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Original Essays

I'm Powerless over the Economy and My Bills Are Unmanageable: How to Apply the Principles of Buddhism and 12-Step Recovery to the Current Economic Crisis

by Darren Littlejohn
  1. The 12-Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery from Any Addiction
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Littlejohn effectively suggests that the richness of Buddhist insight can ground 12-step recovery in true self-knowledge." Library Journal

    "[A] unique synthesis of the traditional 12-Step model and the liberating wisdom of Dharma....This personal presentation of the tools Littlejohn used to find his own liberation from addiction is certainly never boring, and well worth reading." Mandala Magazine

The Problem: Everyone Is Suffering

So you're broke, foreclosed, laid off, or laid up. Whether you follow Anderson Cooper 360˚, The O'Reilly Factor, Twitter, or USA Today, the news is going from bad to worse, without an end in sight. It is hard to relax on Sunday mornings with the New York Times when heinous events on the international landscape compete with last week's display of unimaginable cruelty. In light of the suffering of victims of acid-in-the-face or genocide or reckless gambling addiction with our 401ks to the point of global economic collapse, our problems can seem insignificant — if only for a few moments. Then we get the mail on Monday morning — or the pink slip on Friday afternoon — or step out in the driveway to get some diapers for the baby to find out that Julio and Bob have loaded up the Honda on the back of the repo wagon. Then our suffering becomes paramount once again. How could I possibly carry compassion for others in my heart when my home is about to go up for public auction? Good question. Let's look at it from the perspectives of the 12 Steps and Buddhism.

Whatever our circumstances, the teachings of Buddhism can help. Regardless if we're addicts or non-addicts, the 12 Steps can provide clarity. Separately, these two traditions have helped millions. But together they have the potential to really end suffering for ourselves and others. By understanding the mind of the addict, we can practice Buddhism with greater understanding. By understanding Buddhism as a science of the mind, rather than a religion, we can see and make real the unlimited potential of our lives if we're non-addicts, and the real meaning of the spiritual awakening promised in the 12 Steps. If we're 12-Steppers, that might make sense. But for the rest of us, in the middle of everything crumbling around us, whether it’s our retirement plans or our faith in the economy, how can we even think about spiritual awakenings? To make it simple, let's look at using a simple principle from the 12 Steps, without worrying about finding "enlightenment."

The Solution: Admitting Our Powerlessness

Step one of the 12 — as we often hear as the brunt of TV jokes or barroom attempts at humor — says that we are powerless over our drug of choice (in this case, our economic conditions) and that our lives have become unmanageable. If we're still holding out hope that we can somehow control the forces that are outside our reach (the Fed, AIG, etc.) and in some way manage the situation by outthinking our bank representative, outrunning our creditors, or playing some sort of shell game with our miniscule reserves, we're not going to be able to gain the benefits of the principle of Step One in 12-Step Recovery: Acceptance. In my book, The 12-Step Buddhist, I've outlined the simple principles of each of the 12 Steps and have added a way to integrate Buddhist meditations and concepts with those principles.

In Buddhism, we first examine and eventually learn to accept the fact that whatever we think is going to end our suffering somehow winds up becoming the cause of suffering. It isn’t possible to get enough money, have enough lovers, or eat enough candy to make our pain go away permanently. In fact, too much of any good thing leads to pain because of these attachments. We become attached to the substance, event, process, or person in such a way that eventually yields more of the hair of the dog that bit us than we bargained for.

How it works for drug addicts is pretty simple. If you've never struggled with addiction in the traditional sense, the plight of us addicts puts this struggle against attachment on a larger, more visible scale, making it easy to understand the solution: acceptance. We just stop running long enough to actually notice how effed up our situation is. Only a dumbass could possibly keep blowing smoke up his own arse by refusing to accept that heroin smoking has led to some life management issues, for example. That said, you might be surprised to find out how far the addict will go to maintain his denial. Point: until any of us accept the reality of our condition, nothing changes. And that goes for anything that threatens to control our lives and our behavior.

Powerlessness means having a little (or big) epiphany that it's broke — whatever it is — and we're done trying to fix it. And by done, we mean done. Done done. Over. No more. How do we get finished pursuing what gives us even precious momentary relief from our constant torment? Common knowledge in the 12 Step community is that we hit the bottom when we stop digging. We're done when we're done. Pretty simple. And exceptionally challenging without help. For some assistance, we move to Step Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Gaining Confidence and Having Faith (in Something!)

In the case of the overeater, gambler, sex addict, or lip-chewing stock tycoon, we have seen how bad things are really looking and have become willing to seek help. That's why Step One comes before Step Two. First we see the condition, then we become willing to seek a solution. We might turn to God. Many do. Church participation usually increases during crisis times. But if you're an atheist or agnostic, it's harder to see how a spiritual practice — let alone a spiritual force — can help. How can I pray to what I don't believe in? To combat this dilemma, we need to extract the principle of Step Two: gaining confidence that there is a solution and that somebody, somewhere, has found a way out of the hellhole of whatever suffering happens to be prevalent at the time. That's why, in the 12 Steps, we engage in the practice of "I can't do it alone." We find comfort in the presence of others in the same boat.

To gain this support and understanding, it might be a bit of a stretch to send foreclosure victims to an AA meeting. Unless we're able to make the connections and apply the filter of substituting the drug of choice for the situation at hand, we might not feel very comfortable in such a setting. It's worth a try, but another option, and a way of applying the principle of Step Two to our economic woes, might be to start or find a group of people who are struggling with the same problem. We could put up an ad on Craigslist, talk with our local minister, post a 3x5 at New Seasons. Whatever the method, the point is to start a meeting where people can feel safe and un-judged sharing their feelings about their circumstances. Meet at a coffee shop, church basement, or friend's living room. Draw strength from each other. Gain confidence by applying the 12 Step credo of "what we can't do alone we can do together" or "I can't, but we can."

Two is greater than one. The analogy I used in my book, The 12-Step Buddhist, is to view a group of similar sufferers as greater than the disease of addiction. For other issues, we can also use meditation — silent and still — or visualizations or mantras (chants with melodies) to become more present in our bodies so that we can act intelligently instead of reacting impulsively to feelings, people, situations.

One visualization we can use is simply that we're all on the same train. Knowing that we're heading in the same direction and that we need each other are the keys. Just consider: we all want the same thing — happiness. Everything we do is to that end. None of us wants suffering. We're all desperate to avoid it. We're in it together and we're in it to win it, so to speak, if we band together with the realization that we don't have to go through challenges as the Lone Ranger. We can all be each other's Tontos. Nobody has to be alone if they don't want to.

As respected Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman writes in the foreword to The 12-Step Buddhist, “Understanding the pervasiveness of addictive habits is the only way to help our dear ones who are in trouble, while also facing the areas where we ourselves are also bound.” I believe that’s true — it’s times of so-called crisis that challenge us to examine what’s really important. And then, once we have the tools, we don’t keep them to ourselves.

There's more. A lot more. We don't have room to go into the whole of Buddhism or even the 12 Steps in this essay. But I wrote a book about it and I think, if you read it with an open mind, you will come away with a much deeper understanding of how these powerful tools can help you and anybody else. It takes a little honesty and a lot of guts, but a lot less energy than staying stressed and depressed.

If you’re in the Portland area and want to learn more, we have a weekly workshop at the Zen Center of Portland where we are exploring on a deeper level the principles of all 12 Steps of recovery as they can be integrated with practices of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as modern psychotherapy tools. See the12stepbuddhist.com for information, as well as free podcasts with guided meditations and interviews, articles, resources, and information about how to start your own group, wherever you are.

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Darren Littlejohn has the personal experience of living the life of a full-time addict. After taking the rough road of recovery, he went on to earn a BA in psychology and became a practitioner of Zen and several systems of Tibetan Buddhism. He lives in Portland, Oregon. spacer

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