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Kevin Griffin

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Buddhism and Recovery: Anonymity as Spiritual Foundation

Posted: 05/28/11 09:03 AM ET

"Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities."

The recent New York Times article about the 11th Tradition and anonymity stirred up a lot of controversy. But I think the 12th Tradition is ultimately more important.

When you walk into a 12-Step meeting you drop a big part of your identity. Certainly you drop your last name, but you typically don't bring your job title, your bank account, social role and many other unique identifiers. Although you'll very likely talk about some of your life's story, it's usually in the context of your "disease." And the point of that is to talk about what you share with everyone else in the room -- whether it's alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive eating, relationship dysfunction, sex addiction or whatever.

You're not so much trying to establish your individuality as to let go of your sense of uniqueness.

When we stop trying to stand out in this way, we are working from the premise that, as the 12-Step literature says, "Selfishness -- self-centeredness! That we think is the root of our troubles." Dropping our last name and our sense of uniqueness is a way to counter this tendency of trying to be the most special person; of trying to control everything and everyone around us; of putting satisfaction of our own desires before the needs of those around us.

Like many 12-Step ideas, there is a brilliance in this one. Without exactly telling us why we are doing it, the tradition of saying, "Hi, I'm Kevin and I'm..." guides us to an experience of letting go and an insight into our own suffering -- the suffering of self-centeredness.

The Buddha takes this idea even further when he declares that the very idea of a separate self is a misperception. If that is the case, then being self-centered is really a problem because there's nothing there to be centered on!

Many people struggle with this idea, called anatta, which might best be translated as "not-self," as in, "Your name is not your self; your body is not your self; your thoughts are not your self; your feelings are not your self." The Buddha says that if you can't control something, then it doesn't belong to you; you can't claim it as who you are. So, one of the first things we look at when we learn Buddhist meditation is whether we can control any of this stuff, and pretty quickly we learn that we can't. Sure, we can have some influence over them, but when you get sick or obsessed with something or depressed, you obviously are not choosing to have that experience.

This idea that no part of you is yours, that none of these things define you, is, we could say, the spiritual foundation of Buddhism. In some greater sense, then, we are always anonymous. Yes, we can make a sound and say that that sound is "my name," but it's really not. It's just an agreement made by everyone that this body and mind will be called by that sound: "K-e-v-i-n." Me!

The Buddhist teaching, then, points toward the same idea as Tradition Twelve: live by spiritual principles, not by orienting toward self. Follow the Five Precepts of Non-Harming; practice the Noble Eightfold Path; offer lovingkindness and compassion to all beings; live with wisdom and equanimity. In the recovery world, we have similar principles: honesty, integrity, faith, courage, letting go, kindness, generosity, spiritual connection.

It's not that you have to stop being you. The "functional self" continues. You can still talk about "I." It's just that you know that these are simply conventions, not absolute truths. And you know the potential for suffering when you become attached to identity. Oftentimes, when we are struggling, we can simply ask ourselves, "What aspect of my identity is threatened right now? What sense of self am I clinging to?" The answer will usually be apparent. Then the only question is, "Can I let go of that right now?" That's where the real work begins.

Exercise: Who Is Myself?

Make a list of all the roles you play, all your identities, whether it's work, family, friends, your talents, your personality traits, your emotional patterns, your addictive habits. Look at all the things that you call "I," like name, body, memories, plans, accomplishments, etc.

Once you've got the list, go through it one-by-one and ask, "Is this permanent? Could it change? Does it belong to me? Do I control it?" Then ask yourself, "Does this ever cause me pain or discomfort? What would happen if I didn't believe this was 'me'? How can I stop clinging to this identity?"