Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cutting Through Spiritual Hucksterism: Part 2: 12 Step-ism is Not the Dharma

I was asked by a commenter on another thread about my comment below as to 12 Step Groups were not the Dharma. I had said "I couldn't begin to tell" why they were not, and of course he asked to explain more.

Well, to answer such a question one needs to know what the Dharma is and what 12 Step Groups are. With regard to the former of course, there are myriad ways ("10,000" as the Asian literature says) to express and practice the Dharma. Couoldn't 12 Step-ism be one of those ways? Don't 12 Step Groups want to help people?

Going back to what Budhism is, the summary in Wikipdedia is not bad, but it leaves a glaring deficiency, which I'll get to in a moment. But key concepts in Buddhism include:

  • Karma, cause and effect, interdependency, interdependent arising, anatman and impermanence

  • The Four Noble Truths

  • The Noble Eightfold Path

  • Middle Way

I've highly abbreviated and consolidated the headings of the Wikipedia article, for a couple of reasons:

1. The notions covered in the first bullet item are all highly, densely related. Being is dense, and interdependent.

2. The section on "Buddhist Practice" (the glaring deficiency I mentioned above) is in fact woefully lacking the main Buddhist practice: i.e., practicing mindfulness, loving-kindness, and holding to the precepts in the most trivial moments of the day, even when you feel like crap because you got the cold that's going around.

I can recommend any number of books for those who want to go deeper into what Buddhism is. To deeply consider the implications of interdependency, I would recommend the reader read the Diamond Cutter Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (the long version of the "Heart Sutra,") and Nagarjuna. (Here is a treatise on Nagarjuna on line, containing some of his text, for example.)

To study some Buddhist ethics and practice, as well as the Eight Fold Path, I'd recommend this book by Henepola Gunaratana.

To get the emotion of the Eight-Fold Path from the Mahayana perspective, I'd refer the reader to certain sections of the Lotus Sutra...

It is no doubt true that there are people in 12 Step Groups who are of good will, and people who think they're doing something not only good, but doing something necessary for themselves. There are even people in 12 Step Groups that are Buddhists, and how they reconcile the dogma of 12-Stepism with the outlook and practice of Buddhism is eventually up to them.

But just as Falun Da Fa (what you might know as "Falun Gong"), despite its name, is not Buddhism (subject for another long post, perhaps!) neither is 12 Stepism.

12 Step groups have made many claims over the years, and it's not difficult to find their boosters and backers. Again, I have no problem with those that believe they need to go to 12 Step meetings to come to terms with some behavior they want to modulate or attenuate. But, when the dogma of 12 Step groups makes empirically testable claims and when experiments repeatedly demonstrate failure of the dogma's claims, it's time to change the dogma.

For me, however, next to the Scientology and Creationism internet wars over the past 2 decades the next best cult un-doing in the past two decades was the well-overdue upbraiding of 12 Step Groups. (Though there's also the Arianna Huffington cult as well, but I digress.) Anyone reading literature relating to objective scientific studies on 12 Step Groups from reputable psychological journals could only come to one conclusion: much of what 12 Steppers were promoting as the "disease" of "addiction" boils down to a version of the placebo effect, one way or the other: it's one's beliefs about substances or actions that govern behavior. This is an important point, and an important distinction from Buddhism: in Buddhism, the little "I" is not the guy you listen to. And listening to somebody else's "little I" - or even a group of somebodies' "little we" - others' beliefs - is no substitute. It doesn't matter if they're pretending god speaks through them.

You can't get out that way. Your picture of a rice cake is no more reality than anyone else's picture of a rice cake, even if they got it from the Buddha. Yes, I know, in some forms of Buddhism there's gurus you swear fealty to or some such thing, but that system has a high abuse potential, and history has borne that out.

No, you've signed on the dotted line, in your actions, in your behavior, in your response to your thoughts. You could be drunk and a butthead or sober and a butthead, or you could do better either way.

There are folks that shouldn't drink of course, and who benefit from fellowship of people who shouldn't drink. But they're no more qualified by their abuse or dependency to propound on the nature and policies regarding alchohol abuse and dependency than Terri Schiavo, in her comatose state, was to give tennis lessons to Andy Roddick. And they shouldn't actually: they've got more important work to do. They should leave policy and responses to abuse and dependency to scientists and public policy experts who create policy informed by science, not dogma.

For the reader interested in a critical view of 12 Step Groups, I would recommend any of the See Sharp Press books (available here) as well as Stanton Peele's books. Peele, a psychologist (who 12 Steppers say is funded by the wine industry) has something that 12 Steppers do not have: science on his side. For critiques of 12 Step Groups with the accuracy and flair of doing Scientology, there's the famous Orange Papers.

There's actually tons of this stuff on the 'net; and the situation with copyrights in AA mirrors the situation Scientology had with the folks at and alt.religion.scientology.

One fact keeps coming out of all these critiques: these methods are not safe and effective and have never been shown to be. For some people, they appear to be correlated with increases in psychological disorders. In other words, they might be harming some people. And for a Buddhist to evangelize such a thing would seem to violate precepts.

And here's one guy on You Tube:

Evidently, to the extent that one's 12 Stepism is narcissism, it sure ain't the Dharma.

Finally, the official dogma is that of a religion that denies its a religion, which should give anyone pause, to say the least: why must they not be candid? Regardless of what any stepper would or can argue at this point, though, legally they are a religion; courts have found this over and over and over again.

Again, I've no problem with religion, and those who practice it, but if any religion insists on its dogma that contradicts reality, I'll have to take reality in all its impermanence and interdependency.

That's what Buddhism would lead a Buddhist to do, I would think.

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