Atonement and Repentance

A Mindful Approach to Steps Eight and Nine (Part 1 of 2)

“We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. [And] we made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
– Steps Eight and Nine of Alcoholics Anonymous

No one’s perfect.

Human failings and their consequences are simply matter-of-fact, nothing unusual or special. The shadow self—the inner voice that harbors hatred, acts badly and makes mistakes—is within us all, alongside our Buddha nature.

The important question is: what are we going to do about it? If we want to find a new way of being in the world, we need to unburden the negative karma we accumulate.

Enter Steps Eight and Nine. The way to become free, in traditional religious terms, is to repent and atone. In Step Eight, we admit, first to ourselves and then to another, what we have done or failed to do. We acknowledge the consequences of our acts. In Step Nine, we make direct amends, wherever possible. And we seek to change our behavior going forward.

Early in my own recovery, the words repent and atone were off-putting. They raised ghosts of my Catholic past; the claustrophobia of kneeling in a dark confessional, wriggling with guilt. But holding the words repent and atone in meditation has unveiled their deeper meaning, like a series of nested Russian dolls, revealing delight after delight.

Step Eight invites us to strip off the armor of our denial, and to let go of rationalizing, justifying or blaming others for our actions. To stop nursing thoughts such as, "Well, you should have seen what they did." If we continue to hide from our shadow, defending our unskillful acts, we stay trapped. We remain shameful, alone and unforgiven.

When we make a list of all the people we have harmed, we see that we are just like our fellow humans. We have no ground for feeling uppity or deeming ourselves superior. The more honest we become, the more compassion we are able to feel.

On the other hand, we don’t want to get mired down in too much remorse. Being preoccupied with our faults, continually evaluating our behaviors or ruthlessly criticizing our mistakes eats up our attention. Anxious or depressed feelings dominate our emotional landscape.

What we need is just the right amount of remorse to be transformative. If we can feel sorrow for the hurts we have caused and—in the same breath—accept ourselves the way we are, then our remorse inspires change.

Being mindful of our remorse helps us find the sweet spot of “just enough.” We can then notice when we are blaming others and the sensations related to that mind-set within our body and heart. Oops—feeling “done to.” What’s my part here? If we are spiraling down in shame or feeding toxic thoughts, we can pull ourselves back. Oops—going down. Need some loving kindness here. If there is an imbalance of too much or too little remorse, mindful awareness brings us back to center.

The process of atonement and repentance can still be painful, of course—in the same sense that a wound stings because it’s starting to heal. But the pain of seeing our failings is helpful: motivating us to lay down our defenses and take full responsibility for our deeds. Many generations before us bear witness to the importance and value of atoning for the injury we have caused.

And as we go through the remorse of Steps Eight and Nine, we can keep in mind that our ancestors in the Twelve Step program, and in the traditions of spiritual practice, were once like us. At the moment we falter, we can call on the many Buddhas and spiritual seekers of old for strength or comfort.

We can also think of how we are the ancestors of others yet to come. Our recovery could become a source of hope, inspiration for a life of happiness and gratitude. The Buddhist saint Shantideva described such a realization like this:

“As a blind man feels
When he finds a pearl in the dust-bin,
So am I amazed by the miracle of awakening
Rising in my consciousness...
It is the feast of joy
To which all are invited.”

Read: Making amends: Atonement & Repentance Part 2

Thérèse Jacobs Stewart, MA, LP, has been a practicing psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and international consultant for more than 28 years. She is a presenter at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center at Hazelden in Center City. She is the author of Mindfulness and the 12 Steps, a Hazelden publication, and founded St. Paul’s Mind Roads Meditation Center. For more information, visit

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