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The Twelve Steps Meet the Eightfold Path

By Jim Tillman

In October of 2014, Magnolia Grove Meditation Practice Center hosted the first mindfulness retreat for people in twelve-step pro­grams and their extended community. The retreat was called “True Nourishment and Healing” in reference to the Fifth Mindfulness Training, establishing common ground with people in  twelve-step programs who abstain from alcohol, drugs, or other life-destroying habit energies that manifest as addictions. We were lucky to have Order of Interbeing member Peter Kuhn travel from California to share his experience, strength, and hope with us by facilitating several workshops. We also participated in retreat activities and heard Dharma talks given by Brothers Phap Huy and Phap Uyen.

Although it was not heavily promoted, fifty-five people signed up for the retreat and arrived from all over the South, including Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, and Arkansas. A diverse group of family supporters, counselors, and addiction professionals joined us. With monastics and others visiting for the weekend, there were almost one hundred people at the newest monastery in North America.

After orientation by the monastics, retreatants formed a circle and stated our intentions for the retreat. Many had been on prior retreats, but a large number were first-timers interested in cultivating mindfulness practices to strengthen their recovery and spiritual growth. There was some nervousness and excitement the first night when we experienced a real southern gully washer—a powerful thunderstorm with an amazing display of lightning. But the weather cleared and improved every day in gracious southern hospitality.

The grounds of Magnolia Grove are beautiful and we had the opportunity to enjoy them with walking meditation on the first day of retreat. The practice of moving meditation was a revela­tion to many, and we all enjoyed the fresh cool morning. The day continued with working meditation in our four family groups: Love, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity. The twelve-steppers felt right at home, as service work is a core principle of recovery from addiction. In an excellent Dharma talk, Brother Phap Huy discussed the four nutriments and the practice of stopping and looking deeply. A wonderful vegan lunch followed the talk and it was transformative for many who were new to eating medita­tion. After lunch, we were invited to practice deep relaxation; the sisters’ beautiful songs watered many good seeds deep within our consciousness as we rested peacefully and woke up refreshed.

Dharma discussion was facilitated by monastics in our family groups. There was rich sharing as twelve-steppers raised questions about mindfulness and meditation, and monastics had questions about the steps and the disease of addiction. Peter facilitated an afternoon workshop that focused on topics such as Higher Power, prayer, and spiritual awakening. The first full day of the retreat ended with noble silence after chanting, sitting meditation, and a reading of the Discourse on Happiness.

On Saturday morning, the energy was focused as people began to practice more diligently and mindfully. Many woke up extra early to enjoy the big bell and chanting and were rewarded with an amazing display of stars in the early morning darkness. The moment was timeless and magical. After breakfast and work­ing meditation, we continued to enjoy idyllic weather and were reminded that “peace is every step” and that our teacher was there with us, as we practiced walking meditation on the beautiful mon­astery trails peppered with small signs in Thay’s calligraphy. Peter offered a talk about “the original addiction” and gave an excellent review of the first three steps in twelve-step programs, emphasiz­ing the beautiful harmony among these programs, the practice, and the Buddhadharma. Many twelve-steppers are attracted to the Buddha’s path of awakening because both of these paths provide a method for transforming afflictions such as addiction, and may include spiritual awakening and a bodhisattva vow.

As retreatants gained greater understanding, they began to practice more wholeheartedly, and tensions present at the begin­ning of the retreat were eased. People began to smile more, the meals were more peaceful, and work teams flowed in greater harmony. Dharma discussion was spirited as understanding grew among the monastics, the twelve-step members, and their extended community of support. The late afternoon twelve-step workshop touched on character defects, how and where we get in our own way, and the practice of stopping and looking deeply. Delicious vegetarian pho was served for supper, and many retreatants re­quested recipes and vegan cooking tips, even asking for a future retreat on mindful cooking and eating.

By Sunday morning, there was a palpable feeling of happi­ness, joy, and freedom in the community. People expressed interest in the Five Mindfulness Trainings in a discussion that followed their recitation. Brother Phap Uyen offered the morning Dharma talk, reminding us to weather the storms of life by returning to our breath using the acronym PBS (pause, breathe, and smile). The retreat ended with a picnic lunch under the beautiful oak trees.

It was an inspiring time and many positive comments were shared, along with requests for future twelve-step mindfulness retreats. Connections were formed and strengthened, the feel­ing of community grew, and deeper understanding of addiction habit energy was gained. New practices were added to attendees’ “spiritual tool kits,” and those who had been practicing on their own discovered an entirely new family of Sangha support. As we say in the twelve-step program, “together we can” do what we cannot alone.

Since this initial twelve-step retreat, similar retreats have taken place at Magnolia Grove and Deer Park Monasteries, and twelve-step meetings within an OI retreat focused on how to build connections within the healing community.


A twelve-step program is “a set of guiding principles (sometimes accepted by members as being ‘spiritual principles’) outlining a course of action for tackling problems including alcoholism and drug addiction.” “The first twelve-step program began with Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) in the 1930s and has since grown to be the most widely used approach in dealing not only with recovery from alcoholism, but also from drug abuse and various other addictive and dysfunctional behaviors.” Al-anon Family Groups and Alateen offer “a program of recovery for the families and friends of alcoholics, whether or not the alcoholic recognizes the existence of a drinking problem or seeks help.” (Sources:,,

Jim Tillman, True Realm of Magnolias, has been practicing in the Plum Village tradition since 2008. After receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 2011, he helped establish the Jackson Area Moments of Joy Sangha in central Mississippi. Jim’s favorite quote by Thich Nhat Hanh is, “No mud, no lotus.” Jim has been married to Emily Tillman since 1991 and they are the proud parents of two sons—Tripp, twenty, and Jacob, eighteen.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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