Step 3

Step 3

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.

Make a decision to be open to spiritual energy as we take deliberate action for change in our lives.

Principles: Decision, Acceptance, Action

Steps 1 and 2 call for reflection. They are the mental Steps of the program, calling for insight, honesty, faith and hope. Step 1 gives us in-sight into our faulty thinking and shows us the reality of our powerlessness. Step 2 provides a vision of hope for great positive change in our lives. And then there is Step 3, the Step that takes our recovery into the outside world. Step 3 calls for decision. Our decision is the bridge between the mental part of the program and the action part. The decision of the Third Step connects the possibility of change with the reality of doing it.

Activating Change

Having insight about ourselves and having hope that our lives can improve does not automatically produce change. Only change makes change. Change rarely happens by accident and good intentions don’t do the job either. We must decide that things will be different and then follow through with action.

In Step 3 we activate our own winds of change. We decide, we open ourselves to spiritual energy and we commit ourselves to deliberate action. The interplay among these forces sets up a dynamic that soon begins to fuel itself and healing change becomes a true force in our lives.

What It Means To “Decide”

All living is a process of decision. Every waking moment of every single day we decide. We decide whether to get out of bed, what to wear, what to eat, who to talk to and what to say. Right at this instant you will decide whether to read another word of this book.

But we can’t “decide” about everything. We couldn’t get through the day if we had to “decide” to pick up a pencil or pull up a sock. These are habitual decisions that are grooved into our brain. They are only the background for the real decisions we have to make. Real decisions can be active and examined or passive and unexamined. Most of us guide our lives with unexamined decisions driven by our pain, our denial, our rage – in other words, driven by the roots of our compulsions.

The Third Step teaches us another way. We learn to make active, examined decisions. We push ahead in a time of crisis rather than fall back into our old ways. We learn to step back from ourselves, to take time and to apply new knowledge. With the help of the Third Step, we take full responsibility and begin to guide our own destiny.

Influencing Our Own Destiny Means Letting Go

In Step 3 we take charge of letting go. In order to physically let go, we have to consciously relax our muscles and allow the chattering in our minds to stop. We let go and the spiritual forces of peace, quiet and serenity bring about positive change in our bodies. We do the same sort of thing when we psychologically let go. We deliberately relax our mental grip on our belief in self-power. We let go of this delusion and are free to reach for new, positive energy that replenishes our spirit.

We Decide To Open

Some of us reject the very idea of spiritual energy. We fuss about whether it is good or bad or better or worse or whether it can be proved at all. It is only when we stop trying to evaluate it that we can reach for what helps us. We reach out, and if what we find opens a happier, more serene way, it is power we can use.

When we are open to spiritual energy, we have a serene relationship to life. We are receptive to what’s around us – we notice things. We feel eager to learn from life and willing to live fully and happily. We begin to understand where we belong in the natural scheme of things. We adopt an attitude of appreciative openness, the attitude that some people call “living consciously.”

We can open to spiritual energy with our emotions, our minds, the action of our bodies or with our whole being. We can draw inspiration from the natural world, from the power of ideas, from the courage of another person, from wisdom, from everyday events in our lives or from a larger purpose. There are many ways to make profound spiritual connections. Drawing from varied and changing sources of strength can give us a rich and fullbodied experience of feeling alive. We open to life, and life opens to us.

The energy for our healing comes from our letting go, from our openness, our reaching and our acceptance. In Step 2, Ann, Tom, Sarah and Jim each made a conscious decision to reach for their own spiritual energy as they faced change. What inspires us and how we experience it is personal. No matter what or how, the energy we gain is real.

We Commit Ourselves To Action

Step 3 is also a commitment to action, deliberate action springing from active decisions. Without action, the dynamic of change is inert theory. Without action, our decision is incomplete and is unconnected to the energy of healing. If we want to change, we must be willing to do change. Committing ourselves to action means we are willing to do hard things and feel hard feelings.

Change is very difficult. It’s the very thing we have been steadfastly avoiding. Change takes patient, persistent practice in thinking, feeling and acting in new ways. But eventually, after we’ve worked at it long enough, we become what we practice – we learn to live well.

We learn To Dance By Dancing

We each have our own life, our own truth, our own power, our own way of experiencing spiritual energy and moving through life. We will each arrange and activate the dynamics of change in our own way.

In The Dancing Healers Carl Hammerschlag says if we are to live in peace, we must connect with others and with something outside of ourselves. We can learn the universal, generic pattern of life’s dance from the 12 Steps. But in our individual dance of life, we must choose our own music and dance our own dance. Our music must fit our needs and our own particular movements.

We have to consider many things when we choose our music: tempo, rhythm, volume, instruments, melodies and harmony. We must decide carefully. Our choice of music guides our dance and our dance creates our life.

We heal when we dance our own unique dance to our own unique music. All by ourselves we discover and practice our own personal movements. We can change our music and enlarge our form. We experiment and make mistakes. We experiment and succeed. Our dancing muscles get stronger. Our music and our movements become finely synchronized. It all works together and we love how it feels. We practice until we are dancing in a way that is exactly right for us.

Make a decision to be open to spiritual energy as we take deliberate action for change in our lives.

Today, at least once, I will reach out to a spiritual resource as I meet the challenges and opportunities in my life.

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:

18 Responses

  1. Eric K. says:

    Substituting “spiritual energy” for “God” or “higher power” accomplishes nothing. It still asks a rational person to believe in nonsense.

    • Lon M. says:

      I strongly agree that “spiritual energy” is an unfortunate designation for what appears to be intended, i.e. a mixture of dealing with our lives with a blend of our real world emotions and our reason. I keep waiting for someone to cue the theremin. I fully understand Eric’s response, even when it may well be that there is no “God” or “higher power” intended in the writers’ secular guide. A “secular spiritual” “feels” like nonsense to me, too. It’s the word “spiritual”.

      • Denis K says:

        I wrestled with the word “spirituality” for the first 20 years of sobriety. I heard all sorts of explanations from all sorts of people in and out of our fellowship, none, incidentally, that worked for me.

        Nineteen years ago I read Ernie Kurtz’s “Spirituality of Imperfection” which offered what I accept as a reasonable and practical explanation that states:

        Spirituality is a lot like health. We all have health; we may have good health or poor health, but it’s something we can’t avoid having. The same is true of spirituality: every human being is a spiritual being. The question is not whether we “have spirituality” but whether the spirituality we have is a negative one that leads to isolation and self destruction or one that is more positive and life giving.

        I’m certain this statement will spark a good deal of healthy discussion among this site’s contributors.
        My point is that after a great deal of searching and discussion I found an explanation of spirituality that works for me; that has allowed me to become more comfortable with myself and enabled me to choose, most days, to be open and accepting life and all it’s vicissitudes.

        Thirty-nine years ago today I attended my first AA meeting and have been sober since, sometimes uncomfortably because of my unwillingness to accept life on life’s terms, but most of the time comfortably as a result of attempting to cease fighting anything or anyone.

        For me, each day is an opportunity to live a positive, open and accepting life. It’s simply my choice on a day at a time basis.

    • John M. says:

      Hi Eric,

      When was the last time you saw an electron, or proton, or even smaller and stranger quanta? These all make up energy which we (we non-scientifc types) only see in the results we can observe in the phenomenal world.

      • Lon M. says:

        Jeeze, John. The theremin is getting louder. Your argument is in the vein of creationists’ “reasoning”. It is not evidence-based. Want to try Pascal’s wager next? [I apologize for appearing hypercritical. But this view of an intangible “energy” is anti-scientific.]

      • John M. says:

        Hi Lon,

        Ghee, in all my life I don’t think I have ever been linked to the creationists – I bow my head in shame!

        Still, when the American Declaration, for example, says that “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men (sic!) are created equal…” there was nothing self-evident about this given the number of men and women held in slavery at the time. To “hold these truths” is more a statement of conviction rather than an evidence supported statement – which it clearly was not, given the institution of slavery.

        “Energy,” “psychic change,” even “character,” as well as “freedom” are all intangible until we make them manifest (observable, tangible) in our lives, resulting in how we behave and how we translate these into social, political, and natural laws.

        That’s my take on it anyway. And, Lon, I don’t mind you being “hypercritical” – it’s always the way we put our convictions to the test.

    • Chris B says:


      This is a fine description of alcoholism.

  2. JHG says:

    I’ve come to believe that the crucial element in the third step is not a higher power, spiritual energy, or a decisive act of surrender, but is instead a decision that gets made in the aftermath of having accepted the reality of my addiction (step 1) and acknowledging that overcoming addiction is a process rather than a single decision (step 2). The question for the atheist or agnostic is what is the nature of the decision that the third step would suggest. For me, it’s a decision to do whatever it takes to recover (including perhaps working some version of steps 4-12) and to let go of anything that gets in the way of that.

  3. John L. says:

    When I sobered up in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s, people translated the Steps. The Third Step was simply: “Let go.”

    • Thomas B. says:

      Early in my recovery in ’73 or ’74, John, at a 3rd step meeting over at Sunday Night Central, I heard a guy say regarding the 3rd Step if you turn it over and don’t “Let Go,” you end up up-side-down.

      Made sense to me, so ever since to calm myself down in moments of stress, confusion and/or doubt , I’ll chant in a mantra-like fashion, “Let go, let go, let go . . . “

  4. Dave J says:

    My sponsor said thirty seven ago, after I’d put off the third step for three years because I thought it was silly, “Kid, there’s a lotta’ graves this side of the third step. Want me to dig ya’ one?”
    Well that got my attention, so that night while jogging round a park, I stopped looked up at the sky and yelled something like, “Fuck you! I’m turning it over now so show me what you got!” Within seconds I felt the weight and confusion I’d been carrying for years leave me physically and emotionally. It never returned. Co-incidence, religious experience, the amazing power of Me? Who cares. I never drank again so who cares. The third step is essential no matter how it’s worded. It’s a fire exit from an ego which usually disguises itself as rational thought… just before it kills you. There are definitely some steps I would throw away but this ain’t one of them.

  5. Charlie M. says:

    Being spiritual, to me, is giving of myself and not expecting or imagining any kind of return. When I came into AA I was bankrupt in the department of giving and when I discovered in AA that by giving of myself I received many, many rewards completely unexpected and imagined a new me emerged. I’m far from perfect but a lot better than prior to my arrival in AA. As to a “Higher Power” I have accepted time as my HP because it changes everything but certainly not at my request or imagining.

  6. Lech L. says:

    This alternate version is as meaningless to me as the original.

    Colour me shallow.

    • Eric K. says:

      You’re far from shallow my friend, you’re intelligent, rational, and awake. None of those fit within the 12 step paradigm.

      • Roger says:

        Long-term abstinence – crucial to an alcoholic – depends upon “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.” I personally celebrate “all paths to recovery” and am always puzzled by those who denigrate any recovery program.

  7. Don J says:

    Tonight at a meeting, the chairman said “Let’s close by saying the Responsibility Statement.” We usually say the Lord’s Prayer. That is a first here in a small town in Southern Illinois, a rather “evangelical Christian area.”

    A few weeks ago I began talking about the Agnostic concept in AA, noting that I am going to the convention in Santa Monica in November. Maybe I am making progress in getting people to think differently.

  8. Eric K. says:

    I don’t know what spirituality is, but I do know what it is not. A few years ago, while attending a holisitic based rehab program, we were shown a copy of the movie The Secret. We were told it was the answer to unlocking the power of our spirituality. Afterwards, when asked what we thought, I stood up and in a very loud and angry tone stated that it was the worst piece of shit I had ever seen. Using the supposed power of prayer or positive thinking to attain material wealth I noted was the EXACT OPPOSITE of spirituality. Spiritualism, by definition, is the opposite of materialism. I and a few others stormed out much to the shock of the psychologist who showed us the film.

    That being said, that spiritualism is the opposite of materialism, clears up what it isn’t. It isn’t concerned with the material, real, tangible, or corporeal. So what does that leave us with. Things that can’t be experienced by our five senses of sight, touch, taste, smelling, and hearing. Things that can’t be sensed. Or, as philosophers have termed it, “the nonsensical.” Spirituality, is by definition, nonsense. And please no comments about how we cannot observe a quark. We can observe these and other such physical phenomena through indirect evidence. The same cannot even be said for anything spiritual, which can only be accepted upon faith. Faith in nonsense.

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