Higher Powers

Awe at Sunrise

By life-j

Let me start by saying that the only higher powers I believe in are judges and cops. They’re tangible. And further, let me add that anyone who wants to believe in a higher power, or can’t help doing so, godly or otherwise, I’m ok with that. It’s not my place to tell people what they should or shouldn’t believe, so long as they don’t tell me either. My main errand here is to say that you don’t have to have one.

Countless times I have heard some newcomer lament their struggle with finding a higher power, since in AA if you don’t find a higher power, no matter what it is, you are guaranteed to drink again. We know of course that this is not so, but even in the agnostic/freethinkers community I hear a lot of people talking about their higher power and their mental contortions to come up with one.

Let’s define a Higher Power: Something with the power to intervene in my life in a deliberate, directed manner, either on its own accord or in response to my prayers. If it can’t do that, what makes it “higher”?

The best higher power to have of course would be “God”, since He can do anything for you, at least if He chooses to, and He is always listening for prayers, or He has the scanner dialed in on the sly to see if you’re doing something He doesn’t approve of. But those of us who have too skeptical a mind to believe that kind of stuff are stuck with one of the lesser options: a doorknob, a lightbulb, a table, the ocean, a mountain, the sky, the universe. What all these higher powers have in common is that there’s nobody listening, and there is no-one to pray to. There’s nobody home.

Well, we can pray all we want of course, and I recognize that prayer as a contemplative exercise does potentially have considerable value. The way I understand prayer is it puts a person in an open, receptive state, and thus often things which a person could not see, or imagine, or accept before come to be within the realm of the accessible. But there is no one anywhere listening to those prayers, and granting or denying anything. Prayer may simply have the power to open a person up. This is of course good, so I have nothing bad to say about prayer per se, even though I don’t pray myself. It has too many associations of coerced childhood prayers for me.

Then there’s the group as a higher power. It’s not “higher” in any sense of the word. Is it going to directly intervene in your life and take away your character defects if you pray to it? No, it’s just our group. The people who call the group their higher power are those who have no other higher power, but need to have one because it says so in the Big Book, and Bill himself says in the 12&12 that the group is a good higher power for starters until you find a real god.

The group can truly help you change your life, but there is nothing “higher” about it. It is just doing together with your brothers and sisters in recovery what you could never do alone. No magic here, nothing higher, just love and hard work.

But now about those higher powers in the realm encompassing the light bulb and the universe – if no-one is listening then why “have” them?

This is the odd thing about having a higher power in AA: The believer who’s trying to coerce the newcomer into getting a higher power will ask manipulative questions like: “So you don’t think there are powers greater than yourself?” (All I said was I don’t believe in any god.) “How about the ocean? Isn’t that a power greater than you?” Sure the ocean, or the wind or earthquakes, floods, and volcanoes have more power than me. So does a tractor. But how does that put them into the realm of a petitionable, interventionist deity? It is a false dichotomy and a non sequitur logical fallacy.

Another common thing to hear in AA is that you have to realize that there is a god, and you’re not it. Among unbelievers it has to some degree been reduced to the latter: I’m not it. The big question is why would it be an issue, or something to concern myself with? So it says I have to realize that I’m not [something which I anyway don’t believe exists]? Seems every bit as irrelevant to my recovery as to realize that I’m not a hamster or a pick-up truck. I understand the main points in it, of course: I’m not the center of the universe and I am not all powerful. Both things I never thought anyway. I’m at the periphery of all things, and everyone else is more powerful than me. At least that’s how I thought it was when I came to AA. Now I have simply found my rightful place.

The night sky or the ocean can certainly be awe-inspiring, and awe is a good thing. It is good for me to contemplate these awe-inspiring things and my place in the universe. It can fill me with a humble gratitude for being alive in just that moment, or in general, for that matter. Even if I’m not grateful “to” anything or anyone. Grateful to the light bulb? Maybe, just maybe I could stretch myself to being grateful to General Electric for inventing it, but that has nothing to do with my recovery. Grateful to the universe? Yes, why not, no harm in it, but is the universe an entity that cares whether I’m grateful or not? I think the universe is just there, and there is nothing or anyone there to give a damn about my gratitude. And that should in no way make my gratitude any less. My gratitude is mine, and my gratitude is a feeling inside myself, and a wonderful feeling to have.

And the ocean inspires awe and wonder, but no matter how beautiful and inspirational it is, objectively it’s still just a big tub full of water splashing around like big tubs of water do. It may sink a ship when the splashing gets bad enough, or kill me if I get stupid and stand with my back to a rogue wave. But it has no will, no intentionality. It is not an interventionist higher power. Praying to it isn’t going to cause any other changes in my life than the good feeling I may get from praying. That is of course significant and important, but it’s all a natural process inside myself.

This brings us to the remaining higher powers: My inner higher self, or whatever people call it. I would like to point out the physical impossibility of something greater than myself being contained within me. So it must simply be a part of me. An “inner resource” never accessed or utilized before. We all have this, I imagine, and it is comforting to know that we do have strengths we were not aware of.

But again, what makes it a “higher power”? Something inside ourselves, supposedly other than “ourselves”, which we can pray to and which magically “could and would if it were sought”? Sounds like a sort of multiple personality disorder to me, an even more troubling mental problem than having an imaginary friend in the sky. Of course it is good if in the course of our recovery we become able to access parts of ourselves which were previously closed off. This seems to me to be the goal of recovery, but there is really nothing higher about it. We are just becoming more whole, and wholesome people, but there is no petitionable interventionist deity in there either.

So to sum it up, Higher Powers seem to fall into four  main categories:

  1. The omnipotent interventionist deities, such as “God”, which can and will do anything for you, except for the small glitch that they don’t exist, or at least many of us don’t think so. So why call it a higher power?

  2. The ones that do exist, and may be more powerful than me in some trivial mechanical sense such as the ocean, or a tractor, but which can’t actually intervene in my life to do anything. So why call it a higher power?

  3. The ones that aren’t “higher” such as our AA group – but which we call a higher power for no good reason other than to align ourselves with The Big Book’s requirement that we have a higher power. So why call it a higher power?

  4. The inner higher self higher power. It is great to draw on inner’s strengths we didn’t know we had, but the idea here is there is a part of me that is more powerful than me, which is obvious nonsense, or schizophrenic. So why call it a higher power?

Finally, let’s talk a bit about spirituality, since this is a concept often associated with higher powers. It has gotten so badly entangled with religion but on page 27 of the Big Book Dr. Carl Jung is quoted as defining a spiritual experience like this:

To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.

Notice this is a completely secular definition, and might be all we need, except maybe that there is nothing in particular in it to encourage awe. As for that secular definition of spirituality, I haven’t seen anything better to add than this particular quote:

Let’s simply enjoy the awe and cut the higher power BS.

Collected AA Articleslife-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there.

He has written a number of articles posted on AA Agnostica. His last article on this website was Moments of Clarity and was posted last October.

You can read and/or download life-j’s book as a PDF right here: My Collected Published AA Stories.


61 Responses

  1. Guy H. says:

    Add on to my comments above, not only higher power, but spirituality is a word which shouldn’t be used in AA because no one can agree on what it is. I did struggle with replacing that word in my own thoughts but now I am at peace with the idea that all phenoms are on a lateral plane with us in the universe. Lateral, real, like brothers and sisters, and explainable.

  2. Uncle Tim H says:

    God is a concept… by which we measure our pain. John Lennon.

    Well done. It’s like I wrote this article myself. Thank you!

  3. life-j says:

    Thank you everyone for the continued comments. I just stumbled upon an essay by Frank M. that I don’t recall ever having seen before. but it is beautifully written, well reasoned, and sheds further light on the issues I have written about here myself: The Willow Tree Bark.

  4. Zarina says:

    This was beautifully written and sums up exactly how I have felt about the ‘higher power’ element of the program! It’s so wonderful to have someone write out my exact thoughts so coherently. Even though I believe in oneness and the power of something beyond us, what relevance does that really have to me staying sober? The power of the people in the rooms and my inner power, the power of my sponsor’s love, the power of working the steps – that really has nothing to do with divine intervention.

    I could say that belief in oneness and a greater sense of being helps me to feel more content and at peace with myself, which then makes me less likely to drink, but that all comes from *within* me not *outside* of me. Nothing ‘higher’ about it per se.

  5. John B. says:

    Wow! What a magnificent discussion. Thanks to all of you. I recall reading somewhere in the “approved literature” where Bill Wilson said there may be as many definitions of spirituality as there are alcoholics. Apparently, that may also be true for the term higher power. When I limped back into AA the first week of August, 1984, after four years of periodic relapses, I knew I needed a supplemental power source. Reliance on my own reasoning and my own will had proven to be a losing strategy. I knew I needed something new and I also knew it could not be reliance on anything related to a supra-human deity. Any suggestion of that was dead on arrival.

    Apparently the pain of addiction had sharpened my listening skills because many of the things I had heard over the past four years began to take on new meanings. The path toward the formulation of a secular-humanist definition of the term higher power was opened up for me when someone shared the acronym-cliche HALT in a meeting: “John, if you expect to stay sober, don’t let yourself get too hungry, too angry, too lonely, or too tired.” This time around this simple statement sent me a powerful message; it went something like this: the fundamental nature of the human condition is itself a group of variables that demand conformity. The biological, physical, psychological, and as I believe the spiritual structure of we homo-sapiens send us messages, reminders, that one or more of these variables need attention. The human condition dictates to me what needs to be addressed. Talk abound simplicity! Ingest the proper nutrients, get some rest when the law of gravity wears me down, make the necessary investments in building rewarding personal relationships, and I’ll get those pragmatic results referred to by Mark B. Just a little conformity Life-J. Since I quit drinking I’ve never been arrested for drunk driving.

  6. Archer Voxx says:

    Good food for thought life-j. In our secular circles, we use the phrase “resources outside of ourselves”; a lower case powers of “higher” knowledge.

    • life-j says:

      Hi Archer, Yes “resources outside of ourselves” is good, that’s secular, that works without the invention and intervention of imaginary forces. I would even go so far as to simply call it “help”. We needed help.

  7. Mark B says:

    For me, pragmatism rules rather than logic as I need to keep on not drinking. I talk about my HP as being the collective power of a group of drunks. It was important to me to understand that I am not in charge of my own life, except for what my body is doing right now and maybe for the next minute or so. I have increasingly limited influence as the physical and temporal boundaries extend out from this. It was important as ‘alcohol’ was the only thing that had defeated me (this is not entirely true but it felt and still feels true enough to make me powerless over alcohol). I very rarely pray but when I have, it is the “opening up” that was described – and that’s fine by me; it works.

    For me, the important point remains that I am not god.

  8. Witek says:

    Thank you Life. You have a great talent to encapsulate seemingly difficult things and to point them out. As HP. I always thought that I had to find HP, despite being an agnostic. Why? Because Bill W., torn between the religiosity of Oxford Groups and an agnostic upbringing, said it. I would like to translate this article into Polish and send it to my friends. I would appreciate your consent.

  9. Sean T. says:

    If we weren’t powerless, we wouldn’t need to find God or a power greater than ourselves to get sober. (“Which is exactly what this book is for”) Are we powerless over alcohol? Could it be that the 1st step was written as a set up for needing HP? Why not say we admitted we were alcoholic, that our lives had become unmanageable? the growth of AA has made it a lot easier to get sober. Fellowship everywhere. Pick up your phone and enter a meeting. We’ve learned a lot about the nature of alcoholism as well. I can’t imagine what it must have been like in the early days, but it’s not like that anymore. The “psychic change” necessary for recovery is definitely possible without prayer or spirituality. We admitted we were powerless over the second drink is the reality we could probably all agree applies to us. So if now we realize we probably don’t need God. Do we still do the steps, but just not do the god parts? Yes to answer my own question, we are alcoholics with a desire to stay sober. Changing our attitudes on life will go a long way to help us stay abstinent..to become a person that does not drink. The steps are a good way to change our attitude. Alcoholic? Yes definitely thanks..But Powerless? That’s’ the Big hook in the Big book that sets up the need for HP. I love AA, BTW!! Tragically flawed, but utterly necessary– it’s good to be here.

    • Michele says:

      Sean, my sentiments exactly!

      I believe god could and would IF he were. Period.

  10. Guy H. says:

    Great article. In our secular meeting which is a year old we state: In addition to staying sober it is our goal to de-emphasize god or gods, higher power or powers and spirituality. I would have stated it more strongly but I waffled. We rewrote all the introductory stuff, steps etc. Sometimes we have to tell new people that we are not here to talk about god but about sobriety. But they are free to talk about whatever. I will not be attending many or any christian meetings. I feel that I am too old and have no more time for such nonsense.

  11. Tracey R. says:

    You begin your article with the following: Let’s define a Higher Power: Something with the power to intervene in my life in a deliberate, directed manner, either on its own accord or in response to my prayers. If it can’t do that, what makes it “higher”?

    That is your definition, not mine. I believe you’re conflating “higher power” with “theism”.

    THEISM is the belief that there is a supernatural, interventionist, divine being.

    HIGHER POWER cannot be defined, it can only be experienced. And it can only be experienced by staying in present-moment awareness (with brief forays into past and future so they can serve the present moment).

    There are some things you just cannot explain, argue, or defend. And I believe “higher power” is one of them.

    I would like to see secular AAers (of which I am one) stop bashing the traditionalists. The tone of this article is one of “the angry atheist.” We in AA have one common goal: to stay sober and help others achieve sobriety.

    PS I also believe you are conflating “prayer” with “meditation”. You say: “The way I understand prayer is it puts a person in an open, receptive state, and thus often things which a person could not see, or imagine, or accept before come to be within the realm of the accessible.”

    PRAYER is speaking. In traditionalist speak, prayer is that conversation you have with a supernatural, interventionist, divine being – often referred to as God. [I do not pray.]

    MEDITATION is not speaking but putting yourself into that open, receptive, present-moment state you reference above. [An integral part of my personal recovery.]

    • life-j says:

      Tracey, I would like to hear about what sort of characteristics you think a higher power has. I mean you say my definition is not yours. It is not an interventionist deity, well then what is it, what does it do, how does it work? Even if you say it must be experienced, that should not keep you from defining it in some way. If it does not intervene in your life then what does it do? Do you have some kind of interaction with it? Does it give you advice, or does it give you anything else?

      I’m not so much trying to pry into your higher power, as just trying to establish what other higher powers there may be, than the ones who have power to intervene in people’s affairs, all the way from finding parking spaces to making tsunamis.

      The big question for for me is if a higher power is not the interventionist kind, what is it? Does it give advice? How? Or does it only give comfort? How? By taking an action, or just by you imagining it taking an action? Can its actions at all be explained in something even remotely akin to scientific terms?

      Even if it can’t I’d still like to hear about it. I just defined it in whatever terms I could make some sense of, but it seems to me that the bottom line is: A higher power must contribute something to your life, intervention, advice, comfort, whatever, and at the very least I would define a higher power as some entity that provides something in your life which is helpful. If this were not the case I could not see any point in having one, and even with such a vague definition I have a hard time understanding its character, and the character of its workings, but I would really like to hear about it.

      I suspect it will not make me find a higher power, but I would still like to learn about other people’s.

      • life-j says:

        Newcomers are told they must find a higher power. So we must ask why? We must ask what is it this higher power will contribute to their lives, that makes important that they find one. Just “having” one isn’t enough in itself, something must come of it, and I’m asking what.

        My definition of prayer was meant to say that so far as I could tell there is no-one listening to the prayers, but I still think the act of prayer can be positive. If a person prays for something it will make them much more open to actually receiving it, if it happens to come their way. It may even induce them to work toward it in a more dedicated way.

      • Tracey R says:

        For me, Higher Power is “The Power of Now.” (Thank you, Ekhart Tolle.) It is not a person, place, or thing. Therefore, one can attribute no characteristics to it. It is not interventionist nor can one interact with it because it is always there. We just aren’t very good at accessing it. Why? Because our minds are constantly focused on past and future.

        I first experienced the Power of Now in recovery (although I had no words for it at the time) when I heard the advice to not drink “one day at a time.” Focused on THAT day, I could stay sober. Staying sober allowed me to go to meetings, get a sponsor (my sponsor was an atheist like me), work the steps (minus the God parts), and do service work. As time went on and I got some sobriety under my belt, I was able to venture away from the Big Book and traditionalist AA dogma to discover this present moment awareness was a thing. Spiritual teacher Ekhart Tolle captured its essence as did the ancient Stoic philosophers.

        IMO, you cannot FIND a higher power, that power of now, because it is not lost. It is there just waiting for us to access it by living mindfully, that is, with present moment awareness.

        My higher power, the power of now, makes my sobriety – and my peace of mind – possible.

        • life-j says:

          Tracey, thank you for your clarifications – that all sounds good, as far as I can understand it, and I fully respect it, even though personally don’t care for Eckhardt Tolle. But this is neither about me nor about you. The question remains: Why call it a higher power? There are probably a dozen other things it could be called, including the power of now, so why get it mixed up with Bill Wilson’s concept of god?

          That’s the part I don’t get. Alternative searches for something “spiritual” I think are laudable, but why not distinguish yourself from Bill Wilson’s god, by finding a name that fits? A name that pulls us out of the quagmire instead of further in. As long as that higher power term keeps floating around we will be encouraging this phenomenon of people desperately trying to find a GOD they don’t need because they’re being told they have to.

          • Tracey C says:

            Life-j, I appreciate your thoughtful response. You ask a great question. I believe it’s human nature to credit success (or failure, for that matter) on someTHING. Religion, which is man made, gave credit for the good in this world to a theistic god. Conversely, credit for bad or evil was given to Satan. America in the 1930s was still a slave to this supernatural & irrational thinking.

            To whom do I give credit for my sobriety? Myself & other recovering alcoholics, like yourself, of course. It was in A.A. that I was introduced to present moment thinking. Living in present moment awareness, I got myself to meetings. I did the work under the guidance of an understanding sponsor. I accepted the the role of sponsor. I did the service work.

            Was a higher power at work here? I don’t believe it’s necessary to answer that question. I know what works for me. I don’t presume to know what works for anyone else. And I certainly don’t feel compelled anymore to try and explain it.

            To stay sober and help other alcoholics (no matter what they believe) is my mantra. If I go to meetings where members don’t feel the same, I don’t go back.


            Tracey R

    • Denise says:

      I have read: “Higher Power is the connection we have with all living things”. What does that mean? And why does it have to be ‘higher’? We use words to define. Most perceive ‘HP’ to have a religious connotation. The 12 step programs need to move on. Align with the age of information.

      This is how they will survive, even thrive.

      Many years now, I have developed a program that works for me. I am still in wonderment and awe of having stumbled upon this way of living. Never needed the God thing or an HP. I took what I liked and left the rest. I am neither offended or persuaded by these concepts. Some need this ‘support’… who am I to deny them.

    • Guy H. says:

      Tracey R. you are a closet theist. Things that can’t be defined do not influence our quiet state. Meditation is a subject that should not be taught in AA since no one can agree on what it is either. AA is not a repository of experts on meditation or spirituality or anything else that cannot be defined. Buddha and many Indian gurus do not claim godhood yet are worshiped by many as gods. Gods do not logically need to be worshiped, such an act is superfluous to an all powerful being, as if any existed. You are not an atheist.

      • Tracey R says:

        Guy H. Interesting you, who I’ve never met, can know so much about me and what I do or do not believe.

        • Larry L. says:

          Tracey R. One of the things I have always loved about many AA members (no matter what their beliefs) is how they often model how I would like to behave. You, in your response to Guy H. is one more example I hope to remember and use in similar circumstances.

  12. Tom says:

    Don’t compete with anyone. Don’t be jealous of anyone. Don’t criticize anyone. Just be the best version of yourself that you can be.

    • Denise says:

      Tom, Your comments will ‘set the tone’ for me today. In the spirit of “Everyone is just doing the best they can”.

  13. Glenna R. says:

    What a wonderful and beautiful logically-written essay! The feedback is so astonishing which makes the original all that more powerful!

  14. Ngaire says:

    I also have a problem with the “Higher” part.

    Dealing with low self-esteem why does everything have to be “Higher”?

    I find it makes people victims.

  15. Sue says:

    Thank you so much for this timely article. As I attend the General Service Conference in NYC as a delegate, maybe the only atheist delegate, I hear the god word constantly. But I make my opinions known and hopefully give others something to think about. That’s all I can do. I am, however, very grateful, to have this opportunity.

  16. life-j says:

    Thanks to all who joined in this discussion, whom I haven’t responded to individually, and for all the good comments.

    • Marty N. says:

      Life, thanks for a great article. One of the members of one of my secular groups came upon something interesting I think you may find interesting, Maybe you have already seen it. I would like to share it with Roger, Courtney, you, and anyone else who may be reading this.

      A book The Common Sense Of Drinking by Richard R Peabody 1892-1936 is a curious read. It was written in 1930, years before the BB. We think Wilson plagiarized the Hell out of it. I’m anxious to see what you guys think. Please respond.

      • life-j says:

        Marty, yes I just read that one a couple of weeks ago, and liked it quite well.
        There is evidence in there that Bill read it before he wrote the big book.
        I sort of figure that Bill thought, well if we get god into it, we’ll outperform this sucker by a long shot.

        Peabody was secular. We ought to do a review of it.

      • bob k says:

        I am deeply wounded to have not been called out by name. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it. Click here to take a look at my article on AA Beyond Belief:

        THE COMMON SENSE OF DRINKING | Richard R. Peabody (1931)

        ” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>Common Sense of Drinking

        Roger and I are working on a SECOND EDITION of KEY PLAYERS IN AA HISTORY. A single chapter on the Peabody movement grows to five. There is a dedicated chapter on COMMON SENSE, and cites even MORE examples of the influence on Bill W., AA, and the Big Book.

        There are two excuses for not crediting Peabody:
        1) The rumor that he died drunk in 1936;
        2) His secularism. Hard to credit a secularist in a book pitching that “God could and would if he were sought.

        • life-j says:

          Good to hear Bob, I like Key Players, and expanding it is an excellent idea.

          Key Players

          • Marty N. says:

            Bob, I am sincerely sorry for the slight. I didn’t know your work existed. I got so excited when my friend shared the book with me I had to spread the news.

            Regrets Marty N.

          • bob k says:

            I’m just messin’ with ya!! I like to make fun of my own ego.

  17. Denise A. says:

    Oliver, I love this post. Clear and concise. Yesterday we had our monthly Al-Anon business meeting. On the agenda was a request for discussion of our opening prayer, the Serenity Prayer.

    A good percentage of attendees do approve of the ‘God’ word, which is, of course, a copyrighted poem for many years now. Of the 22 persons, group conscience was taken and the majority with to continue with the Serenity Prayer. It was very civil and cordial, but the undercurrent of something more palatable for those of us who do not believe in magical thinking is being pursued. So we shall see. Patience is a virtue.

  18. Rosa says:

    I think the beauty of being an atheist is that I take responsibility for my own successes and failures and for my actions in general and the way that I treat others. I’m new here, so what is AA’s reason for accepting a higher power anyway? Is it a way of forgive yourself or a way of letting go of the responsibility to change? Is it a way of having faith that your life will change because you wish it to change? I really don’t understand.

    • life-j says:

      Rosa, I would say that the reason for the higher power stuff is that AA grew out of some very religious organizations 80 years ago, and the people that started it, and they were really just groping in the dark for how to stay sober, adopted many of those religious ways, and now, somehow we got stuck with it. We’re trying to make changes, and this website is part of that effort, but it is admittedly somewhat slow going.

      We have about 400 secular AA meetings, which you can find at the Secular AA website (https://secularaa.org/) to see if there are any near you, but other than that, what works in this program is one alcoholic talking with another alcoholic, because we can understand each other in a way that no-one can who hasn’t been where we are. Therefore it is important to get that support from other alcoholics in recovery, and even regular AA with all its religious nonsense is much, much better than no support at all, so I suggest you go to regular AA if you can’t find a secular meeting.

  19. Glenn G says:

    My experience in AA and recovery is that “Higher Power” misused all the time. The words “Higher Power” are nowhere in the 12 Steps; it’s “A Power Greater Than Ourselves”! I hear it shared in meetings all the time “my higher power this, My higher power that”. The group isn’t a “higher Power” it’s a power GREATER than myself and you can replace group Ad infinitum. Life-j usually gets it right but is just off base with this article. Lastly as for Bill W’s use of “Higher Power” there’s no need to dance around it: he meant GOD. Thanks for all your service with this website and life-j yours too, look forward to seeing you again in DC. 🙂

    • life-j says:

      Hmm, Glenn, I don’t see that there is any difference between Higher Power, and a Power Greater Than Myself. Aren’t they doing exactly the same? – Magically, all the good things that happen, for those who believe it, and nothing for those who don’t. So those who don’t believe get to take responsibility for the bad stuff and credit for the good stuff. Believers only get to take responsibility for the bad stuff. the good stuff they thank god for.

      Anyway, please explain the difference between the two, as you see it.

      Was good to meet up in Toronto, but it looks like my traveling days are over.

  20. Dan L. says:

    Thank you life-j. Your writings and recordings have really helped me to get a lot of recovery things straight enough to use. In my life my alcoholism was my higher power. My addiction ruled every decision and action I did much the way believers say their deity does. Whether I knew it or not I made no decision without evaluating it against my need for a drink.

    My counselor in treatment simply said I had to get a higher power that wouldn’t try to kill me. After listening to the inchoate nonsense and contrivances that believers went through to make god make sense I decided my atheism would have to take care of me.

    My “Higher Purpose” is to simply be a better and sober version of me. It is the best I can do for myself and the rest of the world.

    Thanks – Dan L.

  21. Micaela S. says:

    Wonderful essay. I am aligned with your way of thinking….100%. Thank you for adding this piece of wisdom and inspiration to my day.

  22. steve b says:

    Good article, Life. AA started as a spinoff from the religious Oxford Group and has retained its religious orientation with its focus on god.To the extent that AA works, it’s because of people helping people, not because of AA’s mistaken belief in the efficacy of god or other higher powers.

  23. Teresa says:

    One alcoholic to another…we can share with one another thoughts, beliefs and ideas…pretty darn cool.

    I enjoy so much of life’s writing and so many others. I take what works for me and leave the rest. Fortunately, it was suggested I do that at my first AA meeting over 30 years ago.

    Dogma, I’m just not attracted to. Open minded conversations I enjoy and still have to check my ideas to make sure I’m not thinking you need to believe how I do. A higher power is not necessary in my opinion for sober living and I do appreciate the collective wisdom of many, being a power or source greater than me, myself, and I. Love the choice of photo also!

    Teresa J

  24. Melinda says:

    Wow, I am so grateful for this article. The amusing idea that I am not a higher power, nor a ‘hamster or a pickup truck’, had me giggling. This infusion of logic saved me from pretending. Thanks, life-j.

  25. Tom says:

    Your definition is not mine. A higher power gives one comfort in times of stress and joy and does not interfere with ones free will to make mistakes or try to believe or not.

    • life-j says:

      Tom, that’s an interesting alternate way of thinking of the higher power concept, though, how is that “higher”? Either it gives comfort in a simple manner, which I think is what you mean, or else the comfort consists of it still being a higher power who can be called on to step in and fix things if they go awry. As for the simple comfort, nothing “simple” about it necessarily, but what I mean is it is just an object which is comforting, either it is sitting and looking at the ocean or a mountain, and they are beautiful and it is relaxing to sit there and unwind, and the awe and wonder associated with it is a good thing, something we all do, or ought to do, but how did that get to be “higher”? Or petting the dog, or playing with a child, or seeing my favorite movie (that’s got to be either Groundhog Day or The Princess Bride) or talking with a friend or having an imaginary conversation with Gandalf, or rubbing a rosary for that matter, many things can be comforting, listening to music, laying in a field full of dandelions and looking up at the clouds, is there anything in the world more wondrous than that? But what is “higher” about it? Why call it “higher power”, when we know how hopelessly tangled up it will get in sneaking “God” in the back door, how hopelessly it will get tangled up with prayers, and how the field of dandelions could and would if it were sought?

      I’m not so much speaking up against people’s various deities here, they can have ’em for all I care, what I’m speaking up against is the unnecessary and confusing USE of the term higher power for those of us who DON’T have a deity to lean on. We have rejected the call for us to have a god to fix things for us, but we have not, apparently, rejected the call to, no matter how ludicrous, to find something to CALL higher, because it says in the big book that we have to have something which we can call a higher power. Because we don’t believe in a god, but we still believe Bill Wilson when at three years sober he says we must have a god, so we don’t have a god, but we have a god anyway, just to make Bill happy with us. Make sense?

      Let’s live a life in awe and wonder, by all means, with all the comfort, gratitude, and humility that gives us, but let’s stop calling it “higher”.

      The ocean is still just a fucking ocean, regardless of the grand experience it can be to sit alone or with a friend, or with my dog and look at it. Didn’t that come across with the ending quote? By all means, let’s wonder, let’s be grateful, let’s dance and shout, and meditate, and make love, and eat ice cream and strawberries, and look at the stars, but let’s not get it mixed up with Bill Wilson’s god any longer. Let’s tell the newcomers to do all these things, AND that they don’t need any “higher power” or call anything a “higher power” any more than any of us do. Let’s stop this nonsense.

  26. Al says:

    Passing right by the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego… I might call our wisdom within the instinct for survival. Sometimes when I think and do ridiculously twisted things, that instinct kind of puts a brake on, right at the edge of the cliff.

    It seems to have even prevailed in some crazy black outs because I’m still alive…

    The will to live, ‘Lifeforce’, seems able to intervene somewhat in Dumb Drunk Ideas. Sometimes.

    When I seek out this deeper ‘wisdom’ (accumulated information), making the time and intention to get past my own temporary mental drama, it probably does similiar things to anxiety levels as prayer does.

    “What am I missing here?” Is a good first question in a dangerous situation, like an urge to get plastered.
    “Have I really thought this through?”
    “What is the best thing that could happen?”

  27. John M. says:

    Great job, Life, of outlining various perspectives with respect to higher powers and responding so clearly to each. I have mentioned elsewhere that I have never used the term “higher power” since getting sober 12 years ago for many of the reasons you discuss but I am not (totally) averse to others using it since “higher” is one among many metaphors that one can use in the context of something greater, better, larger, more fully developed, etc. than something else.

    After all, Life, you write —“This seems to me to be the goal of recovery, but there is really nothing higher about it. We are just becoming more whole, and wholesome people…” — and “whole” is every bit as much a metaphor as “higher” but, perhaps, more secular sounding than the medieval-religious connotations undergirding the word “higher.”

    Perhaps higher as a metaphor has had its time and is just too suggestive of a supernatural cosmology (although humanist psychologists in the 60s used to talk about the “higher self,” as you implicitly reference in your essay) and it may indeed have to be laid to rest by the secularists among us today in AA.

    But all descriptions of the phenomena of the kinds Jung acknowledged are metaphors and we probably “cannot not metaphor” when we speak. So, we are left doing what you do so well in your essay: examining the various ways a metaphor might be used and explaining how and in what way we, as writers or speakers, use a particular word or phrase.

    Thank you for your insightful and thought provoking essay.

    P.S. Roger, what a wonderful picture you chose for Life’s essay!

    • Roger says:

      Hi John! Actually life and I debated over a couple of pictures for his essay. The one there is one he found, and I thought it was perfect! Roger.

  28. bob k says:

    Although, for me, it would be a delightful compromise if AA’s book used “higher power,” with no capitalization, everywhere it uses “God,” “Creator,” “Power Greater,” “One Who has All Power,” “Great Pumpkin,” etc., I find myself increasingly disenchanted with the entire “higher power” business.

    I have made substantial efforts to go along to get along, and have lobbied for non-supernatural higher powers, but were they ever REALLY powers that were higher? The essay makes some good points. About a quarter of a century ago, still many years before Joe (call me Satan) C., and others, brought agnostic AA to Toronto, I was sort of doing the “group as a higher power” thing. It occurred to me that IF the group were REALLY my higher power, I would place the group’s judgment above my own. Seeing as the majority of the group were down with God as God, and thus that was the consensus judgment, then I should be too. But I wasn’t, and I’m not.

    I also get no help from the invitation to choose my own conception of God. My conception of God is much as it should be for the product of Western culture that I am, that is to say, much as God is presented in the book. That’s my conception, and I reject the notion that such a creature exists. Anything I’ve tried as a resource is not something I’d call God or Higher Power. Even uncapitalized “higher power” is a stretch. Instead of using nothing, and doing nothing, I SUBSTITUTED for those things. The term “placeholder” was used in another comment.

    AA has helped me a great deal – that is undeniable – so I do try to get along, at least to some degree. I do like the modern idea of atheist spirituality found in connection, sense of community, etc.

  29. Dick says:

    When I came to realize that my higher power was alcohol and made a personal commitment to avoid it things got better. Some 30+ years ago I took control of my life and got myself sober. Today I keep myself sober. The gods had nothing to do with it.

  30. Bill K. says:

    Just one alcoholic talking with another alcoholic. No supernatural being that controls anybody or anything. Prayer is like masturbation. It feels good for the person doing it but does nothing for the person you’re thinking about.?

  31. Courtney S. says:

    Thanks Life for this insight. It helps in the sometimes tedious queries from those questioning our belief systems. The “key” point for me is the point that there is no one listening…That tells me I must be responsible and accountable for my actions. This has been my mantra for decades now.

  32. Lance B. says:

    Thanks, Life. Now I see why the term HP has always troubled me.

  33. Kip says:

    Very elegantly stated, life-j. I couldn’t agree more.

    My own approach? I just refuse to get sucked into these disagreements about terminology. I use the words “God” and “Higher Power” as mere placeholders for something that is meaningful to me. “Higher Power” is just code for ‘needing the help of something more stable and more experienced than I am.’ Individuals are flighty and erratic; groups of individuals tend to smooth out these tendencies and offer a more stable source of support when it’s needed… similar to the way a capacitor smooths out the pulses in rectified AC current. “God” is just another placeholder word for the same concept. I direct my energies inwardly, dealing with my own many issues, rather than outwardly, trying to convince ‘believers’ that they’re wrong, or misguided. That’s not going to happen, no matter how cogent the arguments may be.

  34. Ngaire says:

    Good Article. The Higher Power business is so tiring.

    I was at a conventional AA Meeting the other day and we were reading the Chapter to the Agnostic. I can’t understand why they bothered putting that chapter in, it’s all about trying to Evangelize people.

  35. Chris C says:

    I can only think of one thing to say, from one skeptic to another and with tongue firmly in cheek … Amen, brother!

    Thank you for taking the time to put these thoughts to paper.

  36. Olivier says:

    I’m an atheist. I don’t have a god or a higher power in my life. I don’t even believe in the concept of “higher”.

    As far as the ocean, ocean can do things that I can’t but on the other hand I can do hundreds things that the ocean is incapable of. Who is higher? Am I higher than a flower?

    I was told by the book and even by the people that without god or HP there is no recovery process. It’s ok. I have never used the word recovery or even spirituality since day one. In the meantime I am clean and sober 26 years. And I’m pretty happy.


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