We admitted we were powerless over alcohol; that our lives had become unmanageable
" . . . We stood at the Turning Point . . ."
How It Works, Alcoholics Anonymous, page 59
STEP ONE - The Problem
Powerlessness can be defined as that state in which something (alcohol in this case) has become the controlling fact in a person’s life, the pivot around which all other aspects revolve, often in spite of his or her intentions to the contrary. Our thoughts and behaviors are all about getting it, using it, craving it, recovering from the effects of it, hiding our use of it, lying about it, planning when we can use it next. We arrange the rest of our lives around it, often sacrificing everything else to be able to drink: our families and friends, our time and money, our health, our work and our pleasure. Functionally, alcohol has become our higher power, our god—and a malevolent one.
Unmanageability comes when drinking has made other aspects of our lives not only difficult, but impossible. It is when we find ourselves doing (or not doing) those things we believed we would never do: missing work, drinking in the morning, losing entire days to drinking, passing out and drinking again, destroying relationships and on and on and on. Our never’s have become not-yet’s; and our not-yet’s have become horrible realities. This is the incomprehensible demoralization of which the AA literature speaks. We are no longer anything but functions of our addiction, shattered selves dancing attendance on alcohol.
The nature of the self and its transformation is the basic teaching of Mindfulness Practice. In a very real sense, this is also the concern of the steps—a careful and systematic deconstruction of the alcoholic self and its rebuilding based on different assumptions, reactions, core values and relationships.
None of us starts out with the intention of destroying our lives through alcohol. For most of us, drinking begins as something else: something we do for fun, or to fit in, or because it makes us feel good. Our drinking is actually a survival strategy, delivering us from life situations which are too painful to be faced, especially without other tools for coping.
As Bill W says in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:
“. . . our lives have been largely devoted to running away from pain and problems. We fled from them as from a plague. We never wanted to deal with the fact of suffering. Escape via the bottle was always our solution.”
The first two of the Four Noble Truths are particularly pertinent to the discussion of Step One:
“This is the (1st) noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering; aging is suffering; death is suffering. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering. Association with what you dislike is suffering; separation from what you like is suffering. Not getting what you want is suffering. This is the (2nd) noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is desire [literally “thirst”] which is bound up with relish and passion, running here and there, delighting in this and that; in other words, sense desire, desire for existence and desire for extinction.” (It is worthwhile noting that drinking till we pass out or go into blackouts is a sort of desire for extinction.)
Something often heard in the rooms of AA is that we are drinking (or drugging, or eating or shopping or whatevering) to fill a hole. This is sometimes described as a “God-shaped hole” in us, and presumably in all human beings. However, the teachings of mindfulness have a rather different take on this hole. While acknowledging that there is an acute sense of something missing in us, mindfulness denies that this is actually so. Rather, that sense of loss is conditioned and created by craving itself. There is nothing that can truly fill that hole. Each new offering merely excavates it more deeply. Its ultimate cause is ignorance of the nature of reality; and ultimately it is wisdom that can end it.
This is wisdom in the sense of a knowing that is deeper than mere knowledge. It is direct experience that has been thoroughly digested until it has become an automatic response of the mind. And wisdom in this case is the recognition of the identity of craving and suffering. It is not that craving leads to suffering; rather that the two are functionally the same. This is the great gift that alcoholism and addiction confer on us. The suffering of craving is raised to such a high pitch that it becomes impossible to ignore. Many who are not addicts or alcoholics can continue in a state of low level anxiety and dis-ease for their entire lives without ever having a clue about its cause.
The initial teaching of both mindfulness and the Steps is recognition of the reality of suffering in our lives. As long as we are not willing or able to admit this, pretending to ourselves and others that things aren’t really that bad, there is no possibility for action. It is only when we become open to the full fact of our suffering (that we are helpless drunks that old age, sickness and death really do apply to us too) that it is possible to admit hope for healing as well.
In AA this admission is generally called hitting bottom. This phrase is evocative in that it describes coming to a dead halt. To stopping somehow in our tracks. This is what happens to us in moments of great surprise or shock. The mind for an instant undergoes a drastic shift in perspective. So we are brought somehow, by some circumstance in our lives, to a halt. And if, through luck or grace, we can stay there for a moment and not deny what we have seen (the wrecked landscape of our life), we have a chance to seek out change. These moments can be terrifying and it is not surprising that many of us immediately close the door on them. Perhaps they will come again. Perhaps we will need many such moments before we can somehow find the courage to face the fact of our suffering. Most alcoholics are never able to do this and face instead “the gates of insanity and death.”
"Like a lotus flower that grows out of the mud and blossoms above the muddy water surface, we can rise above the defilement and sufferings of our life."
This moment of stopping is akin to the moment of awakening—going beyond delusion—the moment when we face reality unclouded by our conceptions. It seems that for most of us such moments come only under great duress. This is what Bill W calls “ego collapse at depth” in his letter to Carl Jung. It is the experience of having tried every maneuver we can think of to escape the inescapable. The great awakening is in a sense the moment of greatest failure and defeat. Step One contains the entire program in a very concise form. By identifying our suffering with our craving for alcohol, it shows us both the cause (and by extension) the cure for it. The symbol of our awakening is the lotus flower because it grows up from muddy water into the light and the air. And so for us, our regeneration can only begin when we have thoroughly known what lies at the bottom and most dark place in our lives. This is the wisdom of the first step.
San Francisco Zen Center/2005