Step One: Powerless
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [drugs, food, sex, etc], that our lives had become unmanageable.”
People often tell me that they have trouble with the word “powerless” in the first of the 12 Steps. They’ll say “I’m not powerless; there are lots of things I can do. “ They think they’re being told that they are helpless victims of their addiction. Others tell me that they think it makes for a victim mentality that pervades 12 Step programs.
The language of the Steps is often difficult to take in. There is the simple fact that language has changed a great deal since the Steps were written in the 1930s. But I also think that the founders of AA who wrote the 12 Steps were intentionally using somewhat extreme language to get our attention. If they’d said, “We admitted alcohol was a problem for us,” or even “We admitted we couldn’t control our use of alcohol,” it might have been more accurate, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact as saying “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” Questions of style aside, though, what these early members of AA found was that the best time to approach someone about their drinking problem was when they were at their lowest—hungover or at the end of a bender. Whether they were literally powerless or not wasn’t the point. That’s how it felt. And the admission of powerlessness leads to the response that the program is trying to evoke: surrender.
This struggle with the word powerless is often just the first of many complaints about the language of the Steps. And underneath the complaints is often just a desire to avoid the real issue: your problem with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or some other addiction. Focusing on the minutiae of the 12 Step language lets you sidestep the larger issue. This is why, ultimately, I’m not that interested in debating the language of the Steps. What I want to get at is the process that the Steps are pointing to.
Obviously the Steps were designed to help people stop their addiction and stay stopped. But I think that their underlying structure is based on a broader template for spiritual transformation. The function of the first Step then is more than just telling us we have a problem with addiction. It is the realization that the whole premise of our pleasure-seeking lives is flawed. Another classic template for spiritual transformation makes this same statement: the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha starts his teaching with the recognition of all the ways that life is challenging, physically and mentally—that we’re often stuck with what we don’t want or wishing we had something else; that we inevitably get old and sick and die. Just like Step One, he’s trying to get us to see past the surface to what’s really going on. The starting point of both paths, then is to see the truth: in 12 Step terms, to come out of denial; in Buddhist terms, to shed delusion. To begin on any spiritual path, and to deal with the destructive power of addiction, we have to be honest with ourselves.
For the addict or alcoholic this honesty is about admitting, as the Step says, that we have a problem, that our life isn’t working. For the Buddhist, this honesty is about recognizing that the way we have been approaching life is unrealistic. Until we come to this point, called “Right View” in Buddhism and “a moment of clarity” in AA, there’s no chance that we will change. As long as we believe that pleasure-seeking and acquisition are the way to happiness, and that all we have to do is get better at acquiring and holding on to things, we will never resolve the real problem. That’s because, as the Buddha tells us, what’s actually causing suffering is the very attempts to control and acquire, our craving and clinging. He points out that, since everything is constantly changing, there’s nothing that we can actually control or hold on to. His strategy, then, is to let go, to surrender—exactly the solution offered by the 12 Steps.
And this all starts with the honest recognition of how things work. When Step One says we are powerless, this is the idea that’s we’re being encouraged to see, that our attempt to create a perfect world out of imperfect parts is doomed to fail. We have to see what is happening, that drinking and using by their very nature cannot bring happiness, that pursuing pleasure is not a life strategy, and that surrendering to the truth and abandoning our addiction, though painful at first, is actually the beginning of the path to recovery, happiness, and spiritual transformation.
Exercise: The Cause of Suffering
Begin by sitting quietly for a few minutes. Try to consciously relax the body, and just be aware of your breathing. Once you’ve settled a bit, ask yourself “What am I holding on to that is causing me suffering?” This might be anything from an object, to a behavior, to a relationship. It might involve substances like drugs or food; it might involve a viewpoint or opinion that causes you problems at work or at home; it might be about some loss you’ve suffered. There may be multiple things you are holding on to. Once you have a sense of what these things are, ask yourself, “What would happen if I simply let go?” "What if I let go of the behavior or the opinion or the grief?"
Sometimes simply seeing the problem is enough to inspire us to let go. For many things, though, it’s a process, and that’s what the rest of the 12 Steps are meant to help us with.