12 Steps Postscript: If I can Learn the Art of Composting

When we began this journey through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I referred to it as one the few American contributions to organized spirituality. As many times as I've pondered and worked through these steps, I've always come away more convinced of its life changing significance and with more gratitude for this now worldwide spiritual movement. I'll try to summarize what I believe it has taught me this time.

Suffering takes on many forms. It can certainly include physical hurt; but it's most often mental or emotional, as I struggle with fear based anxiety, compulsions, shame, or anger. Change can also bring suffering, as I realize the impermanence of everything and how my desire for temporary pleasures ultimately becomes dissatisfaction and pain. This suffering has often led me into unhealthy and harmful behaviors that are merely tools perfected designed to dig a deeper hole of hopelessness.

However, when life seems most hopeless and out of control, there is more than just despair in the sickness and suffering. In fact, there can be a purpose in the hurt. Too often, I try to deny or escape the pain before learning anything from it. But in suffering, a spiritual power fostering great hope can arise from my pain. Therein lies an opportunity to learn about myself and about life in new and profound ways. That hope can slowly transform confusion and weakness into clarity and strength. I can't achieve this transformation, though; I have to surrender to it. Only then can I own the sickness and suffering and learn the personal and universal lessons that are being taught by the pain.

My own hopeful surrender eventually leads to introspection. But the shame I've felt before is now washed in the infinite forgiveness of a loving God. Searching inside to see the complexity of my inner being, I'm led toward an awareness of a greater truth. It's the truth that has always been in me; not my ego, but the foundation of my soul, the DNA of which is divine love.

The loving power of that ultimate truth brings a humble self-emptying and an admission of the pain I've caused myself and others. This emptiness opens space for mercy, arousing an immense feeling of gratitude and a desire to mend broken relationships, to love back, and to give back. This spiritual renewal awakens a vast transcendent energy I didn't know existed, if I can just allow all this to happen. It's like I know it true, but I often don't act on it. Any failure that I have is not the fault of the process; it's all on me. So, when I fail, I pick myself up and try it again.

The 12 Steps are more than a healing attempt to manage alcoholism. They are a practical attempt to explain and to live out the unexplainable power of love in the universe that all religions teach, on their good days. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. Buddha called it enlightenment. Both Buddhist and Hindus speak of nirvana. Philosophers call it Truth. I like to call it love. If I allow it, God's love will come again and again. It provides healing, as it lives in and passes from me to others.

I'm indebted to many gifted writers who have influenced how I see these 12 Steps. Among them are Brene Brown, Thich Naht Hanh, Gerald May, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and publications of AA, its Big Book and its Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

I can think of no better way to end this 12 Step journey than with these words.

Sorrow, fear and depression are like a kind of garbage. But these bits of garbage are part of real life, and we must look deeply into their nature. We should not throw anything out. All we have to do is learn the art of composting, of transforming our garbage into flowers.

--Thich Naht Hanh