I have come to view the years I spent in active addiction as my having been trapped in state of perpetual unconsciousness. That is not to say there was no mental or emotional activity. On the contrary, whether I was getting high or not, my mind raced incessantly and my emotions swung to extremes. I say that I was unconscious because all of this mental and emotional activity occurred without much if any apparent effort on my part as if it all were happening automatically. I have since learned that these reactive patterns were conditioned in me from a very young age and were likely reinforced by both genetic and other biological factors. Initially, alcohol and drugs soothed the perpetual state of anxiety (or, dissatisfaction, discontent, dis-ease, or dukkha, if you will) which pervaded my existence. However, these powerful chemicals ultimately turned on me as they acted upon vulnerable reward, memory, and motivation circuitry in my brain to ensure that I would fall into the vicious downward spiral of addiction. Thus the trap of addiction is complex and composed of myriad personal and environmental risk factors which conspire to form the trance of automaticity. And so, for me the process of recovery has essentially entailed an awakening to the causes and conditions of these automatic reactive patterns. More importantly, it has also been about learning to step out of and interrupt these patterns through cultivation of mindfulness.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The promise of the 12th step is that by the time we have reached this point in our program of recovery, we will have experienced a “spiritual awakening”. Exactly what that means and what that entails will certainly vary from person to person. However, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous characterizes it as a “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery”. Thus the essence of a “spiritual awakening” for anyone is marked by a shift in attitude — or as Dr. Silkworth put it, “an entire psychic change” — brought about by working the preceding eleven steps and then implementing the foundational principles associated with each of them in one’s life.
Last December, when I learned that Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul, Minnesota would host the 6th Annual Buddhism and 12-Step Retreat, I immediately began making plans to attend. It was with great anticipation that I boarded a plane on March 7 and flew to the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the 3-day retreat. What follows are my initial thoughts and reflections from this remarkable event; but first, some background information is in order…
Upon reaching the 8th Step last summer, I had made substantial progress in freeing myself of the closed-mindedness towards spiritual matters that had previously blocked my recovery. Leading up to that point, while working the 3rd Step, I had come across Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and for the first time felt that I could honestly trust the process of recovery — an experience which I wrote about in an essay entitled An Appeal for Pantheism. However, as I moved forward with the work of Steps 4 through 7, further spiritual investigation was forestalled in favor of Albert Ellis’ rational approach to cognitive restructuring. Ellis’ techniques proved practical and effective. But as I began to consider the 8th Step, I was drawn back to the search for a spiritual underpinning from which I could make sense of the amends process which I was about to undertake. It was time for me to face, once and for all, the deep-seeded shame and resentment which had fueled my addiction. And so, the search for a spiritual antidote to these problems resurfaced.
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
This award winning film takes viewers into India’s largest prison which also happens to be one of the toughest in the world. The film documents the dramatic change brought about in both inmates and prison guards under the visionary leadership of Inspector General, Karin Bedi who oversaw the introduction of Vipassana meditation into the prison.
Those who work the 12 Steps are promised to have a spiritual awakening — a notion which, at first, seemed to me to be unattainable if not outright fanciful. After all, how could someone like me, with all of my prejudices, ever become awakened to the mystery and beauty of this life? Looking through the prism of active addiction, life appeared bleak, purposeless, and vacuous. However, faced with no other alternative than to surrender or die, I set aside my prejudices and opened my mind to new possibilities. Now, having undertaken the work of the 8th and 9th Steps, I have no doubt that a spiritual awakening is not only possible for me, but that it has been happening all along.
Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. A prolific author, Kornfield has written more than a dozen books that have been translated into twenty languages. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology and is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and of Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California.
The following meditation on forgiveness is taken from his website at www.jackkornfield.com:
I am the owner of my karma.
I inherit my karma.
I am born of my karma.
I am related to my karma.
I live supported by my karma.
Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, I shall inherit.
— The Buddha —
In the final scene of the epic film, The Wizard of Oz, the heroine Dorothy learns a surprising truth from Glinda the Good Witch — that the elusive power to get back home had actually been right there within Dorothy’s reach all along her journey through the Land of Oz. Ultimately, Dorothy never really needed the assistance of the Wizard, nor of anyone else, to return to her beloved Kansas. When the Scarecrow angrily asked why this critical information had not been revealed to Dorothy sooner, the wise witch laughed and stated:
“Because she wouldn’t have believed me; she had to learn it for herself.”
As I look back on my own life journey, now in the light of Steps 6 and 7, I am certain that many of the problems that I have faced persisted because, like Dorothy, I too was ignorant of the solution which was within my reach all along. Far astray from home, I looked outside of myself for quick fixes and for roads leading away from the despair. I was told, but I did not believe, that my method of attempting to align people and circumstances to my liking would prove fruitless. I was duped by the illusion of control created by me in my own Oz-like fantasy world in which I was the absolute center of attention. The fact that I did not end up flattened by a falling house as did the Wicked Witch of the East, nor ravaged by her sister’s winged monkeys, is an indication of true grace.
Fortunately, my honest surrender came before my certain demise. It was only then that it became possible for me to learn — and more importantly, for me to believe — that the elusive power which I had sought for so long was always right there inside of me. This I could not be told, but had to learn from my own experiences along the Yellow Brick Road.
The Greek Stoic Philosopher, Epictetus, wisely observed that
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.”
Though the statement itself may be short and simple, the philosophy behind it is profound. It is a philosophy that was not lost on Dr. Albert Ellis who, as a result of his own neurotic self-disturbing, learned at an early age what Stoics like Epictetus had known long before — we are, with few exceptions, responsible for our own psychological well-being and that, for the most part, we create our own neurotic tendencies. It is upon the foundation of this simple philosophy that Ellis created the forerunner of all cognitive-behavior therapies — Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). It is a therapeutic approach which empowers the individual by exposing the myth of self-esteem, and by offering instead the philosophical approach of unconditional acceptance.