Atonement and Repentance

A mindful approach to Steps 8 and 9 (Part 2 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 8 and 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous

It sounds simple, if not easy: Search your memory to come up with a list of people you’ve wronged during your years of addiction, seek them out, apologize for what you did and said (or left undone and unsaid) and, if possible, offer to make things right.

In reality, when we offer our amends, it sometimes doesn’t go all that well.

I recall one particular instance, when a colleague and I shared the responsibility to co-facilitate a class. She’d offered to come up with a class plan. Instead, the night before our class, she emailed four pages with stream-of-consciousness notes, which I searched in vain for something that resembled an actual plan. Then, instead of meeting me an hour before the class to prepare, as we’d agreed, she showed up 45 minutes late.

When I asked her (admittedly, in a cold tone), “What happened?” She burst into tears.

I blew up and yelled, “What are you doing? You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re the one who was late! We don’t have time for this; we need to get organized.”

Somehow, we managed to teach a respectable class. After the session was over, I told her I was sorry I had become so angry and wished I would have handled it better. I asked her to forgive me if I had hurt her, as appeared to be the case.

She said, “Thank you for the apology.” Then she got out the door as fast as she could. Not a peep about her part; nothing about her own responsibility in the matter. And over the following weeks, she called several mutual acquaintances, telling them how touchy and difficult to work with I was.

I was disappointed in her response—holding to the view that she was innocent, I was mean, and she had been “done to”—but I was content with my effort to make amends. Despite how it had gone between us, I could be at peace.

Things aren’t always this difficult. Making amends can be an incredibly comforting experience. According to the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, “The generous response of most people to such…sincerity will often astonish us. Even our severest and most justified critics will frequently meet us more than halfway.”

But even when that isn’t the case, atonement is its own reward. By so doing, we can experience the relief of having no secrets, making no excuses, and holding no pretenses. We can feel the satisfaction that we have done Step Nine, and we experience the freedom that comes with taking care of our emotional business.

Imagine: no more, “Jeez, I hope I don’t ever see so-and-so because I won’t be able to look her in the eye.”  No more, “I’ve had this person on my amends list for the last five years, and I’m still getting ready.”

Buddha referred to this inner satisfaction as “the bliss of blamelessness.” Certainly, most of us will err again despite our good intentions. But there is happiness in taking full responsibility. Not blaming others and not absorbing blame from others. Being free from shame.

As Tenshin-roshi Reb Anderson says: “Admitting who you are, you are purified. Being purified, you can now go home to awakening.”

Read Part 1 of Atonement and Repentance.

Thérèse Jacobs Stewart, MA, LP, has been a practicing psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and international consultant for more than 28 years. 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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