The Karma of Recovery

18058039 - woman looking through dirty broken glassThe concept of karma holds that one’s fate in this life or future lives is not a random roll of the dice, but a direct product of one’s thoughts and actions. Rooted in many of the great religions and a central motif within Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, karma is mistakenly confused in popular culture with the idea of good or bad luck. In contrast, karma suggests the presence of a universal principle of justice–that the decisions one makes or the actions one takes or fails to take have inevitable consequences. This principle can be found in many popular aphorisms:

You reap what you sow.

Violence begets violence.

They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.

What goes around comes around.   

 Chickens come home to roost.

 You get what you give.

 Those who live by the sword die by the sword.           

 The principle of karma poses an interesting dilemma for people initiating recovery from addiction: How does one atone for the injuries one’s addiction-shaped actions and inactions inflicted upon others and the community at large? How does one balance the karmic scales to escape the whirlwind?

Most enter recovery with a karmic burden. Harm to others is a near-inevitable and -universal dimension of addiction—a progressive process of relational disconnection and self-absorption. Addiction, by definition, involves a prioritization of the drug relationship above all other aspirations, needs, commitments, and responsibilities. It is thus little wonder that the person at the doorway of recovery is haunted by ghosts of past harmful acts of commission or omission. The oppressive weight of guilt (I have done bad things) and shame (I am a bad person) can lead to self-sabotage for those who feel unworthy of the gifts of recovery. Such baggage must be shed to achieve sustained recovery and a reasonably fulfilled life.

It is common for people on the threshold of recovery to face resentment or rage from shredded promises; confront disappointment, distrust, and disdain in the eyes of others; and fear a backlog of consequences that could come at any time—all while experiencing cellular screams for anesthesia or stimulation. The question then becomes, “How does one step out of such quicksand into sustainable recovery, restore personal sanity, and repair relational trust?” Early Native American recovery circles, the Washingtonians, Fraternal Temperance Societies, Ribbon Reform Clubs, institutional support groups (e.g., Godwin Association, Keeley Leagues), Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs, and the growing menu of secular and explicitly religious recovery mutual aid groups have all addressed this question.

Where some groups focused solely on achieving sobriety, on the assumption that with continued sobriety these broader concerns would take care of themselves, most recovery mutual aid groups, particularly those embracing religious and spiritual frameworks of recovery, emphasize the need for character reconstruction and restorative actions within the recovery process. Looking across such frameworks over a span of two centuries, one finds a consistent menu of suggested remedial steps aimed at balancing the karmic scales:

 1) unflinching identification of harmful thoughts, feelings, actions, and inactions (self-inventory, humility);

 2) private or public ownership of such harm (contrition, confession, self-forgiveness);

 3) making amends to those harmed (restorative justice); and

 4) unpaid acts of service to others and the community (generic restitution, gratitude, compassion, generosity, story reconstruction, and storytelling).

Accompanying such recommended actions have been admonitions that such actions be taken slowly, deliberately, repeatedly, and with the support of a community of shared experiences and aspirations. The message across generations is: The lived testimonies of millions of people in recovery suggest that positive changes in character and the quality of one’s relationships are both possible and common within the recovery process. The karmic baggage of active addiction can be progressively shed in recovery and replaced by a different kind of karma—one bearing the promises and gifts of long-term recovery. When the latter is achieved, people who were once part of the problem emerge as a vibrant part of the solution by balancing the karmic scales and becoming wounded healers and recovery carriers. Recovery pathways are also pathways of reconciliation.