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Cultivating Mindfulness & Meditation In 12 Step Recovery

Strung out guy staring in mirror

Made a searching and fearless 
moral inventory of ourselves

STEP FOUR - Taking Inventory


In Step One, we made an initial incursion into reality when we admitted the nature of our relationship to alcohol. We began examining our denial and magical thinking. In Step Four we further map the real geography of our lives beyond that single area (although, as we find, almost all parts of our lives have been affected by alcohol). As we have been unwilling to confront the nature of our drinking, so most of us have been in denial about cause-and-effect. Although we would argue otherwise, our behavior has been marked by an inability or unwillingness to recognize that we too must suffer or enjoy the consequences of our actions.  Buddhism calls this cause-and-effect karma. The word itself in Sanskrit means “deed.” In Buddhist understanding, it refers to volitional activity, acts that are preceded by will and that have consequences for the actor. These consequences can either be immediate and obvious [If I throw the glass against the wall, it will break.] or accumulative and subtle. The second sort is sometimes described as environmental karma—actions that create an atmosphere in our lives. For example, if I habitually tell lies, I come to live in a world in which nothing can be accepted as certain, no one can be trusted.


I am constantly juggling my different versions of reality and no one else can believe what I say. If I am violent in word and deed, I attract violence to myself.  On the other hand, if I behave in ways which are honorable, reliable and ethical, I attract other such people to myself. Obviously, this is not 100% true 100% of the time, but as a general rule of thumb, it can keep us out of a lot of trouble. And this in turn means acknowledging our own participation in the creation of our lives, for good or ill.


Here is how Bill W. explained this phenomena in the Big Book, Chapter Five, pg. 62:


“Selfishness--self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.


So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so.”


When we take Step Four, we see that our actions have weight in the world, gravity and mass.  What we do literally matters. We have often denied this, preferring to cast ourselves as victims, to absolve ourselves of responsibility for what we experience.  Or we think that what we do doesn’t matter because we don’t matter.  In a sort of reverse ego-mania, we negate our effect upon our own lives, on others and on the world. We are not accountable because we don’t count.


We create the environment of our present through our actions in the past, but we are free to choose our response to the current situation. The Steps teach us this as well: we are conditioned by our alcoholism and by the decisions we have made, but our future is not condemned to endless repetition. We can interrupt the pattern at any point by taking positive action: by admission of the nature of the situation to ourselves and to another, by redressing our misdeeds to the best of our ability, and by the decision to live differently in the future with the help of good spiritual friends.

Having looked at the basic structure of Step Four, let’s now examine the mechanics more closely. We are asked to take a “searching and fearless moral inventory.” The language here may give us pause. For many of us, there have been years of nothing but self-loathing, failure and despair. Are we now being asked to add to the mire by making a list of our various moral crimes and failings? If Step Four is approached in this way, it is very unlikely to be helpful. Let’s examine some other options for understanding it. 


The word “moral” can be off-putting to some. It may suggest the avenging deity that many of us grew up with, ready to catch us in any transgression, more familiar with punishment than love and who expected no less than perfection from us. This probably does the God of Christianity and Judaism a disservice, as this is certainly far from the understanding of the more spiritually sophisticated members of those communities. But, leaving aside a deity, what is a mindful understanding of the basis of morality? Without a God who determines right and wrong, how shall we judge our behavior?


In Buddhism, morality (or ethics, as it is usually translated) is one of the three foundations of practice, the other two being meditation and wisdom.  It is impossible to practice the other two successfully when an ethical basis to one’s life has not been established. If we are worried about being caught stealing money from our workplace, or cheating on our spouse, if our minds are full of hatred and envy and greed, we will not be able to gather the mind in concentration (which is meditation) or see into the nature of reality (which is wisdom). So ethical conduct is essentially pragmatic. It is the means to the end of awakening.


The Buddhist precepts can be seen as something like training rules and there are two methods of training the mind through precepts, ways that aim at the same end, but come at it from different directions. In the first method the practitioner tries to observe many, and often minute directions covering almost every aspect of their life. The awakening mind is thereby formed through behavior.


This is not so very different from what we see in the AA slogans: fake it till you make it; act as if; bring the body and the mind will follow. Monasticism of all sorts (even in the supposedly iconoclastic Zen tradition) is based on this model. And it works. It works better for some than others, depending on personality; but it is a very effective path of transformation for anyone who can sincerely give him or herself to it. What is necessary is understanding the aim of the discipline rather than clinging to the rule as an absolute.


The other method of precept training is to treat the precepts as questions to be continually held before us as something to be examined.  In other words to work from the inside out. In this tradition there are some variations of the precepts as follows:


  1. A mindful person does not kill.

  2. A mindful person does not take what is not given.

  3. A mindful person does not misuse sexuality.

  4. A mindful person does not lie.

  5. A mindful person does not intoxicate mind or body of self or other.

  6. A mindful person does not praise self at the expense of others.

  7. A mindful person is not possessive of anything.

  8. A mindful person does not harbor ill will.


At first reading, these may seem simple or even obvious. For example, not killing. We can all pretty much agree that taking a gun and shooting someone can be detrimental to our spiritual growth. But what about eating meat, wearing leather, killing insects, paying taxes that go to war?


When we begin to examine the precept closely, it is anything but simple.  What compromises are we willing to make and under what circumstances?  What level of discomfort are we willing to undergo in our lives in applying this precept? Can we realize both the relative existence and the absolute non-existence of killer, killed and killing—without using the absolute as permission for the relative? The practice of precepts from this point of view demands a rigorous honesty and a regular self-examination. We don’t get off the hook by not having some fixed rule.


This is the approach taken by Bill W. in the Big Book regarding sex:


“We do not want to be the arbiter of anyone’s sex conduct. We all have sex problems. We’d hardly be human if we didn’t … we tried to shape a sane and sound ideal for our future sex life.  We subjected each relation to this test—was it selfish or not? … Whatever our ideal turns out to be, we must be willing to grow toward it.”

Alcoholics Anonymous, pg. 69


This is a far cry from a commandment-based moral teaching. A basic principle is defined (i.e. lack of selfishness) and from there we are asked to pay careful attention to our actions to see how closely they adhere to our professed intention. This is ethics from the inside out.


The Fourth Step also asks us to look at our fears. In Buddhist understanding, fear is based on protection of the self from imagined threats to its integrity. There are three basic strategies the ego uses to guard itself: greed, hate and delusion (the unholy triad underlying all impediments to awakening).  With greed, we try to protect ourselves by accumulation: money or sex or new cars or fame or food can be used to erect a wall between ourselves and fearsome reality. Hatred or aversion creates a scorched earth perimeter, allowing nothing close enough to hurt us. Delusion cannot deal with the external world at all, and retreats into fantasy. All of these maneuvers are the attempts of fear to keep the unknown at bay.


Often our fear is so great that it rejects even help and healing. We continue to be willing to suffer in predictable ways rather than take a chance on something new. We live in basic distrust of the world beyond our control and cannot seem to stop the activities that continue to turn the wheel of suffering for others and ourselves.


This is what Step Four asks us to examine: how we continue to create and sustain suffering. Often “our part” has more to do with ignorance than ill will. Lacking other coping mechanisms, we respond to the world with what is at hand. Those tactics can work for a while, can work somewhat, can be better than the alternatives. But when the pain becomes too great and we are driven to change, then this Step offers us ways to examine our lives. And, having examined our lives in this Step, the others go on to show us how to change.


San Francisco Zen Center/2005


Step Five

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