Step 2

Step 2

This is a chapter from the pioneering book: The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. It was originally written by two women, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., and published in 1991. As valuable today as it was then, a second edition of this exceptional work was published by AA Agnostica.

Came to believe that spiritual resources can provide power for our restoration and ‘healing’.

Principles: Hope, Faith

The Second Step builds on the First. It asks us to go beyond admitting our personal powerlessness, to accept that there are powerful spiritual resources that can help us reshape our lives. All we have to do is to recognize, accept and connect with them. In Step 1 we acknowledge that we aren’t in total control, that our individual power is limited. Step 2 tells us we can use spiritual resources beyond our own ordinary personal power to restore and heal ourselves.

Spiritual Resources – To Each His/Her Own

Lots of us confuse spirituality and religion. The words are often used interchangeably and we must realize that they shouldn’t be, for they have different meanings. To call religion spiritual is true, but religion is only one source of spiritual power. There are many, many others.

The word spirit comes from a Latin word that means breath, life, vigor. We call something spiritual when it represents life or when it enhances life.

There are people who center their spirituality on religious practices and principles. There are others who find spiritual connections with things totally outside of any religious framework. As far as spirituality is concerned, to believe in a God or not to believe in a God doesn’t matter. What matters is to have faith in our spiritual selves – in other words, to have faith in the energy that gives us life.

The phrase “spiritual resources” can be interpreted in many ways. Does it have to mean something great and mystical? Probably not. Does it mean there are a certain number of clearly-defined sources of power that we can tap into? No. There are many sources of spiritual power, more than any of us will ever be aware of or be able to use.

Spiritual power comes from whatever gives us peace, hope or strength and enhances our humanity.

The Higher Power of the original 12 Steps is a spiritual idea. A Higher Power can be a God or another kind of symbol. It can be goodness, love, a friend or an idea. It can be our own intellectual curiosity. It can even be the 12-Step program itself.

When we open ourselves to the power of spiritual resources, we open ourselves to an abundance of help that is beyond our comprehension. Each of us will find different powers, and those we use may change from day to day.

Some of us will reach out to nature, some to the calm, ordered events of everyday living. Some of us will find energy in the support of another person or the wise words in a book. Some of us will become healed by connecting with the deepest parts of our own nature, our internal wiser self. The sources of spiritual power are both outside of us and within us. The Second Step helps us connect with them all.

Every Day In Every Way

There is a wonderful Zen saying by Thich Nhat Hanh which says cleaning up after a meal can be curative to our spirits. However, our cleanup will only help us if we wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes, and not if we wash the dishes in order to get them done. The difference may seem trivial, but it is really tremendous.

When we wash the dishes to get them done, as most of us probably do, we abusively push ourselves to complete a disliked task. We rush to get through a few moments of living, and we will never be able to get those moments back. They and whatever potential they may have had are gone forever.

It’s a completely different story when we wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. Then we allow ourselves to value and even cherish the experience of warm water on our hands, the satisfaction of cleaning the plates and utensils and the lovely sense of non-pressing time. We actually have a healing experience washing the dishes. It may seem incredibly silly to describe dishwashing as a spiritual experience, but if we accept the wonderful possibilities offered by the task, it can be just that.

Our lives are full of spiritual resources that can help us heal. We feel connected with the entire universe as we stand and look at a starry sky on a winter night or watch the summer sun rise across the prairie. We get a sense of security from knowing there are other people, programs, books, leaders, medicines and activities that can help us learn and live better.

We get a feeling of confidence when we begin to believe in our own inner wisdom. We get comfort when we accept the healing energy of ordinary everyday living. As we eat, take a bath, meet with friends, make love, tend a flower, hold a child, watch a bird, write in a journal, meditate, stand up for ourselves in a difficult situation, feel the rain or the wind on our faces as we do any of these things, we can heal.

The Second Step helps us realize the spiritual potential that is all around us every day. Other people at other times have taught the same thing.

Zen teaches that the true realization of the life spirit occurs when we become one with whatever piece of life we are living.

Hopi Indians teach that everything is right here right now.

St. Catherine of Siena, a Christian mystic, said that all the way to Heaven is Heaven.

It is true that spirituality can’t be separated from the common miracles of everyday life.

Restoration Of Innocence

We’ve come a long way from our original innocence. Once we were small, perfect people, open to life, trusting everyone and everything. Now we’re not any of those things. Like everyone in the world, we’ve been damaged by the circumstances of our lives. Things happened to us, things hurt us. As grownups we don’t have to take responsibility for the things that hurt us. They weren’t our fault. But we do have to take responsibility for our restoration from them. We will never again be true innocents – the damage that has been done is a permanent part of our psyche —- but the 12 Steps give us the power to reclaim our innocent openness and trust.

In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen tells us that as we work toward spiritual growth, “The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is overgrown with thorns and thickets of ideas, of fears and defenses, prejudices and repressions.” When we find our secret place and reclaim our innocence, openness and trust can triumph in our lives, and we can be restored.

What About Healing

Then there’s the question of healing. What is it that needs healing and how do we heal it? We have no open, draining wound that needs attention. It’s our inner self that is sick, it’s our inner self that needs help.

The Second Step means we can use the power of spiritual resources to heal ourselves. We can be cured of denial, chronic anxiety, depression, grandiosity, resentment and all the other negative states that wither our spirit. We can be restored to a place where our vision is clear and we feel competent, confident and trusting in our lives.

The healing of a self is a hard thing to live through. Many of the feelings that go with it seem negative. We have to use anger to clean our emotional wounds. We have to deal with fear as we try new ways to survive. We have to accept the confusion that protects us from feelings that are too harsh and change that is too rapid. So much of healing doesn’t feel good.

And this is where the emotional and psychological energy of faith comes in. We simply have faith, we simply believe that if we continue the journey, things will get better. Our faith pays off and slowly our program works. We stick with it and it keeps on working.

There are times when it seems as though our lives are back where they were when we started, when we can’t connect with any spiritual resources at all. Then there are times when we feel surrounded by calm and strength and beauty. Then there are the bad times again. Gradually the good times increase and the bad times get fewer and farther between. Our sense of self grows stronger. We have the feeling that inside of us is a core that feels calm and certain. We begin to heal. And from that healing place we begin to grow. We use our spiritual strength to begin to reach our human potential.

We Use The Power

“Came to believe that spiritual resources can provide power for our restoration and healing.” If we do believe this, if we have faith that spiritual resources are all around us and that they can provide us with power to heal and grow, how does that happen? It’s different for each of us. Here are four examples of how it worked for four very different people.


Ann stands by a huge stormy lake. She is 65 years old, recently widowed, at a turning point in her life. The wind pounds at her body, the waves crash, the spray flies. Ann has come here because she needs to be alone. She needs to make a decision that may set a path for her new life. She tries to think, to balance the pros and cons of what she may do. But her mind swirls round and round, the same old thoughts over and over. So she tries to stop thinking, to simply watch the grandeur of the lake and the wind. She gives herself over to the rhythm of the moment she is in. Gradually her mind is cleared of its babble. Slowly she calms.

Then it happens. Her quiet mind releases a new idea, one she hasn’t had before. From deep within herself has come an answer. And the lake and the wind have given her something, too. When she leaves this place, she will take with her an image, a memory, a feeling that she need never lose. When she feels alone, frightened, confused or weak, when she needs another answer to another problem, she can return to her memory of this time and use its energy. Always.


Tom is a 33-year-old father of two sons. He and his wife, Sue, are at the doctor’s office. They were told three weeks ago that Sue had a terrible form of uterine cancer. She has had a hysterectomy and is just out of the hospital. They are meeting with the doctor for the final pathology report.

The doctor tells them the reports are good, there are cancer cells in only one lymph gland, Sue’s disease hasn’t spread as far as they feared. She will need radiation, which will be hard on her, but her chances for recovery are good. Toms whole being soars with joy. This is the very best they could have hoped for. Tom stays centered in his joy, truly takes time to feel it, to root the explosion of happiness and wonder deep inside himself.

Tom knows there are going to be hard times to come. Sue will be sick from the radiation, the children will need special care, there may be a recurrence of the cancer. But the feeling of joy is a separate thing from whatever caused it. It is a source of spiritual strength. Tom knows that in times of future crisis or despair, he can reconnect with his joy and rest in it for a little while, girding himself to live with whatever struggle is on his path.


Sarah is 24, recently graduated from business school and about to go on a special job interview. She is so nervous she can hardly function. She needs this job, she wants this job, she believes her professional future is at stake.

Sarah knows her nervousness could destroy the interview, yet no matter how hard she talks to herself, her jitters don’t get any better. She stands tapping her perfectly-manicured fingernails on the window as she looks out at the potted geraniums on her apartment deck. They are a brilliant scarlet, glowing in the sunshine. A thought comes into her mind. She goes out onto the deck, breaks off a single geranium flower and takes it to the kitchen sink where she carefully wraps the stem in a wet paper towel. She picks up the flower when it’s time to leave.

Sarah climbs into her car and carefully places the flower next to her on the seat. She drives off to the interview. ln the company parking lot, just before opening the car door, she looks at the small vibrant piece of life lying next to her. It’s still fresh and glowing and Sarah is comforted. She knows that no matter how the interview goes, no matter what turns her life takes, flowers will continue to bloom. And thats what’s important. Despite anything that can happen to her, she will always be able to turn to this wonderful source of beauty and strength. She takes a deep breath and opens the door.


Jim is 44, a recovering alcoholic, a husband and father of three teenagers. He is competently fulfilling his career as a lawyer. Jim has just been told that his 16-year-old son has been caught dealing dope. He feels as though his world is falling in on him. He has worked so hard; worked at recovery, worked at fathering, worked at providing – and now this. His head spins. He feels out of control – where to turn?

Jim has been through treatment for his alcoholism; he knows the program and what the 12 Steps can do. He’s seen it in others and experienced it for himself. So he goes to his study, closes the door and picks up one of his AA books. He reads quietly for an hour or so. As he reads the well-known words, his mind slows down and he begins to get a sense of perspective. He knows what to do about his son and what to do about himself. He also knows that this feeling won’t last, but for this particular moment, he is peaceful.

Ann, Tom, Sarah and Jim are different people leading different lives, looking to different spiritual resources for strength. But what they experienced can happen for any of us. Each of our lives is played out against a backdrop of spiritual possibility, what the Hindus call “the beyond that is within.” The possibility of spiritual energy available to us is endless. No matter who we are or what our problems may be, we can feel the power of the “beyond” if we believe and live the Second Step.

Came to believe that spiritual resources can provide power for our restoration and healing.

Today I will believe I can connect with spiritual resources that will help me become the person I want to be.

Alternative 12 Steps Cover 300x450

The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery is available as a second edition at Amazon.

It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom and Europe.

EBook versions of The Alternative 12 Steps are available online in all formats. Click here for Kindle, Kobo or Nook. An iBook version for the Mac or iPad is available at iTunes.

Chapters of the book have been posted on AA Agnostica and can be accessed here:

9 Responses

  1. Lenore says:

    The word “spiritual” is good enough for the poster boy of atheism, Sam Harris… In Defense of “Spiritual” … just fyi.

    • Lon Mc. says:

      Sam Harris seemed to be trying to tell us what “spiritual” is not, more than what it is. He did approve of Hitchens and Sagan using “spiritual,” but then said they were using it in not quite the way he does. I don’t think this clears up the objections to it variety of uses; and certainly the fact the Harris can force it into a respectable niche for himself does not help someone like me if I try to communicate with others who usually mean something else with its use.

  2. Duncan says:

    I am sure that this is a good book but frankly its not for me. When in my early days in AA I had trouble doing the Steps because they were religious. One of my mentors, I have never had a sponsor, helped me. He was religious but just told me that ALL the was in the Steps was what any mother might have told her child.

    My mother was not perfect and I don’t think my mentors was either but I knew what he meant. It was time for me to grow up and stop being an A***hole. How much of an A***hole I was took time for me to realise. In some cases a lot of time. As I sobered up and listened I saw it more and more. Yes in some cases I am probably still an A***hole but I don’t know it yet so I will continue to listen and learn. However I am now nothing like the person who walked through the doors of AA some 36 years ago.

    AA is a simple programme and I intend to keep it that way for me. – Duncan

  3. Christopher G says:

    “Psychic change” sufficient to bring about sobriety and continued serenity must include not only the intellect and emotion but also the will and for lack of a better word, the unknown, about our personal and social qualities. The word “spiritual” for me is a blanket euphemism covering a plethora of foggy, nebulous meanings from mystical to magical to hocus pocus. In effect, it’s another “I don’t know” word, so “Let’s make one up!”, much like gods and myths. Bill W refers to in the Family Afterward of the BB, “Those of us who have spent much time in the world of spiritual make-believe….etc pg. 130:1 and then goes on to trade one make -believe for another. I much rather like the definition of brain science restructuring which includes all the parts of the brain and body as a sum total Greater than its parts. Although science, psychology in particular, has separated the thinking mind into its various parts as individual identities, i.e. the ego, id, super ego, etc., as neuroscience has the physical parts into the various cortex, reptilian, pleasure centers, meaning and learning centers, etc., I tend to focus on one aspect and forget that they all operate as a connected whole and only well when connected well. David Eagleman’s book Incognitio and various web commentaries on it have lent some interesting insights into the workings of the mind in many areas. And then there’s the dynamics of group psychology and sociology that compound that ad infinitum! It is, I believe, like the bumper sticker “Oh, no! Not another learning experience!” of the educational variety, sometimes “Ah ha!” most times “Ho hum!” and quite a bit of “Huh!?!?” As for the word supernatural, that’s another fuzz-ball of a word. Everything is natural all the way down to electrons, quarks and the spaces between them. Adding the prefix super gives it again that unknown, mystical, magical, I-don’t-know-what, hocus-pocus-ness. It all centers around not knowing, as in the intellectual and experiential kind of knowing. Accepting that I don’t know yet and may be never will is what faith might be about or at least hope or maybe curiosity. Hmmmm, I don’t know!

  4. Glenna R. says:

    Hi: It seems I got in a hurry to send the e-mail so back to when I was in treatment. In the first week, in the morning, I came into a room filled with clients and staff. After a few moments, I looked out from my after alcohol trance and noticed that I had a nurse sitting on either side of me. I knew they were nurses by then, but did not really know them. For a few moments, my conscious mind did a “spin” which I attribute to having quite a bit to do with my speedy and thorough recovery. I accepted the situational logistics as they were and where it all welled up from I don’t know but I would prefer to believe it came from my unconscious directed by the Self which Jung described as the self-regulating aspect of psyche. My thoughts went somewhere they had never been before as I had spent the better part of half a century believing that I was alone and that no one really cared about me. I set the premise that even thought I had no idea who these nurses were, I was in treatment and I needed to believe they cared about me enough to be there. If I could accept this foreign idea, I had a chance of recovery as I would begin to cooperate in whatever way was needed to recover from this fatal disease. Maybe, those of you who spent a lifetime rebelling and having no respect for any authority can understand this psychic change. Was it big? Yes it was very eruptive and seemed beyond my control to a point. Do I believe there is a reason for everything. No, I don’t; to me it was a random thing that I was surrounded by nurses although the ratio of staff to client was about even so it could easily happen by the law of probability. Was there a supernatural higher power at work? I think not. It’s true my psyche was in a very intense state and if one wants to call the psyche and what it produces a higher power so be it. It was a deeply felt transformation, at this time. There’s been others before and after, but I am not inclined to go to supernatural or higher power explanations. I feel it incumbent on me to be open to my psychic processes and to assist the positive and to resist the negative. That’s all, even if it takes a lifetime of hard work! It would be so much easier to believe in a higher power that did all this, that I could communicate with. Sure would save me a lot of work. I constantly meet people in and out of addiction whose main goal in life is peace. Perhaps that is not my main goal. If it were I might have found a god of my understanding long ago – almost 20 years have passed, most of them in traditional AA as I could begin to see that this disease was a disease of unbearable loneliness. So I keep coming back. I don’t drink, but I realize I could at any moment.

  5. Glenna R. says:

    I suspect there have been many other awakenings which I prefer to call by Carl Jung’s term, Psychic changes. I was in treatment after a major relapse after more than ten years of sobriety only one of which I was a member of AA. I left because it added nothing to my well-being at the time.

  6. Chris G says:

    When we learn something new, Calculus maybe, we may struggle for a long time, and then suddenly “get it” – and “getting it” can be pretty rewarding. Considering Calculus, few would call this a spiritual experience, but when it involves our inner selves, especially in a positive way, that is a word that may come to mind.

    I’ve struggled with the word “spiritual” since I first came to AA, and this is how I’ve personally coped with it:

    Back in the 70′s when I was a cubicle slave, my company had us all watch a really remarkable video called “You Are What You Were When” by a Dr. Morris Massey. I never forgot it, but didn’t think about it much until, in AA, I started trying to come to terms with the “spiritual experience” phenomenom.

    Dr. Massey’s basic message is that our programming in our early years defines who we become – it sets the tracks deep, deep in our brains. That was cutting edge stuff back then. He went on to say that the only way we change really deep, basic attitudes, emotions, and instinctive actions is by having a “significant emotional experience”. That experience must be something that gets to us on such a powerful level that it is capable of re-programming us in some of those deep, basic areas.

    He described those “deep emotional experiences” as the kind that makes your hair stand on end, or brings tears to your eyes. Probably not those exact words – it’s been a long time – but that was the idea.

    I’ve had a number of those Deep Emotional Experiences’s in AA, all leading to sobriety and my own progress not perfection. All the time my co-AA’s were talking “spiritual” I was thinking “deep emotional” and “assimilating change”.

    I’ve talked about this with many more or less religious AAs. Mostly they insist I’m just trying to rename a spiritual experience, and can’t understand why. As far as I am concerned it is important; I much prefer a brain re-programming activity to supernatural intervention. I can appreciate the former, but can’t believe in the latter.

    I agree with others who have said that the word “spiritual” is by now so fuzzy as to be meaningless. I’ve been looking for a nice short sharp word or phrase to take the place of “significant emotional experience” – which is way too long and cold. I think I’m looking for a secular word to juxtapose against “spiritual”, one that could actually be defined. Or maybe we need several, to cover all that fuzzy spiritual territory more specifically. Any ideas?

  7. Lon Mc. says:

    In getting back to the business of living, certainly there is benefit in rehabilitating one’s own attitudes, feelings, emotions which had led us astray during our days of intoxication. But an intentionally undefined broad spectrum of “spiritual resources” and “spiritual energy” appear to be an invitation to continue to call on mystical or magical supernatural powers. It looks like an effort to ignore an agnostic or atheistic participation in the real world, and instead meeting any objection to dealing with “The God,” by picking “a god, any god” to whom to turn our over our wills and our lives. This version of step two spends a lot of words bending over backward to try to persuade one to make “spiritual” whatever one wants it to be. But in AA meetings it is many others who continue to inject their not so flexible religious or quasi-religious meanings of “spiritual” into the confusion. I don’t think this is helpful to skeptical newcomers; and it grates on the sensibilities of some oldtimers like myself who have enough to do in working at maintaining joyful sober living in a world of reality.

  8. JHG says:

    I find the discussion of alternative understandings of spirituality here to be helpful, but at the same time, it doesn’t go far enough for me. I’m less interested in alternative understandings of spirituality than I am in completely secular approaches that are distinct from approaches that rely on so called spiritual resources.

    I acknowledge that there is some value in examining scientifically what actually happens when an alcoholic has some sort of an emotional experience that is perceived as a spiritual event and that there is value also in looking for secular versions of the kind of transformative experiences that are often a necessary ingredient in sobriety. But a fully secular approach to recovery would surely want to develop a more inclusive and objective understanding of the kind of systemic change that can form a sufficient basis for sobriety.

    Systems theory offers a lot of insight into why many well-meaning efforts to change don’t lead to meaningful change but just feel like we’re rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. Living systems, whether at the level of the organism or at the familial/social level, are complex. We need to look at environmental as well as psychological change factors. That’s the wisdom behind the slogan, “change your playpens, playmates, and playthings.”

    I actually think looking for some sort of emotional transformation is overrated and often even counterproductive. It’s fickle. Awakenings, spiritual and secular, “of the educational variety” are far more stable and enduring.

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