Integrating Buddhism and the 12 Steps

Recovery Unscripted banner image for episode 102

Episode #102 | August 8, 2019

Featured Guest: Darren Littlejohn

How can ancient principles from Zen and Tibetan Buddhism integrate with modern treatment programs to help more people build lasting recovery?

We’ll discuss this with author Darren Littlejohn on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

For more about Darren’s book, The 12 Step Buddhist, visit

Podcast Transcript

David: I’m here with Darren Littlejohn. Thank you for being with us.

Darren: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

David: I’ll start with having you tell us a bit about your background, your own story, how you ended up in this world.

Darren: Let’s see. I basically grew up in a blue collar family in Chicago, [unintelligible 00:00:20] a person to wind up going to college. I grew up in an environment of high trauma and some mental illness, some alcoholism, domestic violence, those sorts of things. It was a pretty good setup for becoming an addict. I became a full-time drug addict in around eighth grade and pursued that as my career until I got sober the first time.

David: That’s so early. Eighth grade? That’s–

Darren: It was the summer between the seventh and eighth grade. I was doing great in seventh grade. I smoked a joint in the summer between seventh and eighth. Seventh was the last grade that I completed-

David: Wow. That was it for you?

Darren: -before I wound up getting clean and going to college. I’ve been sober at this time, 21 years.

David: Congratulations.

Darren: It did happen after a relapse with 10 years of sobriety. I was sober from ’84 to ’94, went to college, got degrees in psychology, went to grad school, stuff like that. There were some things missing from my treatment plan that I was not aware of that led to a relapse. I’ve been working for the past couple of decades to try to figure out what went wrong and how to prevent relapse and how to facilitate healing for myself first and others.

David: Absolutely, yes. That’s what I was going to ask, how did that journey and even that specifically of going– thinking that you had learned all this stuff, getting the degrees, and then the addiction is still there, how did all that experience shape the way that you approach what you do now, like the outlook as someone who is helping others?

Darren: It’s really been an evolutionary process. When I came back to sobriety in 1997, I got sober in December 1997, I went back to the meditation cushion. I’d been practicing Zen since the late ’80s. I did a lot of things to try to find a deeper level of awareness, but I didn’t know actually until recently, what I know now is just what I’m talking about with my new work. The idea of Buddhism had always been really interesting to me since I was a little kid and the types of practices that were involved. Mindfulness being a small part of that. We hear a lot about mindfulness, but you can almost call it meek mindfulness because there is such a–

David: It’s a co-opted, lightened brand.

Darren: [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:03:01] and pulled out of the ethical guidelines and the guidance of a qualified master. In the Buddhist context, it can lead to other results, which actually is part of what happened with me. I had actually been into Zen and just sitting still and silent, but what I didn’t know– and this is with 10 years of sobriety. What I didn’t know is that I had a traumatized brain and a high ACE score. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the ACE study.

David: Yes, describe it.

Darren: Adverse Childhood Experiences done here in San Diego in the late ’90s revealed that the more exposure a kid has to adverse experiences such as seeing a family member beaten, a family member going to prison, neglect, abuse, sexual abuse, any type of trauma, the more exposure that one has to those categories, the more likelihood of things like depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse, stress-related disorders, and so forth. I didn’t realize it, but if you look at the ACE study, they basically shows these charts which start at zero. People who have zero ACE, like a friend of mine who has no trauma in her childhood, she also has no problems with substance abuse, depression, or anything like this.

David: There’s a correlation.

Darren: Yes, so she’s got little tiny bubbles on the chart. She’s at zero. The chart goes up to four and four plus. When you have four plus, your bubble– and a bubble chart for depression is huge, substance abuse is huge. In fact, they say that– authors of the study say that the ACE score predicts substance abuse and depression better than it predicts anything else. When you look at someone like me, my ACE score is eight and–

David: That’s off the charts?

Darren: -that’s conservative. It could be 10. I didn’t want it to go any further than that. I was like eight was high enough and I can say no to the last two questions. I didn’t really realize that trauma was such a big part of my experience as a human being until I really started studying it. I’ve got a degree in psychology. I went to grad school in psychology.

I wrote The 12-Step Buddhist in 2009, which integrated psychology and Eastern practices of Buddhism with the 12-step approach, but I didn’t realize until I started really getting into the trauma, neuroscience especially and studies like the ACE study, how much that impacted and shaped my personal development, my outlook on life, my orientation, the things that I’m able to do.

David: Back to the Buddhism, you said you started being interested in that even from a young age. Describe the journey and how that became a part of your life.

Darren: When I was a little kid, I used to go to the bookstore and go to the Eastern section, the philosophy section. I’d look at books like on Daoism and Krishnamurti and martial arts and sort of things. When I was a kid in the ’70s, we had Bruce Lee, we had a TV show called Kung Fu with David Carradine, the half-breed martial artist guy who didn’t quite fit in. There was so much of this Eastern wisdom infused in that that I found absolutely compelling.

In Buddhism, we would say that you have the karma through the dharma. You have a cause, maybe in the previous lifetime, for having that interest. There’s a lot of people who could walk by an enlightened Buddha and not even notice, but if you have some experience in the past– I feel like some of those two have what my first AA sponsor would call a spiritual thirst, which I had. I have been a seeker, like the famous Who song, since I was probably in fourth grade, which led me to drugs, led me to psychedelics, led me to spirituality, led me to recovery.

David: I know you mentioned the Zen part of it before, could you describe– because I know there’s different types, there’s Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism. What are some of the differences and what did they offer you that you were missing elsewhere?

Darren: Zen Buddhism is really a– it’s a Japanese-oriented practice which was really, I think, developed around a warrior mentality. There was more of a style that required a rigor in a discipline. You would sit still and upright, and the master would walk by and whack you on the back with a stick if you were slouching. There are really tough, rigorous intellectual exercises like everyone’s heard what is the sound of one hand clapping, stuff like that.

This was really actually a very mindfulness-oriented approach whereas– and I did this since the early ’90s with Joko Beck the late– one of the greatest Zen teachers ever and really the first famous American female Zen master. She wrote a book called Nothing Special and Everyday Zen. I met Tibetans in 2005. The Tibetans have an absolutely different approach. Mindfulness is part of it, if you go by yourself and go to a retreat somewhere. Sitting still and silent is not part of it. They’re really noisy, they’re really loud. They do a lot of chanting. They’ve got bells. There’s a lot more of an energy-based focus.

With the Zen practice, you’re sitting in a very austere setting, you’ve got a black cushion and a black thing called the Zabuton that you sit on. It’s very disciplined. There’s a bell that rings at the beginning and at the end, you don’t really talk. There’s not a lot of emphasis placed on the intellectual aspect of learning or giving one’s dissertations on teaching [unintelligible 00:08:56]. Whereas the Tibetans, you could go to a teaching, say, with His Holiness Dalai Lama, for weeks on end dealing with a particular course of study, whether it’s just a reading or say an initiation process, which is another completely different level, which I talk about in depth in The 12-Step Buddhist.

The orientation of working with your experience, so there’s a tantric approach rather than saying no to an emotion like anger, which you would do in a more mindfulness way or a Theravada or a Vipassana approach. These practices are useful and helpful, but there’s another approach in the Tibetan systems which is more about using mantra, visualization, chanting to actually transform and use that energy to bring you a jump-start to enlightenment. Rather than blocking it off, you actually use it, which is similar if anybody does a movement-based yoga practice, like power of Vinyasa that I do with heat. You’re really moving and breathing and you’re stirring things up. That’s a totally different experience than sitting still and silent for hours at a time.

David: They can both be useful, but it’s all part of– and that’s where you get into integrating everything.

Darren: You get into integrating. The Tibetans did this amazing thing. They spent about 300 years collecting all of the teachings that they could from everywhere around them and translating them and putting them into categories. They’ve got this vast library of teachings, which cover all the bases. A lot of times in the Tibetan systems, you’ll get what could be confusing if you don’t have the overview of what all those differences are because they meld a lot of them together.

David: You’ve mentioned this a couple times, you wrote a book, 12-Step “Buddhism.”

Darren: The 12-Step Buddhist.

David: Buddhist. Describe what that’s about. I think I read you say that the 12-step approach how it’s traditionally been done is generally not the best way. It’s not enough. What is this new comprehensive, multifaceted approach? What does that bring?

Darren: What I talked about then, 10 years ago in 2009 was, as you said, a comprehensive multifaceted approach to recovery where we would use more tools than just what you would find say in a typical AA meeting, in a 12-step context. You are limited to the book. It’s conference approved. You can have your interpretation of God, but a lot of times you get– people have told me and I’ve had the experience, you get the feeling that you will eventually come around to see it their way.

Even if you are someone of a different order, agnostic or atheist or have a completely different– if you’re Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist, you may or may not have a very easy time integrating those beliefs into that really patriarchal monotheistic sort of Christian-derived type of mentality in 12-step. The idea that I originally had with The 12-Step Buddhist– and it’s still effective. That book has helped thousands and thousands of people. If you don’t want to go to something different than AA because– You can look at a meeting guide and find AA anywhere anytime in your country, right?

David: Yes.

Darren: You don’t want to go try to find a small group that has two or three people sitting around the table that have a resentment against AA. You’re looking at a way to integrate. The way I do that is to basically strip out the principles of the 12-steps such as forgiveness and compassion. These types of principles that are inherent and because it says in the AA 12-steps, we practice these principles in all of our affairs. That means that we have principles contained within the steps embedded in the language which a lot of people have trouble with.

The idea in that book– and I just did the 10-year anniversary of this, which is going to be out in the fall. Updating it with a lot of the new brain science and so forth and what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced in my own journey, problems that I’ve had falling into what I call the funnel, which is going off the deep end in sobriety where a lot of people wind up relapsing, suicidal. It happens a lot more often than we’d like to admit most of the time.

The integration of Buddhism is pretty simple because if you understand what the Buddha talked about in terms of the root of suffering, which is attachment, then you understand the root of addiction. I always say that if attachment is the root of suffering, addiction is attachment gone wild. It’s a continuum, and that’s something that I’m talking about in the new work, the spectrum of addiction and the spectrum of recovery.

In The 12-Step Buddhist, the integration was basically “Let’s look at those common principles that we have and then let’s look at some ways that we can practice those things and then stay within the context of the 12-step program.” You can be comfortable sitting in a AA meeting or any meeting as a Buddhist without feeling like it’s not for you.
David: How those principles can adapt and how you can you feel like that’s still useful.

Darren: I felt at the time that AA or the 12-step model was a necessary but not sufficient cause for recovery. In other words, I felt that you couldn’t stay sober without it, you had to have it but if it didn’t fit everybody, what can we do to try to understand how it could fit with different types of viewpoints.

David: Here at the conference, you were speaking on compassionate recovery. Let’s start this part of the conversation by having you define what that means to you, compassionate recovery.

Darren: Compassionate recovery basically started after I wrote The 12-Step Buddhist. I went to one of my teachers, a Tibetan lama, his name is Lama Zopa Rinpoche and I said, “Rinpoche, I’ve got this book and I’m doing these groups and retreats, what should I teach people?” He looked at me and he said, “Teach them about compassion.” That was about 10 years ago and that resonated through to this day.

I’m still learning what he meant by that. A couple of years ago, I was sitting around with a friend who has– a younger guy in his 20s, nearer to recovery, couple years sober. We’re talking about some of the problems we have in the typical AA meeting and that sort of thing. I started thinking about what could we do to really take the principles of not only Buddhism but other types of disciplines as well and stuff that you might learn in yoga or that you might learn from a shaman or that people might learn on things like Ayahuasca ceremonies and stuff like that.

They try to learn how to– not just in a Buddhist sense because we do have Refuge Recovery. Refuge Recovery is really pretty strictly Buddhist. They are open to other things, but there are some issues and some copyright things and some scandals and falling apart of that whole type of thing. That’s still a really popular program that’s really needed because people do need, I’ll say, alternatives.

The compassionate recovery idea is basically this. It’s universal, it’s inclusive. You’re basically looking at an applicability through principles and an accessibility to anybody from any orientation, any cultural, religious, non-religious, secular, spiritual, or also any type of addiction going from early attachments, which may be problematic or not quite in the abuse category all the way to severe addiction. You’ve got a spectrum of addiction which compassionate recovery is open to rather than saying, “If you go to an AA meeting or if you’re a real alcoholic, you– If you’re not a real alcoholic–” You know what I mean?

David: It’s like a competition, who is the worst.

Darren: Yes. My story is worse than your story and telling the drunk log and if it’s alcohol only and if you did drugs– They started Narcotics Anonymous because they were told “You can’t talk about your drugs here in AA.” Rather than splitting hairs and having that exclusivity or elitism in a sense, the idea is to make it open, universal, and inclusive. It’s also trauma-informed.

There’s a lot of evidence in science that’s come out in the past 30 years, but really particularly in the past decade or so due to advances in the technology to study the brain. We have evidence on what happens in the brain that creates substance abuse at all different levels, puts one into that potential such as the ACE study, early childhood trauma. We have brain science around trauma. What happens in the brain early on. What happens in the brain as a result of events that happened as adults, for example, that sort of thing.

Then, we also have this amazing research on what happens in the brain when we do contemplative practices. The Dalai Lama has been working through The Mind and Life Institute and MIT and most recently with Stanford since 2012 with the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research. They’ve split off into something called The Compassion Institute, which gives you science-based results on practicing different types of contemplative practices. Not just sitting and being mindful, but really active engaged practices such as compassion and how to practice compassion for yourself and for others.

Basically, what I’m trying to do with compassionate recovery is put together the evidence and the science on compassion, on addiction, and on trauma and put those together in a principles-based, nonlinear-type program. You don’t have to go start step one, get a sponsor, and go all the way to step 12. You can dip into any principle that suits you at any time and you can do your practice, which I have some skills trainings for peers that I’m developing now through Addiction Academy in another platform where as a peer you can come in and learn, say, five mindfulness techniques.

You’re not going to be a teacher, but you’re just going to be somebody who has a little bit of skill in that area and you can lead these community-based meetings. It’s the idea of a support group in the community. Then, we also have another level of training that we’re going to be doing for clinicians where you go in and do an in-service and teach about the neuroscience, teach about the integration with different treatment modalities like acceptance and commitment therapy or DBT or CBT, so the clinicians can have a firm grasp on a larger-scope treatment approach. Then, you go to a 30-day treatment center that’s compassionate recovery certified and you can go out of that treatment center and attend compassionate recovery groups, which have the same types of skills and the same types of training, which are also ongoing. That’s another really big thing about compassionate recovery. AA is carved in stone. They won’t change the words that say– They use a male-oriented language. They won’t change those words because if it works, don’t fix it. No matter how many conferences they have on trying to get that together.

Compassionate recovery starts from a whole different perspective. We’re totally open to science, we’re totally open to all different types of addictions, we’re also totally open to all different types of tools that can be used in recovery. If we’re wrong, we’ll scrap something and try something new.

David: Talk a little bit about why that is so important to integrate the spiritual contemplative side with that science because you’re talking about brain science, neurological science.

Darren: This is what’s amazing. Buddhists have been doing this thing, yogis have been doing this thing for thousands of years, but there’s no context of addiction, there’s no Western context of materialism, really. When you get into using, for example, a practice on loving kindness where you learn at first to meditate a little bit, get still and silent, use a little bit of mindfulness, and then call to mind someone that you love, a loved one, a puppy, a baby, somebody that’s really easy for you to have love for you. I taught this in my first book, and I’ve taught this for years in groups, but we take that practice and we extend it from the person who it’s easy to the person who it’s not so easy, like say people that you don’t really know, people in traffic, even all the way to your worst enemies.

David: That’s how it’s going to be in real life.

Darren: In real life. You’re going to have to– If you see somebody on the news who just did a horrible thing, how are you going to have compassion for that person? What Stanford did with this training is amazing, is that they really broke it down into an eight-week course where they teach one skill at a time. They measured that and the efficacy of it in terms of the way it’s presented, the length of presentation, the exact skill that’s used, the practices that are done on a daily basis, and they measured people on a bunch of different scales over time just to know what was the best formula.

This is not just stuff that you heard about, you thought was interesting and spiritual, so you went to a retreat. This is something that’s really organized and scientifically set up in a way that’s super effective. I just actually did the eight-week compassion cultivation training a few months ago, and I have had breakthroughs. I’m 21 years sober, I’ve been in therapy 25 years, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist, I’ve taught all this stuff, and somehow through these simple ways of doing things, I’ve had unbelievable breakthroughs that I never thought was possible. This is the healing that I think is necessary to prevent relapse.

David: Right, yes. Here, at the conference, with this audience and people who are helping others through that process, what do you hope they take away? What do you hope they learn about this and can integrate, take back with them to their practice?

Darren: Basically, just what we’re talking about that there’s a lot of science now behind this. All of these treatment centers that you would see with booths at the conference are offering something like mindfulness and yoga. Whereas 20 years ago, nobody offered it. It was a totally woo-woo kind of thing to do, right? Every clinician that you meet at a conference like this has mindfulness training and skills, the majority do. This is a really, really big part and with good reason.

What I want people to understand is that there’s been a silo between these different categories. There’s the trauma people, there’s the substance abuse people, there’s the meditation people. What I’m just doing is pulling it all together and integrating that into a very easy-to-learn format that you can use and start groups. You can go to and download meeting formats. We’ve got prerecorded meditations.

What I really want to do is call to action for everybody who’s in the clinical field that has something that they feel would be useful to get onboard with compassionate recovery and connect with people who are going to be reading this book and go into these types of meetings. One thing that I always did with my 12-step Buddhist retreat is that I’d have five or six different types of providers show up to a retreat up in the mountains. We’d have a Reiki person, an acupuncturist, a massage therapist, a Tibetan singing bowl, a shaman, all these different types of people. Then, I bring a bunch of addicts up there and they get to meet each other and learn about.

As a clinician, you got to know how to deal with addicts. As an addict, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what types of resources to utilize. I really want to just get the idea out there and let people know that if they go to, they can contribute, they can be part of the network, they can have us come out and do some trainings and participate in it and find out more, because this is something that’s really, really needed and very, very effective in my life and in the lives of many people who I know who tried this thing.

David: To wrap up, everyone who works in this field has their own personal reasons for wanting to get up and do it every day and, obviously, you with your own personal journey through addiction recovery, could you end by summing up why this mission is so important to you?

Darren: To be perfectly candid, I was in a funnel, around 17 years sober. I got involved in a toxic relationship that I was addicted to. Just like any good addict, everybody around me said, “Darren, you’re an addict, you’re addicted to this relationship,” and I kept saying, “No, no, no. It’s not addiction, it’s love.” [chuckles] I’ve done the love addiction treatment for survivors at The Meadows with Pia Mellody. I know enough about this topic. I didn’t realize that it really was a trauma-based addiction. It really was something that we called trauma bonding or Stockholm syndrome.

What happened, David, is that it brought me to my knees. I was not willing to use, but I wasn’t really wanting to live anymore. This is with 17 years sober. My ex-partner told me, “Darren, you wrote The 12-Step Buddhist as a letter to your future self. Read it, look at what you learned there and apply it in your life.” As I did that and as I wrote that 10-year anniversary edition, I also, as I was saying, realized that there is a next level to this, there’s a logical next place to go with it and that’s the basis of it.
Really, I’m my own case study. I’m a very resourceful person. It’s easy for me to go out and bang on doors and get the answers. Not everybody really has that ability or interest, so I’m doing the research for you and coming up with things that I’ve found work for myself. Since they’ve worked for me, I’m pretty sure that they have a good chance of helping others.

David: All right. Darren, thank you so much for your time, for being with us.

Darren: My absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.

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Integrating Buddhism and the 12 Steps

Episode #102 | August 8, 2019

How can ancient principles from Zen and Tibetan Buddhism integrate with modern treatment programs to help more people build lasting recovery?

We’ll discuss this with author Darren Littlejohn on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

For more about Darren’s book, The 12 Step Buddhist, visit

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