (for more on the types of Buddhism see the 12-Step Buddhist) outside a monastic environment, one need do no more than read and meditate to begin instructing others. You can’t throw a stone in places like Portland without hitting a teacher like this. Are they guides, charlatans or real gurus with legitimate offerings? Who’s to say.

In Tibetan Vajrayana traditions the Vajra Master must be seen as Buddha in order for the disciple to attain enlightenment. We are to focus on the Buddha aspect with our pure vision and ignore any bad behavior. In this sense the teacher is called ‘guru’. This practice was originally from Indian Tantra traditions. Tantra is a deep topic but in essence it’s a path where practitioners transform poison into nectar-impure karmic vision into pure Buddha vision. This is a non-dual practice but is different from other non-duality practices in the Sutra traditions as well as non-Buddhist Tantra. Consult books like the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies for more on this vast topic. Caution: these readings can be dense and difficult. It may be helpful to find a real guru to clarify these.

To make things more confusing, hatha yoga was derived from yoga tantra. The role of the teacher was thus much more like a guru than a teacher at Core Power Yoga, though I love my CPY teachers. In fact, yoga changes energy and has an effect on many people that they don’t understand. I’ll have more to say on this soon. The point is that a tantric teacher can be many things based on which tradition they’re in. Sometimes we engage in tantric practices which should have a teacher who serves as a personal spiritual guide. But in the West, these things have been diffused to such an extent that most people aren’t aware of the differences or similarities. In fact, it’s not so easy for scholars either from what I’ve read. The lay person therefore, should be careful who they listen to and how they follow teachings.

Given these varying ways to view a teacher it’s easy to see how someone in recovery who teaches Buddhism and Yoga could be controversial. Just what is the role of a 12-Step Buddhist or 12-Step Yogi teacher, if teacher is even the correct word?

Let me explain what my role is as I teach meditation for example. People come to the 12-Step Buddhist Meditation Dialogs for various reasons. Some are looking for an alternative to traditional 12-Step work. I don’t offer one. Some are looking for a guru, although I doubt most have a secure idea of what that can mean. I’m not a guru. Some are curious about meditation, or Buddhism, or both. On those topics I have some experience to share. I’ve been a seeker all of my life and probably for many previous. My mind works a certain way. One thing it does is explain things. I can explain well anything that I understand well. That’s my gift. But when it comes to applying the teachings that I explain, it’s as hard for me as anyone else. A real Master lives the teachings and is able to demonstrate with his behavior how Buddha explained the cause and the result. I am not a Master. I’m an addict and a practitioner. I do my best. But it’s not so easy.

Therefore, when people come to me looking for a ‘Teacher’ I tell them that I’ll be happy to help them find one. I explain Dharma, read from books, lead yoga classes, voice dialogs and meditations and try to work a recovery program. My role is more facilitator than teacher, though I suppose in a sense that some teaching does happen. But I don’t take the role of counselor, guru, sponsor or parent with people who come to me. I don’t refer to them as my students, except in yoga class, where I’m really more of a guide than anything else. I don’t try to solve people’s problems for them and I don’t make myself available to work the 12 Steps in a traditional way. I don’t insist that anyone do anything. And I don’t follow up with people (any more) to see if they’ve followed my advice. That said, if I’m asked the same thing by the same person more than once I will ask them if they did what I suggested the first time.

Some people take their teacher roles pretty seriously. They offer programs to become certified in whatever their deal is so that people can propagate whatever their shpeel is. Some of these cost in the thousands of dollars. I’ve even been approached by some of these knuckleheads in an effort to sell me on their programs-for a hefty price I might add. But I see through all of that BS. This can be uncomfortable to some. I’m real sorry about that. But I don’t follow chumps, punks, fake-ass gurus, or the latest brand of feel good non-dual present moment hype-sters. I follow Masters. Many people are overwhelmed when they try to follow real Masters. I’m not. I just dig into it because I understand the teachings and try to apply them. One service that I offer is to ‘translate’ the teachings from Masters to people who don’t have the capacity to follow at that level but have their BS detector on BLAST. We have to keep it real when representing spiritual teachings and transferring that knowledge to anyone, especially addicts – for many reasons. It takes a certain kind of personality to do pull it off, in my opinion.

My personality and approach make some people uncomfortable. Some like it a lot. A visiting teacher told me recently, “Darren, you’re very direct!” when I straightened him out on some incorrect assumptions. But it’s true, I’m direct and to the point and I plan to stay this way. Not everyone is ready for that. People in 12-Step can talk, criticize, even ostracize. It’s based on fear and a lack of understanding of these different roles and styles. If that makes me a focus of demonization in 12-Step or whatever other system, fine. People with decades of sobriety continue to suffer, relapse and even suicide as in a recent case from Santa Cruz. To me, that’s evidence that we need to keep deepening and expanding our recovery tools. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing because the results speak for themselves. If someone’s interested, I’ll try to help. But I’m not trying to collect followers. If you need someone to worship, there are plenty of people who love to be followed-in and out of 12-Step, yoga and Buddhism. Some are worth listening to. Many aren’t.

People are free to follow whomever they want, say what they want and proclaim whatever they feel is truth. I do what I do the way that I do it because it keeps a drink, and a gun, out of my mouth. Sometimes I make mistakes and it causes a raucous. But for every hater, there are a hundred people saying about how this work has helped them. Some fans go so far as to mention my name in pretty good company. But I don’t take that stuff too seriously. I’m just happy to have some skills that benefit others. People appreciate it. Meanwhile, I’ve somehow wound up nearly fifteen years sober-a pretty good deal.

My hope is that this essay clears up some strange thinking on what a spiritual teacher is and the way I see my own role in these communities. I receive teachings anywhere that there are useful tools. Sometimes I share those tools with whomever is interested. Maybe this is a relatively new role in Dharma, that of facilitator rather than guru. Less toes get stepped on, but some won’t be happy. You can’t please everybody all of the time. Right?

It’s a good thing there’s a ‘teacher’ on every corner or a ‘wrench to fit every nut’ as we say in 12-Step. May we all find our path out of suffering real soon.


Codependent Once More

Addiction is a serious illness. If you or someone you love needs help, please contact the Minnesota Directory of Alcohol Rehab Centers
provides support for this site.

Over the last 28 years I’ve held many positions in meetings and on 12-Step Hotlines. I’m still on the graveyard shift on Sundays. Since the 12-Step Buddhist came out, I also answer questions by email, Twitter, Facebook. One of the most common questions I get is from codependent friends and family members with an addict in their lives. The co is usually desperate, confused and at wit’s end. They ask, “What can I do, he’s killing himself?” I try to never answer that question. At least not in the way that’s expected. That’s because there’s no way to cure anybody’s addiction. If we’re involved with addicts, we have to work on ourselves to heal.

These questions are pretty much always about how the co-addict can “fix” the addict, or help him or her find a solution. What is missing from their understanding is normally the “co” piece, namely that addiction is part of a system; family, social network, workplace. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But it’s easy to view the crazy-making behavior of the addict and to focus all the blame on that individual. True, us addicts can act pretty weird. But those in relation to us participate in the sickness based on their own dynamics. These issues were present in the codependent from their own history.

Many times over the years I’ve seen one or another version of a common scenario. The addict, after plenty of struggle, finally does get some clean time. We’d expect that would make everyone in his life happy. It does and it doesn’t. With sobriety the mechanisms of relationships-individual, family, or workplace-shift. Things fall apart. When an addict stops actively participating in their addiction, the co-addict sometimes loses their place. The frame of reference changes. Things stop making sense. That’s because each player in the system has a role. The system is sick.

If the addict gets clean, it doesn’t really solve the problem of the system dynamics. Since addiction is a disease which affects relational systems, recovery needs to happen in all of the members of the system – on some level – for the system to heal. It follows that If the addict isn’t the only person in the system who is sick, their sobriety isn’t going to make everyone else well. Whether the addict gets clean, relapses or stays clean, the dynamics of the system will shift.

Codependency Red Flags
(adapted from Melody Beattie, Codependent No More)

How do you know when you’re being co? For me, it’s a feeling I’ve come to recognize. When I feel myself being drawn in, I usually notice it and draw back. But it wasn’t always this way. It took a long time to see how this works and longer to get enough space to work on solutions.

Here are some codependent habits that are more related to taking care of an addict who is still active in their addiction:

Following up after giving advice. Being attached to the results. Being preoccupied with the addiction of another. Inability to experience emotion in your own life but regular emotional experiences regarding someone else’s life. Micro-managing someone else’s life. Making their life an extension of your own. Being a martyr. Getting defensive or protective over, lying or covering up the addict’s behavior.

If we don’t get some distance from sick situations, it’s difficult to seen what’s going on with a clear eye. It may be helpful then to keep an eye out look for what I call  red flags-warning signs. Here are a few. If you relate to these, you may be in trouble. If so, please seek support from the resources listed below.

If you feel compelled to help someone fix their life to the point where you feel anxiety about not doing it, red flag.
Do you know what people want before they do?

Do you seek love from people who are not capable of loving you in return?
Are relationships your primary source of good feelings?
Do you put up with abuse?
Are your relationships copies of each other?

Is there an elephant in your living room with a rug over it that you pretend isn’t there? RED FLAG.

Do you use coercion, threats, guilt, threats, domination to get what you want? Hmm.

Are other people your main focus?
Do you allow fixation on others to get in the way of your daily responsibilities?

Do you feel loose and flexible or bound up?

Low Self-worth
Do you feel like you’re not good enough for a better relationship?
Are you ashamed of who you are?
Do you have a hard time believing that good things can happen for you?

Do you say what you mean and mean what you say, or say what you don’t mean because you’re afraid others won’t like you?
Trouble saying no?

Weak Boundaries
Do you keep letting people hurt you, despite proclamations to the contrary?

Codependency in Recovery

Codependency may appear at first glance to be limited to dealing with addicts who are still active in addiction. But what happens when we deal with those in recovery? My own experience is that while more subtle, the dynamics of codependency can still operate in sobriety. In my 15th year of recovery, I am prone to be codependent. It looks different than having an active drunk in the house or on the job. But the dynamics can still come up, causing much pain.

For me, it was hard to admit. It took years and a lot of suffering to see it in myself. Tysa, my soulmate and life partner, has two alcoholic parents, as well as myself to contend with. After several years of Alanon retreats, Adult Children of Alcoholics and CODA step study groups, she’s developed a pretty keen insight into the dynamics of codependency. Enough, in fact, to point it out in me! I’d complain about the behavior of others, whether is was another emotional disappointment within the 12-Step community (and there have been so many I could never count them all) or a sponsee who refused to work their steps-she would look at me and say, “You’re being pretty co right now.” For the longest time I could not for the life of me figure out how she could say that.

Much of my time is spent in service to people in recovery, though in non-traditional ways. Whether it’s teaching yoga or meditation, making coffee, writing books and blogs or answering phones, my time is oriented towards healing others. My boundaries are pretty good. But sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the behavior of other addicts. When that happens, I usually joke that “I’m not co, I’m just concerned.” But I can get as sick as anybody else when you get right down to it. The way it looks for me is that I get fixated on the way others are acting and lose focus on who I am because I base my self-worth on the actions of others. As you can see from the red-flag list above, one of the tendencies of being co is basing our self-worth on the actions of others. I spend a lot of time around people in recovery as the person in a helping role. Sometimes my energy is low or I’m having an off day. That makes me vulnerable to feeling that the feelings of others are my own. Old tapes, such as self-loathing, start spinning in my head. Before you know it, I feel depressed, angry or upset in some other way. Without strong boundaries and some insight into the mechanics of codependency, time spent around addicts can create a seemingly endless loop of suffering. It’s really hard to quiet the sound of our old tapes when those around us are playing theirs through loudspeakers.

Turning Codependency Into an Asset

One of the main characteristics of codependency that I relate to is loving people who can’t love me back. In a recovery sense this is an unhealthy pattern that results from not getting needs met as a child. We tend to repeat such patterns until we realize we’re in them and seek relief in something different. It’s fairly easy to see how it works in terms of my own history. My mother was ill, I felt on some level responsible to make her happy. When I couldn’t, I felt bad. When I encounter a woman who is broken and complicated and needy and smart and sexy it triggers a super deep response in me. It feels like my life depends on connecting with the lady. If I can fix her, she will give me the love that I needed at that some point in time, maybe pre-verbal infancy. I know in my head that I can’t fix anyone. But knowing something intellectually doesn’t stop the trigger from firing on a pre-cognitive, trauma based level where suffering is frozen in time. The drive can make me crazy. And it has.

Does it mean that those of us wounded healers should get out of the helping professions? No. It means that if we’re going to help anyone we might need to do very deep work for a very long time-maybe our entire careers. Does our codependency mean that we can help people without expectations? No. It means that we might have to take our healing to such a spiritual level of acceptance and Presence that we can still help without losing our sanity in the process. It’s pretty hard to make the claim that anyone helps anyone else with absolutely no gain. Unless we think Buddha.

Was Buddha Co?
If we can keep the focus of unlimited, unconditional love without any of the requisite unhealthy dynamics of codependency, we might be on to something big-Buddha big. We can use our codependent traits to become enlightened Buddhas. By getting familiar with the traits of codependency, we may have a chance of taking our capacity of loving, even though it’s sick, to a deeper, more spiritual level.  On the Buddhist Mahayana path-the Great Vehicle, our goal is to save all beings. But we have to start with ourselves, such as on the Hinayana or Lower Vehicle path. This is explained in detail in many places but for our purposes, the Hinayana is said to be lower in scope because it focuses on enlightenment for the sake of the individual. Compassion is still developed but through the experience of the wisdom of emptiness which ultimately results in enlightenment. In the Mahayana or Bodhisattva path, the path is more focused on our intention to save all beings through not only the development of wisdom but also of compassion. Compassion is seen as relative and absolute. We reach absolute compassion by practicing relative compassion. In this path, we look at our defects like we do in the 12 Steps, remove obstacles through many means (such as purification, meditation, accumulation of merit) and ultimately gain the ability to help others.

I saw a quote on Pinterest recently, “Helping someone who can do nothing for you is having character.” It sounds Buddhist. Or Alanon, “Do something for someone today and tell no one.” But Buddha talked about ending suffering for all beings. One of the vows is, “Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them all.” So what is the similarity between being co and being Buddhist and what is the difference? The similarity in my view is that both codependents and enlightened beings love people who can’t possibly reciprocate. The difference is that totally realized Buddhas-or even those real Buddhists who are practicing Dharma-aren’t hooked on the results. They offer blessings, teachings and other forms of help. But then they let beings do what they need to do. This is out of deep self-less compassion which is different than self-based codependent passion. How could a Bodhisattva who has vowed not to attain enlightenment until the infinite oceans of samsara (cyclic suffering) are empty possibly function if she’s worried about the results? Can you imagine Tara saying, “OK, I helped you when you needed it, so now why don’t you love me?”

We codependents should train our minds to think like Tara, the fully enlightened female form of Buddha. Tara is said to love all beings like a mother loves her only child. That’s the absolute compassion of an enlightened being. But to enter the Bodhisattva path we try to generate the aspiration or wish to be more compassionate. I think that codependents are compassionate, deeply so. But not selflessly. In fact, we’re very self-centered. If we can integrate the 12-Step of recovery and put some principles of other-centered love into action, we can enter the path of the Bodhisattva. In that regard, being co might be seen as preparation for the aspiration of unlimited kindness such as we learn about on the Mahayana path. We can turn our codependent lemons into Buddha lemonade. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Alanon Family Groups
Adult Children of Alchoholics