Step 11

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 recently published by AA Agnostica.

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Increasingly engage spiritual energy and awareness to continue to grow in abiding strength and wisdom and in the enjoyment of life.

Principles: Openness, Connection to life and Spiritual resources

• • • • • •

Step 11 carries the spiritual concepts of Steps 2 and 3 into our daily lives. Our spirit is our life force, and our spirituality is expressed in the way we relate to the world through our thoughts, attitudes and actions. Everyone is spiritual. The question to ask ourselves is whether we are moving with positive spirituality or whether our spiritual energy is taking us in a negative direction. Positive spirituality nourishes life, negative spirituality diminishes us.

The text in Step 2 tells us that positive spirituality comes from whatever gives us hope, strength and peace and enhances our humanity. We learn to recognize, accept and engage the resources that help our spirit grow. Step 11 encourages us to engage spiritual energy and awareness to . . .

1. Grow in abiding strength
2. Grow in inner wisdom
3. Grow in the enjoyment of life.

Spiritual Awareness is Self-Awareness

Spiritual awareness is an intensely individual thing. What is spiritually helpful to one person may be meaningless to another. Having full awareness of what gives us hope, strength or peace does not mean we can analyze spiritual energy. We can’t know what gives hope, strength or peace to others, either. Our only responsibility is to recognize and use what helps us.

Spirituality is engaged most completely by fully developed and fully defined people. When we worked on Step 4, many of us admitted we didn’t really know who we were or where we were going in life. In our culture each of us is socialized into a diminished life.

Men are programmed to show an aggressive, puffed up personality that keeps them from knowing the soft, vulnerable parts of their nature.

Women, on the other hand, are trained to appear passive and receptive, which ensures that they won’t know they can be confident and assertive.

If we accept our social programming, we become adults without truly defining ourselves and without being intimately acquainted with our strengths and weaknesses. This lack of definition constricts our spiritual potential.

People who have a strong, thorough understanding of their true nature are more engaged with life and as a result are aware of more ways to engage spiritual energy. So if our goal is to have a life filled with positive spirituality, we must dedicate ourselves to our own personal development.

Ways To Engage Spiritual Energy

When we engage spiritual energy, we don’t turn our minds off. We keep our full capacity to think and reason. We decide what fits for us and we reject the rest. We are still reasonable human beings, and in addition we gain access to a treasure that runs along a different vein. We can tap into this treasure any time. We live with increasing sensitivity to ourselves and everything around us.

The world is full of spiritual resources, from the energy of the universe to the simple joy we feel when we receive a small gift from someone we care about. Here are some of the many ways we can engage it.

We Live In The Present

Spiritual energy is available only in the present, only in our Here and Now. We engage it by paying full, conscious attention to the moment we are living. We deliberately put aside thoughts about the past and anticipation of the future.

When we are tired, harried and rushing to finish our errands, we consciously engage with the here and now, rather than worrying about all the things we have left to do. We smile and chat with the counter person at the dry cleaners; we take a moment to appreciate the sharp sweet smell of fresh pineapple at the market.

We find moments of peace and pleasure. When we are lonely or depressed, we carefully watch the squirrels chasing each other around an oak tree or find a book that will absorb us or music that will lift our spirits. We find a little hope, strength or inspiration. it’s the present moment we have a choice about – this instant we can choose energy that enhances us.

Wonder and curiosity happen only in the present. The spiritual energy of curiosity and wonder moves us toward new experiences. It leads us to try new things. We explore what catches our fancy. We experiment. We do old things in new ways and are openly curious about the outcome. Wonder and Curiosity help us shed our biases and rigidity so our childlike creativity, optimism and acceptance are available to us – so we can engage with the spiritual energy of Now.

We Accept And Take Care Of Ourselves

Our spirituality extends as far as our self-acceptance and well-being. Positive spiritual energy is not available to men and women who reject themselves.

We could call the 12 Steps a selfish program – but it’s really just a self-caring way of living. This means our first and most basic commitment is to ourselves. We are responsible for our own lives; no one else is going to take care of us. And “taking care” means not neglecting any part of ourselves. Good food and exercise take care of our body, self-respect and mental stimulation take care of our mind, insight and self-acceptance take care of our emotions. This kind of lifestyle means we are always moving in a positive direction and, once we are on the lookout for it, we will find lots of spiritual energy along the way.

We look For Joy

We look for the positive. We ask ourselves what’s useful in every situation. Even when we are faced with things that are unpleasant, painful or frightening, we can find positive ways to grow. This isn’t denial, it’s just learning an optimistic attitude toward life. This isn’t being a Pollyanna, it’s just being practical. There is a huge difference between a mind set that moans, “Woe is me – catastrophe, catastrophe,” and one that says, “Okay, so this is what’s happening. Now what can I do about it?”

Life is full of ever-increasing possibilities if we broaden our outlook so we see mental, physical and emotional options. By seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty, we see abundance and solutions, not deficiency and problems. We grow closer to being the kind of person Sara Teasdale calls, “One who makes the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.” Joy becomes a dependable companion and a great source of strength.

We Have Activities And Hobbies

We may have one passion or many interests. When we do what we love to do, we merge with a wider energy. It invigorates us and moves us beyond ourselves.

If we love to garden, we join with the seasonal energy of the earth. If we love to read, we become caught up in the creative interaction between the writer’s words and our own response. If we love to swim, run, dance or play tennis, our body bursts with the exuberance of its movement. When we do what we love to do, we are fully engaged with an energy that is spontaneous, instinctive and larger than our everyday consciousness.

We Have Fun

Enjoying life and having fun are spirituality in action. We enjoy life every day, and it’s everyday living we enjoy. We enjoy the small pleasures in life and the big ones, too. We enjoy a simple dinner, we enjoy a great vacation. We laugh with ourselves, we laugh with others. Laughter is wonderful – it’s high-kicking spiritual energy. Our laughter is never hurtful because it is always respectful, so it heals us and can help heal others, too. We learn that when things get tough, if we can find a reason to smile or even if we can smile without much reason, a good energy comes to us and gives us strength.

A gym teacher said, “When you think you can’t lift your leg even one more time, forget your leg and smile.” Just see what happens.

We Have Friends

No one heals alone. We all need the spiritual lift only the love of friends or family can give. Our responsibility is to reach out for it. This is something most of us do with great reluctance. We feel safer and more in control alone. But as we overcome our reluctance, we find a world of help and understanding that comes from the energy of others. ln The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” To give and receive this love is why we have friends.

We Give And We Receive

Spiritual energy flows when we give time, attention and help to others. Spiritual energy continues to flow when we receive. It’s spiritually strong to know that what we have to give is valuable. Asking for help when we need it requires spiritual strength, too. Giving and receiving attention and kindness creates a cycle of positive energy that never needs to end.

We Detach From Others’ Opinions Of Us

Spiritual energy surges when we believe our own respectful, loving opinion of ourselves. This opinion is our truth. We need to detach quietly and firmly from the destructive messages of our past and from the negative messages we get from some of the people around us. We listen to the opinions of others, but then we realistically evaluate what they are telling us. We compare what we hear with our own truth and then accept or reject what the other person said. When we believe in our truth and harness it to the actions we take, we find a personal integrity that is infused with spiritual energy. And we heal.

We Say Affirmations

We become what we think we are – this self-fulfilling prophecy is a psychological truth. Affirmations can help us turn a negative self-fulfilling prophecy into a positive one. We state affirmations as positive truths about ourselves in the present. We say them as mantras when we get up in the morning, when we get into a tight spot or when we go to bed at night. We tape notes on the refrigerator door or the bathroom mirror: “I am courageous.” “I am a great father.” “I can.” “Today I will act like a strong woman.” “I am very good at what I do.’’ ’’I feel serene as I work in the middle of chaos.”

We can take snatches of inspiration from whatever we read or hear and make them our own. It doesn’t matter where affirmations come from. We say them to ourselves and listen, we look at them and see. Then we begin to act on them. It just happens. The spiritual energy that lives deep inside of us hears the good thought and gives us strength to move.

We Meditate

To meditate is to switch mental gears. We stop whatever we are doing and sit quietly and comfortably. We consciously relax our muscles. We concentrate on breathing. We turn off both the mental babble inside our heads and the sounds and distractions around us. We don’t make an effort to control what’s going on. We empty our minds and our attitude becomes passive. We focus on an object, a sound, a word or an image – a neutral focus that keeps our mind from wandering. As thoughts and feelings drift across our mental landscape, we gently let them go without effort.

Meditation keeps us alert, yet gives us a deep emotional, mental and physical relaxation that refreshes us. Sometimes we hear messages that come from the deep center of our spirit. There’s nothing mystic about meditation – it’s an innate state of being. It’s healing and it just takes practice.

We Seek Guidance From Within

We reach beyond our conscious self for guidance. Seeking guidance involves putting aside our personal agenda with its rigid opinions and answers. We try to hear a new voice and make new mental and emotional connections. The new voice we hear when we seek guidance is the transcended part of ourselves. It comes from beyond the limits of our conscious personality and personal views. It’s an inner voice that may come to us in meditation or prayer, or our transcended self may help us hear other people in a new way. Sometimes it appears as an odd, unsolicited thought or idea. It may speak loudly so we can’t miss it or it may only whisper so at first we don’t hear. Whenever it comes and however insistent it is, we must listen to this voice. If we trust it, it will never let us down. It is a spiritual resource we have within ourselves always. The only requirements are to be open, to hear and to accept.

Step 11 – What’s The Outcome?

We Grow In Abiding Strength

As we practice and practice the Eleventh Step, our abiding strength becomes exercised and durable. We become increasingly well—stocked with strength and good feelings. We can compare it with a car battery. If we engage spiritual energy as we go about our lives, we stay charged up. If we sputter along in life, not really connecting with spiritual resources around us, our battery stays weak. If we become drained physically, mentally, or emotionally, we, like the car, simply quit. We must be careful not to get spiritually depleted. But if our battery does die out, we hook up to the Eleventh Step and recharge.

We Grow In Wisdom

Both self-knowledge and wisdom are important. Self-knowledge comes from our own thoughtful evaluation, and without it we couldn’t discover who we are or decide how to change. But wisdom is something different. Wisdom comes through our spiritual connections, connections outside of our consciousness. It’s wider and deeper than our conscious knowledge. It is non-judgmental and objective – it has no favorites, not even us. Wisdom comes through our open and quiet mind and tells us what we need to know, even when we don’t want to hear it.

We Grow In Enjoyment Of Life

There’s no doubt about it, the 12-Step way is a happy way to live. We learn to emphasize the present, to see an honest reality. We search for joy. We do things we love to do. We are open and curious. We make friends. Turmoil and pain disappear as we reclaim and rehabilitate our lives. Life actually gets to be fun.

• • • • • •

Engage spiritual energy and awareness to help us grow in abiding strength and wisdom and in the enjoyment of life.

Today I will enjoy life. I will choose and use whatever strengthens me and nourishes my spirit.


The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery is available as a second edition at Recovery 101 and 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 KindleKobo or NookAn iBook version for the Mac or iPad is available at iTunes.


Alternative 12 Steps Cover 300x450Chapters of the book have been posted on AA Agnostica and can also be accessed here:


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Step 11 — 9 Comments

  1. I did go looking for god when I first got here. I arrived as a teen, my family had been Catholic then Protestant which was more a factor of what school we might go to as kids. By the age of 13 I believed that man created god in his own image, not the other way around.

    There were a few after meeting discussions about collective conciousness and other new age higher power ideas that were a welcome continuation of acid and mescaline discussions with my 1970s stoner friends. These were harmless talks and not dogmatic in the least.

    This is the same culture that produced the Star Wars Yin/Yang of the force, the dark side of the force and the Jedi disciplines that could circumvent physical realities. It all seemed so playful and the possibility was limited only by our imaginations.

    Within a few years, Joseph Campbell would have a lot to say about religious mythology vs. literary hero and antagonist themes. I always admired how he could distill practical themes from Holly books, fiction and other myths without getting caught up in the lines between reality and imagry that has currently made seeking a zero-sum game for bloggers and trolls these days.

    I don’t believe in a force that I can tap into or agency that if bargained with, will reveal a future or righteous path intended just for me. I am not embarrassed that I went searching for such things. These “maintainence steps” as some refer to 10, 11 & 12 are practical tools of living more consiously or with more self-awareness. I don’t want to live a reactive and impulsive life. I need to check in from time to time to see if I have the right balance of order and spontaneity in my life. I don’t want to be rigid or chaotic.

    The essay discussed detatching from the opinion and influence of others. At my best I an neither irritated by or combative with those who talk in a theistic language. Nor should I feel pulled into talking their language – framing my atheism in Good Orderly Direction speak to win their approval. When I am rigid or needy I tend to get argumentative or demanding and I find these characteristics unattractive. Mindfulness, at the end of a day, in the middle of a meeting or my own sentence, can ground me and I like being grounded – which in and of itself is healthier than going off into excess, delusion or self-righteousness.

  2. I’m a lifelong atheist, and a passionately curious skeptic. I don’t ‘do’ spirits. Or ghosts, or goblins, or things that go bump in the night. Consciousness is chemistry, conscience is memory, meditation is thinking. So when somebody hands me that ‘AA is spiritual’ line, I’ll usually ask them to conjure up ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ to help them resolve an issue. I’m not convinced that Bill Wilson ever discarded the notion that drunks had to have a ‘spiritual experience’ like his in order to get sober, when in fact his ‘experience’ was a belladonna induced hallucination. MY disease is very real, the process to keep it in remission is very real, and the results are, inevitably, very real. Happy Holidays!

  3. “Everyone is spiritual.” This could be said to be true, if “everyone” were to accept the writer’s characterization of “spiritual.” Alas, I live in a pocket of Southern California where religious and political conservatism prevail. When I hear at an AA meeting, “AA is not a religious program, it is a spiritual program,” I prepare myself to hear a “spiritual” revelation for skeptical newcomers designed to prime them to be able to open their “closed minds” so that they too will be able to find a “higher power” that they will eventually recognize as God. I do believe that I understand what my well informed fellow atheists and agnostics mean when they use “spiritual” as a human function in the real world. But I do not want to try to make everyone understand this. It is hard enough for me to appreciate fully the writer’s meaning. So when I share about mechanisms in me that bring joy to my sober living, I simply prefer to relegate the word “spiritual” to those who call it “not religious” in order to persuade us to accept that it is indeed “religious-without-saying-so.”

    • I agree. There are simple ways to notice things that one may call spiritual in one’s life…a beautiful sunset, the majesty of mountains, a result or coincidence in one’s everyday life that seems remarkable (i.e. spiritual) for instance, but this whole attempt to reconstruct the steps in a secular way seems to me to miss the point of graduating to a better understanding of what makes and keeps us sober..Step One, don’t drink. Step Two. go to meetings. End of story.

      • Okay, whatever gets the job done! Personally, I rely on Agnostic and Freethinker meetings to keep me aware and involved in my recovery. Besides, I like this merry band of achievers!

      • Some meetings were full of the worst advice a newcomer could ever get – remember, ANYONE can speak, which means they can say ANYTHING