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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

Helen W Mallon
4 min readFeb 23

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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…

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Helen W Mallon

Writing in the space of healing and spirituality.