Buddhist Step Work

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” - The Buddha

Step Zero 


In the Big Book, there is a little known, seldom practiced step called "Step Zero." It can be found in "How it works" on page 58 where the reading states "If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it - then you are ready to take certain steps."  This is step zero, a step you are asked to take before embarking on the 12 steps.

 

It can be broken down into three sections:

  1. If you have decided you want what we have 
  2. And are willing to go to any length to get it. 
  3. Then you are ready to take certain steps.

It says IF this AND that are satisfied, THEN you can move forward.

 

For a homework assignment, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you want what we have? In fact, ask yourself, what is it that we have? What is it that you want to attain?
  2. Are you willing to go to any lengths? At this point, is there anything you are not willing to do?                                  
  3. Do you feel ready to take the steps?

Ideally this step is completed before working the 12 steps. 

 

Step 1 


"We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable"

 

In traditional 12 Step work we look at some of the key words in step 1: "admitted," "powerless," "life," and "unmanageable."  What do each of these words mean?  Look them up and define them. 

In Buddhism, the 4 Noble Truths discuss the concept of suffering.  What is suffering?  Look it up and define it. 

  

Exercise - Self Reflection: 

Using your understanding of the concepts of "powerlessness," "unmanagability" and "suffering," take a look back at your entire life, from your earliest memory up to today, and write down every time you have suffered or caused suffering as the result of your substance abuse or the substance abuse of others.  

Hints: consider writing bullet points rather than full stories for each instance.  Remember, this is your step work and you only need key phrases to stimulate your memory.  We are not writing a novel.  

Looking back at your whole life can seem like an overwhelming task.  Just do your best remembering "progress not perfection."  

  

Spiritual Principles: 

The spiritual principles we learn in Step 1 are: "Honesty," "Surrender" and "Acceptance."  What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them.

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing honesty, surrender and acceptance in all of my affairs? 
  • Where am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

 

How do you know when you are finished with step 1?  

Ask your self two questions:  

  1. Is my step work thorough?  
  2. Is my step work honest?  

If you believe your step work is both honest and thorough, then you have completed Step 1.  

  

Step 2 


“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” 

  

Understanding Step 2:

Step 2 can be divided into three sections: 

  1. "Came to believe" 
  2. "A power greater than ourselves" 
  3. "Restore us to sanity" 

Ask yourself a series of questions for each section.  Here are a few sample questions, feel free to create your own: 

 

Part 1: How did I come to believe? What do I believe?  What does it mean to believe?  If I "came to believe," what did I believe before?  How does the 3rd Noble Truth relate to the notion of "came to believe?"

Part 2: What is a power greater than myself?  What is not a power greater than myself?  What is the nature of the self, in Buddhist terminology? What does the word "power" mean?  What does the word "greater" mean? 

Part 3: What does "restore" mean?  What does "sanity" mean?  How can we relate the 12 step notion of “sanity” to the Buddhist notion of "delusion?" What is "delusion?"     

  

Exercise - Defining YOUR Higher Power

On a piece of paper make two columns.  At the top of the first column, write "My Higher Power Is." At the top of the second column, write "My Higher Power Is Not." In each column list a series of adjectives, phrases, sentences, etc. that describe your concept of what YOUR higher power is or is not.  

  

There is no right or wrong answer.  You are working to discover YOUR OWN personal concept of a higher power.  The goal is to come up with a personal higher power that you can do business with.  

  

Tradition 10 states that "AA has no opinion on outside issues..."  Use this tradition as your guiding principle as you create your own personal higher power.  You have no opinion on anyone else’s concept of a higher power and you ask for no opinions on your concept of a higher power.  In this way we have freedom to create our own concept of a higher power and true tolerance for all people. 

  

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step are: "Hope" and "Open mindedness." What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them.

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

 

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

  

Step 3 


"Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our Higher Power as we understood it."

 

Part 1: Rewrite the Third Step Prayer

Use this prayer as your guide and rewrite it in your own words.  Make sure it makes sense to you.  It should be a prayer that you "can do business with."  Remember, just like when we defined our own high power, this is your opportunity to make this prayer your own. Note: use a dictionary to get the full meaning of each word. 

  

The Third Step Prayer 

"God, I offer myself to Thee--to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!" 

  

Put the prayer into action by saying it every day. 

  • For optimal happiness, say this prayer repeatedly.  
  • For optimal suffering, don't ever say it. 

 

Part 2: Journal about your decisions for 30 days

In step 3 we are asked to "make a decision."  Begin to journal about your decisions.  Keep track about when you make decisions out of self-will vs. decisions that are in line with your higher power's will. 

For the first week, just observe your decisions.  Try not to judge yourself. 

After a week of incorporating the 3rd Step Prayer into your daily life, see if your decision making process is changing.  Note any changes you see - good or bad.  Be sure to note the results of your choices.  

  

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step are: "Faith" and "Commitment." What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them. a note on the Buddhist concept of 'Faith/Conviction'

  

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

 

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

  

Step 4 


"Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."

 

The attached documents have been created to help you create a "fearless moral inventory." There are four documents created for each type of inventory: standard inventory, fear inventory, sex inventory and other harms inventory. 

 

Exercise - Taking Inventory:

Look at your life and identify:

  • people
  • principles
  • institutions

that you feel resentful towards. If something occupies space in your heart or mind, add it to your inventory.

Use one page per resentment. More than likely, your inventory will fill up many, many pages. 

You will know your step four is complete when you can answer the following two questions satisfactorily

  1. Is my inventory thorough?
  2. Is my inventory honest? 

  

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step are: "Courage" and "Fearlessness." What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them. 

  

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

 

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today.

Step 5 


"Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs"

 

Part 1: Select the person (or persons) who will receive your step 5. 

The big book states "Rightly and naturally, we think well before we choose the person or persons with whom to take this intimate and confidential step...we search our acquaintance for a close-mouthed, understanding friend. Perhaps a doctor of psychologist will be the person. When we decide who is to hear our story, we waste no time."

Use your god consciousness / your inner Buddha nature to guide you to select the right person.  Often people will take a 5th step with their sponsor. 

  

Part 2: The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs

In a traditional 12 step program the individual will read the 4 columns of step 4 to their sponsor.  The sponsor will often help shine the light on areas the sponsee is unable to see on his or her own.

To put a Buddhist spin on this step, consider changing the word "wrongs" to "suffering."  In the 4 Noble Truths we look at the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path out of suffering.  Use Step 5 to "identify the exact nature of our suffering." Take an introspective look at yourself, with the help of your sponsor, to identify what is causing your suffering: what you are attached to? What are you clinging, craving, avoiding, etc.? 

  

Part 3: The Post-5th Step Process

After you have completed Step 5, read the last paragraph on page 75 of the Big Book.  There are instructions on a post-5th Step process which includes prayer, meditation and a review of all the previous steps. 

  

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step are: "Integrity" and "Truth." What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them. 

  

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

  

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

 

Step 6 


"Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character"

 

Part 1 - List Your Assets:

Make a list of your character assets.  Write a list of everything good about yourself.  A lot of people have trouble with this assignment.  They have no problem listing what they see wrong with themselves, but can't find anything good to write about themselves.  If you are having trouble with this, ask the people closest to you for help.  People who love you will happily add to your list of character assets.  

  

Part 2 - List Your Defects:

Look back at your inventory from Step 4 and make a list of all of the character defects that came up on your inventory.  These are character traits that cause suffering in your life or in the lives of others.  Refer back to the Four Noble Truths for insight into the nature of suffering. 

Character defects can also be things that cause you to not follow the Five Precepts. 

  

Part 3 - Your Higher Power and Your Character Traits:

When you have completed your list of character defects and character assets, refer back to the work we did on Step 2.  In Step 2 we created two columns: "My Higher Power Is" and "My Higher Power is not."

  • Compare Step 2 "My Higher Power is" with Step 6 "Character Assets." 
  • Compare Step 2 "My Higher Power is not" with Step 6 "Character Defects." 

Contemplate the similarities and differences between your work on your higher power in Step 2 and your work on yourself in Step 6.  

  

Spiritual Principles: 

  

The spiritual principle we learn in this step is: "Willingness." What does this word mean? Look it up and define it.

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

  

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

 

Step 7 


"Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings"

 

Part 1 - Re-Write the 7th Step Prayer:

 

7th Step Prayer 

“My creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad.  I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.  Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do you bidding.  Amen.” 

 

Assignment #1: Rewrite this prayer in your own words.  Make it into a prayer that you can do business with.

Assignment #2: Incorporate this prayer into your daily spiritual ritual. 

 

Part 2 - Create a Design For Living using the Eight-fold Path:

In step 7 we seek the removal of our defects of character.  From a Buddhist perspective, we are seeking an end to our suffering. 

Buddha tells us in the 4 Noble Truths that the path out of suffering is the Eight-fold Path, listed below:

 

1. Right View/Understanding - Knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, seeing the nature of our suffering.

2. Right Intention/Resolve - Being resolved on Renunciation, Loving-kindness, Harmlessness.

3. Right Speech - Abstaining from lying, malicious or divisive speech, abusive or harsh speech, and idle chatter.

4. Right Action - Abstaining from killing, stealing and harmful sexual behavior.

5. Right Livelihood - Abstaining from dishonest and harmful means of livelihood.

6. Right Effort - Avoiding and overcoming unskillful qualities, and developing and maintaining skillful qualities.

7. Right Mindfulness - Keeping the path and teachings actively in mind throughout the day.

8. Right Concentration - Practicing staying present though daily meditation.

  

The Eight-fold Path is a “design for living” just like the 12 Steps.  In recovery, we try to “practice these principles in all our affairs.”  In Buddhism, we try to practice the Eight-fold Path in all our affairs as well.

 

More Detailed Explanations of the 8-Fold Path:

Short Study Guides Folder / Thanissaro Bhikkhu Book / Bhikkhu Bodhi Book

 

Exercise: Using the eight topics listed in the Eight-fold Path, create a “design for living” for yourself that incorporates the Eight-fold Path into your daily life.  See where your character defects are preventing you from practicing the Eight-fold Path.  

For example: 

Right Speech: "I will strive to not gossip. I understand that one of my character defects is gossip and slanderous speech. I will not speak unkindly about people and if I don’t have all of the information, I will choose not to participate in the conversation. If I hear gossip and slander by other people, I will try to show compassion and non-judgment while trying to direct the conversation to positive topics. I am aware that my words have power and I will use them wisely."

  

Part 3 - Removing the Defects of Character:

You will need: 

  • A pair of scissors 
  • A jar 
  • Your list of Defects of Character 

First - take your list and cut out each defect of character into strips.  They will look like the fortune inside a fortune cookie. 

Second - take all of your defects of character and put them in a jar.  

Third - each morning pull 1 defect of character out of the jar and work on it for that day.  Repeat each morning.  

This is a very manageable way to focus on one defect per day.  Throughout the course of the day be very mindful about how this defect manifests itself in your life.   Try to correct your behavior. 

 

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step is: "Humility." What does this word mean? Look it up and define it. 

  

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

  

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

 

Step 8 


"Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all"

 

Part 1 - Make a list of all persons we have helped:

Start off on a positive note.  Make a list of all the people in your life that you have helped or positively effected in some way.  You are a good person and you have done a lot of good things with your life.  

  

Part 2 - Make a list of all persons we have harmed:

In a Buddhist context, we can change the phrase "people we have harmed" to "people we have caused to suffer."  Look at the Four Noble Truths to understand suffering. 

Take a look back at your work from Step 4 to start your list. Then continue to expand to include anyone who have been harmed. 

  

Part 3 - Became willing to make amends to them all:

To "become willing" is a challenge. Most of us don't start out willing, we have to work at it until we get there. Prayer and meditation often help us to become willing, Forgiveness and Metta Meditation can be particularly helpful. Know that our willingness will grow if we work at it.

4min Metta Meditation (Goodwill/Loving Kindness)

2 page Study guide about: Forgiveness and Good Will

  

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step are: "Perseverance," "Brotherly/Sisterly Love," Thoroughness," and "Reflection." What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them. 

  

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

  

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

 

Step 9 


"Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others"

 

Part 1 - Preparing to Make Amends:

This step is where we go out into the world to attempt to repair the damage we have done.  Before making amends, it is strongly encouraged that you review each amends with a spiritual advisor.  The reason is because of the line "except when to do so would injure them or others."  A spiritual advisor can help you identify potential harm. 

Be sure to re-read Step 9 in the 12 & 12 before embarking on your amends. 

Amends are different then an apology.  Look up the word "amends" and look up the word "apology" to make sure you know the difference.  

 

Part 2 - How to Make Amends:  

Begin by letting the person know what you are doing, for example you might say "I am in a 12 step program and I am currently on Step 9, which is where I makes amends to all persons I have harmed." 

Then state how you have done the person harm.  Often the person will want to respond.  Remember, we never argue. 

To close, we can say something like "What can I do to set this right?" 

 

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step are: "Love," "Justice," "Amendment," "Sincerity" and "Good Judgement." What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them

  

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

  

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

 

Step 10 


"Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it"

 

Exercise - Daily Inventory:

The 10th step is about taking a daily inventory of our lives.  The attached documents offer a series of questions taken directly out of the Big Book which we ask ourselves each day.  There is a standard version and a Buddhist version. 

  

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step are: "Discipline," "Perseverance," and "Vigilance." What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them. 

  

Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles? 
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs? 

  

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

 

 

Step 11 


“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our higher power as we understood it, praying only for knowledge of its will for us and the power to carry that out.” 

 

Breaking it Down

Let’s take a look at the step and break down the various phrases. 

  1. Look up the word “sought” (it is the root word of “seek”).  What does it mean to seek? 
  2. What is prayer?  What is mediation?  What is the difference? 
  3. What does “Conscious Contact” mean to you?  
  4. “Higher Power as we understood it.”  Look back to the work you have done on Step 2.  How has your concept of a Higher Power grown, changed, developed, etc. throughout the course of your step work?  Perhaps this would be a good time to re-define your concept of a Higher Power. 
  5. “Knowledge of its will.” Look back at your work on Step 3 where we identify the difference between self-will & HP’s will. Use the Serenity Prayer (for the “wisdom to know the difference”) to help you gain the “knowledge of its will for us.” 
  6. “Power to carry that out.” It is often our character defects that prevent us from carrying out our HP’s will and it is our character assets which help us carry out our HP’s will.  Take a look back on Step 6 & 7.  Is there any work you need to do in these areas to help you carry out your HP’s will? 

 

Exercise - Pray. Meditate. Repeat:

Step 11 asks us to continue with our prayer and meditation routine. Are you praying and meditating regularly?

12min Breath Meditation

 

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step are: "Awareness," "Spirituality," and "Wisdom." What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them. 

  

Ask yourself a few questions:  

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs?  
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles?  
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs?  

   

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

 

Step 12 


"Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics/addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs"

 

Congratulations: You have reached Step 12!  Let's take a look at each part of the step.  There are some questions to ask yourself. 

  

"Having had a spiritual awakening..."

Have you had a spiritual awakening? In Buddhism, the path to a spiritual awakening is explained in the 4 Noble Truths and achieved by practicing the Eight-fold Path. Are you practicing the Eight-fold Path?  

  

"...as the result of these steps..." 

Have you finished all your step work? Is there anything you have skipped or postponed?  Is there an amends you still need to make or a character defect you are still holding on to?  

Assignment: if you haven't done so already, finish your steps.

  

"...we tried to carry this message to alcoholics/addicts..." 

How are you carrying the message?  There are many different ways to carry the message: what are they?  

In the Big Book is says "Give freely of what you find and join us." Many people take this phrase to mean sponsorship.  Sponsorship is an excellent method of "carrying the message" and I highly recommend it as a way to be of service and enhance your own program. 

Assignment: carry the message! This could mean sponsorship, service commitments, sitting on a board or a committee, speaking at meetings, attending meetings, etc.

  

"...and to practice these principles..."   

What are the principles?  How do you practice them? There are many principles that we learn in the program as the result of working our steps.  It is important to know what the principles are in order to practice them.  

  

"...in all our affairs." 

This is a great phrase.  It doesn't say "some of our affairs." It says "all of our affairs."  This means that we need to practice spiritual principles consistently.  We don't get a day off or a vacation from the Laws of Karma.  

  

Assignment: continue to practice these principles and the Eight-fold Path in all of your affairs. 

  

Spiritual Principles:

The spiritual principles we learn in this step are: "Service" and "Unconditional Love." What do each of these words mean? Look them up and define them. 

  

Ask yourself a few questions:  

  • Am I practicing these principles in all of my affairs?  
  • Where/how am I not practicing these principles?  
  • What can I change today in order to start practicing these principles in all of my affairs?  

   

Assignment: Begin to practice these principles in all of your affairs today. 

Disclaimer: Above is but one suggested approach that some of the elders of our Recovery Sangha have found helpful for working the Twelve Steps in a Buddhist context.