Buddhism and the 12 Steps
Both Buddhist practice and 12-Step programs encourage followers to have faith in their own experience.
The Buddhist term near enemies can shed light on the difference between powerlessness and helplessness. For example, the near enemy of compassion is pity; the near enemy of equanimity is indifference. I think helplessness or, as Noah puts it, nihilism is the near enemy of powerlessness. This tendency to turn spiritual ideas upside down and inside out is very dangerous for an alcoholic, or anyone who has negative habits of mind. It can be the beginning of a slide into depression, despair, and eventually drinking again-or worse.
Noah brings the First Step and Buddhism together when he says, "Yes, I am powerless, but I also have the ability to purify my actions of speech, body, and mind through the practice of spiritual principles."
Buddhists are sometimes accused of being passive as well. In fact, meditation lays the groundwork for acting skillfully in the world. The Buddha was as concerned about the way we live in the world-as shown by his emphasis on qualities like generosity, non-harming, and compassion-as he was about meditation itself. But the Buddha was intensely practical-and very clear about the truth that we can't control certain things: the fact that we are going to grow older, and all the difficulties inherent in aging; the fact that we are going to get sick; the fact that we are going to die; the fact that everything around us is going to keep changing and will eventually disappear.
So, no matter how much exercise I get, or how much organic food I eat, I'll die. All the vitamins and supplements in the world can't keep me from sometimes catching cold or the flu, getting cancer or heart disease (or even the disease of alcoholism!). Plastic surgery, herbal elixirs, and skin creams can't stop the fact of my aging; my car will eventually wear out, my roof will leak, my children will grow up and leave me, and my parents will die. I'm powerless over all these things. The Buddha saw how much suffering we create fighting with these facts, resisting and trying to circumvent aging, illness, death, and loss, and he realized that clear understanding and acceptance was the key to letting go of that suffering.
After the Buddha tells us all of this, essentially pointing out what we are powerless over in this world-everyone, not just addicts or alcoholics-he says that there is one thing that we do have power over: our karma. This means that we are responsible for our own situation-up to a point. The Buddha said that people do have free will, and that this is what karma is, the energy of our will. The way I express this will, whether skillfully or unskillfully, determines the results of my life-a simple cause-and-effect formula.