One Blog at a Time: Karma and Recovery

"Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."

When I first read the 12 Steps, I thought Step Two was saying, "If you just believe that God will fix you, the power of your faith will take care of everything." This was a very Christian reading of the Step, which might very well have been its original meaning. I was willing to suspend disbelief and skepticism and play along -- "God? Sure, why not?" That worked for a while. I kept doing the grunt work of recovery, everything from showing up at meetings, being of service and writing inventory to getting a day job, going back to school and starting to deal with my relationship issues. There was a feeling of magic that everything seemed to be falling into place, all those little "God shots" and synchronous moments. People kept showing up just when I needed them -- teachers, employers, friends -- and it all seemed to be happening because I "let go and let God."

That's one way of looking at it. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that way of looking at it. Maybe.

Today, I see Step Two in completely different terms. First of all, the way I understand it now is that the Step is saying, "There is hope. It is possible to change. Things can get better." The reason that statement is important is that when you're an addict, you don't think you can change. In fact, that's the whole point: You want to stay loaded all the time. You don't want to change. One of the reasons it's so hard to take Step One, to actually quit drinking and using, is that the question that looms in the background is, "What then?" How are you going to deal with not drinking? We have the sense that our life is going to be the same, only worse because we won't have the relief of getting high. Why would we choose that? The whole reason we are getting loaded all the time is that we don't want to be in our life as it is. Step Two is offering us an alternative; it's saying that there's a completely different life out there for us.

Okay, but the Step says "a Power greater than ourselves." Just believing that it's possible to change and for your life to get better doesn't seem to involve some big power. But if we think about it, for anything to happen, some power or force or energy has to be involved. To get out of bed, a lot of muscles have to be involved. To take a midterm exam, a lot of study and thinking have to be in play. Nothing happens without power. And the power of intentional change is the power of karma. Actions have results; that's what the Law of Karma says. Drink and use all the time, and the result is addiction. Stop drinking and using and the result is being clean and sober. When we take Step One and stop, that's essentially what we're doing, using the Law of Karma to establish ourselves in recovery.

If we don't believe we can change -- if we think we are bound to stay addicts forever and that we can't heal -- then we don't believe in the Law of Karma. We are saying, "No matter what actions I take, I am fated to be a suffering addict." From a Buddhist viewpoint, this is called "delusion," or Wrong View. It means that we don't understand the way the world works. We believe in fate, that everything is preordained and we have no power to do anything about it. Nonetheless, most of us, when faced with the question, "Do my actions have any effect on my life," will say, "Yes, of course." The Buddha said that if our actions didn't bring results, he wouldn't bother teaching people because there would be no way for them to achieve enlightenment; they wouldn't be capable of change.

But this belief that we can't change is implied in the despair of the addict who can't seem to stay sober or feels stuck in negative emotional or behavioral patterns. That's why it's important to take Step Two, to confront this often unacknowledged belief consciously and see how we are being held back by our delusion. Once acknowledged, we can begin to consciously build a belief system. We can start to ask ourselves, "What do I need to do to change and grow?" Then we can begin to access the powers at our disposal, powers like love, determination, awareness, wisdom, the support of others, and, yes, faith. Whether we know it or not, as addicts we've been using powers, but mostly negative ones like selfishness, impatience, fear and resentment. Recovery means working with the positive powers. The faith or belief involved in Step Two is when we "come to believe" that it's actually worth changing our behavior and orientation. Once we believe that change is possible and that it's worth making the commitment to a new way of living, we are ready for Step Three.

Exercise: Can I Change?

Begin by taking a little time to sit quietly and relax, just closing your eyes and letting your attention rest on your breathing. Take some time to consciously relax all the parts of your body, working from the head down. Once you feel relaxed, ask yourself, "What negative quality in myself or in my behavior would I like to change?" Try not to be judgmental, but just objectively consider the question. Once you've settled on one thing (there may be more than one thing that comes up), continue to be aware of your breath as you ask yourself, "Is it possible for me to change this quality or behavior?" Notice your reaction. Do you have an embedded belief that you can't change, that you are stuck where you are? If so, recognize that in many cases, this is simply a belief, not founded in fact. See if you can come up with one or two steps you could begin to take to change this quality or behavior.