As a result of these Steps


By Gabe S.

AA’s twelfth Step says “Having had a  spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried  to carry this message to alcoholics.”

But what is this message? What on Earth is a “spiritual awakening”?

The Big Book essentially presents the Steps as a path to finding  God: “But there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now.”

The appendix on spiritual  experience, added in the second printing of the first edition of the BB in 1941, puts it slightly differently:

Most of our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the “educational variety” because they develop slowly over a period of time. Quite often friends of the newcomer are aware of the difference long before he is himself. He finally realizes that he has undergone a profound alteration in his reaction to life; that such a change could hardly have been brought about by himself alone. What often takes place in a few months could seldom have been accomplished by years of self-discipline. With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.

Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it “God-consciousness.”

Spiritual  awakening / experience is portrayed in terms of awareness of a “Power” (capital ‘P’) that (only) our more religious members call  “God-consciousness.”

The words “God as  we understood Him” appearing in the steps were essentially the work of  three  people: Bill W, Jim B and Hank P. Two of them were atheist/agnostic types and intended the words to have a liberal interpretation:  God as we understood Him could be something entirely  mundane and nothing divine, such  as AA itself, or human goodness.

This is what it says on the AA Great Britain website under FAQ:

There’s a lot of talk about God, though, isn’t there? The majority of AA members believe that we have found the solution to our drinking problem not through individual willpower, but through a power greater than ourselves. However, everyone defines this power as he or she wishes. Many people call it God, others think it is the collective therapy of A.A., still others don’t believe in it at all. There is room in AA for people of all shades of belief and non-belief.

There is no capital ‘P’ in “a power greater than ourselves” there.

Later editions of the Big Book have Jim’s story, “The Vicious Cycle,” where he talks of how he took the group as his higher power.

The AA General Service office has a pamphlet called “Do You Think You’re Different?” featuring the stories of Ed (atheist) and Jan (agnostic), who successfully recovered in AA without finding God. Ed, like Jim B after about 1940, took his higher power  to be human goodness.

As a newcomer, I was confused about  the content of the AA message.  Was  I being  offered help on  a quest for God (something I had no interest in, as an atheist) or help with some kind  of  “spiritual” development, very liberally interpreted, as psychic development or personality change – something that might well be very good for me?

At that point,  my mind was wrecked by both alcohol and the disease of alcoholism. I used the “God” talk as an excuse for not doing the program. I already had an atheist sponsor and an atheist  therapist who was 14 years sober in AA.  But the disease made me desperate to keep drinking. So I focussed on the differences,  not the similarities.   A secular  path to recovery was before my eyes, yet I refused to follow it.

About six months after my first meeting,  I was thoroughly and completely beaten by alcohol. For years, I had tried as hard as I possibly  could  to control my drinking or quit and failed totally. I just ended up  drinking more and more. I was powerless over alcohol,  and, after decades of denial,  I finally saw it. My life –  behaviours, interactions with the world, thoughts, emotions – was completely unmanageable. I could  hardly boil an  egg for myself, let alone make it into  work. My thoughts went crazily  round and round in my head. I had no  capacity at all to understand or cope with my emotions. “Self-medication” with substances was all I knew  how to do. And it was no longer working.  My plight was making me depressed, anxious,  even  terrified. And my only coping mechanism was to drink yet more and make it worse. Unmanageability  run riot!

So I turned my will and my life over to the care of a higher power of my own understanding:  other people, therapists, AA,  MA and NA. More or less unable to think for myself, I turned all important  decision-making over to my advisors, and did what they said. It was humbling, relaxing and rather enjoyable.  It was just what I needed at the time. I put my trust  in the program  as well, and worked at the Steps  with optimism and enthusiasm.  From the instant  I took the first three steps… which all happened at once,  in a moment of clarity… I began  to get better and feel better.  I went to rehab for a detox. The cravings went and I ceased to want to drink. I did the Steps quickly and felt  reasonably well.

But I had not grasped the point that one  needs to work Steps 10, 11 and 12 thoroughly  for continued sobriety and  good mental health.  I went to two or three meetings a week, but did nothing  else  by way of recovery. Thus I  was defenceless against the first drink. I had lost my job and had a great fear of economic insecurity. I decided I needed to look at my bank accounts. I decided that I would do so and as a reward I would  have a  drink to calm myself down. I made this decision maybe three day before taking action. For three days I planned to have that drink. At no  point did it occur to me that there was any risk involved. I would  have a drink… half a bottle of vodka… then return to sobriety. That was after years of failed attempts to control my own drinking, after having read the Big Book, spent nine weeks in rehab and been in AA for about ten months. Insanity indeed!

The Big Book says “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” I believe  Bill was  right to say  this.  I have polled literally thousands of AAs in the internet, asking: Have you done the Steps thoroughly and, while continuing to do them thoroughly, relapsed? Or do you know anyone to whom that applies? Out of thousands,  a grand total of one person has said “yes.” That puts AA’s recovery rate at well over  99%.  The program might well not work for people who do not do it. But it works  for those who do. However,  that does mean following the path “thoroughly.” (I believe that old timers who relapse after many years of sobriety  usually do so because they slack off on Step 6 or 7  – they become smug, lose humility and do not  work on continued character development or spiritual growth.)

My relapse was immediate and devastating. Eleven days of constant hard drinking, ending up in hospital with brain damage.

My understanding of Step 1, powerlessness, improved. I realized that unless I continued to work the Steps thoroughly, the obsession would probably return and alcohol would take me down again.

I did the Steps a second time. This time, my Steps  4 and 5 were more complete and I came to face up to and, with the help of my wonderful  sponsor, accept my most frightening and shameful defects.  Then and  only then did I have a spiritual awakening.  I ceased to be locked up in the kingdom of my self. I understood from the writings of Bill W in the Big Book and, more particularly in the  Twelve Steps And Twelve Traditions book, that I had been directing my actions, my interactions with other people  and the world at large,  towards the final end of satisfying  my own  instinct-driven desires. This had the effect of making my feelings function as a barrier between me and the rest of the universe. It was as if I had been living in a dream. My feelings now function as ways of connecting with others and with the physical world.

Thus I woke up.  Now I can and do enjoy living  and being with other humans, and the trees, the seas and the moon. The natural universe, populated with other thinking,  feeling beings is not about me.  I am delighted  to be a tiny part of it and go with its flow.  I cannot argue with the universe nor would  I wish to. Drinking and pretending it is not there did not work either.  By humbly turning my will and my life over to the care of the universe, I have learned how to be consciously connected with it. As the result of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have had a spiritual awakening.

* * *

Here is my interpretation of the 12 Steps as they apply to me now:

Step 1 – We admitted we were powerless over our alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. Step 2 – Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the natural universe and go with its flow. Step 4 – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Step 5 – Admitted  to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Step 6 – Were entirely ready to give up all these defects of character. Step 7 – Adopted a practice of humility so that our shortcomings might  be overcome. Step 8 – Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Step 9 – Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Step 10 – Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. Step 11 – Sought through reflection  and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the natural universe and its inhabitants, seeking for knowledge of how to act rightly and strength to do so. Step 12 – Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Gabe’s first essay for AA Agnostica, A Higher Power of my Understanding, was posted on July 1, 2012.  His earlier version of the 12 Steps are included in The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps

Gabe was born in 1959 in the leafy area of Hampstead, London. His parents were decent and kind and he describes his childhood environment as “peaceful and secure.” He went to University College School, a liberal secular school, and eventually studied philosophy at University College in London. Philosophy suited him, and he pursued a career in it. He got his PhD from MIT. He taught first at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, then moved to King’s College, London. Eventually, in 2010, alcohol got the better of him and he was dismissed on grounds of ill-health. He recovered and was rescued by the University of Reading. Semi-retired, he does research on addiction, helps alcoholics and works on creative writing projects.

26 Responses

  1. Gabriel S. says:

    I struggled with the word ‘spiritual’ for a while. I think it normally implies immateriality, and I don’t believe in anything immaterial. I used to avoid it, or take care to enclose it in scare quotes. But I believe that all alcoholics have a psychological maladjustment that needs to be fixed for long-term recovery, and that it is exactly what Bill W called the ‘spiritual malady.’ I also accept that doing the steps is an excellent way of fixing the problem, and doing something much like them is probably the only way. Naturalists often talk of spiritual experience in terms of an experience of connection to the external world. The ‘spiritual malady’ is a malady of disconnection… being wrapped up in one’s own feelings and so not being connected by them to the world. Alcoholic drinking is an attempt to adjust one’s feelings by one’s self instead of by proper engagement with the world. Given all this, it now seems to me to be simplest just to use the term ‘spiritual’ and explain what I mean by it.

    • Donovan says:

      Bravo. Ultimately,there are as many paths to sobriety as there are individuals. I’ve been dealing with AA and it just never made sense. However, I’ve finally learned to look for similarities instead of differences and I’ve been told that was my spiritual awakening. Hey! When did that happen? I wasn’t looking! But seriously, Alcoholism is a disorder based largely on selfishness. According to Rational Recovery, it is simply the selfish pursuit of pleasure no matter who gets hurt including yourself. Yes, many people began drinking because they were traumatized and/or shit on by others. “Others” are not to be trusted. Then they (we) develop self-oriented, destructive habits. Also, the disease model is actually a bunch of nonsense and is often used as an excuse for continued indulgence. That was extremely hard for me to face because now I have to have personal responsibility. Guilt and shame came up right away and I drank to hide that. What a weak little mamma-boy I had become! Wow! The path to truth is often a rough one.

    • Donovan says:

      Oops, I said a foul word in my earlier comment. Sh*t. The spirituality concept can be very confusing. For believers it’s a connection to an intelligent creator. For us, I think it has to be a connection to reality on its terms and seeing the good in it. I’ve looked at a lot of belief systems and one I’m fond of is Native American. One saying some tribes have is “you can either feed the White Dog, or you can feed the Black Dog”. Meaning you can either fill your mind with the negative or you can just as easily see beauty. It’s a choice. This ties in with the Buddhist’s message of easing suffering, or more accurately, discontent. If I am full of anger and hatred toward the religious zealots in AA, I am the one who is causing suffering to myself. The differences in human beings are very small while the commonalities are enormous. I choose to focus on similarities and that, my friends is a spiritual awakening.

  2. Cecilia D. says:

    It surprises me that here, of all places – where people are constantly engaging with the struggles of agnostic and atheist members of AA – I’m reading yet another take on the canard that the program is perfect.

    People relapse a lot, for a lot of reasons. Relevant to this site is the recurring problem of people trying to turn their will over to a deity they don’t believe in, and to have it remove their “defects”. Most people don’t have the benefit of an atheist sponsor, the belief that they are free to rewrite the steps to meet their own theology or lack thereof.

    Those failures are often retrospectively characterized as a failure to work the steps thoroughly. But these problems are problems of the program and of the fellowship collectively, as well as of individuals. If successes are successes of AA, then so are the failures.

    • Gabriel S. says:

      Cecilia: the sample I have polled, many thousands of individuals, includes groups of disaffected ex-members of AA. Among all these thousands, including the AA-haters, only one believes of themselves that they relapsed while doing the steps thoroughly. People relapse for all kinds of reasons but it always – barring that one case among thousands – is preceded by a perceived slacking off or cessation of step work by the individual herself or himself. That is what found when I looked hard. If you have data that suggests this is misleading then it would help me very much to know about it. Thanks. Gabe s.

      • Cecilia D. says:

        I read one example of what you call “polling” on facebook, and I read the responses it generated. I’m not comfortable with how you collect or report your data, sorry.

  3. Hillary G. says:

    Nicely done… Gives one much to contemplate…

  4. Mikeinnova says:

    I have to admit, as I come up on 19 months of sobriety myself next week I am still confused about this notion of “spiritual” disease, “spiritual” program, and “spiritual” solutions. Why is a “Higher Power” even necessary to sobriety and recovery in the first place, much less this idea of “powerlessness”? Yes, it was challenging in some ways to quit drinking (though not really this last time given the consequences I’ve gone through) and maintain sobriety but I hardly think there’s anything supernatural about it. I guess I can call the group my “Higher Power” if I really want to shoehorn my experience into this model but to what end? I had a problem, I realized it and took action to address it (as well as using other tools such as SMART Recovery and the support of my family and friends) and have been living a clean and sober life since then. It just seems like sometimes “agnostic/atheist” AA people bend over backwards semantically to make something work that simply doesn’t for us. Why can’t we simply realize that AA came from a certain time and place (mid-20th century white, conservative, Protestant revivalist Oxford Group Christianity) and most of the program is made to fit those sensibilities. With atheists/agnostics expected to outnumber religious adherents WORLDWIDE in 25 years why can’t we start to imagine recovery differently without all this cultural baggage. Addiction is the only social issue where spiritualism, prayer and other magical thinking is seriously considered as a form of treatment. Why not use some of the pragmatic aspects of AA (inventories, though not necessarily “moral” ones and making amends, etc.) and leave the other junk aside?

    • Roger says:

      Mikeinnova, you phrase these most pertinent questions very well. Roger.

    • Michael says:

      Try looking at the AA group as something bigger than yourself rather than thinking you’re supposed to see it as a supernatural higher power. It’s the alcoholic ego that we need to address and to me it’s undeniable that the collective knowledge in an AA group is bigger than my own knowledge especially on matters of staying sober. It’s something I’ve grown to trust in, with a healthy amount of skepticism.

      Hope you don’t mind unsolicited advice and I agree with your post, I hope to see a movement towards more atheist/agnostic meetings. I suspect there will be. I’ve tried SMART recovery meetings and I respect it but I’m drawn to the AA community. The atheist/agnostic meetings I’ve been to have the same ‘spirit’.

  5. life-j says:

    Of course the main problem with the god as we understand him thing is that the christians take it as a way to sneak the real god in the back door. And they will so long as the god/higher power concept is central at all. Only once we make it a level playing field where we’re all just helping each other and don’t even call the group our higher power will they not be able to try that.

  6. Michael says:

    Thanks for your work on this Gabe. I support any version of the 12 steps that could work for atheists/agnostics. I also feel that every area should offer an atheist/agnostic AA meeting. I used to attend one in San Francisco where I got sober.

    I had a real problem with prayer when I came into AA. I felt that meditation was enough. I was a practicing Buddhist, a non-theistic religion. Prayer brought up all of my resentment towards my Catholic upbringing and I have no use for Christianity even today.

    At about a year and a half sober I was going through a very difficult period. My sponsor very gently urged me to pray and eventually I felt desperate enough to give in. It was a big turning point and I’ve been using prayer ever since. I re-wrote all of the prayers in the Big Book to take out any Christian connotations. To this day I refuse to say the Our Father when a meeting closes with it.

    I wonder if there’s a way to conceptualize prayer differently for an atheist/agnostic meeting. For all I know, we’re just talking to our own subconscious when we pray, a concept that shouldn’t bother an atheist. An agnostic might think of it as a way to turn it over to the universe, a sentiment that comes out in your version of the steps. For whatever reason, I think it can be a very valuable tool for some people and it doesn’t have to be called “prayer.”

    I fully support what you’ve done here, just wanted to throw this thought out there.

    • DJ says:

      Hi Michael,

      Actually, there was a post written for AA Agnostica which covers exactly what you are wondering about. Maybe now that it is known that more than one person (i.e., the writer) is interested in such a topic, it will be posted.


    • Erin says:

      thanks for this, Michael. I’ve been a pretty staunch atheist for most of my life, which was one of my reasons for avoiding AA for a long time. Once i finally got here, I also resisted the idea of prayer. But then a friend suggested that I ask my ancestors, those who have gone before, for guidance. It helped. and i love the step 11 prayer especially. I’ve found it useful to get me to see past my eyelids once in a while…

  7. Frank M. says:

    Thank you, Gabes, for pointing out that even within the constraints of AA’s own literature there is a secular path available. For those who do better with some source of direction and strength other than Bill Wilson’s “so this is the God of the preachers” there is at least Appendix II, and a pamphlet.

    Will we ever do better than that? Better than the mixed message that only God your Heavenly Father can help you, but perhaps there’s some wiggle room on what we can call God if we stretch the definition of the word near to breaking? I’m not optimistic there.

    But as long as we have sober examples like Gabe S. to share their experience, we will be useful to non-theists who need us. That’s what matters most.

    Thanks again, Gabes.

  8. Kevin K. says:

    Thank you so much for that. At our first CA International Convention in ’85, John Bradshaw was the main speaker for Saturday night, and he spoke about the hundredth monkey theory and collective consciousness. Since then, I’ve read that the hundredth monkey theory has been disproved but Bradshaw was right on when he predicted that the 12 step programs were going to explode in the late 80’s as a result of our collective consciousness. I still like to think there is some validity to collective consciousness. Anyway, just thought I would share that.

  9. Thomas B. says:

    Lovely, Gabe – to me your excellent essay reaffirms the adage often heard in the rooms, “It works if you work it, and it doesn’t work if you don’t work it!”

    Now the salient, unanswerable question, in my sometimes humble, sometimes not, opinion is what is it? In my truth, it makes no differences what it is, only that I (you) acknowledge that a thing is there that works and that you (I) know that it is not me (you). Confusing? Yup, but it’s a lot better than the alternative of using!

  10. David H. says:

    Thanks, Gabe.
    The capital P in the 2nd step was the first thing I saw at Oak Street in Cincinnati when I walked into my first AA club straight from the probation office next door. I had a bag of weed and some qualludes on me, but even these powerful, trusted good luck charms didn’t afford me the protection I needed to counter the capital P “cult.” I balked, determined to stay away.
    I ended up back there attending an outside meeting as an “inmate” of the rehab I went to as part of a court offered alternative to jail time.
    The stories I heard at these meetings gave me my first glimmer of hope that there might be something for me in AA, although it would be 12 or 14 yrs and 3 or 4 more rehabs before I was ready to consider that I needed to quit drinking and drugging.
    Having told you about my capital “P” hangups, I want to ask you – why the capital S in your 12th step?

    • Roger says:

      That’s no doubt me, Dave. Most in AA capitalize the word “Step” so people know they are referring to one of the 12 Steps and not, for example, the steps going into the attic. I have also been known to capitalize the “I” in submitted comments, say your comment, for example, simply because that’s what people are accustomed to. Nothing more intended, my friend.

  11. Lech L. says:

    I concluded very early on that AA spirituality was mostly warmed over Christianity. I rejected Christianity as a teen, and saw no value in adopting it again in another guise.

    I never did understand the conscious contact with God bit.

    If I thought I had a such a relationship, be with God, aliens from Zeta Reticuli, or a Sasquatch, the first thing I would suspect is delusion. So I would attempt to test that contact.

    If God were really talking to me, perhaps he might tell me what Shell stock would be trading at next week.

    AA to me has always been about abstinence from alcohol. There are certainly other benefits, but personal growth and/or spirituality has never been one of those for me.

  12. Joe C says:

    For people who find the word “spiritual” too woo-woo, I suggest “emotional.” Everything people seem to be sure about in describing their “spiritual” awakening is about feelings. Existential angst is about feelings too. Addiction (Alcoholism) is physical, mental and emotional makes as much sense too me as using “spiritual.” Recovery is most assured when someone “feels” it (instead of thinks it or behaving differently).

    Gabe, I think your defense of the word, “Rarely,” as in “rarely have we seen a person fail…” is valid. Fault-finders shit on AA success rates as being overselling and they love to argue that over 90% of newcomers relapse. I just saw a stat that 90% of people going through 28 day programs for the first time relapse in the first four years. I guess that falling off the bicycle is part of learning to ride a bicycle. Any of us determined to ride and following the suggestions of our instructor will learn to cycle.

    Even the most seasoned of cyclists may have an accident again – maybe even a fatal accident – it doesn’t mean their instruction was flawed.

    Thanks for the essay Gabe. As you can see, it got me thinking.

    • Somen C says:

      Seven times fall. Eight times rise!

    • Mikeinnova says:

      Hi Joe. I’ve done the exact same semantic trick, replacing “spiritual” with “emotional” when reading the Steps and Big Book generally. It does certainly work to a point though it’s a shame we have to use these kind of tricks in the first place, especially given the extreme emphasis often given on working an “honest” program. I like AA, I like that it gave me a place to go, something to do, and most importantly people to talk to who understood what I was going through and we’re generally pretty open and nonjudgmental about where I was coming from. I just wish the Big Book and Steps weren’t so deified. These really ARE just “suggestions”. Science is always a rough draft and so should recovery be as well. We should never be afraid of new ideas and new approaches, even if they may challenge something we hold dear. ESPECIALLY if challenge something we hold dear.

    • Dave says:

      The relapse rate among first timers was lower thirty and forty years ago because the social stigma was much higher (there actually was one) so many people came in much further along in their addiction than today. A more useful measure would be five years of sobriety. The day trippers are skewing the stats for the critics.

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