The Wisdom of the 12 Steps

Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol… They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks…
Alcoholic Anonymous

A dry alcoholic – one who’s merely ceased drinking – is a miserable one.  I certainly was.  I needed booze.  For over 15 years it served as my medicine, my magic doorway to relaxation and social confidence.

Throughout my first two years sober, intense nervousness and insecurity made me miserable.  Tension ran me so ragged that my body eventually decided, “Can’t do this anymore; we’re shutting down” – and I sank into a depression no Zoloft could touch.  I had not worked the 12 Steps.

Once I worked them, I discovered lasting relief.  The unbearable uptightness of being doesn’t vanish in minutes as with as with alcohol, but by slow degrees as the steps change the way we view ourselves and the world.

A book called The Art of Happiness recently fell into my hands.  Quick story: after meeting a young Saudi Arabian friend for a farewell coffee before she returned to her country, I took her to my favorite Tibetan gift shop nearby.  It stands about a block from where recently a huge natural gas explosion obliterated three businesses and shattered every storefront window for blocks, so they’re still boarded over.  All except those of the tiny Tibetan gift shop.  It’s owner, a likewise tiny man, is constantly cheerful.

“And why didn’t your windows shatter?” I asked him with a half-smile.

To what was clearly a frequent question, he shrugged: “Mine shattered in a past life.”


I chatted about having heard the Dalai Lama address a university crowd in a crammed sports arena about ten years ago.  “What you could see was that he was really having a great time with it.  The school was giving him this honorary degree, so he was supposed to be all solemn, but he kept making these silly asides and cracking himself up.  He was just too happy!”

The little shop owner handed one Dalai Lama book to me and another to my Muslim friend.  “You want these,” he said simply – and offered us a screamin’ deal.  We three corners of the world smiled at one another.

The wisdom of the ages for how to live life is, in my opinion, distilled in the 12 steps of AA.  That’s why every suggestion from the Dalai Lama in this book (penned by an American psychiatrist dude who interviewed him ) aligns with their principles – though his words are based on 2,500 year old teachings and ours on a 1939 text by a New York stock broker, an Akron proctologist, and 100 newly sober drunks.

  • Trust in the innate goodness of all beings – oneself included.  Though in the wake of two world wars many Western anthropologists jumped on the “humans are intrinsically selfish, aggressive assholes” bandwagon (African Genesis, The Selfish Gene), Buddhist traditions maintain the opposite.  The Dalai Lama points out that “a calm, affectionate, wholesome state of mind has beneficial effects on our health” not just emotionally, but physically, implying it’s how we’re designed to operate.  The 12 steps  are founded in this same assumption, that beneath our self-centered, erratic behavior lies our truer nature.  We look to our higher power to “restore us to sanity” via the spiritual cleansing the remaining steps provide.
  • We cause much of our own suffering. “In general, if we carefully examine any given situation in a very honest and unbiased way, we will realize that to a large extent we are also responsible for the unfolding of events,” says the Dalai Lama.  This is the heart of steps 4 & 5, where, arriving at the fourth column of our inventory, we identify our part in what happened.
  • Happiness differs from pleasure.  “True happiness relates more to the mind and heart.  Happiness that depends on physical pleasure is unstable; one day it’s there and the next it’s gone.”  This quote correlates to a passage from Step 7 in Twelve Steps and Traditions:  “Never was there enough of what we thought we wanted.  In all these strivings, so many of them well-intentioned, …[w]e had lacked the perspective to see that character-building and spiritual values had to come first, and that material satisfactions were not the purpose of living.”
  • Happiness springs from compassion.  The Dalai Lama emphasizes repeatedly, “We weren’t born with the purpose of causing trouble, harming others.  For our life to be of value, we must develop basic good human qualities – warmth, kindness, compassion. … Genuine compassion is based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering, just like myself. And, just like myself, they have the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration.”  This view lies at the heart of steps 8 and 9.  When we make restitution to former rivals, we go to them in this spirit of compassion.


  • Service to others is our purpose.  “There is no guarantee that tomorrow at this time we will be here…  I believe that the proper utilization of time is this: if you can, serve other people, other sentient beings.”  This idea lines up with a passage from the Big Book not quoted enough, probably because it runs so counter to self.  “At the moment we are try­ing to put our lives in order. But this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maxi­mum service to God and the people about us.” (p.77)
  • Recognize suffering as a teacher.  Dalai Lama: “By… eliminating afflictive states of mind such as craving and hatred, one can achieve a completely purified state, free from suffering.  Within a Buddhist context, …[pain] serves to encourage one to engage in the practices that will eliminate the root causes of suffering.” Here’s the same idea in AA’s 12 & 12:  “Under these conditions, the pains of failure are converted into assets. Out of them we receive the stimulation we need to go forward. Someone who knew what he was talking about once remarked that pain was the touchstone of all spiritual progress. How heartily we A.A.’s can agree with him, for we know that the pains of drinking had to come before sobriety, and emotional turmoil before serenity.”

There are many more parallels, but I’m out of room.

Thanks to the steps, ease and comfort come to me now because I enjoy the world I live in, not because I’ve vanquished it for a few hours.  But there’s still a long way to go.  For instance, the Dalai Lama says he never feels lonely or wishes he could marry, whereas I still get lonely quite frequently and am codependent as hell.  But that’s okay: it’s progress,  not perfection – right?



Filed under AA, Addiction, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

4 responses to “The Wisdom of the 12 Steps

  1. Beautiful!! Thank you! Very insightful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There are many paths to wisdom, including the Dalai Lama. But the 12 Steps and the work of (predominantly) Bill W. are based upon the Oxford Group and the Washingtonians and is clearly rooted in Christianity.

    Liked by 1 person

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