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Cultivating Mindfulness & Meditation In 12 Step Recovery

Three Frogs on a Log

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives
over to the care of God as we understood Him

STEP THREE - Choosing the Right Path

I have a good friend who, when sharing about the Third Step, loves to tell the old riddle of the three frogs.  “There are 3 frogs on a log,” he says.  “One of them decides to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?”  The answer of course is 3.  All the one frog did was make a decision.  The frog didn’t jump, so the same number of frogs are left on the log as there were before the one frog made a decision.  Basically, the Third Step is about deciding to work the remaining Steps.  Working the Steps is the treatment that will allow us to tap our “unsuspected inner resource” which becomes, along with the Fellowship of A.A., our higher power. 


The word “decide” literally means “to cut off.” In this Step we are cutting off an old way of life and of thinking that was leading us to death. Obviously, such a transformation does not occur at once by a single act of will. We will have to decide again and again, often many times a day, to choose the difficult path of healing over the slide into oblivion. As odd as it may sound to the non-addict/alcoholic, this is not always an easy or obvious choice. It requires a sustained effort which sometimes seems more than we can make. And yet, aided by the Steps, our sponsors, our friends in recovery, by meetings and our spiritual practice, we continue.


In Mindfulness Practice, rather than turning our will (which can be thought of as our thinking) and our life (which can be thought of as our actions) over to the care of God (a deity) we go for refuge to the Three Treasures: The Buddha, The Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha (the awakened one or the way shower) is that basic ground of sanity we discussed in Step Two, the potential for awakening shared by every living being.  The Dharma is simply the teachings of Mindfulness, as well as the way things truly are. The way things truly are as opposed to the way we want or imagine or fear things are.  More specifically, the Dharma is the teaching of Mindfulness, which leads to awakening and liberation.  The Sangha for those of us in 12 Step programs is our home group, and through our home group, the entire recovery community.


In the Third Step prayer, we ask to be relieved of the bondage of self. This can take on many meanings. One is choosing freedom from fixed ideas of who we are, and who we can become. It means giving up the illusion of control (moment by moment, event by event) and, more importantly, giving up our fixed patterns of behavior and thought. It means returning to the place of not knowing.  For most of us, what we “knew” was that disaster was imminent, life was a long exercise in agony and defeat and that nothing we could do would change that. Not-knowing can serve as an antidote to such thought patterns.


This is just as difficult as it sounds. And we will not become adepts at letting-go and not-knowing quickly, without practice. But we can begin by experimenting with our behavior. If we are accustomed to assuming the worst of any situation, we can make a conscious decision to try out something different. For example, walking into a room full of strangers, we can ask ourselves “How would I behave if I assumed that everyone in this room was disposed to like me?” What new behavior will this elicit from us? And what will be the results? This is a very practical experiment in letting go of the bondage of self.


It is also worth noting that “turning over” can be a very physical thing.  We all store our fears and disease in our bodies. Sometimes just taking a couple of deep breaths when we are disturbed and saying to ourselves “Let go” will be enough to change our response. The practice of bowing, of offering incense, of working or walking with mindful attention is also a physical practice of the Third Step, as is meditation. These practical considerations are not meant to overshadow the “spiritual” dimension of Step Three. We often hear alcoholism spoken of as a spiritual disease. This is because it destroys us spiritually. But it is also because alcoholism has at least a part of its origin as spiritual longing.  We crave transcendence. As limited human beings, we imagine and long for a state beyond our mundane selves that is inclusive, luminous and peaceful. We want to break the prison barriers of our small self.

There are many ways people have sought to do this throughout history and alcohol use is one of them. For us, however, alcohol becomes another, even more dire prison. And the blackout, the passing-out is a negative or shadow transcendence.  In fact, it is a rehearsal for death that so many of us crave towards the end but lack the courage to embrace deliberately or somehow find the strength to resist. Only a spiritual awakening can offer us the real thing. And it may, when it comes, be quite other than we had imagined. For how can we, in the darkness of our despair, have any real idea of the light?


One of the ways we search out transcendence and enact the Third Step is meditation. In meditation we take on the posture (both physical and mental) of awakening. And it doesn’t matter if we are sitting in perfect full lotus or on a chair or even lying down. The awakened one spoke of four noble postures: standing, sitting, walking and lying down. It is the intention and the attention that matters. In meditation we are giving ourselves over to the process of awakening.


When we sit, we assume the body of an awakened one. We make a decision to investigate this life, and we turn ourselves over to whatever we discover which cannot be imagined ahead of time or controlled. Meditation is always an experiment and a surprise. We just let go, sit down for the ride and observe the scenery of the undiscovered country of the self.


Finally though, the Third Step requires faith. This is true both for the believer in a personal God and for the seeker of Truth who doesn’t acknowledge one. To believe that we can be restored to sanity by entrusting our lives to the process of recovery or awakening, to our “unsuspected inner resource,” can be daunting. It can seem equivalent to throwing away the oars and letting the river take us where it will - never mind that we were always rowing ineffectually against the current.  Faith, though, is an attitude of mind rather than a belief in a specific set of propositions. It can be entered into experimentally with the assurance that others have done so to good effect.


And our faith, in the program and in practice, is one which can be verified by observing the lives of others who have undertaken the experiment. We can daily see many men and women whose lives have been changed for the better by doing so. All we have to do is admit the possibility that it will work for us as well. If someone we know has a headache, takes aspirin and reports that the pain is gone, we likely believe him. We have a pretty good idea that it will work for us as well, for after all the bodies of all people are pretty much alike. It is also true for spiritual maladies. We are all more similar than we are different and the way to health is the same for us all. Once again, the answer lies in looking to the function rather than the definitions. Step Three is a necessary, life-saving and effective movement towards spiritual health for everyone regardless of particular spiritual or religious belief or lack of it.

San Francisco Zen Center/2005


Step Four

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