As a psychotherapist I am continually moved by the anguish of isolation so many experience. Like fish with water, we hardly see the pervasiveness of this condition for our being in the world. Whatever we try to do to relieve this suffering—through denial of our deepest needs for connection, to materialistic pursuits, or to compulsive social or work activities—we are haunted by the “dis-ease” of separation and cannot rest and take refuge in our families or communities. The breakdown in community in the U.S. has been documented by many scholars, and the resultant loneliness and alienation are revealed in the high rates of depression, addiction, anxiety and violence. People in our society feel fundamentally separate, cut off from each other and disconnected from the natural world. We can see our isolation through the lens of the First Noble Truth, which points to the suffering of the separate self. The greater the fundamental attachment to self, the more we suffer.
Particularly in the United States, our cultural ideals support individualism, competition, denial of vulnerability and independence. Relationships are valued as supports or buttresses to the self. But like hungry ghosts we still yearn for the stability and continuity of deep community. When offered the opportunity, however, we often cannot drink fully; our thirst becomes painful and leads us to develop strategies to deny or to avoid feeling our yearnings. The problem is both external—lack of available communities—and internal—the ways we hold ourselves back from surrendering to relationships. Our default position of alienation or non-belonging is often a consequence of painful experiences that lead us to mistrust and run when the going gets rough. We run for protection toward isolation or search for new and improved relationships or communities. Yet we also seek spiritual practices and communities to restore or realign ourselves to our most fundamental condition of interconnectedness or “interbeing.”
In the early years of my own Theravadan practice, the emphasis on individual, solitary practice often seemed to me to be supporting the Western value of self-sufficiency as well as celebrating the heroic, solitary journey. We practiced together in groups for weeks but never even learned each other’s names. We sensed the underlying power of community in practice but didn’t realize this in real relationship. The practice of taking refuge in sangha seemed to be the stepchild or foundational support to practice, rather than practice itself. The solitary Buddha was the icon, even though in truth the Buddha spent very few days alone, living most of his eighty years in community.
I was later drawn to practice with Thich Nhat Hahn, who seems to intuitively understand the overwhelming suffering of isolation in the West. He emphasizes building local and worldwide communities and teaches the practice of “learning to see with Sangha eyes.” To build “good enough” communities that are not there solely to serve or support us, we need to do the work of inventing or embracing practices that support and nurture sangha, that help us to become “good enough” members of a community. Perhaps we need to add a teaching on “right relationship” to the Eightfold Path.
Two years ago at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, I heard teacher Eugene Cash offer a reordering of the Three Jewels from the usual “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha” to the new “Sangha, Dharma, Buddha.” Even though the Buddha was clear that these refuges are interdependent and co-arising, in our own rank-ordering culture, first is best, most valuable, on top. It is in this reordering that I believe the Twelve Step programs offer a profound vision and practical experience of taking refuge in the sangha.
I have a twenty-five-year-long intimate connection with living at the intersection of the Eightfold Path and the Twelve Step program. I have also worked as a professional in the addiction/recovery community and have coauthored the play “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” the story of the relationship between the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous. The ground-breaking discovery of these two men was that “true meeting”—one drunk coming clean to another through telling their authentic life stories to each other—could accomplish something neither drunk could do alone. It could lift them from the destructive and fatal cycle of alcoholism into sobriety and a new dimension of living.
Sobriety describes a state of being, a willingness to face reality—“life on life’s terms”—with equanimity and open-mindedness, becoming “as willing to listen as only the dying can be.” Liberation from the suffering of alcoholism through the Twelve Steps becomes possible through surrendering the separate self, that is, in taking refuge in the fellowship of other sufferers, the healing sangha. In the beginning is the “We.” Step 1 says, “We admitted that by ourselves we were powerless over alcohol.” Relinquishing the ego is essential for achieving and maintaining sobriety. The principles and practices of this surrender, including prayer and meditation, are the most powerful vehicles for taking refuge in sangha that I have experienced.
Addiction is often called a disease of isolation. You are as “sick as you are secret.” Moving out of shame and self-delusion into the light of awareness and nonseparation is essential not only for survival but for spiritual health. Sobriety depends on the learned capacity to ask for help, to admit vulnerability, and to “call before you take the first drink.” There is great and transformative power in learning to reach out to another human being when the momentum of the past and the voracious craving of addiction are calling the addict to take refuge in the substance or addictive behavior. This step, of taking refuge in fellowship and relationship, is a moment of liberation. One of the promises of the Twelve Step program is that “self-seeking will slip away.” The suggestion to reach out beyond self, to “put your ego in your back pocket,” and in the face of craving to do service and share the gift of sobriety with others, leads to the experience of release from suffering.
The fellowship of the Twelve Steps is a worldwide network of meetings and relationships. It is alive, accessible and available 24/7 through face-to-face meetings; telephones or Blackberries or Internet; and through literature, prayer and meditation. In a concrete way the fellowship can be tapped into anytime or anywhere. Isolation thus becomes a chosen state, not a pre-existing condition, not something temporarily ameliorated though a weekly sangha meeting or potluck. Our Buddhist communities could benefit from such a realized, concrete expression of community that can never be lost unless one actively or purposefully “closes the door.”
These Twelve Step relational practices represent the journey from solipsistic, delusional “relief” through addictive behavior to the light and release from suffering in the realization of nonseparation, or anatta. This relational realization is practical, teachable, simple and profound, and ultimately life-changing.
The dialectic between the Buddha’s teaching of “see for yourself” and the practice of surrendering self to refuge in sangha points ultimately to the Middle Way for us humans. On the Buddhist path this living intersection of alone and together is taught beautifully by Gregory Kramer in his “Insight Dialogue” retreats, where the seamless movement between internal practice and relational practice is investigated and realized. Any living sangha can become a doorway to the great web, which Joanna Macy describes as “the Maha Sangha of All Beings,” seen and unseen, past, present and future.
This glimpse of true interbeing can occur when the personal and collective work of confronting obstacles and practicing nonseparation is a central practice of the meditation community. This includes finding creative ways to directly address the suffering and structural divisions of race, gender, class, sexualities, etc. Many Buddhist centers are beginning to take on these issues more directly and to reflect a new level of awareness of this necessary aspect of building sangha. The new multicultural Dharma, the pioneering East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, and the people of color retreats are leading the way in this important work.
The current work of many vipassana teachers in particular is a fruit of Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s authentic commitment to community building and to reaching out to more marginalized or underserved communities. Participating in the Community Dharma Leader (CDL) program, about to begin its fourth cohort of participants, has offered the most profound vision and experience of true sangha that I have known. Resting in Buddhadharma and supported by the commitment of the leaders to practice “dissolving self and other,” my own group of ninety participants found the way to the “We.” Active engagement with diversity, practicing non-violent communication, and relational practice of the Brahmaviharas—all held in the silence and a deep commitment to living and sharing the Dharma—opened the sangha doorway.
When we first began to meet and practice together over two and a half years ago, none of us was exactly sure what “community Dharma leader” actually meant. For some it was a recognition or evolution of their leadership roles in their communities of practice; to others it was a chance to learn and commit to reaching out to new populations. For me it came to represent a new priority and practice of community Dharma. I now feel a passionate commitment to realizing and teaching this community Dharma and drawing on the practices of sangha that the Twelve Step community offers. I see this creative, unfolding refuge practice as aligned with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s call for building sangha as “communities of resistance” to the powerful forces of materialism, alienation and violence in Western culture. I feel its importance for nurturing true healing and liberation in Western psychotherapy. And I hear the voice of Thich Nhat Hanh in his evocative teaching that “the next Buddha, the Buddha of the West, will come as the sangha.”