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Sunday, March 27, 2011


It is my opinion that there is almost no passage of AA literature more profound (or more Buddhist) than the oft-quoted, and nearly as often misunderstood, part of one of the stories that deals with the thorny concept of acceptance. It begins:
"And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation--some fact of my life--unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment." (page 417 in Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition)
American Vipassana master Sharon Salzberg tells the story of a time in her life when her response to any inquiry into how she was doing was, "I couldn't be better," no matter what her external circumstances. Though it seems at first glance to be a rather dismissive statement, when one drills down a bit deeper, it is a very profound and meaningful truth. In fact, we could have just been in a major traffic accident, have multiple broken bones, be in terrible pain, be bleeding profusely, and the fact still would be that we couldn't be better. It is the very desire to have things be other than as they are which is the nature of suffering as the Buddha defined it. Acceptance really is the answer to all my problems. Everything else is desire, aversion, or ignorance, the trifecta of suffering at the core of the Buddha's teachings.

The Big Book goes on to make the statement which has caused so much consternation over the years, "Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God's world by mistake." This has been, for me, a very useful koan, and one to which I have returned frequently. As with most people who read it for the first time, my initial interpretation of this line went something like this: "Everything that happens is O.K. with God." I have come to believe, however, that this is far from the truth of what is being said.

An AA speaker (Sandy B.) once said, "Problems are just events we decide never should have happened". This is one of the most important meanings of the idea that nothing happens in God's world by mistake. When we face the solid reality of an event that has happened or is happening, if it is unpleasant the immediate reaction is to deny its legitimacy, to determine in our own minds that it never should have happened. This judgment has two quite negative effects. The first is to divide us from the reality of the here and now, which, according to the dharma, is the most profound place in which we can dwell. No matter what the reality is, it is the whole truth of this moment. The second deleterious result is that it places us in opposition to that reality, which is the very nature of suffering in the Buddhist cosmology. In fact, regardless of what it contains, this moment "couldn't be better". It is one of the deepest and most disturbing ironies of human existence that the very rejection of the source of our pain is at the core of our suffering. Or, as one sage (Shinzen Young) put it, "Suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance".

This Big Book passage, though, confronts us once again with this concept of "God" that can cause us so much difficulty. If there is a being external to us that is a God, and he is all-powerful, and nothing happens in his world by mistake, then why, oh why would this God create disasters, pain, suffering, abuse, murder, and all other manner of chaos and entirely unnecessary suffering? Well, if one believes in this omniscient idea of God, then this would, indeed, be problematic. But, if one believes in this kind of God, then the only logical response is to fall prostrate at His feet and accept whatever comes as right and just without question. What more often happens, ironically, is that a person has this concept of an all-powerful God, and uses the fact of the injustice of the world to altogether reject the idea of any God at all. This would be amusing if it weren't so tragic, that for so many a belief in an all-powerful God is used to create a lack of belief in any God at all, and to a rejection of the idea that "nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God's world by mistake."

There are, of course, many ways to think of God. I do not believe in a God that is a creator God, or who arbitrarily decides who lives and dies, who suffers and who prospers, who thrives and who shrivels. "The Great Reality [the truth of God] lies deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found" (Big Book, page 55). This is, for me, the truth of God (except for the "He" part; I don't believe God has a gender). As I have stated elsewhere in this blog, God is a convenient concept that, nonetheless, has as many different meanings as there are people. To speak of a God is to share an experience without necessarily sharing a meaning. It is this experience I value, the experience of freedom which comes from accepting the premise that there are things which occur in our lives over which we have no control whatsoever, and seem to have been steered by a power outside of us. We who have had a spiritual awakening which removed our desire to drink, a desire that had been intransigent to any other method of eradication, can attest to this, even if we cannot define or grasp what that entity is with any precision.

The core of acceptance in recovery is contained in the Third Step prayer,
"God, I offer myself to you, to build with me and to do with me as you will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of your power, your love, and your way of life" (Big Book, page 63). (Those of you who know your Big Book will see that I have replaced the Thees and Thous with more modern language; I find this pseudo-Biblical language off-putting, so I don't use it).
This is what we came here to do, and yet those of us who do not believe in the God of our parents, or the God of Christianity or Islam or Judaism, can be confounded when we come to this part of the work. But if we release ourselves into the great flow of the dharma, if we come to understand that our judgment, our limited grasp of the truth, is not the whole of life, that there is a larger, unfathomable, vast, limitless Reality that is always present within and without us, then taking this step becomes almost laughably easy. Of course I can offer myself to this; of course I can acknowledge that to go against the "will" of the flow of the universe is sheer folly; of course I can wish for my difficulties to be removed, because, after all, the stumbling blocks between me and Nirvana are and always have been of my own making; of course I wish for my life to be a demonstration of the power, the love, and the way of life that is the Buddhadharma. How could it be otherwise?


Anonymous said...

I really liked this writing. I am 7 years sober and working on a really intensive 4th step. My sponsor is encouraging me to find a personal, external God and I'm just not feeling it. I liked a lot of the things you have to say and it is helping me form my thoughts. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm glad I came across this blog. This is a great post and was exactly what I needed to be reminded of right now. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your profound wisdom. Your words really spoke to me. Thank you.

JT said...

Great stuff! I actually know Sandy B.; he lives here in Tampa. he "tucks us in" every Saturday night. Check out his "Drop the rock!" speech on Youtube.

Been sober since 8/8/99 myself. Been a great journey.

Lemme see if I can figure out how to "follow" on blogspot...
Come see me at

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