Step Six of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 59). With a few years of Buddhist practice under my belt, my initial response to Step Six is, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Character defects, my actual character is defective? If that is indeed the case then I must admit, I do need a deity with a powerful mojo to fix this condition.”
Step Six arrives after a personal inventory is taken in Step Four and we’ve admitted our mistakes to another human being in Step Five. When I was drinking, I was in perfect accord with the sentiments in Step Six and I believed with many that my fundamental character was defective. These dark thoughts for a long while necessitated another drink to cover over the pain of my condition until near the end a character as severely defective as mine no longer warranted a place on this planet. I was determined to give Mother Earth a present and leave.
On this sad note, I am ironically reminded of one of my favorite jokes. There were two young boys, one a complete pessimist and the other an incorrigible optimist. A psychologist decided to do an experiment to see if he could moderate these boys’ world views. He placed the pessimistic child alone in a large white room filled with the most wonderful toys imaginable all piled in the center of the floor. For the optimist, another white room containing only a huge pile of horse manure was created. Both boys were left alone in their respective rooms for half an hour.
When the psychologist entered the room to check on his progress with the pessimist, he found the young boy sitting in tears. When asked why he was crying, the boy sobbed, “The trains run too fast and the marbles in the marble machine are all the wrong colors. The teddy bear is too soft, and the construction blocks are hard to put together.”
When checking on the optimist child, the psychologist found a very strange situation. The child was happily singing and digging into the horse manure throwing pieces over his shoulder. When asked what he was doing, the young lad replied, “With all this in here, there’s bound to be a pony somewhere!”
Rather than having a character that is inherently defective, Buddhism tells me that my character, my true nature is a compassionate, enlightened being, my Buddha Nature. Just like the story above, in spite of the manure piled all around my life, there’s a pony in there somewhere.
So, what of the past refuse piled around my life. If it isn’t character defects, just what is it? Buddhism tells me it’s from unskillful living (Segal 4). Simply unskillful thoughts and actions that have led to the carnage around me. No judgment, no sin to create remorse, just lack of living skills. This sounds hopeful.
One of my metaphors for living comes from Tamar Hanna and her 3×3 Custom woodworking YouTube channel. In her segment called “What Is This Joint,” Tamar showed three pieces of wood about two and a half inches wide coming together ninety at degrees to each other. Try and picture the two edges and one leg of a coffee table coming together and you will get the picture. The joint created for these three pieces of wood looked like the finished product belonged in a museum rather than someone’s home. It was complex, super strong, and beautiful. Tamar took the wood and with only a table saw, a small hand saw, and a chisel, she created this wonder of joinery in just a few minutes (Hannah). Now I ask you, “Does this woman have skill?”
In my garage I have a table saw, a hand saw, and a chisel. With a little practice, Tamar showed me how I could have this skill, too. To me, skillful living is no different.
Several people have devised “one-word principles” that correspond to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step One is “Honesty.” Step Two is “Hope,” et cetera (Lauroesch). Our Step Six has been given the principle of “willingness.” So, Step Six is asking me to be ‘willing’ to find and use new living skills. So where do I find a Tamar for living skills? On my particular path, the joinery skills for living are everywhere! Mindfulness groups, magazines, videos, and books abound. One of my favorite sources is the Satipatthana Sutra as described by the monk, Joseph Goldstein. This sutra supposedly delivered by the Buddha is a simple step by step guide to mindfulness living (Goldstein). The simple saws and chisels of meditation practices for living a better life.
There is also the adage often attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I can only give you anecdotal evidence of this statement. In my case, the Zen monk, Jian, with many decades of practice in the Rinzai tradition, took me under his wing a few years ago.
Now that we’ve begun to successfully deal with the manure pile of unskillful living, what about the pony mentioned above? To me, this is the phase of Step Six, ’willingness,’ that separates the women from the girls. In her recent article, “Nothing to (Im)prove,” the famous Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, says “Meditation isn’t about becoming a better person but befriending who we really are” (Chodron). So, who am I really?
Even though for many, many years I would easily give you an intellectual, conceptual answer to this question, to actually know this truth has taken a lifetime. Conjuring up all of the Step Six Willingness I can muster I must say, “The only Buddha, Enlightened Being, that I can ever encounter directly, dwells within me!” This is about as far away from our earlier ‘defective character’ as one can get. We can read all of the books, go to all of the classes, and watch countless videos, but we are still left with this one great step. Am I willing to accept this truth of my Buddha Nature? Only time will tell. But for you, dear reader, on your particular path, I leave you with all the encouragement I have to find your pony, too.
Alcoholics Anonymous, (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc. 2001)
Chodron, Pema, “Nothing to (Im)prove,” Tricycle 3/21/2018, https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/pema-chodron-lovingkindness/
Goldstein, Joseph, “Satipatthana Sutta – Part 1 The Direct Path To Liberation – Abiding Mindfulness” YouTube 9/11/2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpuCHQEJZ4w
Hannah, Tamar; “What’s This Joint” 3x3Custom YouTube 12/27/2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKJI_f44v0E&t=2s
Lauroesch, Molly, “What Are the Twelve Principles of AA”, FHE Health, 7/30/2019, https://fherehab.com/learning/the-12-principles-of-aa/
Segall, Seth Zuiho, “Unskillfulness and Sin”, The Exitential Buddhist, 8/27/2010, https://www.existentialbuddhist.com/2010/08/skillfulness-unskillfulness-and-sin/
About the Author Sim G.
I have many years in A.A. with only one short but very necessary excursion during a dark night of the soul. I am a recovering academic with education in physics with additional graduate studies in estuarine ecology and mystical theology. I am an ordained Unity minister. My Buddhist practice began in the Chinese Chan tradition under Shih Ying-Fa from Cleveland, O.H. In my home town of Charlotte, I attend the Soto Zen sangha, Charlotte Zen Meditation Society, a group of lay practitioners under Rev. Issho Fujita of the Green Tree Temple in Ashville, N.C. Not to miss one more Zen tradition, my current teacher, Jian, is a Rinzai monk from, Wilmington, N.C. With seventy-three years on this planet, the rest of my experiences fit well under the title of the forum as being “Beyond Belief.” I don’t know if even I believe them myself.