“As we seek balance in our meditation practice as well as in our lives in recovery, one of the things we have to look out for is this tendency toward extremes.” (1)
When I first started to contemplate the 12 steps, I struggled mightily with language that I perceived as evangelical. If you’re anything like me, you may have struggled with specific words too, perhaps God and Him. I counted the number of steps that talked about something related to God and came up with 6 that used these words. I gave Step 12 a pass even though I thought spiritual awakening sounded a little too much like being saved.
I saw things as absolutes. Black and white. On or off. Binary. And I was repulsed. All I wanted was to stop drinking, I didn’t want to fall down some rabbit hole and become a holy roller. People told me that I didn’t have to believe anything in particular. I heard incredibly stupid things, like, “you can make a light bulb your higher power if you want.”
I’ve written before that I didn’t struggle so much with the concept of a higher power, but with undercurrent of fundamentalist evangelicalism that I found in the steps. And I declared that I’d start looking for an alternative. And I did.
I read the book Dharma Punx by Noah Levine. Noah Levine leads a recovery program called Refuge Recovery, and I thought this book would be about how he came to form the program. Spoiler alert! It’s not about that. In fact it talks a great deal about his experiences with the 12 steps and does not diminish them at all. It also talks about his spiritual journey to Buddhism.
I’m going to level with you, while I enjoyed the book and initially gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.com, upon further reflection I’m not sure it’s as good as I first thought. But, it did open my eyes to some things. And as Amazon will do, I got suggestions about other books to read, which brings me to the book I’m currently reading, One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, by Kevin Griffin. This book is not a reinterpretation of the 12 steps in Buddhist language, rather it is a discussion of how the steps relate to Buddhist practice and I’m finding it immensely helpful. While I’m not a Buddhist, there is a lot in Buddhist teachings to which I relate.
In a few short sentences, Griffin manages to sum up exactly what my problem with the third step has been. He writes, “Language is always an issue in spiritual teachings. First of all, as I’ve talked about, these teachings are trying to explain something that goes beyond language; words are only an attempt to represent reality, they are not reality itself.” (2)
Over the years, I’ve struggled with the rhetoric that comes out of religious leaders. And in most cases, I’ve turned my back on it, because it never really resonated with me. It felt accusatory. It felt dangerous. It felt false. Even if there was a grain of truth in the teachings, something in them made me react viscerally. I think now that it is exactly that the language does not match my understanding.
Much of the language in the Big Book feels didactic. Many times, I hear language at meetings that makes my skin crawl. How is it that well meaning people who have a great deal of faith manage to make my skin crawl? Well, I think it comes down to balance.
See I believe in a healthy debate. I believe in healthy skepticism. I believe that there is good reason to doubt. It’s not that faith is a bad thing, but when I feel that something demands blind faith, that’s when I recoil. And yes, sometimes I feel like that’s what I hear at meetings and find in the text.
Griffin writes, “With too much faith, we no longer question anything. We take everything at face value so that the nuances of ancient poetic and mythic teaching are taken literally and lead us to rigid, irrational, and destructive beliefs.”(3) Griffin goes on to tell a story of a time when he followed a mystic around the country on nothing but faith. And that at some point, he lost his faith in this mystic and everything fell apart. Interestingly, Noah Levine has a similar story in Dharma Punx. Just as it’s possible to have too little faith, it’s possible to have too much faith.
Often times, people like me, get accused of not having enough faith. We are told things like, “become a yes man, and just do whatever your sponsor tells you to do” and “when you stop questioning everything, then you’ll know what true sobriety is.” Wow. Just wow. What a way to turn someone off in a heartbeat!?!
But I get it. Too much thinking can also be dangerous.
Griffin addresses this too: “With too much wisdom, the hindrance of doubt comes to dominate the mind. There is an unwillingness to accept anything that is not before your eyes or that can’t be “proved” through science or logic. […] This particular attitude is very common in our contemporary, Western, materialist culture. It has the effect of narrowing possibility to that which has already been known or understood. There is no room for imagination or discovery.” (4)
As with most everything in life, the answer often lies somewhere between extreme faith and extreme wisdom. The answer is in the middle path. I’m coming to believe that there is a middle path that allows me to live in accordance with the 12 steps without trusting too much in faith. As Griffin writes:
Balancing Wisdom and Faith means keeping an open heart and an open mind. Not closing ourselves off from the unknown, from possibilities yet unexplored; and not seeking quick fixes or supernatural solutions to our problems. Life is a mystery; the mind an enigma; the possibilities for spiritual growth endless, if only we are willing to explore. As human beings we have amazing abilities to think, to feel, and to experience wonder. Step Three sets us firmly on the path of freedom, connecting us to the great mysteries of life and the heart. Our job is to keep opening to the mystery, with joy, gratitude, and bright attention. (5)
(1) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (p. 84). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(2) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (p. 73). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(3) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (p. 75). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(4) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (pp. 75-76). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(5) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (pp. 84-85). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.