A Buddhist Approach To Recovery: Turning It Over

If we are to get and stay sober, we need to live less from the lower and more from the higher self. Turning our will and our lives over is the way we do this.
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A monthly exploration of addiction and recovery through the lens of Buddhism. Read about Step One and Step Two.

Step Three: Turning It Over

"Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood him."

"Turning our will and our lives over to the care of God" is one of the most challenging, and for some, troubling, of the tasks that the Steps suggest. It sounds as if we are going to give up all control of our lives and throw ourselves at the mercy of some outside power.

That's not exactly what happens.

Certainly the Steps are trying to get us to be less compulsively controlling. The movement from the powerlessness of Step One to the power of Steps Two and Three is asking us to see how certain aspects of our thinking and actions were self-defeating. Here I want to distinguish between the ego-driven, deluded, selfish, unconsciously reactive, desire-self and the more conscious, aware, objective, compassionate and discriminating self. The former is the one that is powerless, that is addicted, that keeps us on the cycle of samsara, the constant birth and death of ego and the search for satisfaction. The latter can be called the "higher self" and is connected to our higher power -- some would say it is our higher power.

If we are to get and stay sober, we need to live less from the lower and more from the higher self. Turning our will and our lives over is the way we do this. This process has two components: will and life. The will in Buddhist teachings is associated with intention, and Right Intention (or Wise Intention) is a key aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha's prescription for freedom. The Buddha said that intention is what informs the results of actions, that is, the reason you do something is actually more important than what you do. If you act kindly out of kindness, the results are positive; if you act kindly out of selfishness, the results are not so positive. So before we even start to worry about changing our behavior, we need to look closely at our motivation, our intention. One way to describe the shift suggested in the Steps is that we have to put the search for truth and meaning before the search for pleasure. We have to ask ourselves what we really want in our lives. What do we think is going to bring us happiness? Is it sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, eating, etc.? Or is it peace, a sense of connection with others, the joy of generosity, and the sense of a job well done? For most of us, when we seriously ask a question like this, it's obvious what the answer is.

Turning our will over means that we now are clear about how we want to live, that we've committed ourselves to living skillfully and wisely. That doesn't mean we'll always succeed (far from it), but it does mean that we know what direction we want to be aimed, and when we lose our way we know how to get back. In the same way that when we are meditating and get lost in thought, when we realize that's happened, we come back to the breath, to our intention to be present. This shift of intention has a profound effect on the direction of our lives.

Turning our lives over means that once we've changed our intention, we now change our actions. When we realize that karma is a power greater than ourselves, that our actions have real consequences that can't be avoided, we see that we need to align our lives with the laws of karma. One of the fundamental ways of doing that is to follow the Five Lay Precepts. These are the moral foundation of Buddhism, and they are much the same as the morality taught in al major religions: not to kill, not to steal, not to harm others with our sexuality, not to harm others with our speech and not to use intoxicants. This level of morality is essential for recovery because trying to get around the law of karma is just what addiction is. It's trying to get more pleasure and less pain than is actually possible -- it's trying to cheat the law of karma. When we break the essential moral laws, we are putting ourselves above the law, saying we can do whatever we feel like without consequences. When we do this we are breaking the human covenant, what makes us part of the human community, putting ourselves on the outside. This is also a statement about our relationship to life: we won't accept life on life's terms. We want to create our own rules, or lack of them. This is life-denying. When we act on our addiction we are turning away from life, saying that we don't value life, turning toward death.

Turning our will and our lives over is a huge letting go. It means trusting the universe, trusting that if we do the right thing and then let go, things will be okay; trusting that when things aren't going our way, we still need to stay on our path. Suzuki Roshi says "Even if the sun were to rise from the west, the Bodhisattva has only one way." This is the kind of trust and commitment that we need, not just for recovery from addiction, but to find the kind of happiness and peace that makes life truly worth living.

Exercise: Letting Go

This is a practice of surrender. In a sense it is "non-practice," not trying to control your experience so much as allowing it to come and go without grasping or pushing away.

Begin by taking a few mindful breaths, relaxing and settling into the body. Now open your awareness to the full range of senses, hearing sounds, feeling your body, feeling your breath and noticing thoughts. Don't try to guide the mind anywhere, just be aware of whatever is appearing in your mind and body moment to moment. As though letting a waterfall rain on you, let each moment come and go without clinging to anything, thought, feeling, sound or sensation. It's fruitless to try to catch the drops of water as they pass over you, just feel each passing sensation, sound, thought, without following it or holding on. Just keep letting go.

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