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Zen and the Art of the Twelve Steps

Addicts and alcoholics are the unsung mystics of our culture, and they’re hiding in plain sight

4 min readFeb 23, 2023


I am an addict. The nature of my addiction isn’t relevant. What matters is that I’m in a program that takes a very deep dive into the 12 steps as laid out in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

More than anything else, the 12 steps are a spiritual program of recovery. There is no arrival point in this awakening. It begins in utter desperation, utterly confounds the intellect, and it has the potential to ignite deep love and redefine the self at the most basic level.

I see Steps One, Two, and Three as a trifecta Zen-like Koan. The Collins English Dictionary defines a Koan as “a problem or riddle that admits no logical solution.” Koans are used as meditation tools to confound the rational mind and spark something altogether different.

— What is the sound of one hand clapping? —

I first read about Zen Buddhism as a young teen, and this was the example I recall from that article. It made me want to rip my hair out. That’s kind of the point.

Step One: I admitted I was powerless over my addiction — that my life had become unmanageable.

Working this step forces you to diagnose whether you actually are an addict. If so, your entire life, not just your addiction, is unmanageable. You are powerless to change anything. You are, in effect, a single hand trying like hell to clap and make noise.

Step Two: I came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.

Addiction is insanity: we engage in self-destructive behaviors over and over, hoping for a different result…worse, we keep using even knowing we won’t get a different result! Regarding rationality, while the Big Book employs reason to argue for the existence of a God in Step Two, it also says that reason only takes us so far. I have strained, and failed, to make sound with my one hand. In Step Two I begin to dare hoping that outside the closed system of my small self with its (semi)rational brain and pet prejudices, a larger rhythm is playing. Perhaps, just perhaps, this larger rhythm — this Power — is ready and willing to restore me to sanity.

Step Three: Made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understood God.

While this step offers incredible freedom, it’s also a head-scratcher — Because it’s up to each one of us how to define God.

The Big Book is telling me that I am powerless and helpless without God, yet “God” is something I invent? Who’s in charge here? If I’m actually helpless, in what universe can I dream up a helpful conception of God?

Giving people the option of coming up with their own conception of God leaves zero wiggle room for escape from surrender to this very same God.

Think God is too punishing? Ok, yours can be the embodiment of Unconditional Love! Don’t relate to the masculine references to God in the Big Book? Your God can be any gender or no gender! Your God can be the Spirit of Nature, a Person such as Jesus, or the Cosmic Consciousness. In a talk, I heard an alcoholic man say his first Higher Power was a doorknob. No, he didn’t stay with that very long. But at least initially, God-the-Doorknob was enough to get him to stop drinking.

This deepens the riddle. How can a mental projection of my own addicted brain be powerful enough to help with anything? One could call this invitation to develop our own notion of God a ‘placebo theology.’ If you believe strongly enough that the sugar pill will cure your cancer, maybe it will. But for those who have traveled the road of addiction and successful 12-step recovery, which includes reaching out to and helping others, the placebo analogy just doesn’t cut it. For one thing, we can never “believe strongly” enough. Strong belief comes from the same self-will that hurled me into addiction. Rather, Step Three is all about surrender out of desperation. Even surrender is not something I can accomplish. I can’t undo my own ego. All I can do is cry for help.

Our brains never could conceive of what, or who, our HP is, and they never will. The spirituality of the 12 steps has nothing to do with developing an accurate definition of God. The rational brain is probably fried by the end of Step Three, in which we turn our lives and our wills over to the CARE of a Higher Power. It’s all about the heart, about learning to receive and give love. In the beginning of my recovery, the love and care my fellow addicts offered me, without wanting anything in return, was stunning. It still is.

Perhaps “the sound of one hand clapping” is the sound of the beating heart of the universe. Perhaps we only begin to hear it when we are silenced in utter defeat.