Meditation and 12 Steps to Innovate for Recovering Humans

Awakening to Service

Awakening to Service

By Kevin Griffin

Kevin Griffin is the author of ONE BREATH AT A TIME: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, meditation teacher, and also leads 12 Step workshops and retreats. Kevin has written the following article for You may learn more about Kevin and his work at

Kevin also wrote "A Burning Desire: Dharma God and the Path of Recovery."

The order of ideas presented in Step Twelve have an underlying message: we don’t do this work for ourselves. After working the previous eleven Steps, we might be surprised to learn this. Isn’t recovery all about getting sober, healing myself, finding a spiritual path, cleaning up my past and moving into a new life for me? Not if you believe the beginning of Step Twelve which says, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps we tried to carry this message to alcoholics…” It doesn’t say, “Having had a spiritual awakening we drifted off into our own personal bliss.” Instead, we’re being told that once you wake up, it’s time to help others, to go into the world and serve those who are suffering.

The Buddha discovered the same thing. After his remarkable breakthrough of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he sat there in bliss for a while and thought, “Nobody’s going to get this. It’s just too advanced” (to paraphrase). But then, as the story goes, a god came to him and said, “There are some with just a little dust in their eyes,” people who need just a little guidance to have the same breakthrough. So the Buddha went in search of such people. For the rest of his life, it’s said that he would arise each morning and cast out his wisdom eye to see who was ready to wake up, and then he would walk to them and teach. His whole life became a gift of love and service.

The ox-herding pictures from the Zen tradition tell us the same thing, that after awakening, one returns to the marketplace to serve. And the Bodhisattva’s vow to forestall enlightenment until all beings are free is perhaps the greatest example of this commitment to the generosity of the spiritual life.

I realize I’m stretching the idea of the Step, which only refers to alcoholics (and in other programs, to addicts, overeaters, sex addicts, etc.). But I think that the true message of the Steps isn’t about just helping those who have the same addiction problem as us, but those who have the same human problem as us: life is hard and we all need a helping hand.

But how do we enter this life of service? Should we move to Calcutta and join Mother Teresa’s order? Go to the soup kitchen and serve the homeless? Give all my money away and join a monastery? All of the above?

As with all serious spiritual questions, there is no simple answer. Service isn’t just about helping the unfortunate or making donations. In fact, every moment of interaction with others is an opportunity for service. How we greet the bus driver or the worker at the coffee shop can be a gift. The way we treat our family and friends can be service—or not. We can approach any task, at work or home, as drudgery or as a chance to be present and open.

Some years ago I questioned my own work as a technical writer for software products. Certainly this had no spiritual component. But when I considered the real purpose behind the work, I realized that it was to help people. A user guide may not be the highest form of spiritual writing, but it is there to ease people’s lives. Once I saw this I began to look around at other occupations and saw that virtually every (legal) job has the potential, at least, to be an act of service. What really made the difference was the attitude brought to the work itself. This resonates with the Buddha’s teaching that karma is really based on intention. If we do our work, or any action, with a loving, wise heart, the results will be positive. If we act with greed and fear, the results will reflect that.

In our culture, December is a time of giving. Of course, many people have turned this into a time of greed and anxiety, trying to find just the right gift. If instead, we expand our understanding of giving, then we begin to experience the real spirit of the season—which is neither Buddhist nor Christian nor any other religion. Giving is how we lose ourselves in an act. How we let go of the greatest hindrance, our attachment to self. It is this deep letting go that the Steps lead us to and that the Buddha offers.

May we all be free from the tyranny of self.