The Karma of Recovery


By Bill White
Originally published on December 8, 2017 on the William L. White Papers

The 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.

Recovery Rising

Bill White’s recently published Recovery Rising.

“Recovery Rising contains the stories, reflections, and lessons learned within one man’s personal and professional journey. Recounted here are many of the ideas, methods, people, and organizations that shaped the modern history of addiction treatment and recovery. These engaging stories are at times poignant and at times humorous, but always revealing, informative, and inspiring.”

From a description on Amazon. Click here for more information: Recovery Rising: A Retrospective of Addiction Treatment and Advocacy.

A review of the book is available here: Recovery Rising – Review.

24 Responses

  1. Piya says:

    Hola a todos. Soy miembro AA. Y he sabido conservarme sobrio a base de haber desarrollado tolerancia y aceptacion. Aunque no ha sido facil lo he logrado. He apartado el concepto de dios el karma y todo lo relacionado con pensamientos medievales. Y he puesto en marcha la accion de recuperacion de la enfermedad. El tiempo de sobriedad va al lado al tiempo que tengo de estar en AA e igualmente el tiempo que tengo de servir. Ahora que puedo escribir por aqui me siento comprendido. AA le debe James Burwell el hecho de haber abierto las puertas a todos sin excepción. La proposicion de Como cada quien lo conciba u el poder superior vino de el.Y eso nadie lo puede negar. Me siento muy orgulloso de ser Ateo y miembro de AA. Saludos desde Montreal.

    A Google translation:

    Hello everyone. I am an AA member. And I have managed to stay sober based on having developed tolerance and acceptance. Although it has not been easy I have achieved it. I have separated the concept of god karma and everything related to medieval thoughts. And I have started the recovery action of the disease. The time of sobriety goes hand in hand with the time I have of being in AA and also the time I have to serve. Now that I can write here, I feel understood. AA owes James Burwell the fact of having opened the doors to all without exception. The proposal of how everyone conceives it or the superior power came from him. And that nobody can deny it. I feel very proud to be an Atheist and an AA member. Greetings from Montreal.

  2. Roger says:

    The Ethical Brain – The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas:

    The Ethical Brain

  3. Clara M. says:

    Karma to me is a stand-in for social responsibility, so, as a “thing,” karma has at least two uses.

    The first is as a coping mechanism following contact with harmful people. Thinking “what goes around comes around” is calming after an awful encounter. You are unable to mete out justice, but you are comforted by the belief someone else will in the future, and that makes the encounter less depressing and disempowering.

    The second function of karma as a thing is examining where we fall personally on the scale of social responsibility. I don’t know about you guys, but, back when I was drinking 24 beers a day, I was way the heck down on the scale. In all areas of social responsibility — friends, family, career, the community — I was in the negative range. The concept of “what goes around comes around” is, in that situation, pitifully and incomprehensibly demoralizing.

    Since humans are so socially dependent we make ants look loner-ish, feeling deficient in social responsibility is emotionally unbearable to us. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has written several great popular science books on this; “The Ethical Brain” is my favorite. Gazzaniga describes how humans, with our highly complex social skills, excel at detecting what he summarizes as “cheaters.” Cheaters take and do not give. Even more outrageous to our hive minds are the cheaters who try not to look like cheaters by taking credit for the good deeds or hard work of others (example: people who wear or display military honors they did not earn, which led to the Stolen Valor Act of 2005).

    As an alcohol-addict, I was a cheater who continuously tried to excuse and rationalize my cheating. You could say my karma sucked. In recovery, I had to slowly dismantle my (by then) automatic excuses and rationalizations. The most difficult thing to understand was that I no longer needed them to prop up my sense of self-worth. I could have real self-worth instead of a stolen version.

  4. Roger says:

    As you probably know, when making a comment you can add a URL for a website, and Tommy with his comment added a link to Recovery 2.0, here (click on the image to visit the site):

    Recovery 2.0

  5. Tommy Rosen says:

    To better understand Karma, my teachers have explained it as unfinished business of one kind or another, not to be thought of as either good or bad. All Karma comes from the same temporal location – the past. The causes of addiction come from the same temporal location. To release Karma, therefore, means to release the past or “to finish the business of the past” so that one can become fully present. This is the opposite of addiction where we remain stuck consciously or unconsciously due to the unfinished business or karmic load we carry. All True paths of recovery and healing, be they physical, medical, scientific, emotional or spiritual, help us to be free of that which has accumulated and no longer serves our well being. That is the meaning of enlightenment, freedom from all Karma, a rare condition indeed.

    As to the debate of whether Karma exists or not, I guess it really depends on your understanding of it. I’m a yogi-scientist. That means I try not to take anything for granted without exploration and direct experience.

    Karma, to me, is self-evident through every word, action or inaction. One feels aware of a move toward heaviness or a move toward lightness of being.

    I look back on my life as an active addict and I can see clearly that I accumulated a lot and it was painful. In recovery I healed and learned how to lighten the burden of accumulation through the 12 Steps and the path of yoga.

    In any event I believe we all have felt what I am describing here. And I appreciate Bill White’s perspective on it all the way through. Congrats to all on our recoveries. Love and Happy New Year – Tommy Rosen.

  6. Roger says:

    I equate karma with consequences. Nothing un or super natural about it. Bill does not suggest otherwise in the article. Most alcoholics will acknowledge that there were negative consequences attached to their drinking.

    Dealing with these consequences (making amends, etc.) is often a part of recovery, or one is in danger of remaining what is referred to as a “dry drunk”. And of course, the positive consequences of good behavior in sobriety – including service to others – is obviously a key part of what motivates us to remain sober and clean. That’s the karma of recovery.

  7. Jack B. says:

    No dammit, you got this bass-akwards.

    It is not at all up to me to prove karma doesn’t exist, it is up to you to prove that it does.

  8. mykl says:

    For those who say “karma doesn’t exist”, can you prove this?

  9. Jack B. says:

    Yes of course!

    My life today is the result of much retrospection, study and sweat. Regardless of noble intent, unprovable nonsense, while sometimes fascinating, remains unprovable nonsense.

  10. Jack B. says:


    Addiction is very complex and it can take a long time to become it’s master. The process of mastery is only muddied further by adding a layer of pseudoscience. Fairy-tails and myths are not facts; they are merely interesting.

  11. Jack B. says:

    Much attaboy to you Joe.

  12. Steven H. says:

    Excellent points.

  13. Marty N. says:

    Good observation on the traditions comment.
    Thanx, Marty.

  14. life-j says:

    Nice, thanks, well said, Joe.

  15. Phil E. says:

    Life is random, chaotic. Nothing cosmic or predestined. I can tell you from experience, that doing the right thing is not going to make you a hero, but may cause you problems. I am a liberal, have cleaned up as much of the damage as I can, and am willing to clean up more of it if possible. I sure as heck would not have chosen to be an alcoholic. I worked hard, still prefer my solitude to the company of others, even after 35 years sober, and do not intend to change that. I’ve lived a decent life, have an emotionally and physically healthy family, and I have not taken the populist route, but have made hard decisions, so, I guess I’m a better man today, but always growing. No karma involved.

  16. Roger says:

    At issue in the comments here seems to be whether alcoholism is a disease or a moral (karmic) problem. It is clear to me that drinking excessively at some point alters the brain and becomes a disease. But unlike other diseases such as cancer, for instance, it results in rather astonishingly bad behavior such as fighting physically and emotionally with others, having sex with someone you don’t know and can’t remember their name, and / or driving a car intoxicated and injuring or killing others. So: recovery is never just abstinence, which can be achieved in more ways than one these days, but also usually involves personality adaptation and change and, as Bill writes, it rather inevitably requires some personal reconciliation. I agree. That’s my experience. I mean, the option to all of this karmic adaptation is to drown the problem with a drink. Or two.

  17. bob k says:

    There is a lot that has value in the AA program. The self-examination, confession, amends, service, etc. that forge a pathway to reconciliation, are all found elsewhere. Bill Wilson found these things, and assembled them into AA’s 12 steps. Is this the EXACT and ONLY efficacious combination of “spiritual principles?” Of course, not!! The earliest “nameless drunks” followed a simpler prescription.

    The great fundamentalist folklore is that Alcoholics Anonymous was the FIRST effective program combatting alcoholism. William White has led the myth-busting in this department. His remarkable scholarship, found in SLAYING THE DRAGON, opens our eyes to a history of success whenever alcoholics gather together to help each other.

    That the vast majority of these groups did not survive to see the dawn of the 21st Century, is the result of their failure to maintain harmony. Bill Wilson’s greater wisdom may come in the 12 Traditions, rather that the 12 Steps.

  18. Steven V. says:

    Very interesting read and gives one pause for thought. Whether Karma is a real phenomena or not, who knows. If this particular philosophy helps people not only recover from addiction/alcoholism but also helps them live a better quality of life, then great – use it.

  19. I find it less-than-helpful – for me – to take words literally. It is my hope that others don’t take me literally; take me seriously (I hope) but not so much literally.

    Is language more effective when treated as an art form vs. a means of relating precise truths? If I say, “That person has heart,” I don’t mean that I believe character comes from our organ, the heart. If I say, “That’s good for the soul,” I am not arguing that we are more than our molecular make-up. I think the idea of karma/dharma are useful as poetic ideas. Future lives can mean next month or in my next job. Science reminds me that correlation doesn’t mean causality. Praying and finding a parking spot at Walmart on a busy shopping day isn’t proof of Divine intervention. Working the Steps and never drinking again isn’t evidence that the Steps were the agency of continued sobriety. I see patterns all the time. Some correlation does identify cause and effect but how can I know which one is coincidence? I can’t live my whole life as a double-blind experiment.

    Addiction as a disease or behavioral disorder or allergy – take your pick – I avoid debates on “proving” my condition is one or the other. I can see what is meant by these labels (as metaphors).

    From this essay, I see that an eastern (philosophy) view of recovery is as legitimate as a western (religious or scientific) theory of recovery rituals and their impact on wellness and/or quality of life. I can be as cynical or critical as anyone but when I read/hear recovery narratives with the same openness that I offer to songs or fiction I am more likely to find something helpful or I am more likely to be moved emotionally.

    I will continue to read with interest the comments to Bill White’s essay. For me, it’s an interesting discussion so far.

  20. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Bill for your reflection on “The Karma of Recovery,” and thanks Roger for sharing Bill’s wisdom with us.

    My experience has convinced me that when I think positive thoughts, perform acts of compassion, and engage in service work, both in AA and at large throughout my community, generally I live a much more productive and rewarding life. Plus, I need all the help I can get, since my natural inclination is to focus upon the half emptiness of the glass and to be constitutionally incapable of pausing when agitated.

    Therefore, I am most grateful that as a result of being sober through AA I am enabled to experience “The Karma of Recovery” !~!~!

  21. Suzanne N. says:

    Yes. I hear you. No karmic law per se.
    And, for me, I like the personal benefits I have received from working the steps and from making amends. So, for me there is an interior kind of law: when I act in accordance to my values, I receive the gifts of integrity and dignity. When I don’t, I do feel guilt and shame (and this affects the way I act towards others).
    Overall, I am not convinced of “laws” of nature, etc. And, yet nature seems to make some kind of sense (except for it created us! Haha!).
    Each prinicple has an inherent power (honesty, sharing, humility, etc.) that helps me stay sober. And each time I practice the opposite of the principle, I pay the price, in my heart and soul. So it may not be an outer karmic law, but it is a personal experience of “what is out there” somehow reflects and responds to what is “in here.”
    Karmic baggage. WEll, I guess I might change the word to psychological and relational baggage. 🙂

  22. life-j says:

    Bill White writes clearly and beautifully, but I also have to say strictly speaking soberguy is right in all he says. There is no actual karmic law. I like a (secular) “spiritual” approach to recovery, but have to acknowledge that this is my choice, not an inherent necessity.

  23. Suzanne N. says:

    Thank you, Bill White, beautifully and intelligently written. May we each become the wounded healers that live the solution, carrying the message of recovery.

  24. soberguy says:

    Consequences for our actions are real, but they are natural, social and psychological. I’m not aware of any good evidence for a cosmic law of karma, and there’s plenty of evidence that bad acts go unpunished, while bad things continue to happen to good people.

    If a person suffers from guilt, it’s fine for them to seek atonement. But if they don’t feel guilty, and no one they care about is after them, then there’s no problem.

    Let’s stick to the facts. Because we see so much injustice, we know that justice is not a principle of the universe. We also know that many of us stay sober without making amends, or making all of them.

    AA made a big step when it said being alcoholic was not a moral issue, but then walked it back by suggesting a moral cure. The people in AA are not more moral than the average population, and often less so. Can we admit that people don’t have to grow morally to stay sober?

    In my first 10 years sober, I worried constantly that I wasn’t spiritual enough (whatever that means). Finally, I realized that my sobriety had nothing to do with moral growth. It means I don’t drink. Now, if I misbehave, I have social and natural consequences, but I don’t worry about also taking a drink.

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