Noah Levine, a recovering addict, meditation teacher, and author of the moving spiritual memoir "Dharma Punx," puts it this way: "I don't have power over what desires I have, but I do have power over what actions I take." Noah recognizes, though, that his sense of powerlessness can become corrupted. "I can see a tendency towards nihilism both in my spiritual practice and in my recovery. At times I use the First Step and my meditation practice as excuses to avoid the suffering in the world, feeling that I can't do anything about it or that it is just everyone's karma unfolding." This is a distortion of the concept of powerlessness. It's an excuse to give up and bail out on life and responsibility.
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.
Karma, like powerlessness, is often misunderstood. People commonly think it means destiny or fate. But both the Twelve Steps and Buddhist teaching point to the ways in which we shape our own destiny. The Buddha said everything starts with thoughts; that we speak and act based on thoughts; that our words and actions turn into habits-or addictions; and that those habits shape our character into something inflexible. So, he says, "Watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings. As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become." This underscores a strong argument for the value of meditation practice. Meditation makes it possible to see your thoughts more clearly, and when you see your thoughts clearly, you can consciously decide how to respond to them.
This idea can be taken too far, though, and we can blame ourselves for things we have no power over. The Buddha points out that because there are so many causes and effects happening simultaneously, our own will can have only a limited impact. It's up to us to find the balance between responsibility and powerlessness. Sorting this out is what the Serenity Prayer, often recited at Twelve Step gatherings, tries to help you do, with its plea to "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." Though this prayer calls on God for help, the Buddhist teachings and the inherent wisdom that comes through the practices can bring the same acceptance, strength, and clarity. Meditation develops in us the power to sit through all kinds of experiences without flinching, with a willingness to see what is true. This non-flinching willingness can be called courage. So, the courage, wisdom, and acceptance of the prayer come from the same place, from the inner strength that grows through continuously opening the heart and mind.