By Kevin Griffin
I was recently reading an article about the concern in the recovery profession of determining “outcomes,” whether treatment actually works. Of course, this has always been a question, and it’s a reasonable one for entities like governments and insurance companies that pay for these things to ask. But what immediately occurred to me is that what makes it somewhat unfair to judge a treatment’s effectiveness is the fact that recovery is more dependent upon the motivation of the addict/alcoholic than it is on the treatment itself. This isn’t to diminish the power and value of the tools used for recovery, but, unlike say cancer, the patient’s commitment is vital to recovery. In fact, the word “treatment” might not even be the right one. It’s not as though they put you on a gurney and roll you into the OR where they remove your addiction and after a few days you return home cured. In our case, we have to push our own gurney, lie there awake while we reach into our own guts and pull the monster out. The similarity with cancer is that if we don’t get it all, or if it’s already metastasized, we may relapse.
This brings me to Step Six, which says we “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” This same readiness is actually implied in Step One in our “admission” of powerlessness. And in the history of AA it’s clear that the founders felt that hitting bottom, completely accepting the hopelessness of our situation was vital to recovery. That hitting bottom is actually the turning point when we make the decision to take on our problem, to try to change.
In Buddhism, this decision, the readiness to change, is called “Right Intention,” pointing ourselves in the direction of recovery, of healing, of spiritual growth. Unless we have this intention, and unless we maintain it as well, we’ll always be at risk of relapse because a part of us will always be looking for a way out. I don’t mean to say that we have to be fully committed to recovery to get started—few of us are—but over time, I do believe that a pretty strong intention has to develop.
Intention is a tricky thing as the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” implies. Right Intention is not a superficial nod to doing the right thing. It is a deep inner commitment to live a loving and wise life. The Buddha said that intention is what conditions the results of our actions, that is, our reason for doing something has a direct effect on the results of us doing it. This means that staying clear about our intentions has a huge effect on our lives. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking, for instance, that we’re doing something out of generosity when in fact we are looking for our own rewards. Intention will often be mixed—when I teach meditation the main goal is to be of service, but I also make my living at it, so I am also motivated by a need for money—and we don’t have to beat ourselves up for not having a pure intention, but I do think we need to keep our priorities straight and put Right Intention first on our list.
If Steps Six and Seven are going to bring about real change, we need to be clear about our reasons for wanting to change. Are we seeking pleasure or authentic happiness? Are we looking for truth or quick fixes? When we have a strong intention to change, we become willing to go through the difficulties that inevitably arise when we face ingrained habits, be they chemical addictions or negative thought or emotional habits.
Each morning, at the end of my meditation, I set some intentions. These are often focused on particular issues I’m dealing with, ways I’m trying to change my behavior. I do this by combining the Buddhist idea of taking the Precepts as a kind of vow, with the Twelve Step idea of one day at a time. So, for instance, when I’m working on Right Speech, I say, “Just for today, I take the training precept to refrain from false and harmful speech. ” Then I list specifics like, “Just for today I will avoid criticism and judgment.” What I try to do then is during the day when the impulse to criticize comes up, I try to catch it. If I don’t catch it, I try to recognize that I’ve broken the precept. This is all a way to become more mindful. Taking the precept helps me to remember my intention which helps me to notice when I’m about to or I have just broken the intention. Setting an intention everyday has a powerful effect over time. Gradually the commitment becomes almost second nature. It’s not enough to make a New Year’s resolution because it will fade. But if you make a daily resolution, it stays with you.
Of course, we don’t always succeed at changing in the ways we’d like to. But if we stay mindful and keep noticing how our behavior causes us pain, the desire to change can often overcome the inertia and habits that resist change. Our intention will become stronger and stronger until we really mean it. And then, change becomes possible.