Cultivating Mindfulness & Meditation In A.A. 12 Step Recovery
Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
STEP TWO – The Solution
This Step can seem a formidable barrier to anyone who is unable or unwilling to accept any concept of God or spirit or anything smacking of the supernatural. Getting caught in questions and demands for certainty can stall us for a long time, perhaps forever. This difficulty can be seen as lying at least partially in the realm of definition: “What is a higher power? What is sanity? What, for that matter, does it mean to believe?”
The problems multiply as the thinking grows more circuitous: “Is the higher power God? Which God? What is God like? If I have my own conception of God, as the Big Book suggests, isn’t that merely my imagination—and how can I be ‘saved’ by something I make up? And what about this sanity? How can I be restored to a state I don’t think I ever experienced before? And whose version of sanity? AA’s? And if I accept AA’s version of sanity, does this mean I’ll be brainwashed into an AA zombie? Actually, I don’t think I should even consider believing such a proposition until it is intellectually coherent and understandable, until I can give it my complete rational assent.”
None of these questions is stupid or unimportant and they will bear coming back to. But when we first hear this Step and consider its possibilities and ramifications for our lives, they need to be set aside. If we are desperate enough even to consider the Steps as a means of saving our lives, we must be willing to grasp them whole. If we wait until we have worked out the philosophical questions to our satisfaction (which is, of course, rather difficult to do drunk) we may well die before coming to any answers.
Perhaps a way out of the philosophical labyrinth is to work with Step Two’s function, rather than try to define its terms. To do this we need only attempt the tentative, experimental belief that healing is possible and we neither can nor have to do it alone. If we approach this step as an experiment we may save ourselves both time and grief. And we can always have our misery back if we wish. We might observe how well this proposition works in our lives when we determine to act as if it could be so, with a willing suspension of disbelief. This is certainly in line with the awakened one’s suggestion to examine the teaching of mindfulness for ourselves and only accept it if it works:
“Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with weighing evidence ." When you know in yourselves: “These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should practice them and abide in them”
Another barrier to acceptance of Step Two is the idea that while it may work for other people, it certainly can’t work for me. This proposition can be held either positively or negatively. Positively, we can tell ourselves “I am too different or special or too smart or sophisticated or self-sufficient or independent for AA. And anyway, I’m not a joiner.” Or we can tell ourselves “I’m too bad or far gone or undeserving or stupid or unworthy for AA. And anyway, I’m not a joiner.”
As Bill W writes in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:
“We have not once sought to be one in a family, to be a friend among friends, to be a worker among workers, to be a useful member of society. Always we have tried to struggle to the top of the heap, or to hide underneath it.”
Why do we do this? Why do we so sabotage ourselves by accepting these delusions? The origin may be impossible to know (and is at least beyond the scope of this essay); but for most of us the mental attitudes and behaviors have been put into place, perhaps unconsciously, long ago - usually to defend ourselves from real or imagined dangers.
The idea that we are either too good or too bad to mix on an equal basis with others has the function of separating us from the company of those we have come to see as threats. It is very useful to employ the experimental mode here, noticing how these beliefs function in our lives without judging them. It is this mode which can allow us both to see more clearly the engine of our behavior and to keep the distance necessary not to become overwhelmed and drawn back into the old belief system. (These are beliefs and it is useful to acknowledge that in Step Two we are trying to exchange one belief system for another.)
It isn’t entirely unprofitable to look at the terms used in Step Two. To find some equivalents in mindfulness language and practice won’t be very difficult. Perhaps rather than speak of a “higher” power, we might do better to think in terms of a deeper or broader power in that we are not giving ourselves over to some deity or something somehow more real, or of greater intrinsic value than ourselves. This might also be a good place to interject a definition of power as some agency capable of effecting change. The particular power we invoke in this Step is one that can, initially, change our behavior (i.e. drinking) and ultimately change us in fundamental ways.
From a perspective of mindfulness, this broader power can be our vow to make the effort to live in awakening for the sake of all beings. This is an understanding of spirituality which does not aim at the perfection of the self. One of the mistakes that many of us make is treating ourselves, our lives as projects, as works to be accomplished. This vow can free us from this sort of spiritual greed and unrealistic expectations of perfection. From the perspective of Mindfulness and the 12 Steps, this broader power is realized by recovered alcoholics who promise that having had a spiritual awakening, they will try to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all of their affairs. They continue going to meetings so they can help the still suffering alcoholic to find their own way. They have a home group, hold a service position and have a sponsor. They sponsor others and share their experience, strength and hope when called upon to do so. In other words, in the way they live their lives in recovery, they produce the deeper or broader power both for themselves and others.
Another possible understanding of this saving power can be our own ignorance. If we do not know, we are open to learning, open to experimenting and open to not characterizing our experiences as successes or failures. They all contribute information. This experimental mode of holding our higher or deeper power loosely can offer us a great deal of freedom. To be relieved of the bondage of needing to know can be a wonderful relaxation, in its original meaning of “to loosen.”
As regards this return to sanity, some of us must wonder how we can be returned to a state we don’t believe we ever inhabited in the first place. Another possible way to consider this is that what we are returned to, or rather what is returned to us, is our potential. Alcohol robs of us everything we have - most terribly, hope. It destroys our belief that things can change, that we can change, at least for the better. It is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism that every being has the capacity for awakening, no matter how obscured at present. Perhaps this return to sanity is simply a return to this potential, to the place we started from, going back as far as we need to. Every infant, every child exhibits the potential for awakening and a natural movement towards trust and love.
Returning to this Edenic state is, of course, neither possible nor desirable. Innocence must be tempered by experience to be of use in the world. But knowing that the potential for awakening is not dead in us is a sort of return to our basic sanity. The word sanity literally means “health.” The word health comes from the word “wholeness.” This wholeness is the completing of a circle and this circle we complete is a circle of hands. It is said that the teaching of mindfulness passes from “warm hand to warm hand.” And with this, we have come full circle to the original premise that healing is possible and we neither can nor have to do it alone. This is enough - perhaps not even a belief yet, but a hope - to get us going.
San Francisco Zen Center/2005