Taking Inventory

A Mindful Approach to Step Ten

(Part 1 of 2)

“We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” 
Step Ten of Alcoholics Anonymous

Of the many instances where the Big Book is in harmony with ancient Buddhist wisdom, perhaps none is so immediately apparent as the sage advice of Step Ten—to “take personal inventory” by holding up a mirror to our thoughts and actions.

In the words of the Buddha: “Having performed a [physical] act, you should reflect on it… If, on reflection, you know that it led to [harm toward self or others], then you should confess it, reveal it, and lay it open to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it … you should exercise restraint in the future.

“But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction…then you should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental qualities.”

The Buddha, and the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, both understood that if we fail to reflect, we stay unaware. Our old habits rule. They become our normal way of doing life, a mental and neurological default.

In the throes of our addiction we were anything but cognizant, blurred by drugs and alcohol—or (pick your “fix” of choice) sex, food, gambling, shopping, or the craving for love. Without mindful awareness before, during, and after our actions, we don’t have an iota of a chance for a better life.

In fact, many people in recovery tell me that, if they are reflecting on their actions, it is often after the fact. And that can be a valuable beginning. Reflecting after the fact may inspire just the right amount of remorse, enough for us to change our ways.

How much more valuable, though, to reflect on what we are doing, saying or thinking at the moment we are doing, saying, or thinking it—a practice the writers of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions called a “spot-check inventory.”

And here’s where the practice of mindfulness comes in so handy. On the meditation seat we train ourselves to observe our sensations, thoughts, and feelings. We sit with them, letting whatever arises pass on through. In Step Ten we become ready to take these skills off the cushion and into everyday life. We just notice, without acting out (harming others) or acting in (harming ourselves).

For example, while talking to our friend or family member, we can take a spot check. Just notice:
  • What am I feeling in my body right now?
  • What is the tone of my voice?
  • Is my action helping or hurting?
In this way, a spot check acts like an inner mindfulness bell, signaling us: Whoa! Time out … Take a breath here. By stopping and breathing, we interrupt chain reactions of thoughts, feelings, and knee-jerk behaviors. We can short-circuit an unskillful action before we have a mess to clean up.

In addition, ongoing mindfulness practice creates more neural pathways from the executive center of the brain to the emotional part of the brain. Signs to “calm down” reach our emotional brain faster. We have a better chance of noticing the pressure in our chest, the hairs rising on our neck, or the toxic thoughts that precede an emotional hijack. We can do this before we act out an impulse (explode in anger, make a barbed joke, skip out on our Twelve Step meeting) or act it in (eat a carton of ice cream, go to bed depressed, mercilessly criticize ourselves).

Regular on-the-spot checks—before, during, or after our actions—helps us have fewer emotional or relationship messes to clean up. We can gain greater peace of mind when taking full responsibility for our actions. We are more free to choose how we want to be in the world, liberated from the toxicity of our addictive mind.

In the words of the Buddha, “This is how the sincere practice of mindfulness leads to a vast harvest and great richness.”

Next: Taking a Naikan Inventory: A Mindful Approach to Step Ten, Part 2

Thérèse Jacobs Stewart, M.A., L.P., 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 and Paths are Made by Walking. She will be leading a retreat at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center July 22-24, 2016. For more information about her center and teaching schedule, visit www.mindroads.com.
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