This is two chapters 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.
Practice the principles of these Steps in all our affairs and carry the 12-Step message to others.
Principles: Commitment, Self-discipline, Service to others
• • • • • •
Step 12 acts as an arrow, sending us right back into the entire program. As we “practice the principles of these Steps in all our affairs,” we refer back again and again to the principles we have studied.
Willingness to change
Service to others
Commitment to balance
Connection to spiritual resources
One Day At A Time
Each morning we wake up to a new day – a day that will be full of choices. There will be big choices that we know will have an impact on our lives. There will be small choices that reinforce us, sustain us and ultimately create us. We are learning to make the choices that express the 12-Step principles. In themselves, the Steps and their principles are only printed words lying lifeless on a piece of paper. The trick is to decide what they mean to each of us and how to breathe life into them in our real world. Here are some examples.
• • • • • •
When I’m afraid, I can ask myself, “What is the courageous thing to do?” And maybe I can share my fear with a trusted friend.
When I’m full of rage, I can ask myself how to handle my anger so I’m respectful to myself and to the person I’m mad at.
When I’ve hurt someone, I can make an immediate and unconditional amend and then go on without guilt.
When I feel tired or depressed, I can look to my own special kind of spiritual help.
• • • • • •
Bringing the 12-Step principles to life is a continual process of learning to live with personal integrity. Unfortunately, we often fall short. We lie to keep the peace. We refuse to try a new way to do something, not because it’s a bad idea but because it’s different. We continue to carry a grudge. We’re afraid to trust our friend.
These things happen, but it’s important to keep our values and goals in front of us. This is the only way life will get better. If we keep remembering where we are trying to go and take responsibility for trying to get there, eventually we will.
As we practice the principles, we don’t think of ourselves as bad people trying to become good. We’ve fought that battle for a long time and haven’t made much progress. It’s more helpful to look at the program as continual self-redemption, discovery and renewal – always hopeful, always open to another option and the spiritual resources around us. The 12 Steps can’t turn us into “better” women and men, but they can make us more emotionally honest about who we are. They teach us that our integrity is not determined by what we say we believe. Our integrity is determined by what we understand about ourselves, what we do, how we actually live.
To Walk The Talk
We carry the 12-Step message to others by the way we live our lives. We don’t have to talk about it or to proselytize. We can if we want to, but it isn’t necessary. We don’t have to be perfect in order to carry the message either. We just have to live with integrity.
When someone or something gives us a great spiritual gift, that gift can never really be repaid. There just isn’t any way. But it can be passed on. The 12 Steps have offered us a gift. We have taken it. And we can offer it to others by our living example.
Now it’s time to take ourselves – stronger, aware of what integrity means – and reach out to others. In the end this program is about reaching in and reaching out, stretching between our deepest self and the community and the natural world around us. What we need to understand is that the 12-Step program leads us into ourselves and outward to our universe. It’s a kind of continuous homecoming – inward, outward, inward, outward – it doesn’t matter. We are at home in ourselves and at home in the world. This is the promise that the Steps bring us to.
”But Dorothy, you are home,” cries the Witch of the North. “All you have to do is wake up.”
Practice the principles of these Steps in all our affairs and carry the 12—Step message to others.
Today I will select one 12-Step principle and consciously live by it as I go through my day.
How to Work a Program
The Program Is Our Personal Way Of Life
We create our own 12-Step program, every Step of the way. We create it piece by piece as we work our way through the Steps. Everyone’s life and interpretation of the Steps is different, so each of us custom-makes a program to fit our own attitudes, beliefs, needs and desires.
It’s important to understand that no matter how hard we work our program, it’s going to take a long time for the things we learn from it to become automatic for us. Psychologists say it takes an average of six months before newly-learned behavior becomes really integrated into our thinking, and at least twice that long before we habitually use new behavior when we face a crisis. There is simply no quick fix. There is only commitment and practice.
In the beginning many of us approach the program in a deliberate and formal way. Some of us carry small cards with the Steps printed on them. We take them out and use them as reminders whenever and wherever we need to. We do lots of ritual reading of Step literature. We talk to other people who are involved with the program. We think about what it means for us to “work a program” and our commitment deepens. Reading the Steps, thinking about them and consciously applying them, we gradually begin to take on the 12-Step way of life.
As time passes we get looser and more ﬂexible in how we use the Steps. We start to realize that, although the cards, literature and other people can give us suggestions, only we can sift through all that material. Only we can mold it into our own wonderful, perfectly adapted program for living. Finally the 12 Steps and the principles behind them become our way of life, working deep into our belief system.
If we are truly committed to living within the framework of the Steps, if we do our very best to understand and use them, whatever we do in working our program will turn out to be exactly right for us. Even though we make what seem like mistakes, we learn from the experience and do better. Our mistakes actually become stepping stones. We learn that making a blunder isn’t a catastrophe, it’s a challenge – and out of that challenge we can jump ahead. In the past, mistakes were a reason for self-loathing. The Steps teach us that they can become a reason for growth and self-trust.
We Work A Selfish Program
”Selfish” is a really dirty word. Most people, particularly women, are brought up to “share,” to “think of the other person first,” to “not be selfish.” So it’s very hard to accept that in working a successful 12-Step program we must put ourselves first. It’s an exercise in self-love. We must learn to take care of ourselves instead of taking care of other adults. (Children, of course, need parenting.)
We must learn to take care of ourselves instead of expecting or letting others take care of us. The 12-Step way teaches us self-love, self-trust and self-respect. Our selfish program turns into a sharing one. In the past we haven’t had the things the program teaches us, so we couldn’t share them with anyone else. Our selfish program taught us to practice on ourselves. We did and now we can share loving, trusting and respectful relationships with people around us. Selfish becomes beautiful.
We Work A Practical Program
Our personal program must be realistic and concrete. An effective program is not a pie-in-the-sky scheme, nor is it set apart from our real daily lives. We don’t try to live up to a mythical model, we bring the program down into our daily muddles and irritations. This is the only way to make change.
Our program is a bag of practical tools we carry with us. The tools include the Steps, principles, slogans, affirmations and anything else that helps. Every time we face a difficulty, we take out our bag and pull out what we need. Every time, every day. As beginners we’ll probably be clumsy. Whatever tools we use, we’ll strain too hard or not hard enough. Then we’ll begin to get the feel of it and use our tools with ease and mastery. Finally we don’t even have to reach for them, they simply become an integral part of the way we are in the world.
We Work A Focused Program
Unfortunately, we can’t change all at once. We keep our program manageable by focusing on a few thoughts, feelings or behaviors at a time. We think about what we can do today. Long-term goals are invaluable. We have to have them to help set our direction and act as beacons that guide us and hold us on course. But it’s our short-term goals that move us along. Short-term goals, successfully accomplished, add up to big progress – they are the way our program lives.
So we focus on short periods of time. One goal after another, one day, one hour, one minute at a time. If we concentrate only on the big picture, we feel frustrated and helpless, but we learn we can do almost anything for just a little while. For just a little while we can accomplish what we can’t even imagine doing for a lifetime. Of course we plan ahead, but the program teaches us we can’t control tomorrow and living well today is the very best preparation for the future.
Every day we ask ourselves, “What am I working on today?” Then we have our daily assignment. For example, today we may focus on our tendency to “help” our teenage daughter by pointing out her errors and telling her how to correct them. Our assignment is to notice when we get the urge to do this and to stop. Just for today.
Just for today we will give up our role as overbearing teacher/perfectionist/parent. When she makes a mistake or is about to make one, we will practice a loving detached silence or friendly neutral banter or upbeat encouragement. If we can’t do this for a whole day, maybe we can do it for an hour – if an hour seems like an eternity, 15 minutes is progress.
It’s discouraging to have the landscape littered with dozens of unfinished assignments lying around. So at first it’s best to focus on only one or two goals. When we are new at this, we need plenty of time to prepare a plan and carry it out. Then we give ourselves lots of congratulations when we succeed, or we regroup and replan when we fail. Later when the Steps have become our way of living, we can include many more goals. But the short-term focus still holds. We live one minute, one hour, one day at a time. For the rest of our lives we may look toward the future, but today is when we live.
We Work A Steady Program
Desire produces commitment, commitment produces practice, practice produces consistency. The longer we work our program, the more it takes on a consistent steadiness. Steadiness shows in the consistency of effort, not necessarily in smoothness or outcome. A successful program lives and a living program changes.
When we work with the Steps, we change. Our interpretations, attitudes, beliefs, needs, focus and approach change and keep on changing. Change is renewal. We keep moving forward with steadiness – creating new goals, meeting them, failing, trying again and succeeding.
How Does A Group Fit In?
Some people work a program without attending meetings. Some people attend meetings and don’t work a program. Most of us integrate group meetings into our programs, and attending them usually helps. Weekly meetings can have a very special place in our recovery. They can support us and keep us focused on the Steps. They can remind us to be selfish, practical and steady. A group also reminds us to have sponsors. Some sponsors help us for a short time, others serve us for years. Mainly they teach by example, but we talk to them, too. They are more experienced with the Steps than we are, they are farther along in their journey and they are invaluable for leading, helping or shoving us over the humps in our own program.
The Only Way To Make It Work Is To Work It
The only way we make ourselves and our lives better is to take action and to do the work. We can’t just think a program, we have to act it. An overweight, overwrought doctor can explain the benefits of good food and exercise to us in perfect detail and with expert understanding. But all we have to do is look at him to know he doesn’t experience what he is talking about. This doctor is a good role model for how not to work a 12-Step program. The details of our program may not be perfect, and we certainly aren’t experts at understanding it. But we consistently study the Steps, think about them and act. The doctor can talk and talk and stay overweight and overstressed, but we act and act and become spiritually lean and serene.
Chapters of the book have been posted on AA Agnostica and can also be accessed here:
- The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery
- Second Edition
- A Program for Living
- Step 1
- Step 2
- Step 3
- Step 4
- Step 5
- Step 6
- Step 7
- Steps 8 and 9
- Step 10
- Step 11
- Step 12 and How to Work a Program