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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fear, Desire and Suffering

Re-reading, yet again, the Seventh Step in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, I was struck anew by (a) how profoundly fear, desire and suffering are interrelated, (b) how integral the realization of suffering is in order to gain the humility necessary for removal of our character defects, and (c) how closely the commentary on Step Seven - whether knowingly or unbeknownst to Bill - reflects the simplicity of the Buddha's primary spiritual teaching. It teaches the nature of our suffering and how to remove it.

Most everyone who attends Alcoholics Anonymous (and perhaps other 12 Step fellowships) has heard - or will hear, in one form or another - the following truism taken from Bill's essay on the 7th Step: "The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear - primarily fear that we will lose something already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded."

Note that our self-centered fears are "not" the root cause of our defects, but are instead the catalyst or "chief activator" through which character defects manifest in our thoughts, emotions and attitudes. Fearful and most-often mistaken ideas, once activated, manifest in emotional and conditioned thought patterns which inevitably create suffering for the recovering alcoholic addict. The alcoholic addict, if unprepared and thus unaware of the effects of such thoughts, emotions and attitudes, reacts to the fears that are generated by falling back into the grips of his or her addiction or by acting out with old addictive behaviours. Such old behaviours may result in the addict's embracing extreme actions and attitudes towards others, a result that is much more often than not incredibly harmful - both to the alcoholic addict and to others.

Yet, still we are only talking about fear being the "chief activator" of our character defects and not the root cause of such painful actions and attitudes.

The root cause of such fear-based thoughts and emotions is, of course, desire. That is our fears hold sway, as Bill so rightly observes, when we perceive that our desires to keep what we have or get what we want seem unlikely to bear fruit. And it is the tamping down or removal of these all-pervading human desires - our constant wanting for security, relationships, recognition and possessions that alienate us from all Higher Power- that lies at the heart of most spiritual and religious traditions, including A.A.'s 12 Steps.

Why then all the talk of secondary fears without talk of our rudimentary desires? It is, I believe, as Bill writes, that we alcoholic-addicts "never wanted to deal with the fact of suffering." Yet in a world where there always seems more to aim for and to attain, and/or there appears to be great risks of loss or harm that must be avoided at all costs, the intensity of our fears mirror the intensity and strength of our underlying desires, regardless of whether or not the measure of those desires is wholly disproportional. (That is, in some unhealthy instances, the smallest desires may lead to great fears, just as the most pressing needs may be overlooked through a fear-based willful blindness.)

Thus, our disproportional desires feed our fears, our fears then cause ourselves and others suffering, and in turn such suffering leads to ever greater and seemingly unquenchable desires. In adressing the grave effect of our all-too-human and unredeemed desires in Step Six, Bill notes that the alcoholic addict often has desires that "far exceed" their intended purposes. He then observes (at p. 65) that, "When [these desires] drive us blindly, or we willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures than are possible or due us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God wishes for us here on earth. That is the measure of our character defects, or, if you wish, our sins."

Our false perceptions and ideas about what it is we want or need - i.e., our "sins" as Bill would characterize them - thus create the mental state, the psychological playground, or the "measure" in which our character defects may manifest. To be entirely ready for the removal of these shortcomings, we must be willing to examine and give up the outsized desires that are at the root of our fears and suffering.

While giving up the ideas, emotions and attitudes that cause suffering may seem staightforward, in practice it is difficult to do so. For our desires and fears are the root c ause of all human suffering. We alcoholic addicts are decidedly not alone in our character defects.

This seemingly endless cycle of desire, fear and suffering is why in the Four Noble Truths (which lie at the base of all Buddhist teachings), the First Noble Truth is the Noble Truth of Suffering. We suffer, it is said, because what we want, or want to hold on to, in order that we might be satisfied will not do the trick. What we crave or cling to is ultimately insufficient to fulfill us. This 'insufficiency' is what the Buddha called dukkha, or suffering. And, even if were we to attain the fulfillment of our unbalanced desires that demand more than is proper or due to us, what we attain would still be insufficient and, in time, we would demand still more. Thus, there is nothing - 'no-thing' - outside of us that will fill this insufficiency. Recovery is an inside job.

Yet, the Buddhist tradition teaches that by knowing the causes of suffering (which are set out as the Buddha's Second Noble Truth, or the Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering) , and by eliminating such causes (the Third Noble Truth, or the Noble Truth of the End of Suffering), one is able to eliminate the condition of suffering.

The Second Noble Truth realized by the Buddha - the Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering - is the recognition that it is our desires and fears that cause suffering. Thus, it is our 'craving and clinging' to people, places, objects, ideas and other beings that causes unawakened individuals to suffer. (The Buddha also refers to 'addiction and aversion' as the root causes of suffering, a description of the interplay of desire and fear that should more than suffice for most alcoholic addicts.)

That it is possible to remove these causes of suffering - to do away with the fears and desires, the craving and clinging, the addictions and aversions that result in our and others' suffering- is the Buddha's Third Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of the End of Suffering. And, while the Buddha goes on to describe the Fourth Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of the Eight-Fold Path to the End of Suffering, it is not necessary for our purposes that we discuss the Buddha's Path to awakening, for all spiritual paths - including the 12 Steps - are equally valid. (As Bill writes in his essay on Step Two: "Let me be quick to assure you that A.A.'s tread innumerable paths in their quest for faith.")

While I do not know if, or how deeply, Bill was exposed to Buddhist and other Eastern teachings at the time he wrote the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the spiritual importance in understanding the root causes and effects of our desires and fears is reflected in Bill's writings at the end of Step Seven (and, indeed, throughout the Steps). In ideas that closely reflect the first three of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, Bill sets out the basic problems of (and the solution to) the alcoholic addict's overweaning desires. At page 76 of the Twelve and Twelve, he writes:
  1. "The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear - primarily fear that we will lose something already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded" (i.e., the 1st Noble Truth of Suffering: that, to the unawakened or unenlightened individual, this - life itself - is suffering, or dukkha in the Buddha's native Pali).
  2. "Living upon a basis of unsatisfied demands, we were in a state of continual disturbance and frustration" (i.e., the 2nd Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering: it is our desires and fears, our craving and clinging, our addictions and aversions, that create suffering - thereby leaving us vulnerable to seeking relief from our suffering through booze and drugs).
  3. "Therefore, no peace was to be had unless we could find a means of reducing these demands" (i.e., the Third Noble Truth of the End of Suffering : to end suffering, end the demands/desires that cause our suffering in the first place).
While Bill does not deal explicitly with the subject matter of the Buddha's Fourth Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path to the End of Suffering, the path to awakening spiritually that the Buddha prescribes is replicated, as set out above, in A.A.'s Twelve Steps. What is vital to the recovery of the alcoholic addict, however, is that each individual comes to realize for him or herself that there is a path out of suffering, that there is a common solution to addiction that has been experienced by innumerable alcoholic addicts through the application of the Twelve Steps to their lives, and that the alcoholic addict experiences the fruits of spiritual awakening at the path's end.

What is necessary for Step Seven is that, having become entirely ready to be rid of their character defects, each alcoholic be ready and prepared to adopt the requisite state of humility that is needede for a Higher Power to remove their shortcomings. Adopting this attitude may be the only real "easier and softer way" to end addiction. And to achieve the required humility for the 7th Step, further suffering is no longer necessary, as true 'peace of mind' is readily at hand at this point in the alcoholic addict's recovery.

Indeed, while Bill observes in Step Six (at p. 66) that "desires will always be found which oppose the Grace of God" irrespective of how far along the spiritual road we have journeyed, he also assures us in Step Seven (at p. 75) that from A.A. experience "we needn't always be bludgeoned and beaten into [the required state] of humility." Rather, he notes that the required state of humility can "come quite as much from our voluntary reaching for it as it [can] from unremitting suffering."

One dictionary directly equates 'humility' with 'meekness' ( by noting, "humbleness = meekness"), and defines meekness as being "free from self". While this roundabout definition of humility is a short and accurate description of the spiritual attitude necessary for relief from suffering, perhaps the most helpful definition of humility I have come across - and that to which most A.A.'s might readily say they aspire - is the definition of humility from the plaque, that I am told may still be found on Dr. Bob's desk. It reads as follows:

"Perpetual quietness of heart. It is to have no trouble. It is never to be fretted or vexed, irritable or sore; to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised, it is to have a blessed home in myself where I can go in and shut the door and pray to my Father in secret and be at peace, as in a deep sea of calmness when all around and about is seeming trouble."

To reach such a state of humility is, indeed, to be 'free of self' - to be freed from the terrible "bondage of self" and the fears, desires and suffering which are the common lot of not only alcoholics addicts, but of humanity as a whole. It is to be in a position where deep rooted character defects may be transcended through grace. It is the process the Zen Master described when asked to sum up the Buddhist philosophy, saying simply, "No self no problem."

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