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 A.A. 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 A.A. 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.
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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, where he now teaches part time. Semi-retired, he does research on addiction, helps alcoholics and works on creative writing projects.