12 Steps as a Spiritual Not a Religious Program

The 12 Step fellowships are not affiliated with any particular religious faith. This was a deliberate decision made by the early members of the group in order to ensure the program reached as many people as possible. The original program is highly influenced by a Christian fellowship known as the Oxford Group, but it is not necessary to belong to this religion in order to benefit from the steps. It is often said that the 12 steps offer a spiritual program and not a religious program. This makes it possible for Buddhists and people from other belief systems (or non-belief systems) to join in.

Higher Power in the 12 Steps

The terms God and higher power are used a number of times in the 12 steps:

* Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. (Step 2)
* Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him. (Step 3)
* Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. (Step 5)
* Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. (Step 6)
* Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. (Step 7)
* Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. (Step 11)

The fact that the word God is used so many times in the steps can make it appear as unsuitable for nonbelievers. This problem was predicted by early members of the group and this is why the words higher power are often used. The program is also clear to stress that when talking about God it is as we understood him. This means that the member can interpret God to mean anything they want. The only stipulation is that the individual does not believe that they are God because it needs to be something higher – although it is permissible to believe in a higher self. Nonbelievers are able to get beyond the necessity of a God by making something like the power of the group be their higher power.

Compatibility of Buddhism with the 12 Steps

It is sometimes claimed that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. The historical Buddha never claimed to be a god and most of his followers do not worship a supreme deity. Despite this there are many Buddhists who have used the 12 steps to help them escape their addiction. They are able to do this by using their own understanding of what a higher power means to them. This may involve faith in some higher guiding force in the universe, the workings of karma, or the eightfold path – some people have even made the Dali Lama their higher power.

Buddhist Twelve Steps

In order to make it easier for Buddhists to follow the 12 Steps, some members have offered a reworded version of the program that better reflects a non-theist perspective. The Buddhist 12 Steps are:

* We admitted our addictive craving over alcohol, and recognized its consequences in our lives. (Step 1)
* Came to believe that a power other than self could restore us to wholeness. (Step 2)
* Made a decision to go for refuge to this other power as we understood it. (Step 3)
* Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. (Step 4)
* Admitted to ourselves and another human being the exact moral nature of our past. (Step 5)
* Became entirely ready to work at transforming ourselves. (Step 6)
* With the assistance of others and our own firm resolve, we transformed unskillful aspects of ourselves and cultivated positive ones. (Step 7)
* Made a list of all persons we had harmed. (Step 8)
* Made direct amends to such people where possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. In addition, made a conscientious effort to forgive all those who harmed us. (Step 9)
* Continue to maintain awareness of our actions and motives, and when we acted unskillfully promptly admitted it. (Step 10)
* Engaged through the practice of meditation to improve our conscious contact with our true selves, and seeking that beyond self. Also used prayer as a means to cultivate positive attitudes and states of mind. (Step 11)
* Having gained spiritual insight as a result of these steps, we practice these principles in all areas of our lives, and make this message available to others in need of recovery. (Step 12)

Twelve Steps and the Four Noble Truths

It is also possible to look upon the 12 steps as containing the four noble truths and eightfold path:

* There is suffering (Step 1)
* Suffering is caused by cravings (Step 2)
* There is an escape from cravings (Step 2)
* The escape from cravings is the noble eightfold path (Step 3)

The noble eightfold path contains the rest of the steps:

* Right view (Step 4)
* Right intention (Steps 5, 6, and 7)
* Right speech
* Right action (Steps 8 and 9)
* Right livelihood
* Right effort (Step 10)
* Right mindfulness (Step 11)
* Right concentration (Step 12)

Considerations for Buddhists Working the 12 Steps

There are a few things worth considering when working the 12 steps as a Buddhist including:

* There are a number of resources available for Buddhists who are using the 12 step program – including the 12 Step Buddhist. There are no hard and fast rules and each individual will need to use the interpretation that best suits them.
* Some of the larger urban areas may have a Buddhist 12 step group. Those individuals who are in advanced recovery may even consider starting their own group.
* Nonbelievers can become a bit discouraged by the regular mention of God in these groups. The individual should investigate what it is that is causing them to feel uncomfortable – they can even use this as a practice.
* Many Buddhists (and non-Buddhists) have found that meditation can be a wonderful asset in recovery from addiction. It seems that mindfulness meditation is particularly good for dealing with things like cravings that may still occasionally appear after people have become sober.
* When choosing a sponsor it may be a good idea to pick somebody who has an understanding of Buddhism – even if they are not a Buddhist. It can be difficult to work with a sponsor if they insist that their sponsee needs to develop a Christian interpretation of god.
* There are many similarities between Buddhism and the 12 Steps if people look for them. Those who diligently follow the program should find that it makes them better Buddhists and moves them further along the path.
* Zen Buddhism encourages Shoshin (beginner’s mind) which means having a completely open mind and not allowing biases and beliefs get in the way of learning. This is a good mental attitude for all Buddhists to hold.
* Helping other people in recovery is a good way to develop metta (loving kindness). Those who belong to a 12 Step fellowship should have plenty of opportunity to do such service – even sharing at meetings can be a type of metta if done to help other people.
* Each member of these fellowship groups are allowed to have their own interpretation of what higher power means to them. It is not appropriate to try an coerce them into developing one particular view of what this means – for example, insisting that other people adopt the Buddhist interpretation.
* Many Buddhists find that it helps them to belong to a Buddhist community as well as a 12 Step community – the two can complement each other.