Zen is the practice of being. It is about being present in our moment-to-moment experience – resonating and attuning to all the parts of ourselves and the world around us without judgment or criticism. This acceptance of the flow of life – the acknowledgement that what is, is – takes us beyond words into experience. Zen is at once the study of self and the letting go of our conditioned self. Zen is like a pure stream of consciousness taking us to the heart of clear seeing in reality – no filters, assumptions, expectations, censors, or interpretations. A Zen approach naturally opens people to the full landscape of their inner world of emotions, feelings, beliefs, values, and the full breadth of human experience. This, in turn, leads to creative ways of perceiving and solving problems, of being alive to our own experience. This ability is at the heart of overcoming addiction.
One day I walked into a 12-step group and said, “Hi, I’m Charlotte and I’m feeling good. Life is going well, I’m excited about getting my first book contract, and I’ll probably taper off coming to this group.” What is the standard 12-step response? “You’ve lost your humility. …You’re too excited. … You should calm down. … You’ll probably relapse any minute.” The obvious question that follows is, what is a “recovered” person?
A search of approved addiction literature of A.A. and Al-Anon provided me with no definition of a healthy, mature “recovered” person. One is always an addict, dependent on groups, and always at the brink of relapse if he or she doesn’t follow certain directives and trust external authority. It is heresy to say I am recovered – I don’t need a group. Personal power, competence, self-reliance, intellect, and happiness are also suspect. Most of all there is no room for questioning – the bedrock of expanding one’s mind and developing a set of internalized values that provide an inner sanctuary of personal strength. How is Zen related to Feminism and Empowerment? Because Zen censors nothing and encourages people to know themselves completely, it is inherently empowering. Zen teaches us that we exist beyond the mind as pure essence, as part of the one universal energy. Instead of identifying with our minds, we observe them. Feminism uses the concept of internalized oppression to help people realize that all the stereotypes, rules, and inhibitions have been taught to us or implanted in our minds by social institutions – including our families. These intruders are not our essential self.
Both Zen, and Feminism provide the freedom to explore our vast potential for human experience, emotion, work, play, expression, and creativity. We define ourselves from the inside out by asking, “What feels right to me? What fits with my perceptions, experience and values? What are my talents and strengths? Who am I underneath all the rules, roles, stereotypes, and fears that have been implanted in my mind in an effort to keep me subservient or afraid?” Feminism is also about supporting equality and justice, thereby giving people equal opportunities to develop their potential.
Accepting all human qualities
Understanding internalized oppression can be a powerful aspect of reducing feelings of shame, alienation, and hopelessness, which undermine our sense of competence and put people at high risk for many addictions. When human qualities such as strength, courage, kindness, intelligence, competence, warmth, passivity, self-expression, nurture, and assertiveness are separated out and assigned to fit with gender and racial stereotypes,
everyone becomes crippled or limited. When we assimilate negative beliefs about ourselves and numb our capacity for affect, expansiveness, and joy, the resulting emptiness, alienation, and self-hatred often fuels anxiety and depression – which puts us at risk for addictive behavior. Being lost in an addiction sometimes feels preferable to feeling unloved, ashamed, rejected, or without hope. Naming and externalizing the oppressive beliefs can point the way toward freeing our minds. This is powerful medicine, especially for people who have been among the least advantaged in our society, constantly barraged with negative limited images about their capacities.Exploring internalized oppression is best done with others who share our histories.
While it is crucial to take responsibility for our lives and avoid using blame as an excuse for not taking action, it can be powerfully affirming to have the support of a peer group that shares our cultural and historical experiences. Some examples from my interviews: An indigenous Maui group in New Zealand was learning their native language, dances, and songs as part of treatment. One program for African-Americans had discussions on the legacy of pain descending from people brought to this country as slaves who were being totally alienated from their families and culture. A Native American group incorporated sweat lodges and other rituals reflecting their indigenous heritage. Gay and lesbian programs provided a safe place to talk about the difficulties of living in a homophobic culture. Women’s programs talked about female oppression, sexual abuse, and the need to stay out of violent or dependent relationships.
To bring a Feminist-Zen concept to the addiction field would mean to fit our programs to the needs of people, not fit people into fixed programs. This does not preclude organization and structure, rather it reflects counselors with open, undefended minds who are comfortable with differences – people who do not need to hide behind the role of wise one, teacher, or authority – people who are not afraid of true human contact associated with asking the question, who are you? What do you believe? As a counselor, client, or peers in a recovery group, we come together to explore the many aspects of addiction including our motivation and the survival purpose our addiction once served.
In an empowerment model, addiction is not seen as the enemy, rather as a survival mechanism that was often triggered in childhood. People use addictive behavior to ease pain or to calm down and relax.
Neglected? Eat for comfort. Abused or battered? Use drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. Want to feel important? Deal drugs or seduce someone. Afraid you can’t survive without a partner? Hide your power and acquiesce to dull or painful sex. The task of healing from addiction is to validate the positive survival goals of wanting meaning, relatedness, love, and power, then find non-addictive ways to meet those needs. To do this we take the focus off the addictive substance and address the underlying anxiety, depression, abuse, feelings of powerlessness, poverty, and oppression that fuel addictive behavior.
What are we aiming for in recovery?
An empowering treatment program or recovery group would make available all models of recovery, encourage people to define their sobriety, and develop positive coping skills for living in the world. This could be anything from needing physical repair of the body, help with nutrition, healing from childhood trauma, exercise, education, or solving economic problems, parenting, abusive or unhealthy relationships. We would help people develop a discerning mind that asks the questions: Does this work for me? Is it helping me gain a sense of internal strength? Am I becoming more and more able to remain steadfast to my values and beliefs, even in the face of differences? Am I developing skills for living and for authentic relationships? In short, am I developing into a mature human being?
This leads to the question: What are we aiming for in recovery? To simply achieve sobriety or to heal a human being? The two are intertwined. If we don’t want to trade in one addiction for another, or for depression, anxiety, frustration, and troubled relationships, then we need to move toward becoming a healthy, functioning adult. An evolved person will be uninterested in addictions because she has a broad repertoire of more interesting, sustaining, pleasurable solutions to life’s challenges.
On the right path
Here are some fundamental characteristics of human development that lead to resilience, vitality, inner stability, and peace of mind:
1. We move from reliance on external authority to an internal center of resonance and wisdom based on observation, experimentation, and experience.
2. We bring fascination, curiosity, and interest to all aspects of our lives and to relationships. We are comfortable with differences, and are able to reflect on our own feelings, thoughts, and emotional reactions.
3. We take personal responsibility for our internal experience – we realize we create our own feelings of anger, contempt, and judgments with our demands that situations and people be different than they are. We cease blaming or making up excuses and reasons for our problems.
4. We see situations and people as they truly are and make our decisions based on current reality, not our hopes that people will change.
5. We become increasingly able to attune and resonate with our internal world – including our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This ability to go deeply within ourselves decreases our need for either disassociation or external stimulation to relieve emptiness and boredom.
6. We realize that we are not our “minds,” we are not all the teachings that have been put there. We exist beyond these teaching as essence.
7. We develop the will to do the things we know will help us feel stronger, healthier, more alive, and connected to others.
8. We develop the ability to self-soothe and calm ourselves when we are alone or with other people.
9. Our living becomes more congruent with our beliefs.
10. Our relationships become more authentic, trusting, open, and valued.
11. We are able to give and receive care, friendship, and support.
12. We accept the ever-changing nature of all life.The challenge of empowerment.
Living without a fixed belief system, goal, or agenda is terrifying to the ego-conditioned mind, that equates thoughts with Self. “If I recovered using the 12 steps then it should work for everyone. … and if it doesn’t, someone is wrong … but certainly not me.” The ego wants to anchor itself to rules, beliefs, concepts, and expectations, then measure others by its standards. This keeps life simple – we fit people into boxes then relate to them from the one-up or distant position. Yet the freedom to truly know and connect with each other comes when we give up any fixed beliefs of what should happen. The primary question to ask is, “Does it work? When, how, and for whom?”
This introduces elements of inquisitiveness, fascination, experimentation, and reflection which bring vitality, color, variety and expressiveness to life. We need to open ourselves to the breadth of human emotions, play with ideas, experiment, and discard whatever doesn’t work. This gives us a powerful antidote to addiction, which thrives on emptiness, anxiety, fear, boredom, and restlessness. Our inner world becomes dynamic and alive – we become friends with all parts of ourselves.
This greatly lessens the need to use addictive substances, destructive behaviors, or to escape from emotions and feelings. This empowerment approach needs to be seen from a developmental perspective. Someone in early stages of recovery may need more structured guidance, but even then should be supported in self reflection and tapping into their internal world of ideas, feelings, and intelligence.
Developing a richer inner landscape
I have heard many addiction counselors say that when someone is coming into recovery, they must be told what to do because they are so distraught they cannot think for themselves. However, people can and do think for themselves when someone believes they can. It is a process that takes time, but it is the direction we need to take. When we ask, “What do you think?” or “What feels right to you?” we help a person develop a richer inner landscape that is at the heart of recovery. When people remain in the thrall of other’s ideas and beliefs, they are thwarted in their human development.
Authentic relationships are a powerful antidote to addiction because they are a primary healer of anxiety. They soothe, nurture, and bridge feelings of alienation and separateness, thereby offering us a profound means to lower uneasiness and stress. They also require some of the developmental abilities listed previously in this article, namely that we are receptive, open-minded, undefended and comfortable with differences.
When we create a deep level of resonance with another human being, something deep within us is eased and comforted. Empowerment and feminism are based on love, not fear, expansiveness, not contraction. While fear may jump-start people into recovery, only love has the power to heal. An empowerment approach encourages people to break through limitations, enjoy their talents and strengths, use their rational mind as an ally in healing and allow themselves to experience joy. While it is crucial to acknowledge the negative power of addiction, we need not permanently reduce the miracle of human existence to limiting labels such as “addict,” or “codependent.” We are multifaceted human beings possessing the power to go far beyond the scope of addiction or dependency.
The path of empowerment is not one of quick fixes, pat statements, and simple solutions, but rather it is a process that involves attunement to self, openness to change, and constant re-evaluation of one’s way of being in the world. Listening within and allowing our words to rise from an internal stillness is the key to inner resonance and attunement. This is difficult for people with a history of childhood or adult trauma.Trauma often leads to concrete, all-or-nothing thinking with a limited range of responses to stress – usually, frustration, anger, withdrawal, and helplessness. The inner world of feelings and affect have been disowned, denied, diminished, or disconnected. We often have distorted reactions to current situations. Thus it is crucial that any model of recovery, and anyone working with addicted people, help facilitate the development of self-reflection, the capacity to tolerate a wide range of emotions (including joy and frustration), and the ability to bring themselves into current reality. We ask the questions, “Have you thought about ways to solve the problem? What helps you calm yourself down? What will it take to motivate you to do what you need to do?” People who are habituated to accepting the dictums of authoritarian parents and teachers may resist thinking for themselves, but it is a necessary step if they are to cease their dependent behavior, feel safe within themselves, and develop a capacity for handling life’s challenges. We do harm when we offer magic formulas.
From hundreds of my interviews it became clear, a thousand times over, that people develop addictions for many reasons, and heal in different ways. As you read these steps, remember that models and concepts are just that – models and concepts. They are words and ideas, but they are not truths, artifacts, or fixed objects. Just as the menu is not the meal, the 12-steps are not recovery, neither are the thirteen steps of Women for Sobriety, or the 16 empowerment steps I have put together. They are ideas about recovery. They are words written by people reflecting their observations and experiences. So take these 16 steps, experiment with them, change them, skip them, or write your own. Live in the heart in your own life.
16 steps for discovery and empowerment
A suggested Group Opening from Many Roads, One Journey: We gather together to support each other in healing from addiction. We encourage each person to find their own power, intelligence, and strengths. We are here to support each other, but we do not presume to know what is best for another. We realize that all people unfold in their own way and their own time. We learn from each other and draw strength from seeing the courage of others, yet we keep the focus on ourselves. We listen to each other’s pain, but we also bond in power and joy and encourage everyone to take the necessary steps to live with respect and meaning in their lives. We are open to all possibilities for healing and finding our internal wisdom and power. Yes, we can!
1A.We affirm we have the power to take charge of our lives and stop being dependent on substances or other people for our self-esteem and security.
1B. Alternative: We admit we were out of control with/powerless over _________ yet have the power to take charge of our lives and stop being dependent on substances or other people for our self-esteem and security.
2. (This is a new version of this step) We come to believe that we have the ability to develop our inner resources through a process of learning, exploration, daily practice, diligence, self reflection, and supportive relationships with others.
3.We make a decision to become our authentic selves and trust in the healing power of the truth.
4.We examine our beliefs, addictions, and dependent behavior in the context of living in a hierarchal, patriarchal culture.
5.We share with another person all the things inside of us for which we feel shame and guilt.
6.We affirm and enjoy our strengths, talents, and creativity.
7.We become willing to let go of guilt, shame, and any behavior that keeps us from accepting ourselves and others.
8.We make a list of people we have harmed and people who have harmed us, and take steps to clear out negative feelings by making amends and sharing our grievances in a respectful way.
9.We express love and gratitude to others, and increasingly appreciate the wonder of life and the blessings we do have.
10.We continue to trust our reality and daily affirm that we see what we see, we know what we know and we feel what we feel.
11.We promptly acknowledge mistakes and make amends when appropriate, but we do not say we are sorry for things we have not done and we do not cover up, analyze, or take responsibility for the shortcomings of others.
12.We seek out situations, jobs, and people who affirm our intelligence, perceptions, and self-worth and avoid situations or people who are hurtful, harmful, or demeaning to us.
13.We take steps to heal our physical bodies, organize our lives, reduce stress, and have fun.
14. We seek to find our inward calling, and develop the will and wisdom to follow it.
15. We accept that change, loss, death, and re-birth are part of the natural flow of life.
16. We grow in awareness that we are interrelated with all living things, and we contribute to restoring peace and balance on the planet.