Cultivating Mindfulness & Meditation In 12 Step Recovery
"The Maintenance Steps"
10. Continued to take personal inventory and
when we were wrong promptly admitted it
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to
improve our conscious contact with God,
as we understood Him, praying only
for knowledge of His will for us
and the power to carry it out
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result
of these steps, we tried to carry this message
to alcoholics and to practice these
principles in all our affairs
STEP 10, 11 & 12 - Continuing to Grow
As we continue practicing the Steps, we face the challenge of accepting and forgiving others and ourselves. Finally, in some way or another, we must come to terms with the world as we find it. This later sort of forgiveness (in other words are acceptance and patience) must be based on faith. In order to have serenity in the midst of the inevitable falling-apart of things, a firm basis in a higher power is the only thing that will serve us. To look at the harms we have inflicted upon ourselves and others and to make restitution can be a fearful enterprise. It means to examine the nature of who we think we are and perhaps to find someone else, quite different.
Both the practice of mindfulness and recovery work demand a thorough and honest examination of the self. A mindful understanding of the nature of the self can help us face what we find with some equanimity. When we study the self intensely, when we take the backward step that turns the light inward our notions of what and who we are can change radically. We see that we are formed by all that has gone before us—our parents, their parents, our culture and language and history, and on and on back to the Big Bang. We inherit not only the results of our own karma, but of generational karma as well—the karma of uncountable lives before our own.
Whether or not we really believe this, whether or not it is true, we can experiment with this way of looking at ourselves. This viewpoint is perhaps as objective a one as we are likely to achieve. To study ourselves this way allows us to do so dispassionately, to evaluate our behaviors in terms of cause and effect, rather than good and bad. Ideally, this can relieve us of some of the fear and shame that can come in the wake of considering those we have harmed. We do not disclaim responsibility, but stand back enough from our history that the pain of the memories is somewhat blunted. This allows us to move forward.
In Step Five, we undertook to have no more secrets. In these Steps we make a complete offering of ourselves. All that we are, all that we have become is open. There is nothing more to hide. And with nothing to hide, there is nothing to protect. “To be awakened by the myriad things” is to be in harmony with ourselves, the world and our fellows. Obviously, this states the ideal and “no one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles.” Still, we approach this state of openness, lack of fear and shame, ability to be comfortable with everyone in our lives—to whatever degree—as a direct result of working Steps One through Ten. Our freedom shall be in direct proportion to our honest efforts in this direction.
Step Eleven entails a quantum jump from Step Three. This movement of the heart and mind is a transition from a lower to a higher level of commitment, all the while maintaining its essential identity. It is an elaboration of the initial decision made to turn our will and life over to a higher power.
In both Steps we are faced with a deliberate choice: to make “a decision” and to carry on a “conscious contact.” Steps Three and Eleven both also contain the idea of surrender: in each we endeavor to subordinate our will. These two poles of will and surrender of will are emblematic of the entirety of the Twelve Step program. Both, though seemingly moving in contradictory directions, are essential and must exist at the same time. These are also found in mindfulness meditation. Whatever the particular style, it always contains two elements—calming/concentration and insight.
It is written that when the awakened one-to-be left home in his search for truth, he first studied with two of the most famous teachers of his day. Each taught a version of calming/concentration practice, which he mastered. However, he found these to be ultimately unsatisfactory. After experiencing the bliss and serenity of the meditation state, the practitioner always returns to what he left behind—himself. As a means of complete awakening, calming/concentration by itself is inadequate.
There must, though, be a firm base from which to proceed to insight, but calming and concentration are not ends in themselves; however, they are indispensable for the path leading to awakening and liberation. As Bill W. writes in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:
"And let’s remember that meditation is in reality intensely practical.
One of its first fruits is emotional balance."
Mindfulness practice can be divided into three parts: ethical conduct, meditation and wisdom. In order to practice the sort of meditation that brings us emotional balance, it is necessary that our minds not be overburdened with guilt and remorse for our past actions. In the language of recovery, it is necessary to have cleaned up to the best of our ability the wreckage of our past. At this point, we can sit down in quiet to practice calming and concentration. (It is also true that sometimes our efforts to practice meditation can lead us to understand the necessity of these actions. We should not defer practice until we feel perfectly at ease in our lives. Most of us can’t wait that long.) Our results will depend largely on our ability to cease or diminish those behaviors that cause suffering. This is how ethical conduct (and Steps Four through Ten) affects meditation.
Calming/concentration meditation is that half of the equation in which we surrender. We let go of our busyness and “accept the things we cannot change.” Sitting with the breath or other object of concentration, we allow the rest of our mental activity to subside, returning again and again as the mind wanders.
Step Twelve is comprised of three parts: experiencing a spiritual awakening, carrying the message of deliverance to other alcoholics and practicing these principles throughout our lives. In a spiritual awakening we comeback into contact with our potential for intimate connection with our own lives, with others and with the world. The inherent message in the language of this Step is that this awakening is something which is based on cause and effect. It is not the result of the caprice of a deity who bestows grace upon some and withholds it from others. It is available to anyone willing and able to undertake the necessary work. It can be learned and it can be taught.
Awakening is an on-going process wherein we meet the same situations again and again, although each time on a slightly higher level. As long as we practice with right effort and right view, we are able to see into our behaviors and attitudes with more subtlety and therefore, with better chances of adjusting our behavior. We spiral around and around, but upward with each revolution, sometimes so slowly we are unaware of the motion.
It is also useful to note that the word “awakening” is used rather than the word “experience.” An experience such as Bill W. had can be transformative. But it is not something that can be coerced or guaranteed. In truth, it shouldn’t even be aimed for. We cannot, and need not try to change our basic nature. Rather, a spiritual awakening is, at least in part, accepting who we truly are. Neither recovery nor mindfulness practice is about polishing the tile, turning our efforts into Project John or Project Mary, recreating ourselves as the preconceived, perfected version we have envisioned. Rather, by Step Twelve, our effort is to turn toward the next suffering alcoholic and to find our practice not in personal spiritual adornment, but in service.
“We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
No matter how far down the scale we have gone,
We will see how our experience can benefit others.”
Big Book, pgs. 83-84
Each of my delusions and desires, each of my failings can be a great teaching when so approached. The courage to accept my lot in life without complaint or blame opens the door to understanding and forgiveness. This means the radical acceptance of everything that comes into my life as being somehow generated by me. It doesn’t matter whether this is strictly true or not—at any rate it can’t be proven or disproven. But to act as if it were true can help to release me from the bondage of resentment.
In Steps One through Five we address our own most urgent, life-threatening situation. If our lives are not ransomed from our addictions, anything else is meaningless. And yet, if we go no further than this in our recovery, we are living only half a life. It is in Steps Six through Twelve that we are reintegrated into the human community and are prepared to be of service. Step Twelve is the culmination of our work in this direction. It is the manifestation of our own recovery. “To carry the message” is the activity of the recovering alcoholic. This is not to proselytize, but rather to model with our lives the possibilities available to all who wish to put an end to their suffering.
In our Twelfth Step work as sponsors, we are also called upon to exercise this skill. We must, through what we say and what we do, manifest hope to the newcomer—not pretending that a lot of hard work is not ahead, but also not making the work seem so arduous as to kill the desire to attempt it. Mostly, we must simply be there. This is the original meaning of the word “compassion”—to suffer, or to bear with.
In order to continue along this path, we need to “practice these principles in all our affairs.” There are various versions of what “these principles” are. Some informal lists circulate within AA, attaching a principle to each Step. In a sense, generosity covers everything. We must also extend charity to ourselves in forgiveness. “We are not saints.” We are unlikely to become perfect, however much our alcoholism demands perfection or oblivion from us. The generosity of releasing ourselves from the prison of our own demands is the prototype of all that follows. Generosity towards self and others is essential for ethical behavior, patience (which is almost synonymous with generosity), effort and meditation. Wisdom is the broad, encompassing, generous willingness to see things as they are, rather than through the lens of a narrow self-referential point of view. It is thus with all of the perfections.
Finally, it is important to point out that the Twelfth Step is not about self-sacrifice. Rather, it is about a new understanding of the self, which comes naturally with practice. When we first come into recovery, we are so empty we can only take. And for a long time we take and take and take—like babies who need to be fed and loved. Eventually, “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly” we are so filled up that just as naturally we give. The self is no longer an isolated body in space, bumping into other isolates—like ping-pong balls in free fall—but a point along the continuum of interconnectedness. This experience of self and other as one is the profound essence of Step Twelve.
San Francisco Zen Center/2005