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I recently visited a blog that has a word-art image in the sidebar telling visitors, “Don’t be anxious. Pray instead.” That advice, I would say, is the eleventh step of a recovery program in a nutshell. After completing the previous steps and becoming more aware of past mistakes, it’s not always easy to feel confident about making better decisions in the future. Having messed up so much without even noticing many of the ways we went wrong, how can we feel sure that it won’t happen again?
At Step Eleven of a traditional 12-step program, the remedy is described as follows: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” There are other versions not as closely tied to Christian beliefs as this one; but whatever wording one prefers, Step Eleven is about aligning actions with values. It is an ongoing effort to make decisions based on conscious awareness of what is the right thing to do, instead of just going with what feels good at the time.
So, when faced with a decision, rather than worrying about all the ways things might get messed up, Step Eleven advises finding moral guidance and empowerment according to one’s beliefs. Meditation is helpful both because it reduces anxiety and because it creates a calm, peaceful space for reflection and being present in the moment. There are many questions on which to reflect—for instance, whether a particular choice comes from a place of love, whether others who encounter its results will feel uplifted, and whether it will contribute to or detract from the sum total of happiness in the world.
Of course, we can’t know exactly what the results of our choices will be; and the possibilities are vast. That’s why “improve” is the action word here—it’s all about slowly developing more understanding of what is right and how to get it done, rather than burdening ourselves with unrealistic expectations of making no mistakes. Incremental changes, however small, can be very powerful as time goes by.
Even the simple act of staying focused in the moment helps to keep negative thoughts away. Negativity tends to creep up unnoticed when, instead of being fully aware in the present, the mind wanders off into imaginary scenarios of what might happen in the future or what could have gone differently in the past. Often those scenarios are full of pointless drama and blame, making us feel upset about stuff that doesn’t even exist in real life! Although seeking to improve conscious awareness won’t completely shut off the internal drama generator, it can at least help us to notice more quickly when we have thoughts that need to be shifted in healthier directions.