When I first started working the twelve steps with Big Don, I was tentative. But now I felt like I was really ready to give this spiritual practice shit a try. I looked around the program in Santa Cruz to see who was really working the steps. I knew I sure as hell wasn’t and I had already been sober for almost two years. So I asked Matthew if he would be willing to be my sponsor but he said no, said he was too busy. He suggested that I go and work the first nine steps with one of his sponsees, a guy named Shawn, and when I was through with them I could come to him for ten, eleven, and twelve. Matthew said he wanted to be more like a spiritual adviser to me than a sponsor and that sounded better than nothing.
I was a bit disappointed but I was very willing to take suggestions at that point so I gave Shawn a call. We arranged to meet a few days later at the Shivering Denizens group that meets on Thursdays at 6:00 P.M. in the little red church in downtown Santa Cruz. Shawn was a big man with long hair. I hated guys with long hair but I was so willing to do whatever I needed to do to get through those steps I was even willing to let go of my judgments.
I spent almost a whole year working the steps with Shawn before Matthew invited me to begin spending time with him. My relationship with Shawn became very close. I would see him every week at Shivering Denizens and we would meet and talk about the steps several times a month. All of the sudden I had an incredible willingness to take suggestions and to do all I could to change my negative behaviors. The steps were really helping. I had incredible experiences of forgiveness and letting go over and over.
Just praying regularly helped a lot but I knew I needed to start taking action to rectify all of the bad shit I had done. I had to write down all my resentments, fears, and a sexual inventory. Getting all that stuff down on paper and out of my head was both difficult and extremely freeing.
When I finished with it I read it to Shawn in a little shack behind his dilapidated Victorian house. He listened intently and once in a while asked me a question about what I had done to retaliate against some of the people I had been resentful toward. The whole time he was writing down the names of everyone I mentioned and making a list of the defects of character in me that he was hearing. You know, all the basics—fear, anger, lust, pride, self-centeredness, greed, envy, and self-esteem issues. I shared with him everything from my whole life, all of it. It was the first time in my life that I had told one person everything. I had talked about some of it with various friends and counselors over the years but never had I been completely honest with one person about all of the people who I felt had harmed me and the ways that I had tried to get revenge. He shared with me some very painful and embarrassing things from his past to try and make me feel more comfortable about the more difficult things I had to tell him.
When I finished I felt like I had just dropped a hundred-pound bag of shit that I had been carrying around my whole life without even knowing it. When I left Shawn’s place that day he suggested that I take it easy, that I spend some time reflecting on what we had just done. He said I might feel a little different in the coming days and he was right, I did. I had skateboarded over to his house that afternoon and when I left the sun was just about to set so I skated down the street to a park that overlooked the boardwalk and the beach. I felt like a kid with brand new shoes on. My skateboard was so light under my feet and everything seemed to look different.
Sitting alone on a bench in the park, I watched the sun setting over the ocean and heard a group of kids playing basketball off in the distance. I just sat there thinking about my crazy life. I must have been sitting there for quite a while because by the time I left it was very dark and starting to get cold.
Over the next several weeks I prayed every day for the willingness to let go of all my defects of character and shortcomings, all those things that had come out of my inventory. The more I prayed and paid attention, the more I saw how much of my life was lived out of fear. It got to the point where I felt like every word, action, and thought I had was somehow coming from fear, greed, lust, or anger. It seemed like I was just one big walking, talking defect. But gradually as I continued to pray about it and be aware of what I was saying and doing, some of the more gross shortcomings began to fade. I stopped lying and stealing. I began to be a little nicer, even to people I didn’t like very much. It became less and less important to be cool and tough and more and more important to be kind and honest.
It was then time, Shawn told me, to start making amends to all the people I had harmed in my life, both while on drugs and while sober. He explained that this was a very necessary and important part of my recovery. That it was by making amends and cleaning up the wreckage of my past that I would begin to forgive myself. By forgiving others and taking responsibility for all the harm I had caused I would be able to open more deeply to the spiritual experience I had already begun to taste. I knew he was right and I wanted to continue with the steps and everything but I had done some really awful shit. How do you make amends for robbing an old lady or beating someone up or robbing someone’s house? And what about all the people who had hurt me first? Shawn said that I didn’t have to do them all at once and that I should just start slowly, but steadily. He explained that naturally I would be afraid to do some of them but that fear was not an acceptable excuse for inaction. He reminded me that if I held on to any of my resentments I would very likely drink again. That resentments, for alcoholics like us, were poison and eventually, if not dealt with, led back to drink and drugs, or at least a life of misery and confusion.
So I went out and began to make reparations to the people who were on the list I had from my inventory but that list wasn’t enough, I had to add a lot of people—everyone I had hurt or ripped off, many of whom I didn’t even know.
By now I had gotten a job working at a medical clinic as a nursing assistant. I was making pretty good money and I had also been involved in another car accident where I reinjured my back and received a few thousand dollars from the insurance company for “pain and suffering.” I had some extra money, which made the financial part of the amends easier, but it was getting over my pride that was the hard part. I had already sort of apologized to my family for all the trouble I had caused but this was different. Now I was just making a sincere attempt to rectify the wrongs and heal all of the broken relationships, to mend that which I had destroyed: people’s trust, faith, and love. The hard part was staying on my side of the street, taking responsibility for my actions, and not focusing on what they had or hadn’t done.
But even though this was incredibly difficult, the more amends I made the more I began to forgive myself. It became easier to look people in the eye. I didn’t have to continue to hide from or avoid anyone. Every opportunity I got I pulled people aside and asked for forgiveness for any way that I might have harmed them, committing to behave differently in the future. For a while it seemed like this was all I did; I couldn’t walk down the street without running into someone who had made the list. I even made amends to my ex-stepfather that I had hated for so long, taking responsibility for all of the ways in which I had retaliated against him, asking him for forgiveness. I did the same with my big brother, who, although our relationship had changed a lot over the years, I still had resentment toward from our childhood. I asked for his forgiveness for all of the times I stole from him and all of the ways I had been unskillful in our relationship, completely putting aside all of the reasons why I had felt justified in my actions at the time and just taking responsibility for what I had done. After I got a good chunk of it done I met with Shawn again and he told me that I really needed to continue with it, that I could actually finish it within the next few months. He promised that one day we would be able to sit together and I would have a clean slate, free from resentments and loose ends. It sounded good but I still had a lot of names on my list and some of the scarier amends to make. Like all the people I had robbed or cheated. I was scared but the willingness and desire to be free was greater than the fear. I knocked on doors of homes that I had burglarized and offered an amends and some cash to rectify the past. I even paid back some drug dealers I had ripped off.
Once I went to make amends to this lady for whom I used to babysit, who lived down the street from my mom. I had stolen her VCR while I was strung out on crack. I knocked on her door with two hundred bucks in my pocket. I was so fucking scared she was going to call the cops or something. But when she answered the door and I told her why I was there and offered her the money and made my amends, instead of yelling at me or calling the cops she invited me in. She thanked me for coming and talking to her. She said that I could keep my money, but that I could make amends in another way. It turned out that her teenage daughter had a friend who had been staying with them recently and she really cared about this kid but he was in jail right now because like me he had stolen someone’s VCR. He too was doing a lot of drugs. She said that if I would be willing to, the best amends I could make would be to help him get sober. Of course, I agreed to try to help. I told her that I would talk to him if he wanted to but that it was my experience that you had to want to stop yourself, that no matter how many people had talked to me I didn’t stop until I was completely beaten and finished. She seemed to understand and was satisfied with my willingness to help if he was interested.
This was one of the times that I walked away knowing that I was on the right path, really feeling like God was working in my life. It was one of those spiritual experiences that inspired me to continue, even when I was terrified.
Over a period of several months I made over a hundred direct amends and paid back thousands of dollars to all the people I had stolen from. At the same time I was doing community service and making monthly payments for restitution in the graffiti bust. My life was very full of the work of recovery and trying to deepen my spiritual practice. Some of my old habits and attitudes were still quite strong but my life was changing so drastically that many of the old ways of being just didn’t fit anymore.
I began to notice that other people started treating me differently too. The whole world seemed more friendly, people rarely wanted to fight me anymore. Women seemed to be much more interested in dating me. More and more people started actually asking me for advice, calling me to help them with the steps or to just talk about stuff. That was truly incredible: people actually thought that I had something to offer that would be helpful. It was the first time in my life that I began to understand why so much emphasis is put on service work both in the twelve-step programs and in most spiritual and religious traditions. Because it just feels great to be able to help someone who needs you. Through the act of helping others, I temporarily got out of my own self-centered thinking. I had always felt pretty indifferent about other people’s problems because I had enough of my own problems. But when I did start helping people I realized how much it really helped me too.
Excerpted from Dharma Punx, by Noah Levine. Reprinted with permission. Noah Levine is a Buddhist teacher, author, and counselor. Trained by Jack Kornfield of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, Levine teaches meditation classes, workshops and retreats nationally as well as leading groups in juvenile halls and prisons. He holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from California Institute of Integral Studies. He has studied with many prominent teachers in both the Theravadan and Mahayanan Buddhist traditions.