Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Eileen Flanagan

Buddhism meets the 12 steps

The Wisdom to Know the DifferenceEileen Flanagan’s book about the Serenity Prayer, The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change—and When to Let Go, was reissued in paperback yesterday. In preparing the book for reissue, she combed through her archives looking at outtakes… Since one of my favorite interviewees of hers was Park Dong-Sun, a Korean Buddhist monk and recovering alcoholic, Eileen gave an outtake from her interview with Park for the readers of Guinevere Gets Sober.

Eileen brings an honest and deeply thought Quaker perspective to the Serenity Prayer, but not necessarily a perspective from recovery—the community that, from a cultural perspective at least, perhaps gives this prayer the most sky-miles. No one can “own” a prayer… but for hundreds of thousands of people on the planet, the Serenity Prayer brings to mind “the rooms.” Eileen relies on her subjects to provide the personal perspective she herself lacks… and Park Dong-Sun, a longtime Buddhist practitioner, is an entertaining and wise subject. It’s brilliant that she found him.

If you’re looking for a book to teach the principles of discernment between the time to change and the time to accept things as they are, then this book is worth the price. In my review I recommended the chapter about “seeking divine assistance” for people who have trouble with “the God thing” in 12-step programs… But I also recommend the chapter on “letting go of outcomes.” Eileen’s Quaker practice of stillness gives her prose a calm and steady tone and provides the lubricant that helps the medicine go down… Especially when she’s telling me, for example, that I need to let go of my image of what I assume I should be doing, because it may close my mind to divine guidance that contradicts that picture. Something I need to hear right now…

Thanks to Eileen for the text below.

Happy Labor Day weekend.

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Park Dong-Sun, a Buddhist monk and recovering alcoholic, on the 12-step path

Park Dong-Sun came to the United States decades ago to establish business contacts as an exporter/importer. Now in his late 60s, he notes that it was very common for people to drink socially in his native Korea, but not to get drunk. In the United States, however, he started getting drunk, especially when his business failed, and his drinking accelerated. “I used alcohol as a lubricant for socializing,” he explains, though he did not like the effects.

A turning point came when he watched a friend’s son struggle with addiction and then get sober with help from the recovery community. Park was inspired to go himself, first to Al-Anon and then AA, where he observed people who had successfully stopped drinking, something he had been unable to do on his own. “I wanted to be part of it and use their program to quit drinking, and that’s what I did the last 25 years, and I haven’t had a drink since,” he explains.

As Park studied the Twelve Step Program, he had to translate some of the language from the Judeo-Christian tradition into Zen Buddhist concepts. “It was a struggle,” he recalls, but it rekindled his desire to study and practice his own tradition, which he has done for more than 20 years now, along with working the AA program. He does walking meditation about two hours every day. “I haven’t made much progress,” he says laughing. “But I did spend lots of time studying the teachings, over and over and over.”

He takes the saying Let go and let God and relates it to the Zen teaching Let go of all your concepts of life, explaining that this is a powerful teaching, though difficult to practice. “Ultimately the Zen training and practice is to stop conceptualizing. As soon as we conceptualize we limit ourselves, and with that limitation, we cannot see the whole.” For example, you can’t become enlightened by effort. It only comes when you’ve let go of any ambition to be enlightened, which is why so few do it. Park notes that it is difficult to let go completely, especially all of a sudden, “so we move progressively one step after another.” He compares it to doing the Twelve Steps. “There is no beginning, and no end,” he says, like the Serenity Prayer, which he says helps people to get to a higher level.

Park explains that Buddhism recognizes that there are different levels of spiritual practice. A typical church or temple service only requires an elementary level, but the Twelve Steps require an intermediate or even advanced level of spiritual practice, which is why he says they are so difficult for newcomers. One thing that helps in both Buddhism and recovery is community, which Park compares to a nurse that administers the medicine we need. He expresses gratitude for his own communities and thanks all his teachers, including the Buddha.—Eileen Flanagan

A Quaker explores the Serenity Prayer.

Full disclosure: Eileen Flanagan and I are acquainted through Quaker circles.

Flanagan’s subject here is a prayer that is spoken during the tens of thousands of recovery meetings that take place around the world every day.

We recite so frequently that we may no longer even think about the words. Do we grasp their power to help us discern who we are and what God/higher power/Spirit/Universe means us to be doing with the gifts and resources we’ve been given?

Flanagan has interviewed nearly 30 people who have grappled with these questions, and she uses the Serenity Prayer to illuminate their stories.

One of my favorites among her subjects is Park Dong-Sun, a Korean who immigrated to U.S. 25 years ago, at 40. Dong-Sun soon experienced a bunch of business failures and started drinking alcoholically. He joined AA; since he had studied Zen Buddhism in Korea, he brought this to bear on his experience of the 12 steps. Eventually he became a monk. Flanagan writes that one of Dong-Sun’s central questions that the Serenity Prayer helps illuminate is, “Change from what to what?” In other words, as she writes,

Millions of self-help books are sold every year to people hoping to change, but we have to ask ourselves, change in what way, for what purpose? Are we hoping to put on a new False Self, one that will make us more successful or popular? Or do we seek a deeper change, one that realigns our priorities and helps us to live more authentically? This is where listening within and knowing ourselves is crucial. It takes discernment to know what you should accept in yourself and what you should try to change.

Discernment is a major Quaker practice—one that has been central to my own recovery, and one with which Flanagan spends a lot of time in this book. She starts by giving us the original edition of the Serenity Prayer as credited to Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give us grace
To accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things that should be changed,
And the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

That last line is all about discernment. Discernment is both a listening for and a testing of leadings, and can be compared to the activity we undertake when we engage in Step 11: how do we know what Higher Power’s will is for us? How do we carry that out? … For those who have tried 12-step meetings and have difficulty with “the God-thing,” Flanagan’s explorations of discernment and “seeking divine guidance” are well worth a read.

Woven throughout the book is an exploration of the concept and practice of accepting what we cannot change, including—unexpectedly, and perhaps with comfort for those who were raised in overly critical alcoholic families—the greatness instilled in us by our creators. This is a superbly powerful notion: that one of the things I cannot change is my own essential nature … Who I Be. The more I accept my inherent gifts and resources, Flanagan and her subjects’ stories reveal, the greater the likelihood I can use those to serve the good of society and create positive change in the world. My beloved AlAnon sponsor would agree.


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