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A Buddhist Approach to Recovery: Step Four -- Searching and Fearless

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Before I got sober I was incredibly defensive about my failings. One thing that was sure to trigger my rage was any negative comment about my personality or behavior. I remember having some terrible fights with my girlfriend in the year or so before I got sober. She was very insightful and saw through a lot of my stuff -- and it drove me nuts. That kind of defensiveness makes any serious personal growth highly unlikely. How are you going to change if you won't admit that there's anything wrong?

Of course, it's hard to admit failings. Step One, our admission of having a problem and not being able to control it, was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. But once I surrendered to that truth it was incredibly liberating. Somehow we have to get this message if we're going to progress: admitting your failings is a good thing.

When Step Four says, "we took a searching" inventory, it connects with an essential aspect of the path of freedom that the Buddha described. One of what are called the "Seven Factors of Enlightenment," the qualities the Buddha said we needed to develop in order to be truly free and happy, is investigation. Investigation is the effort to see things clearly, to see them just as they are. In Vipassana meditation, this is what we are doing, investigating the present moment. In a sense, then, we can call our meditation practice a kind of inventory, a moment to moment investigation of experience and our reaction to our experience.

So, how do we overcome defensiveness so that we can enter into this type of work? Here again, a central Buddhist principle, that of dis-identification with ego, can be of help. The Buddha tells us that we are not our thoughts and emotions (or our body). He encourages us to see our existence as a process, not as a thing. This process is very complex -- we are made up of so many different habits, memories, emotional tendencies, talents and all the rest. None of it belongs to us. None of it is all that unique. Once we see this, that we are not some solid, separate being that must be defended at all costs, we can begin to investigate our shortcomings.

But this isn't an easy perspective to achieve. Most of us are attached to self-view most of the time. And when that self is attacked, it can feel as if your essential existence is being undermined. From that defensive posture you are trying to protect your very life. Ego death is, apparently, more frightening for many people than physical death, and if an inventory feels like an attack on who we are, that can seem life-threatening.

The ego of an addict is often fragile. At least before sobriety, many of us haven't ever developed much healthy self-esteem or sense of our own worth or value. One of the reasons we get loaded is to get that sense of confidence of "okayness" that we lack in our normal mind state. This is all tied to what also seems to be common in addicts: immaturity. Because many of us started drinking and using as teenagers, our emotional growth was stunted. Instead of learning how to live in the world, we avoided things, ducked responsibilities, stuffed emotions and hid from our own failings. Once sober, we have to clean up this mess. We're only asked to do this after we've come to grips with our addiction (Step One) and developed some trust in the recovery process (Step Two) and made the commitment to live in a new way (Step Three). Those first three steps are supposed to give us the foundation for sobriety and the emotional strengthy to handle the scary stuff we have to face in Step Four. After all, if we've turned our life over to a Higher Power, why do we need to worry about protecting our ego?

One of the ways we can get comfortable in this process of self-examination and, indeed, letting go of attachment to self is by going to 12 Step meetings and hearing people share. Pretty quickly it becomes apparent that we aren't significantly worse or better than most of the people there. And when we see how willing they are to expose themselves, to admit their failings and how it not only doesn't seem to be causing them pain, but that, in fact, they seem to be getting some relief from it, then the whole thing can start to come together.

Twelve Step meetings, by and large, are safe places. They are a place where you can start to open up, to talk about yourself in very honest ways without fear of harm or reprisal, without shame or guilt. Mostly what you will get is empathy and compassion -- and probably some advice as well, which you can take or leave. In Step Five I'll talk about the vital social aspects of recovery.

Exercise: Meditative Inventory

Begin by spending 10 or 15 minutes trying to follow the breath, just settling the mind a bit. Once things start to slow down a bit, start to make a mental note each time you become aware of a thought in the mind. You can put a label on each thought, like, "planning, planning" or "judging, judging" or "resentment, resentment" or "wanting, wanting" or whatever word springs to mind. Don't spend a lot of time figuring out the perfect word; just use the first thing that comes to mind. If you practice this way for a few weeks, you'll probably start to notice certain patterns that show habitual attitudes in your thought process. This can open you to important insights about yourself and about the Dharma.

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