Filed in Environment

Restored to Sanity

Can a power greater than ourselves put us back on the right course?Clark Strand

Wisdom Collection

To access the content within the Wisdom Collection,
join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

What will it take to restore us to ecological sanity? If what we are suffering from in this hot, flat, crowded 21st century is an Earth-destroying addiction (and the sheer scale of our denial suggests that it is), then that is the only question worth asking. We might not know the answer right away, but at least we know what it isn’t. The answer isn’t us.

If the first step in our path of ecological recovery is to admit that we are powerless over our addiction—that our way of life has become unsustainable— the second is to admit that we can’t think our way out of the problem, no matter how hard we try. In fact, just the opposite is true. Our best, most innovative, most inventive thinking brought us here. That is the hard truth every addict discovers for himself. It is the nature of addiction that our best efforts to cure it on our own only make it worse.

That is the reason why programs for environmental activism so often end in despair. It is easy to blame governments and corporations when our efforts come to nothing. But what do we expect when we insist on treating the symptoms of others, rather than getting to the bottom of our own disease? We have lost our sanity and don’t know where to find it. If we’re honest, we don’t even know where to look.

There is a joke made popular by the A.A. movement that involves a drunk searching for his lost car keys under a street lamp and the cop who tries to help him. The cop asks the drunk if he remembers where he lost them, and the drunk confesses that he doesn’t. “Then why are you searching for them here, under this street lamp?” asks the cop. “Because the light is better,” answers the drunk.

The street lamp is the bright but extremely limited scope of our own understanding, the key is the cure we seek, and the cop is what is left of our sanity—largely impotent, but nevertheless still capable of posing an honest question now and then. The drunk is just a drunk. And, of course, the joke contains another, almost koan-like level, because the last thing a drunk needs to find is his car keys. Everything about his approach to the problem is dead wrong. What he needs is a radically different way of thinking—one that neutralizes his greater impulses toward folly, getting him to calm down and assess his situation, finally acknowledging that he ought not to be driving, even though he may still need to find his keys.

The second of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, adapted to treat every imaginable form of addictive compulsion and disease, reads as follows:

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

In its imminently practical, openminded wisdom, A.A. never specifies what that Power ought to be. As countless Twelve Step followers have discovered for themselves, it hardly matters what you call it, as long as it makes you sane.

Which brings us back to our original question: What will restore us to sanity? What “Power greater than ourselves” is capable of steering an out-of-control species back on course for its journey through deep time? The answer is the planet, of course. God relieved A.A. founder Bill W. of his compulsion to drink, and since that initial recovery countless others have been saved from the heartbreak of all kinds of addictions in virtually every country around the globe—by Buddha, by Allah, by Avalokiteshvara, by Vishnu, by Nature, and by a plurality of other sanity-producing “Higher Powers”—but only the globe itself is big enough to cure a species. Where else can it turn for guidance and inspiration but to the mother who birthed it from the depths of her evolutionary womb?

Today I refuse to be frightened by global climate change. Even though I know it is supposed to be frightening. Even though I know it is frightening. The reason is simple. It was the thing that turned my life around. Reality is the enemy of the addict so long as he is actively addicted. But it will restore him to sanity if he will face it in the end.

Clark Strand is a contributing editor to Tricycle, founder of the Tricycle Green Bodhisattva Alliance, and the author of Tricycle's weekly “Green Koans” column.

Green Bodhisattva Alliance Phone Meetings
To begin working through the Green Bodhisattva Alliances’s Twelve Steps of Ecological Recovery, join our Friday 8 a.m. EST phone meeting by calling (712) 775-7400 and inputting the code 472474 followed by the # sign. Meetings are free and last for one hour, with time for sangha fellowship afterward.

Image: Artwork by Ran Hwang

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
John Haspel's picture

Interesting post and I would point out that the second step as written in the text book of Alcoholics Anonymous, know as The Big Book states: "We needed to ask ourselves just one simple question. Do I now believe or am I even willing to believe in a power greater than myself?" (for those that don't know where step 2 is found it is the second paragraph on page 47) This is quite different than the step two "caption" "came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity". In relation to the environmental movement, first telling someone that they are insane and must accept treatment for this insanity will make many people leave before they even see the value in environmental awareness, as it does in AA. It is misguided to first insist that someone has to put a label on themselves as harsh as 'insane" before they can recover from addiction or be of service to the environment. As the second step is written in the Big Book, one need merely be willing to change one's mind. Many people complicate their recoveries by not knowing what the steps are and how to take them and I am sure many people are lost to the environmental movement by complicating the principles of AA and then applying these complicated principles to something outside of AA.

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, John. A clarification, though, for people who may not be familiar with the book Alcoholics Anonymous (aka, The Big Book): Step Two of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous actually does read, "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." The sentence you have cited comes from the chapter "We Agnostics," which admittedly is the chapter in the Big Book most concerned with Step Two. It is not, however, the step itself. It is simply part of the process a person in 12 Step recovery goes through in developing a "working understanding" of their Higher Power as they choose to define it.

I am confused by your use of the word "caption" in reference to the 12 Steps. If you don't like the idea of addiction as a form of insanity, that is fine--you are free to deny it and work the other steps as best as you can like the rest of us. (Your own recovery is your own business.) But to say that the steps as worded in the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous and all other 12 Step fellowships is a "caption" and that some other sentence of your own choosing from the text is the real step is precisely the kind of "wiggle room" thinking that keeps people from making a full recovery. The step says we need to be restored to sanity because in Step One we had already admitted that we were powerless over an addiction (call it alcohol, narcotics, fossil fuels, or what have you) that was basically killing us and which had made our lives unmanageable. In spite of our knowledge that it was wrecking our lives, we couldn't seem to stop.

This is 12 Step recovery's working definition of insanity. It isn't a clinical definition, but an addict's definition. Few people who come to 12 Step recovery and stay there believe they were entirely sane and clear-thinking while they were actively addicted. If a person is put off by the language of Step Two, he or she may very well not be an addict--or, at the very least, may not have come to terms with the fact that they are. I say this respectfully, but seriously, since this is a life-or-death matter for so many people. This is a crucial point--If you consider yourself sane coming into 12 Step recovery, you either don't belong there, or aren't ready for it yet.

It is essential for people who wish to work the 12 Steps of Ecological Recovery to understand that this is not a gimmick. We are not asked to embrace the notion that the ecological excess that defines nearly every aspect of our lives as 21st century Americans is LIKE an addiction--it IS an addiction. There is nothing but wiggle room outside of this program, but there is none within it. I'm sorry, but there can't be. Too much is at stake.

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, gribneal. And thanks, Keith and William. You've echoed thoughts I, too, have had.

Regarding the bottom: The collective wisdom of 12 Step fellowships seems be that hitting hard often turns things around. A soft touchdown, on the other hand (which most of us can't help but wish for), often doesn't lead to long term change. I remember sitting in a meeting some years ago where a man was speaking. The woman next to me leaned over and said, "That guy always seems to get a pillow under him at the last minute"--meaning, I suppose, that he flirted with outright disaster, routinely making a mess of his life, but without actually losing his wife, his job, his children, his freedom, or his home. This was said matter-of-factly, and without any resentment or rancor, and I couldn't help thinking that, if he ever really did hit hard, she'd be there for him in a heartbeat.

Regarding our current ecological crisis (I'm deliberately echoing that now-almost-quaint expression coined by Lynn T. White, Jr. for his famous 1967 essay—read it here:, I’d say that we won’t know what our bottom is as a species until it has turned our collective life around. The end of the oil age is the most likely bottom (due to occur by mid-century, if not a decade or two before), but widespread eco-migrations and crop failures due to climate change offer another scenario. Whether it will be a sudden plummet or a more gradual decline remains to be seen.

The question of what it takes to hit bottom individually is another matter altogether. It depends on how sensitive we are to the unmanageability and unsustainability of modern life. The bottom is there already, rushing up to meet us. It’s really a case of “Whatever you do, don’t look down.” Those people who come to E.R. meetings tend to be those who look where the culture tells them not to, whereupon the reaction is inevitably some version of “Holy Shit!” After that, it’s time for a change.

If I understood what William has just written above, I’d say he hit bottom already and changed his life accordingly. I’m imagining that if this fellowship lasts long enough to develop its own version of the A.A. Big Book, William’s chapter in the “Stories” section of that book would carry a subtitle like “A Contractor for the Military Industrial Complex, He Quit It All and Found Ecological Sanity in the American Southwest.” (I took my cue from your adobe house, William, although I suppose you could build one anywhere). Anyway, very inspiring stuff. Maybe you should start a meeting.

william allred's picture

The drunk is just a drunk. And, of course, the joke contains another, almost koan-like level, because the last thing a drunk needs to find is his car keys. (from the article)

Attended an AA meeting held in Carmel, CA; some of the wisest and most centered people I have ever had occasion to share a morning with. The root of this wisdom, Steps to Sanity, is in the need to arrive at bottom. The gutter, or jail, divorce or an institution which can care for the organism without a sane mind at the helm. There is the rub. We are still able to sustain our destructive habits. We have not yet hit bottom, collectively. Will there be anything left to salvage when we have?

Keith McLachlan's picture

One reason why ecological groups fail is that they there attitude tends to be holier-than-thou and they attempt to bully the public into their way of thinking. They would probably benefit from course in Marshall B. Rosenberg's "Non-Violent Communication.

Also, these groups tend to threaten the jobs of people employed in the industries that are supposedly less than ecological. When there are few new jobs being created, people can't just up an quit and move to a new industry.

However, I agree that we have lost our sanity and over consume.

william allred's picture

My personal solution, as a Contracting Engineer in Defense and Military projects, was to quit it all. Simplify my own life and footprint. Living in a simple one-room adobe and exemplifying the life-style I felt to be in harmony with the earth. The group dynamic of Environmentalists is only as good as the individual practice they follow, not their words.

gribneal's picture

Thank you, Clark. One of the reasons Buddhist thought resonates with me is because as I'm reading and trying to practice, I am constantly reminded of the 12 steps (which have been in my life longer than Buddhism). Your explanation of how the 12 steps work for the environment is beautiful.

Alan Shusterman's picture

Thank you for raising these issues and writing about them in such a clear-eyed way. I was surprised, however, by your identification of the "planet" as the entity that will save our species. This statement could mean many things so I hope you will explain this. From my perspective, the planet is not committed to the preservation of any single species, including ours. I think you probably have a very different idea in mind.

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks for your thoughts, Alan. I'm not sure it is true that the planet is not committed to the preservation of any single species. It depends on how you count "committed."

Think of it this way: How did you get here? Well, the short answer might be that you clicked on the Tricycle site. But if I then asked, “No, how did you get to this life?” then your answer would inevitably involve a mother and a father, and grandparents and so on. Most of us can’t go back more than a few generations in this lineage, and so we lose touch even with our recent past (the last couple of centuries), to say nothing of our deep past, which involves so many grandfathers and grandmothers that it quickly defies our scale of reference. Most people count "ancient" as a matter of a couple of thousand years, but really, that’s nothing. We’ve been here for a very, very long time. And before that—well, we were something else.

The process by which one species becomes another is mostly just a matter of academic classification and taxonomical hairsplitting. The truth is far grander: Each of us is the product of one unbroken chain of life, passed from cell to cell over millions of years, and sustained all the time by a planet we are so much a part of that…well, it’s really silly to think of it as existing outside of or apart from us, since everything we are is made up of it and will return to it when we are done, excluding of course those parts that get passed onto our children and live on.

No. The Earth is fully committed to the survival of life. We aren’t committed to it at present, and that’s the problem. Human beings living in developed or developing nations around the world are locked in the throes of a life-destroying addiction.

Does this make it any clearer?

Alan Shusterman's picture

Clark, Thanks for your helpful replies to me and the other commentators.
Sad to say, I'm one of those academic classifiers you refer to, but I think I can still understand and sympathize with your views of the inseparability of life.
So let me ask instead how the inseparability of life guides your views on environmental action? From my perspective, human actions are putting *humans* in trouble, but not life in its totality. Therefore, human-based action on the environment is needed if we wish to reduce *human* suffering. Leaving the future to a 'higher power' (the planet), as you seem to recommend, may very well allow the biosphere to flourish in some form or other, but it could be catastrophic for humans.

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Alan. I kept looking for a free moment over the past few days to extend this post and just now found it. You asked, "How does the inseparability of life guide your views on environmental action?" and I said that my answer was the 12 Steps. I'd like to elaborate on that now.

The 12 Steps of A.A. (which, with minimal alterations, are also used to recover from all other addictions) are divided into three categories.

The first three steps are "Decision Steps." We admitted our powerlessness over our addiction, came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, and made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to that power "as we understood it."

Most of what people outside of recovery understand about the 12 Steps is just this--having faith in a higher power. They may know in very general terms that recovering addicts also conduct a moral inventory, try to right any wrongs they have done to others, and pass the message along to other addicts, but somehow this business of surrendering to a Higher Power sticks as the most salient feature of 12 Step recovery. Unless a person actually gets into 12 Step recovery and works his or her own program, they aren't likely to know that the nine remaining steps are very much hands-on.

Steps Four through Nine are called "Action Steps"--what the A.A. Big Book calls "a course of vigorous action." They involve conducting a fearless and searching written moral inventory of ourselves, sharing that inventory with another person, being ready to have our defects of character removed and humbly asking our Higher Power to do so, and making a list of all persons we had harmed and making amends to the same. The process is intense and, to those who really give themselves to it, usually life-changing in that it precipitates what A.A. calls a "spiritual awakening." You can go here to read what the Big Book has to say about such experiences.
Buddhists are likely to recognize some common themes.

Steps Ten, Eleven, and Twelve are "Maintenance Steps" and are really all about daily spiritual practice. Step Ten says that we continue to take moral inventory, and when we are wrong promptly admit it (i.e., correct it). Step Eleven involves daily prayer and/or meditation for the purpose of following a constantly unfolding spiritual path. And Step Twelve suggests that, "having had a spiritual awakening," we pass that awakening on to others who still suffer.

Now, the question I'm sure you and anyone else reading this is going to have at this point is, what does any of this have to do with the quickly unfolding environmental catastrophe we face at present? And the answer is that the 12 Steps offer a program that can be adapted to empower individuals to work the recovery of the planet from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. This is where the inseparability of life comes in. Because we are one with the planet, changing ourselves changes it. Stated another way, we cannot change it without changing ourselves, much as we'd like to come up with a solution that leaves our addictive patterns substantially in place.

That is the essence of Ecological Recovery. It requires that we (1) admit our powerlessness over our addiction to [you can fill in the blank here with excess consumption, dependence on fossil fuels, use of artificial light, or any of the other behaviors or substances that are destroying us and the planet to boot], and become willing to be restored to ecological sanity, (2) launch on a vigorous course of personal action to determine which character flaws and behaviors from our past and present contribute to this destruction, and seek guidance from others and from a higher power [this can be Nature if you like] in making amends for them, and (3) remain humble and awake to our ecological excesses and the need to recover from them on a daily basis, maintaining our spiritual connection to the planet, and supporting others in doing the same.

From the start, the problem with environmental activism has always been the same: it wasn't morally grounded. Always it tended to point the single finger, not the double-finger--the finger that points at the self before it points at the other. I don't believe there is much hope going forward for human beings in solving our common ecological crisis so long as we rely only upon our political savvy, our technological ingenuity, or our readiness to protest. The problem will be solved only when it has been identified and accepted for what it is.

We have predatory corporations because we have created and maintained them. We have lying and ineffectual politicans because we have elected them (on both sides of the aisle). And we have only ourselves to blame for the current state of the planet. It wasn't made this way by Nature.

As a result of working the 12 Steps I now know all of this for myself. And I know it about myself. Therefore, certain things have to happen. I don't go to Ecological Recovery meetings because I have any great ideas, and I certainly don't go because I am morally or ecologically superior to anyone else. I go because I am an addict who has seen how much I suffer, and how much the Earth suffers and other people suffer and other species suffer, because of my actions--and at last I'm ready for a change.

I hope this helps to make things clear. Blessings to you and anyone else who takes the time these days to read such a long post. There's a lot of work ahead. I hope some of you will join us.

Alan Shusterman's picture

Clark, Thank you for finding that "moment" to respond. This hits home. It is beautiful and true.

ClarkStrand's picture

You're welcome, Alan. That's very good to hear.

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, Alan. The answer to that question would be the !2 Steps themselves, which are very action-oriented, despite what people might presume from the idea of "reliance upon a power greater than the self"--which brings us all back full circle in this rather wide-ranging discussion.

This gives me a chance to write about some things I've been wanting to share in this forum. For the moment, though, I'm off to our Woodstock Thursday night Ecological Recovery meeting, so it'll have to wait until later tonight.

eternallyperplexed's picture

Hi Clark.
I always enjoy your writing. I am trying to fully grasp your conceptualization. Yes, the unbroken chain of life does arouse wonder and a soulfulness in us, but how would you respond to the assertion that our planet, or in fact the universe, is simply there, and although something, call it a primordial energy, created us and everything, it is indifferent to any species or life itself?
I realize there are no absolute answers to the big questions, but approaching them from various perspectives is itself a source of wonderment and joy...and peace.

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, Perplexed. It's a good question. My answer is simple. The assertion that the universe is indifferent makes sense only if we ourselves are indifferent, and we’re not. In our fear and anxiety (really, it's more like a primordial panic), we imagine that we are separate from the universe and therefore vulnerable, but in reality no such separation exists. Buddhism tells us this, science tells us this, and even our own subjective experience tells us, provided we look deeply enough into it to see it for what it is.

I had an experience not long ago that has a bearing on this “deep looking,” but I am reluctant to share it here, given the focus of our ongoing discussion about the 12 Steps of Ecological Recovery. It has a bearing on that discussion, but is too personal to be of use to an open forum. Nevertheless, I am happy to share If you want to see it. Just email me at, and I'll send it as a reply.

wtompepper's picture

Hi Clark,

I like this series of columns, and usually I think I'm understanding your answers, but this one has me "perplexed" as well.

I cannot imagine in what sense you mean that "science tells us" that we are not separate from the universe. Outside of the silly and incorrect versions of quantum theory from science fiction shows, I can't think of any version of science in which this is true. Maybe it depends on what we mean by "separate," since clearly I can impact the external world and it can impact me, and so I am not solipsistically isolated from it, but this doesn't seem to be what you mean here.

To say that our lack of indifference proves that the universe is not indifferent to us seems to suggest either extreme anthropocentrism or a kind of Brahmanism, in which the human essence mirrors the essence of the universe. Neither of these seems to me to be a Buddhist position.

What do you mean when you say that "in reality no such separation exists"?

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Tom. Good to hear from you again. The science I was referring to is ecology, the fundamental principle of which is the oneness (or, if you will, the inseparability) of organisms and their environment. I don't know much about quantum physics, so I can't comment on that. You may be right about our notions of "separate" being different. But I can't see how our being able to impact the external world, or in turn be impacted by it, necessarily means a separation. Specifically, I think it is an illusion that we can impact our environment without impacting ourselves--this being, however, an illusion we have now pushed just about as far as it can go.

At bottom, my understanding of inseparability derives from the understanding that human beings cannot possibly exist apart from Nature. There is no part of a human being that was not once a part of the planet, nor is there any part that will not be a part of the planet again very soon. We like to think that those parts of the planet that now constitute our being belong to us, rather than we to the planet, but I would argue that it requires only a short step apart from our habit of self-centered thinking to see that this, too, is an illusion. Just because we eat it, metabolize it, and carry it around for awhile doesn't mean it leaves the biosphere to which it rightly belongs and whose laws it follows unerringly every second of the day and night throughout our lives. Really there is no "Man and Nature." There never was. There is only Nature--though it seems to be in our “nature” as human beings to deny this (pun intended).

Your second point is what really interests me, though. I would like to suggest that there is an alternative to anthropocentrism and Bhrahmanism (though I'm not sure there is anything wrong with the latter, except that most Buddhists seem to regard it as heresy). According to that alternative, the human essence doesn’t “mirror the essence of the universe.” The human essence and the essence of the universe are one in the same.

From this point forward the argument gets pretty detailed and might become tedious for others. But if one or two other people on the site are interested, I’ll continue. Otherwise, you can email me separately. It hinges on the idea of the universe as indifferent at best, hostile at worst and how we came to that view over the course of history.

wtompepper's picture

On the first definition of "inseparability" I think we agree. What I meant was that our ability to impact and be impacted by the external world is the way in which we are NOT separate. Andrew Collier wrote a great essay (nearly twenty years ago)about the concept of the "inorganic body" (a concept he takes from Marx), and the limits it places on the idea of freedom. He is trying to produce a version of ethics that would not only support but demand environmental planning and regulation, and the idea is that we cannot freely damage the external world because it is a "part" of the "body-cosmic" of other individuals.

The point where I disagree is when you say that "human essence and the essence of the universe are one in the same." Of course, again, it depends on how you define "essence," but I think on any useful definition we would have to say that human beings have properties that cannot be "reduced" to the laws of the physical world. This, again, sounds like Brahmanism. Now, I don't mean to attack Brahmanism--I just want to insist that it is not the same as Buddhism. It is a different ontology, and would lead to different conclusions about how to act in the world.

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Tom. I think we could sort out our terms pretty quickly sitting together in the same room. I sometimes think that this medium forces ideas into boxes that don't always serve in mutual inquiry as they should (Jaron Lanier has written a lot about this).

Accepting for the moment the limitations of the medium, I will say this: There are profound hidden biases that make it almost impossible for us to believe that we could share a common essence (i.e., essential nature) with the Earth. As far as I can tell, such biases are simply human, rather than Buddhist, Hindu, or the like--although, in general, religions tend to reinforce them.

You suggest that human beings have properties that cannot be "reduced" to the laws of the physical world (your emphasis). The word reduce means "to lower or bring down, in number, size, station, or degree." I would suggest that this idea presumes that the human station is, in fact, elevated above the rest of existence and that it would, therefore, be slumming it to get our feet back in the soil.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to put words in your mouth. These are words we all use, and attitudes we all hold. They are the default of human experience in most cultures, and so pointing out a case in which you use them shouldn't be taken to mean that I do not uncousciously revert to them in my own thoughts, words, and deeds. Just trying to become aware of this impulse has proved something like a full time job.

Regarding Buddhism and Brahmanism (and what is and isn't orthodox Buddhist teaching), I am reminded of the fact that when Shakyamuni was first challenged on what authority he based his enlighted understanding, he reached a finger down to touch the Earth. Subsequently, we Buddhists have tended to point to the Buddha in order to legitimize our own understanding, or to delegitimize the understanding of another (too strong in this case, I know, but you see it everywhere). I wonder if maybe it isn't time for us all to point to the Earth.

wtompepper's picture

I absolutely agree that this medium sometimes makes for disagreements that would never need to happen in person.

The reason I put "reduced" in quotes was for fear that it would be misunderstood in just the way you misunderstood it. I simply meant it in the philosophical sense of "explained completely in terms of." For instance, even if we could know the exact quantum state of every particle in and around Joe's body as he stands at the corner, we could not predict which way he will turn.

You suggest that the resistance to the idea of a shared essence between individuals and the physical world is a "hidden bias" (what I would call and "ideology"). I would argue that the assumption of such a shared essence is our hidden bias, and one that anthropomorphizes nature and leads to delusion and much suffering. But, again, this is too involved a debate to engage in this medium.

Anyway, I love the column. Great work.

ClarkStrand's picture

I look forward to that conversation sometime, Tom. I think we could break some new ground in talking about the origin and history of anthropomorphic thinking, which is not quite the same as what I'm talking about here, but has a bearing on it. Thanks for your thoughtful input, as always.

iowlum's picture

dear clark

am always interested to read comparisons of the dhamma and 12 steps. had been attending meetings for 10 years but could no longer pay lip service to the idea of a higher power which restored my sanity.

as someone who uses meditation and the eightfold path-call me a buddhist if you want!-a higher power didnt seem to be necessary for living a responsible, ethical life freer from delusions caused by those mental and behavioural habits that block us . you describe AA as openminded, but that wasnt my experience. i saw it as a place like many other power structures where there was a great, though often subtle pressure to conform to the accepted authority-here represented in the big book, the 12 steps, and sponsors.

i see parallels between the idea of 'sobriety' and enlightenment. often sobriety is presented in the rooms and the literature of AA as some higher stage of being/living-'catapulted into the 4th dimension' i think are the words-which can only be achieved by an alcoholic if he properly accepts the ideas within a book written by a megalomaniac and goes through the process of the steps. then he will be in a higher, more exhalted realm, which we call 'sobriety', visited by divine guidance. i see people doing the same thing with the dhamma, promising nirvana as some distant, esoteric realm found in the nth jhana. isnt this just a classic method used to gain control over people? poking them forward with fear to some promised land. telling them their thinking is broken and just trust in the steps/the power structure of AA/your guru etc and all your problems will be solved.

i recognise it is important for an addict to relinquish control in order for space to open up for change to occur. this reminds me of the story of the monk continuing to pour tea into an overflowing cup. i think it is also the point of the story of the monk carrying a backpack who is asked how he gained enlightenment-he puts down the backpack.but my point is why cant a 'profound'-dodgy word there-change occur within a person without the interference of a higher power? a person is a process capable of change when habits are changed. that's all. doesnt sound very grand, and is probably not the season ticket to a life of self-satisfied comfort sat in the rooms collecting chips and guiding poor confused pigeons, and so it doesnt sell.

i am sorry if this sounds like a personal attack. it isnt meant as that, it is just that people in AA have a great responsibility because they are often holding the lives of vulnerable people in their hands, and we shouldnt make promises we can't keep, or seek to frighten people into accepting our idea of salvation.

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, iowlum. If I understand you correctly, the pith of your argument is contained in the sentence "a person is a process capable of change when habits are changed. that's all." I do not believe this is so. In fact, I believe that the rise in addictive behaviors in the modern age is due primarily to this one catastrophic delusion.

A person is not a process...but a person. If we get that right, everything follows. If we get it wrong, everything else goes wrong, too. In all, I think you ought to let AA off the hook. If you see yourself as a process, that makes it more or less inevitable that you will feel manipulated, brainwashed, intimidated, or otherwise dominated by ideologies, institutions, books, other people, and the like (which makes it your fault, not theirs). If you are a person, all of that disappears. Then you can live and let live, as the old AA slogan goes.

shannonstoney's picture

Interesting to think of the earth as a higher power. That will restore us to sanity. Just wondering how long that will take, and how bad things have to get before we are restored to sanity. Not saying Clark has to know the answer to this. It's just interesting to try to visualize: me, the earth, sanity, say 20 years from now. Me with a donkey instead of a car? Me riding the donkey...where? to town? Does town even exist then? is there anything to buy there or any reason to go there? Do I have chickens and a goat in addition to my garden then? Where does my water come from? Is there any internet? Who will live here with me? Will I be healthy at 77? If not, will there be health care? What kind?

ClarkStrand's picture

All good questions. But, as you say, I don't necessarily have the answers.

I do think that Earth is capable of making a course correction for human beings if human beings aren't capable of making that correction for themselves. There are a number of ways this can happen. The most obvious, and surely the most likely scenario, is that the oil will simpy run out during this century, effectively bringing an end to the petroleum age and its greater excesses--globalization, high carbon outputs, etc. We will burn coal for awhile, but not for very long, because absent a platform of oil we can't mine or transport it that effectively. This is even more true for nuclear power, which is virtually impossible to create and maintain without petroleum and petroleum products.

When this happens (and it really is more a case of when, not if), life will become very local again, and world population will decrease steadily, if only because it becomes impossible to sustain current global agricultural yields absent the kinds of chemical fertilizers (again, supported by a petroleum chemical and manufacturing platform) that have created and now sustain current populations levels and distributions. Is the Earth a higher power in this case? I believe it is. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Earth is the original higher power, for which we human beings have tended to give increasingly more and more abstract names and identities since the dawn of agriculture (with its attitude of dominating nature rather than venerating it) some 10 to 12 thousand years ago.

As far as health care is concerned, your guess is as good as mine. I do believe, however, that there is no health care program which solves the problems of sickness, old age, and death. As a species we have drifted very far into the illusion that, through our own power alone, we can avoid these age-old companions, and that we should avoid them. Earth can cure that illusion and the fear it provokes in us, too, if we will let it.

wtompepper's picture

This discussion seems to have tapered off, but I was wondering if I could pose a question.

As others have mentioned, I also have often heard the position taken by myojozen. Whenever I suggest that engaging social problems is necessary for a Buddhist, somebody says something like "there will always be more problems--life is suffering, and we need to work on ourselves." Often, this is the position of the nightstand Buddhist, who want to use Buddhism as a reason not to really change anything in their behavior, or the world.

However, myojozen seems to have more experience with and knowledge of Buddhism than that. I am wondering if I could ask myojozen to respond to this issue again. What school of Buddhism do you follow? Where do these beliefs come from? They seem antithetical to my understanding of Buddhism, but I certainly don't know all the schools and teachings. Everyone was quick to disagree, and I think it is important to correct what we see as a misunderstanding of the dharma, but we should also try to fully understand what myojozen means, first.

Would you be willing to respond again, to clarify your position? I am not trying to set you up for criticism, but I really do want to understand your position more fully.

ClarkStrand's picture

This could be useful, myojozen, if you're willing. It'll take a lot of dialogue to get clear about these things, and so you'd be doing us a service.

peterpowers's picture

As Anreal said there is Buddha nature in everything--perhaps even to the extent of being present in greed and destruction. Once read a statement that has proven beneficial "There is no point in praying for change until I can completely accept the way things are right now--at that point they will change on their own"
Power to you on your mission Clark.
Hello to all the fellow drunks and addicts

Anreal's picture

Thanks for starting this discussion.

Firstly, I always find it strange that Buddhists do not seem to equate THE PLANET with the very real embodiment of the THREE KAYAS .... ? I agree wholeheartedly that the numb non-attachment is simply rubbish as the dharma and the planet are one and the same thing! :)

Lastly, contemplating a more Buddhist interpretation of 'a power greater than ourselves' is certainly interesting ... especially when one considers that the very concept of self is what limits us, so one can argue that 'no-self' is that power .... without falling into the trap of 'higher or greater' power which can sound a bit theistic at the best of times.

I also appreciate Tharpa's view regarding simply being 'open to the possibility' that there is a way out. One of the four noble truths in fact, and something that for some reason a lot of Buddhist seem to forget. Anything is possible right!

When one's vision is pure, there is a Buddha to be found on each particle of the universe!
Nice article, wish it was more in depth to be honest.
Thanks anyway.

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, Anreal. Actually, there will be twelve in all (in the first part of the series at least...I may go on to the 12 traditons after that, each of which applies to Buddhism and ecology in a strikingly relevant way), so the in depth part will come slowly.

I like the way you framed the "Power greater than ourselves" so that it could fit with your understanding of Buddhism. That's the genius of the 12 Step approach--that we get to frame the Power in a way that makes sense to each of us as inviduals. One person gets to be a theist, another gets to be a Buddhist, and they both get to sit together in the same room (or the same blog, or whatever). Cool, huh?

Mat Osmond's picture

Thankyou Clark, Myojo and others.

This week I boxed up some Buddhist Books to send to a Dharma library in UK. I say 'some' is seven cardboard boxes, mostly of books I have never actually read. Giving them away is not about generosity, its more of a confession: "My name is Mat and I am an addict. My interest in Dharma has to a large extent been simply a another vehicle for old compulsions, and for all I have been taught, I am as unable to change those compulsions today as I ever was."

Myojo succinctly summarises what I have experienced as the Buddhist 'majority position' in relation to the crisis of anthropogenic climate change, to our culture's accelerating ecocide in all it forms. These comments feel entirely consistent, to me, with what I have heard from intelligent and perceptive Buddhist teachers over the years. I would also say that Myojo summarises perfectly why for many of the ecologically concerned, Buddhism is simply part of the problem, and seems to offer no language adequate to addressing it.

Perhaps the traditional view of non-attachment Myojo is referring to might be rephrased so as to express that if we think we have concerns more important than the life of the Earth, we are to that extent part of our culture's all-consuming, addictive insanity? Admitting the shattering importance of what we as a culture are doing to the biosphere requires a great deal of non-attachment I think. Simply because we know that realising its importance will in itself change nothing.

Beginning to see what we up against it seems, above all, very sad and very frightening. Clark, you really stopped in me in my tracks with this: "Today I refuse to be frightened by global climate change. Even though I know it is supposed to be frightening. Even though I know it is frightening. The reason is simple. It was the thing that turned my life around."

Thanks again, and I'd like to try and join the phone circle.


namdog.tharpa's picture

hello CS and MMM,
my name is Tharpa, and i am an alcoholic buddhist.
I drank heavily from 1952 until 2002 and have been a dharma practitioner since 1977.

IMHO, the analogies of your article are apt, reasonable and appealing. The parallels between
human-societies" addictions to wasteful and harmful uses of the bounties of Earth,
and the alcoholic's addiction to wasteful and damaging uses of his primordial awareness
and physical vitality seem accurate to me.

i personally identify with the thrust of your essay; because i have experienced for myself this truth:
that only by opening my mind to the 'possibility' of my recovery, could my insane obsession with drinking be removed. Opening to the possibility that my sanity could be restored by "something
more powerful than i " meant realizing that i needed a restoration that i was indeed powerless to accomplish by myself.

My respectful response to the comments of Myojo is this: to my simple mind it sounds lofty and wise to say that "the planet is transient..", foolish to say it's "unsatisfactory" and confusing to say it's "not ours more than anything else."_/\_

Since this earth has nurtured me and millions of sentient beings just like me; and since those
beings have all been my mother in innumerable lifetimes, to cause harm to the earth's ability
to nurture beings is to harm the very life-blood sustenance of my mother and all beings. The karmic
consequences of such harming will cause rebirth in lower realms. If i *Knowingly* allow my addictive
actions to cause such harm, their karma is multiplied a thousand fold. The same considerations would apply to the Group Karma resulting from how our societies treat our mother-planet

It is not "attachment" to maintain vows not to harm other beings. Wisdom married to Compassion is the goal of my practice; and any thinking that emptiness makes it OK not to practice generosity and exertion in behalf of other beings is a grave error ..... in my opinion..... i cannot evade treating harm to the planet to be as anti-dharmic as direct harm to beings.

thanks for letting me "share'.... as they say.
Tharpa Gyurme

ClarkStrand's picture

Thank you for that very moving and thorough reponse, Tharpa. That was exactly what I was hoping for. If anyone else wants to address the concerns raised by Myojo, please feel free to respond as well. I think there's a lot of room here to explore the idea of a Power greater than the self. I just turned in the next column in this series a couple of weeks ago, on the third of the 12 Steps of Ecological Recovery--"Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Earth, as we understood Earth." In the original A.A. steps the word is God, of course, with the caveat that we get to come to our own understanding of what that word refers to. In Ecological Recovery, we get to do the same thing with Earth, allowing for a great depth and diversity of responses to the planet that, in Tharpa's words, "has nurtured me and millions of sentient beings just like me."

Athelas's picture

Thank you, Tharpa Gyurme, for practicing the dharma instead of using it as a way to stay numb and aloof from the pain of the harm we are all causing to Earth and all beings in this truly addictive culture. I myself used the dharma to stay numb. I thought I was detached, but i was just numb.
A few years ago, i stopped practicing with other buddhists b/c i could not connect with the type of dharma expressed by Myojo, which i have heard from so many buddhists.
Visiting the Tricycle website is one way i am trying to reconnect with dharma, and i am heartened to read this eco-dharma dialogue.

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, Athelas. I hope you and Tharpa will feel free to join us for our Friday morning E.R. phone meeting. I don't know where either of you live, so maybe the 8 a.m. E.S.T. time wouldn't work. But some of our members are already talking about trying to set up phone meetings at other times so that more people can join in. So far, face to face meetings are being organized in Manhattan, and possibly in the Bay Area (California). So I'll also keep you posted on those in case they apply.

myojozen's picture

Hello Mr Strand,
Whilst I am all for ecology as opposed to greed and recovery as opposed to death by Alcoholism I don't see any reason why these issues are connected to Buddhism. The planet is transient, unsatisfactory and not ours anymore than anything else. Drunks will continue to die and be reborn as will planets. I think that we should show compassion and help where we can but we must accept that preserving the Dharma is more important than preserving the planet or this body. If the path to enlightenment is lost through becoming obscured by worldly concerns - however worthy - then we're just trapped on a dying planet without hope of escape for aeons to come. When this planet becomes incapable of supporting life as it will sooner or later we will just appear elsewhere in the universe. If we are on the path we can continue to practice. Attachment to this planet is just another attachment which causes us to suffer. It's good to stop drinking and meditate. It's good to keep the body reasonably healthy but worrying about it unduly is just another hindrance. Same with the planet I think. We should do our bit within reason but to be obsessed with it is again a hindrance. Of course you can do whatever you wish with your life but in all honesty Buddhism and ecology are separate issues.
In Gassho,

sschroll's picture

Hi Myojo
I have been studying with my Sangha "The Two Truths" for some time.
I was very confused when Thich Nhat Hanh said in his book "The Heart of the Buddhas Teachings "The Four Noble Truths' and impermanence belong to the relative real. As I kept on working with this I realized I was considering the relative reality as inferior. As soon as I realized that, I also realized that the Ultimate Truth and the Relative Truth are both aspects of the same thing.

Padhmasanbaba said "even thought my aspirations are high as the sky, my actions are like fine barley flour.

Attachment to non attachment is just another attachment. It' important to not forget the middle way.

In gratitude.

In gratitude

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, sschroll. You explained that very well. And I love the saying by Padmasmbhava, which I should really use for a future "Green Koan." When you get a chance, could you tell me where it comes from?

ClarkStrand's picture

I could address your comment on my own, Myojo. But these days I tend to think of myself as being less of a teacher and more a part of a movement. Given that, I'm wondering if anyone else cares to step in and answer on the planet's behalf. If not, I'll be happy to oblige. It's just that others need to take up this cause and begin to articulate it for themselves, so if there's someone else out there who wants to offer a (respectful, please) reply to Myojo, I'd be all for seeing what you have to say.

ClarkStrand's picture

We held our first Ecological Recovery (E.R.) phone meeting this past Friday with over a dozen callers. If anyone would like the format/script before the next meeting, please email me at, and I will send it to you. I'll be in Berkeley from Thursday on, talking about E.R. at a conference out there but will be calling into the meeting all the same. For those wishing to attend the talk "The 12 Steps of Ecological Recovery" on Friday, March 25th in Manhattan, you can find information here: