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Walking the 12-Step Path with the Buddha: The First Steps

Excerpt from 12 Steps on the Buddha’s Path by Laura S.

I was so impatient to “get it” that “One Day at a Time” to me meant surmounting twelve steps in twelve days. I slowly and thoughtfully read through the Twelve Steps and was confident that I had mastered them after that one, careful reading. Just to make certain, I bought the AA book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" and read it. Then I wasn’t too sure. Soon I discovered that almost all the step meetings in New York City start with Step One the first week of a new year so that most of the meetings are on the same step the same week. So it is possible for the truly possessed to go to a meeting on the same step every night of the week. I did. But the closer I came to the end of each week, the less convinced I was that I’d really gotten that week’s step. In fact, nearly every day since I first thought this, I’ve had an a-ha! experience about what physical, mental, and emotional recovery is about, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have the wisdom or imagination to ever completely “get it.” For that, I am grateful. I never get bored.

The Twelve Steps have given me a roadmap for living through the transformations of recovery. Whenever I have had a problem, I’ve known that the answer lay in one of the steps. Unfortunately, in early sobriety, more often than not I picked the wrong step to try to solve my problem of the moment — I frequently tried to make amends, for example, when I should have been “turning it over.” And in each step, I slammed into at least one word that stopped me cold or that I somehow didn’t see at all. I nevertheless embraced the steps “as if” I trusted every word, and I began to heal. Anyway.

Initially, what cracked my resistance to the steps was the fact that they were written in the past tense. They were not commandments — not even that evasive Higher Power was telling me what to do — but rather were descriptions of how the first hundred members of AA got and stayed sober. To describe the fullness of my spiritual journey in Alcoholics Anonymous and Buddhism, I must begin by sharing briefly my experiences in working with the steps, for today they are inseparable for me from the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings.

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

In the first step, I encountered not one but three words that tripped me up: we, powerless, and unmanageable. I had never been a “we.” I had always been an "I." I didn’t even like wes; they were weak. I was captain of my ship and had always believed that I would go down with it if it sank because no one, ever, would really help me. My sponsor kept throwing one of those detestable slogans at me: Identify — Don’t Compare (with other alcoholics). I had to overcome my terminal uniqueness to even begin to see the way alcoholism had affected my life.

The more meetings I went to, the more I heard my own story from the lips of others who were painfully honest about themselves. I began to see that I truly was the same as these people when it came to my relationship with alcohol. Decades earlier the American Medical Association had labeled alcoholism a disease, and the so-called medical model was very helpful to my acceptance that I was not weak or immoral any more than someone who has a heart attack is. I pacified myself with physical analogies: if human beings weren’t the same physically, there could never be any such thing as a heart Pacemaker or even an aspirin that would be helpful to everyone with a weak heart or headache — it only makes sense that if alcoholism is a disease I’d have the same symptoms and experience the same progression as others with the same disease. I got a handle on we, if only in relationship to alcoholism.

During my childhood in Texas, I was taught that I was not powerless over anything. If I had enough grit and worked hard enough, I could have power over anything. I grew up into an incomparable Control Queen. I had a hard time seeing my powerlessness over alcohol because of my ability to control — up to a point — my drinking. I drank with people who drank like me, or worse than I did, and I had a serious case of Yet — focusing on all the bad things that had never happened to me . . . yet.

Step Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This was the first step where I had to deal with “a Power greater than ourselves.” Though unwritten, God was the word I had to accommodate. At first I went with a fairly common sequence of reading and understanding the step: Came . . . , then Came to . . . , then Came to believe . . . . I had indeed come. I was coming to, and I was coming to believe, in the sense of “coming in order to believe.” What I was believing is that if all the people I heard sharing their lives at meetings could make it, perhaps I could too. I was beginning to have the tiniest flickers of spiritual fire: I was beginning to feel hope.



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