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Buddha, Meditation & The 12 Steps

by Kelly O'Rourke Johns

I drive through the quaint St. Paul, Minn., neighborhood with
hardly a glance at the stately old homes that line the street or the
moss-covered buildings of Macalester College. I can feel my chest
constrict with stress and my neck stiffen as my thoughts race
through several heavy worries—an ill friend, a diabetic uncle, fin-
ancial struggles. There’s the added tension there that goes along
with not knowing what to do with the stress. It’s been a long time
since I’ve picked up a drink.

I shuffle into Mind Roads Meditation Center and dutifully
mimic others as they take a chair or zabuton (meditation cushion)
and claim a spot on the hardwood floor. Our central focus is a
carved prayer table in the middle of the floor, behind which sits an
attractive, petite woman with silver eyes and hair. I expect her voice
to be soothing, her words to be vested of the wisdom and compas-
sion I found in her book Mindfulness and the 12 Steps. I am not
disappointed. Thérèse (pronounced “Ter-ez”) Jacobs-Stewart,
founder of the center and leader of the Twelve Steps and Mindful-
ness meeting, introduces herself and explains how our next hour
will play out: a short discussion of a Step, 20 minutes of guided
meditation, group discussion and more meditation. I wonder how
in the world I’ll let go of my worries long enough to practice mind-
fulness for even a few minutes.

Jacobs-Stewart leads by openly contemplating the Buddhist
concept that our existence is a shared experience. “By recogniz-
ing that we are part of the ‘Great We,’” she explains, “we join the
ranks of the entire community of people in recovery—those who
are recovering now, those who will recover and those who recov-
ered long ago.” Compelled by her soothing voice and thoughts of
a vast fellowship of support, my tensions begin to recede.

Mindfulness and the 12 Steps is one of those books you read
with a highlighter and a notebook nearby. Before I’d gotten half-
way through my copy, I’d given up all hopes of passing it on to a
friend as I do most books. This one, with its dog-eared pages and
scribbled margin notes, would clearly be a keeper. My first im-
pression of Jacobs-Stewart as we meet for lunch not long after the
meditation meeting is that she’s probably a keeper, too.

For starters, her very presence seems to elicit calm. She joins
me over fresh Italian fare at a sunny table and spends some time
adjusting, taking in, acknowledging. We discuss my dog-eared
book and her checkered childhood it describes—complete with an
alcoholic father, debilitating drug addiction and suicide attempt.
Sitting across from Jacobs-Stewart, it’s hard to imagine that such
a serene being sprang from such turmoil. She says that the painful
experiences have helped her grow.

“I have had to learn a lot of letting go,” Jacobs-Stewart says of
being an adult child of an alcoholic. “Especially the equanimity
part. I always have to watch that caretaker side of me and try to
help but not take on too much responsibility.”

We talk about her recovery, Buddhist thought and the events
that led her to open the Mind Roads Meditation Center in 2004
at which are held the Twelve Steps and Mindfulness meetings.
More than 30 years ago, a strung out Jacobs-Stewart walked into
a Twelve Step meeting after her car died in a church parking lot.
Recovery stuck. Part memoir, part guide, Mindfulness and the 12
Steps
outlines Jacobs-Stewart’s recovery path as a Twelve Step-
per whose keen interest in contemplative practices brought her
to study the Ignatian Exercises (based on the experiences of Saint
Ignatius of Loyola as a method of understand- ing and acting on God’s
will), Buddhism and mindfulness. In her many years studying as a
spiritual director, she discovered striking similarities between Buddhist
teachings and Twelve Step philosophy.

“I didn’t see the parallels on a conscious level at first,” she says.
“In the course of leading many meetings on the topic, it makes you articulate”
how ancient Eastern thought and Western recovery practices echo similar principles.
Those articulations came together as Mindfulness and the 12 Steps, which
follows her first book on serenity, Paths are Made by Walking.

Meanwhile, Jacobs-Stewart became a licensed psychotherapist
and eventually took on corporate clients as a consultant. Growing
restless, and inspired by a recovery and mindfulness gathering at
Clouds and Water Zen Center in Minneapolis and San Francisco
Zen Center’s Meditation in Recovery group, Jacobs-Stewart and
her husband renovated a charming 1920’s building in St. Paul, and
Mind Roads Meditation Center was born. The mindfulness meet-
ings, she says, grew in popularity by “word of mouth” and now
attract a healthy patronage. Indeed, Twelve Steps and Mindfulness
meetings are cropping up across the country. We discuss how
mindfulness is, as she points out in her book, a way of rewiring

“With practice, meditation changes the brain’s chemistry,” says
Jacobs-Stewart. “It short-circuits our knee-jerk reactions and
misguided self beliefs.”

I ask her if it is truly possible to be constantly mindful—some-
thing I practice but rarely achieve. She considers the question
thoughtfully, her youthful features brightening in a serene smile.

“Any little thing you can do counts,” she says. “This aware-
ness thing grows itself. When you first start working the program,
you’re thinking about the Steps and applying it. Over the years,
it starts living you. I felt very similarly about Buddhism. All we
have to do is incline our mind in that direction, and it grows itself.”

The sound of a bell chimes somewhere in the darkness, and I
grudgingly return my awareness to the polished wooden floor,
the meditation cushions and other meditators at Mind Roads. The
hour has flown by, and I feel infinitely more calm and present. My
worries sit at an arm’s length—I see them from a safe and objec-
tive distance. The group clasps hands as we form a circle and close
the meeting with a prayer.

If, indeed, I’ve begun the process of rewiring my brain, I have
to admit I like the feeling. “Keep it with you!” Jacobs-Stewart calls
out as the group disperses. I make a mental note to do just that.

For further information visit www.mindroads.com

 

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