Here in Part 2 we will continue to discuss the spiritual principles behind the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In this article we cover steps 7 through 9; the first six steps were the focus of Part 1.
The usual disclaimer
First, a quick disclaimer. Like virtually everything one reads or hears from others, the following write-up isn’t completely objective, and in all likelihood it does not represent Absolute Truth. It is quite likely that no human communication is 100% objective. This material springs from the writer’s personal experiences in working the steps, along with some knowledge and advice received from Discovery Place (both times!) others in recovery, and so on. Readers may or may not agree with the references to a Higher Power. However, as all of us strive to remain open-minded with respect to differing worldviews, “There is no friction among us over such matters.” (Big Book, There is a Solution, p.28) May our views continue to evolve with experience, sobriety, and spiritual practice!
What are spiritual principles? Spiritual principles are essentially universal truths relating to the deepest values and meanings by which people live in order to achieve genuine inner peace. Spiritual principles embrace the idea of an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality. Spiritual practices are spiritual principles applied in daily life which define an inner path enabling one to discover the essence of one’s being.
The steps require real work
The steps of Alcoholics Anonymous require real work. While we’re at it let’s take a look at exactly what we mean by work in the context of the steps.
Anyone can identify a particular action as work: Action that is physically demanding is work; deliberate action such as cleaning one’s room is work; action performed in return for payment is work. But work in the course of improving ourselves spiritually includes remaining mum or walking away when others are gossipping. It’s work to consciously gather the courage to turn down the request of a friend as our people-pleasing egos steer us towards saying yes. It’s work to allow ourselves to fail. Though it’s often hard to see, “peeling the onion” of our psyche and of our past – and thus opening our minds to new ways of thinking – is definitely work. It’s work to stand up for ourselves. It’s work to be tolerant and patient. It’s work to put up with the emotional discomfort of doing things we don’t want to do at first. Walking through fear is real work.
We can’t judge whether a particular action would constitute work solely by how it feels to us. We can’t determine that this deed or that encouragement results in the outcome we desire. To work simply means to use our energy to be disciplined and committed in pursuit of our goal.
A closer look at the spiritual principles behind the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
Spiritual principle behind Step Seven: Humility
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
The operative spiritual principle behind Step Seven is humility; other applicable spiritual principles include willingness and open-mindedness. It’s not hard to see that these principles are prerequisites to the change necessary to become our authentic selves.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of humility: Freedom from pride or arrogance : the quality or state of being humble accepted the honor with humility The ordeal taught her humility.
You can’t see your shortcomings without stripping yourself of your ego and pride. This unfiltered look into yourself allows you to develop a humble attitude and correct your character defects and shortcomings.
Humility is defined as self-restraint from excessive vanity, and can possess moral and/or ethical dimensions.
Humility, in various interpretations, is widely seen as a virtue in many religious and philosophical traditions, often in contrast to narcissism, hubris and other forms of pride. In a religious context, humility can mean a recognition of self in relation to God or deities, and submission to said deity as a member of that religion.
It isn’t long before newcomers start to hear the common AA catchphrase that “everything” must change. How can one change everything? Obviously, one cannot. The idea that everything has to change is about as clear as mud to the new man. Soon we come to realize that we look at the world and the people around us from a completely different perspective – and from this new vantage point, everything has changed! It’s a wonderful shift in attitude.
Willing and ready to make real changes
We had to ask ourselves why we shouldn’t apply to our human problems this same readiness to change our point of view.
Big Book, We Agnostics, p.52
Though you are providing him with the best possible medical attention, he should understand that he must undergo a change of heart. To get over drinking will REQUIRE a transformation of thought and attitude. We all had to place recovery over everything, for without recovery we would have lost both home and business.
Big Book, To Employers, p.143
We can’t be a changed person unless we are willing to make changes. Step Seven actually involves us in personal change from a place of humility. As we use this step, we go further than becoming willing to risk change. Accept risk and experience change. We risk, we try, we fail, we start again. We act and our actions change our lives. In Steps Four and Five we discover our assets and our liabilities. In Step 6 we become psychologically prepared to deal with our negative traits. Those truly ready to work Step 7 are ready to act!
One cannot overcome character flaws or defects without humility. Too often, alcoholics are caught up in ego, playing the role of victim awash in pride and selfishness. During Step Seven, we begin to practice modesty and welcome a change of attitude, which will set us on the path to inner peace, contentedness, and happiness.
It’s time for us to give up self-reliance for reliance on a higher power, whatever that may look like to each of us as individuals. (Remember, your concept of a higher power should make sense to you.) We learn to practice humility and we strive to put character-building ahead of comfort on a daily basis. We purposefully practice honesty, tolerance, and true love of man and God as our daily basis of living. We have now accepted the fact that humility is entirely necessary in achieving a sober and fulfilled life. Over time, with persistent practice of spiritual principles in all areas of our lives, we come to see that our perspective has evolved into a less self-centered life to a much more humble, selfless one.
It can be valuable to create and participate in a formal ritual, and this is essentially what we are doing when we say the Seventh Step prayer (the Third Step prayer is another one). Like the other rituals in AA, it clearly shows our intention and commitment to change – in this case, letting go of our undesirable traits and tendencies. What Step Seven really requires of us is to fully commit to an ongoing, unrelenting process of change.
Spiritual principle behind Step Eight: Discipline
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
The primary spiritual principle behind Step Eight in many lists is discipline, whereas according to some lists, the primary spiritual principle is shown as action. As action seems too general to apply to this step more than the others, discipline makes more sense. Others consider willingness the key spiritual principle here because the word willing appears in the step itself.
Brotherly love appears as the primary principle behind Step Eight in other lists. When the Alcoholics Anonymous was written – back in the late 1930s – the phrase brotherly love was more commonly used than it is today. Brotherly love comes from the ancient Greek word philia; Aristotle translated philia as friendship or companionship. (Interestingly, its opposite is phobia.) To practice brotherly love one shows kindness and compassion towards others without expecting anything in return. There is no doubt that brotherly love is a big part of this step.
Many other principles also apply to Step Eight, including forgiveness, calmness, brotherhood, honesty, thoroughness, responsibility, humility, acceptance, tolerance, and objectivity.
Discipline is the suppression of base desires, and is usually understood to be synonymous with self-control restraint and control. Discipline is when one uses reason to determine the best course of action regardless of one’s desires, which may be the opposite of excited. Virtuous behavior can be described as when one’s values are aligned with one’s aims: to do what one knows is best and to do it gladly.
Discipline – Wikipedia
Discipline is the ability to control one’s desires, impulses, behavior, and emotions. Self-discipline is in large part being able to choose long-term satisfaction and fulfillment from achieving higher and more meaningful goals rather than taking the path of immediate gratification and short-term pleasures.
Practicing self-discipline means making decisions, taking action, and executing the steps necessary to reach your goals – regardless of any fear, obstacle, difficulty, discomfort, or road block that may appear. Self-discipline is being able to do what needs to be done, whether one feels like it or not, and whether one wants to or not.
Learning how to live in the greatest peace, partnership and brotherhood with all men and women, of whatever description, is a moving and fascinating adventure. Every A.A. has found that he can make little headway in this new adventure of living until he first backtracks and really makes an accurate and unsparing survey of the human wreckage he has left in his wake. To a degree, he has already done this when taking moral inventory, but now the time has come when he ought to redouble his efforts to see how many people he has hurt, and in what ways. This reopening of emotional wounds, some old, some perhaps forgotten, and some still painfully festering, will at first look like a purposeless and pointless piece of surgery. But if a willing start is made, then the great advantages of doing this will so quickly reveal themselves that the pain will be lessened as one obstacle after another melts away.
12 & 12, Step 8, p.77-78
Where is one’s higher power in all this? Driving it all, of course. For example, in the Christian religion, God is doing the disciplining. Don’t be mislead by the self in self-discipline; we have proved time and time again that we cannot do it alone.
Definition of discipline
- Training to act in accordance with rules; drill: military discipline
- Activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer
- Behavior in accord with rules of conduct; behavior and order maintained by training and control: good discipline in an army
We are finally on a step where it’s no longer about making things right solely within ourselves; we begin the process of making things right with others. Its ultimate purpose is to make each relationship as good as it can possibly be. In Step 8 of Alcoholics Anonymous, we must identify the wrongs done others in our often-sordid past as the first step toward repairing the damage we have done. Then we devise a plan for creating healthy relationships moving forward, for we want to have the best possible relationships with those about us. Doing so requires discipline, objectivity, thoroughness, courage, honesty, and more.
There are many important qualities that can contribute to a person’s achievements and happiness, but there is only one that begets sustainable, long-term success in all aspects of life: self discipline. Whether in terms of your diet, fitness, work ethic or relationships, self discipline is the number one trait needed to accomplish goals, lead a healthy lifestyle, and ultimately, be happy.
Forbes, 5 Proven Methods For Gaining Self Discipline, by Jennifer Cohen
Step Eight is more or less a checklist of what went wrong between the individual and the rest of the human race. In making the list of people we harmed, the sponsor usually directs the sponsee to look first at the Step Four inventory of resentments; several folks on that list also belonged on my Step Eight list. And as with Step Four, one of the purposes of it Step Eight to help us change our ways. So in constructing the list, we keep in mind that we are examining all that has been wrong with the ways we dealt with others and how we want to interact with others going forward. We want to spend the remainder of our lives on a new footing in spiritual territory.
Please keep in mind that Step Eight is only to identify and list folks we’ve harmed, and what the harm was, and become willing to actually make these situations right. We must resist the urge to project or future-trip on what Step Nine might look like.
The Eighth Step is not easy; it demands a new kind of honesty about our relations with other people. The Eighth Step starts the procedure of forgiving others and possibly being forgiven by them, forgiving ourselves, and learning how to live in the world. By the time we reach this step, we have become ready to understand rather than to be understood. We can live and let live easier when we know the areas in which we owe amends. It seems hard now, but once we have done it, we will wonder why we did not do it long ago.
…The final difficulty in working the Eighth Step is separating it from the Ninth Step. Projecting about actually making amends can be a major obstacle both in making the list and in becoming willing. We do this step as if there were no Ninth Step. We do not even think about making the amends but just concentrate on exactly what the Eighth Step says which is to make a list and to become willing. The main thing this step does for us is to help build an awareness that, little by little, we are gaining new attitudes about ourselves and how we deal with other people.
Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text, Chapter 4: Step 8
As we are making our list of persons we’ve harmed, we keep in mind that it doesn’t matter whether we caused the harm because of carelessness, rage, or just plain fear. Neither does it matter whether we intended to cause the harm. We add a harmed person to our list whether our actions were rooted in pride, selfishness, dishonesty, or some other character defect.
If your list is anything like this writer’s list, you’ll find that there’s just no way to repair some of the harm we caused. It may be that we can’t repair the situation directly. It may even turn out that we’re in fact not responsible for one or more of the items we have added to our Eighth Step list. Thankfully, one’s sponsor and the experience s/he brings to the table will likely prove indispensable and will help us sort out the details and possibilities before we proceed to the Ninth Step.
Many of us start out believing that we never really harmed anyone but ourselves. In these cases, a significant level of denial remains. For other items on our list, we may not able to see the truth about a given situation, even after many years in recovery. We’ve lied to ourselves so much, we actually believe some of the BS. Usually, our sponsors say, if someone may or may not qualify for this list, but we can’t think of the situation that resulted in our owning amends, we put the name on the list anyway. As they say, More will be revealed.
The development of discipline is a gift that keeps on giving. Discipline helps build self-confidence; you accomplish more and become more productive; you develop tolerance for frustration and other negative emotions; with discipline, you can be healthier, spend less/ save more money, and develop a real work ethic; your goals become easier to reach; all in all, life gets easier.
Spiritual principle behind Step Nine: Forgiveness
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Other spiritual principles that easily apply to Step Eight are justice, good judgment, courage, humility, sincerity, forthrightness, generosity, open-mindedness, and willingness.
Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry — all forms of fear — are caused by too much future and not enough presence [mindfulness of the present moment]. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past and not enough presence.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, p.50
Humility is one of the most powerful spiritual principles behind the steps with its robust power to release us from the prison of our minds – from the domination and oppression of our selfishness, self-centeredness, and overall self-serving behavior. Forgiveness is a similarly potent spiritual principle with the power of freeing us from attachment to the myriad harmful actions occurring throughout our drinking and using histories.
The beauty of the Step Nine exercise of owning up to harm done to others is to help us understand people a little better – which in turn enables us to actually practice the Golden Rule, to finally begin to treat others the way we want to be treated.
Be vigilant, so that you don’t allow a burden of negative past to accumulate in your mind, in the form of guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, anger, and so on. Forgiveness happens naturally as soon as you realize that the past cannot prevail against the power of Presence [mindfulness of the present moment].
By now we fully realize that vengeance against persons who hurt us can never ease our pain or end the resentment. Thinking about vengeance requires us to repeatedly relive the pain, over and over, each time deepening the wound, and causing our bag of rocks to get heavier and heavier. If the grave mistake of taking vengeance occurs, the emotional trauma will not fade and you’ll be continuing the cycle of revenge, of “getting her back.”
Some of us may have been taught to believe that the purpose and primary benefit of forgiving others is to confirm to our damaged egos is to “be a better man” than the ones who wronged us. We may see ourselves as having been noble to let them off the hook, that the right thing to do is forgive them to make them feel better, that we cannot expect to receive forgiveness for our wrongs if we don’t forgive others for theirs. We felt that we should forgive because “God says so” or because it’s the “right” action to take.
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The REAL reason we must practice genuinely forgiving others is this: Forgiveness is absolutely is essential for our own spiritual well-being and inner peace! Forgiving others for our own sake may sound selfish, but in reality it is SELF-CARE. After all, we can’t give away what we don’t have. We can’t really help others until we are in fit spiritual shape to do so, and to do it from the heart. Without real forgiveness, the festering boils of resentment will continue to weaken us spiritually and emotionally, paralyzing our ability to love and be loved. At this juncture, and going forward, the only way to freedom is to forgive.
Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law.
The Buddha, from Dhammapada
Forgiving others for wrongs (real or imagined) certainly does not require the tacit approval of their actions (real or imagined). Real forgiveness means that we no longer hold ourselves hostage to anything that might have happened in the past. At this point in working the steps, we have acknowledged it, accepted it, and experienced all of our negative feelings about it. Now we are releasing any attachment we may have to our resentment. We are finally letting go of it. We no longer identify with it, for identification with it (“That happened to ME!”) essentially made the grudge a part of us, forcing us to lug it around everywhere. The feeling of releasing these things for real can be a spiritual experience in itself.
He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Resources: The spiritual principles behind the 12 steps: Steps 7, 8, 9
Step Seven resources
- Step Seven (PDF) – Official Alcoholics Anonymous site, AA.org
- Step 7 AA: Embracing Humility – Recovery.org
- About Step 7 of the 12 Step Program – 12step.org
- The 7th Step of the 12 Step Process of Recovery: What is Humility? | Discovery Place
- A.A. Way of Life – Working Steps 5, 6 and 7 – Barefoot’s World
- Step 7: Steps by the Big Book, A Workbook for the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
- The Seventh Step Prayer – Silkworth.net
- Humility and the 7th Step – Serenity Web
- Step 7 worksheets: A Sponsors Unofficial Guide To Help A Sponsee Thru The A.A. Twelve Steps Of Recovery – GTS Today
- Step 7 of the 12 Steps of AA – Youtube
- Step 7: 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – Youtube
- Working The Steps: Step Seven – The Recovery Group
- AA Step 7: Alcoholics Anonymous – Alcoholic.org
- Step 7: The e-AA Group
Step Eight resources
- A.A. Recovery: On Steps 8 and 9 – Barefoot’s World
- About Step 8 of the 12 Step Program: 12step.org
- Steps by the Big Book – Step 8: A Workbook for the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – Steps by the Big Book
- Step 8: What is a harm, exactly? – SoberRecovery
- Questions to ask yourself while working Step 8 – SoberRecovery
- AA Steps 8 and 9: Making Lists and Amends – YouTube
- Step 8 of the 12 Steps of AA – YouTube
- Step 8 Alcoholics Anonymous – YouTube
- Step 8 – AA Redux
- Forgiveness and the 8th Step | Serenity Web
- Step 8 forum: The e-AA Group
- Making Amends in Your Steps to Recovery | Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
- Step 8 AA: Identify Those You Have Harmed
- 12 Steps of AA – Step 8: Understand and Complete One Step at a Time in Recovery with Alcoholics Anonymous
- (PDF) – Official Alcoholics Anonymous site, AA.org
Step Nine resources
- About Step 9 of the 12-Step Program – !2step.org
- A.A. Recovery – On Steps 8 and 9
- How to Work Step Nine – The Ranch
- Responsibility and the 9th Step | Serenity Web
- Steps by the Big Book – Step 9 – Steps by the Big Book, Workbook for the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- AA Step 9 Speaker Tapes | Alcoholism Recovery Speakers – Recovery Audio
- AA Step 9 – Alcoholics Anonymous – Alcoholic.org
- Working The Steps: Step Nine – The Recovery Group
- The Ninth Step Promises – Silkworth.net
- Step 9 of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – YouTube
- Step 9: Making Amends – The e-AA Group
- Step 9: Restitution and Reconciliation – Addiction Recovery
- Step Nine (PDF) – Official Alcoholics Anonymous site, AA.org