John’s Recovery: Step Eleven

AA Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

My Step 11: Stay in close contact with my sober support network and willingly ask for input when faced with a troubling decision.

By John B

Even though confidence in my ability to stay sober was higher than ever, I also accepted the maxim that my sobriety was a daily reprieve based on my commitment to not drink. My initial commitment was nothing more than a statement of intent and as you all know, we active alcoholics all wanted to be judged by our noble intentions, not by our behaviors. After four years of perpetual relapse, this time it was different for me. The commitment that I had made to my sponsors and the will to maintain that promise now flowed from a faith based on fact: sustained sobriety was now transforming me into a more worthy person and I didn’t want to interrupt that trend.

I was beginning to like me again.

My sponsors and those other alcoholics were functioning as mentors and monitors, leading to progress and the prevention of regression. Self-acceptance and the development of quality personal relationships had shoved alcohol out of its previous position of dominance. In short, the key aspects of my human based support were functioning admirably and my will was being strengthened by the tangible results of not drinking one-day-at-a-time.

Bill Wilson could have made Step 11 a bit easier for a secular thinker like me if he had written “prayer or meditation” instead of “prayer and meditation”. By now though I had concluded that any concern Wilson had expressed for “we agnostics” was superficial at best and probably just a bait and switch designed to expand enrollment, or maybe to sell more books. Prayer was of no value to me, and I had no in depth understanding of meditation, although quiet contemplation was occasionally helpful for keeping me focused on the fundamentals of responsible living. I do chuckle to myself sometimes about what folks share in meetings about what they pray for. Some people seem to question how God allocates his resources and apparently they are not getting their fair share.

Step 11 motivated me to review the basis for my earlier choice of a higher power. The purpose of the Big Book is clearly stated on page 45, “It’s main object is to enable you to find a power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.” Throughout his writings Wilson uses several descriptions concerning what form this power may take. His example that suited me best at the time (autumn of 1984), is found on page 27, of the 12 and 12. Wilson has a hypothetical sponsor tell his hypothetical sponsee… ”You can if you wish make AA itself your higher power. Here’s a very large group of people who have solved their alcohol problem. In this respect they are certainly a power greater than you, who has not even come close to a solution. Surely you can have faith in them.” After four years of perpetual relapses, I certainly qualified as one who had not “come close to a solution”, so it was an easy choice for me to give “them” a try. That decision has served me well.

My lack of belief in the efficacy of prayer does not negate the fact that it does have value to others. I was curious about that so I decided to look at some of the common prayers used in AA through the lens of rationality. Curiosity was part of my motivation, but I was also trying to avoid being accused of “contempt prior to investigation.”

First, the Serenity Prayer. As a free thinker I simply chose to mentally delete the word God and replace it with Please, and use the prayer as a set of instructions to begin thoughtful contemplation; sometimes to get better acquainted with me, and sometimes to search for a solution to the most current conundrum. Even if one does accept the literal meaning of the first three words of the prayer, the call for continual application of rationality and personal will is clearly implied. Acceptance is a rational choice that requires differentiation between what I can or cannot control and having the courage to change will inevitably involve the frequent use of personal will. Ideally then, wisdom will evolve and endow me with a clearer perception of truth, better judgement, and the elevation of my thinking to a higher level of sophistication. Ideally, yes. Guaranteed, not always.

The other two prayers that sponsors frequently recommended to newcomers were the 3rd step prayer (p. 63, Big Book), and the 7th step prayer (p. 76, Big Book). The gist of the 3rd step prayer is contained in this often quoted sentence, “Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will.” Using different words the 7th step prayer makes the same request. From a rational secular viewpoint, all that these prayers represent is a reminder to me of the series of commitments I have signed up for designed to keep me sober. I saw no need to seek support from outside the human community. I repeat, faith based on fact was working quite well then and it still is.

I’ve been reading the posts on AA Agnostica for about a year now and I’m aware that any mention of the word spirituality causes some folks to get their shorts in a knot. But, this is my story so here goes.

Somewhere along this recovery path I came to believe that spirituality and rationality are not mutually exclusive. The probable catalyst for this realization may have been my long trail of failure to stay sober caused by the perverted utilization of personal will and intellectual analysis. Of course there is a proper role for the use of personal will and the power of reason, but like any power tool when used improperly they can cause a lot of damage.

My will takes me in the right direction when I’m operating based on unselfish motives and my reasoning is less likely  to cause damage when it is tempered by the opinions of others. The “conscious contact” I was serious about was to maintain all lines of communication with my sober support network, the connections needed to supply the power from outside myself, an auxiliary power that I still needed. There was a poignancy intertwined in many of these friendships, deeply moving experiences of real substance that resisted explanation. Page after page, Bill Wilson conflated these types of experiences with God. I was being moved by the experiences but I could not accept the official AA explanation. I found what I needed outside AA literature.

In reading outside official AA literature I found a secular definition of spirituality that I could believe in: “Spirituality has to do with the quality of our relationships with whatever or whomever is most important in our lives.” (Hazelden pamphlet, Paul Bjorkland). Here was a description of spirituality totally detached from any theological belief. Short on words, far reaching in application. I think of it often.

Here’s one more; in the book, The Search for Meaning, Dennis Ford offers this: “Spirituality is not fidelity to a transcendent god but living well and attentively in this world… living each day as though it were both the first and the last.” (p. 239) Step 11 in a nutshell – don’t drink one day at a time and maintain “conscious contact” with my sober support network.

For a PDF of all his Steps, click here: John’s Recovery: The 12 Steps.

John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.

“There are many versions of the 12-Step program of recovery. In fact, there are about as many versions as there are alcoholics in AA who use the program to get sober and to maintain their sobriety.”

The Little Book

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