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Cultivating Mindfulness & Meditation In 12 Step Recovery

Pogo from the funny papers

Admitted to God, to ourselves
and to another 
human being
the exact nature of our wrongs

STEP FIVE - Learning What Makes Us Tick

Buddhist monks and lay people have their own version of the Fifth Step; however, instead of an individual practice as we do in A.A., their Buddhist version is a collective one. Each person does not confess his or her individual faults, but they all join in a general confession of failing to live up to their ideals. The verse chanted goes like this:


All my ancient, twisted karma,

From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,

Born through body, speech and mind,

I now fully avow.


In both Buddhism and the 12 Steps, confession is essential for further spiritual growth. It not only relieves us of the burden of our secrets, but—just as importantly—creates or deepens the intimacy we have with our sponsor or teacher. This relationship is of great importance in both traditions.


In AA, all of our recovery work can be traced to the initial conversation between Bill W. and Dr. Bob, in an unbroken line from drunk to drunk. In both traditions we enact this central relationship—of teacher to student, sponsor to sponsee.  We cannot proceed on our own without risking grave dangers to our recovery and our spiritual life. Even with the best intentions, the tendency to cover up, rationalize and give ourselves over to imagination is “cunning, baffling and powerful.” The eye cannot see itself. We need someone else, someone we trust to be on our side, who will give us accurate and loving feedback.


As Bill writes in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:


"Hence it was most evident that a solitary self-appraisal, and the admission of our defects based on that alone, wouldn’t be nearly enough. We’d have to have outside help if we were surely to know and admit the truth about ourselves … Only by discussing ourselves, holding nothing back, only by being willing to take advice and accept direction could we set foot on the road to straight thinking, solid honesty, and genuine humility.  For most of us this is a huge undertaking as we have spent a long time hiding, lying—directly or by omission—covering up and pretending. It is a risk we are sorely tempted to pull back from. And yet, we have to ask ourselves how well our lives have gone without trusting another person, without being willing to be known. To deny ourselves this basic human need for intimacy leads to spiritual death as surely as to deny ourselves food leads to physical death."

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pg. 59


"What are we likely to receive from Step Five? For one thing, we shall get rid of that terrible sense of isolation we’ve always had. Almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness.  Even before our drinking got bad and people began to cut us off, nearly all of us suffered the feeling that we didn’t quite belong … There was always that mysterious barrier we could neither surmount nor understand. It was as if we were actors on a stage, suddenly realizing that we did not know a single line of our parts … Until we had talked with complete candor of our conflicts, and had listened to someone else do the same thing, we still didn’t belong. Step Five was the answer.”

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pg. 57

This Step talks about admission of our wrongs. In many cases this is true. We need to look at and take responsibility for the actions that have caused harm to self and to others. However, this isn’t the whole story. In the Fourth Step we have also looked at our fears and often will find it necessary to talk about things which are not included in the categories provided by the Big Book. We will need to talk about our suffering, no matter the origin of it. For many of us, it is easier to talk about our wrong behaviors. At least we are the actors there, and not passive. To discuss our suffering seems somehow shameful or weak. Anger, as expressed in resentments, is a response to the world that can seem stronger than revealing our hurt. To be vulnerable in this way is something new and frightening for many of us; and often with good reason. We have not always been met with understanding and support in the past. Nor, to be fair, have we been able to offer it to others when we were active in our addictions.


A sponsor can help us to see the patterns in our lives—the habitual behaviors that contribute to our suffering. And he or she can also point out where we are carrying blame that is inappropriate or misplaced. Too often we give ourselves responsibility for things which are beyond our control.  Speaking our Fifth Step to a sponsor can create a new context for self-examination and help us to exit the solitary confinement of internalized guilt and shame. Telling somehow objectifies the behavior, the history, and allows us to begin to see it clearly—what actions of ours (more often caused by ignorance than malice) create or continue the cycle of suffering. Often our own view is warped by the stories we tell ourselves and we cannot recognize what our part actually has been, either denying any part in our own suffering, or piling on a load of blame that is too heavy for anyone. Bringing these feelings and histories into the light is absolutely necessary for healing.


This healing is not only of ourselves, but of our relationships with others.  And in experiencing this, we begin to develop a new understanding of who we are.  This is the essential work of recovery: deconstructing the addicted self, just as in Buddhism we deconstruct the self based on greed, hate and delusion.  What happens, whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we can articulate it or not, is that the boundaries of the self-expand. We are no longer prisoners of the small, dark cell with walls of fear and shame and anger that we have inhabited for so long. Rather who we are begins to stretch beyond our customary definitions to include the other as well. Others become, in American writer Carson McCuller's phrase, “the we of me.” As we will explore in greater detail in Steps Six and Seven, the concept of the self becomes more fluid and our experience less heavy, solid and immovable. 


Our stories—true or imagined—are the stuff of us and by sharing them with another we can begin to retell them in a fashion that returns us to the world. In Step Five we really begin to be restored to sanity as we are promised at the beginning of the path.

San Francisco Zen Center/2005

Step Six & Seven

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