Here in Part 3 we will continue to discuss the spiritual principles behind the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In this article we cover steps 10 through 12.
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 the information presented here may or may not represent Absolute Truth. (Reason: It’s human communication.) 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!), discussions with sponsors, guides, and others in recovery, articles by serious spiritual practitioners, 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 the views of us all continue to evolve with continued 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, develop a genuine spiritual connection, foster a relationship with God/higher power, etc. Living by spiritual principles eventually get us the “brass ring” of recovery — a spiritual awakening — which is characterized within us by genuine, lasting inner peace and on the outside by service to others.
Spiritual principle behind Step Ten: Acceptance
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Other spiritual principles that apply to Step Ten include discipline, humility, patience, mindfulness, persistence, self-restraint, honesty, willingness, forgiveness, fair-mindedness, tolerance, love, and kindness.
Acceptance is a person’s assent to the reality of the circumstances of a given situation. Acceptance is recognizing a process or condition as present and real without attempting to change it or protest it. The context of acceptance in a given set of circumstances, situation, process, or condition is often a negative or uncomfortable one. It must be confronted and embraced, not avoided or pushed aside for later.
This maintenance step is vital to our sobriety because it helps keep us grounded in reality. When we continue to take personal inventory on a day-to-day or even hour-by-hour basis it is much easier to remain free of anger, frustration, self-righteousness, and other fear-based negativity. The practice of daily self-examination goes a long way in preventing new resentments to form and take root.
The Tenth Step can be a pressure relief valve. We work this step while the day’s ups and downs are still fresh in our minds. We list what we have done and try not to rationalize our actions. This may be done in writing at the end of the day. The first thing we do is stop! Then we take the time to allow ourselves the privilege of thinking. We examine our actions, our reactions, and our motives. We often find that we’ve been “doing” better than we’ve been “feeling.” This allows us to find out where we have gone wrong and admit fault before things get any worse. We avoid rationalizing. We promptly admit our faults, not explain them or defend them.
We work this step continuously. This is prevention — and the more we do it, the less we will need the corrective part of this step. This is really a great tool. It gives us a way of avoiding grief before we bring it on ourselves. We monitor our feelings, our emotions, our fantasies, and our actions. By constantly looking at these things we may be able to avoid repeating the actions that make us feel bad.
Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text, Chapter 4/Step 10
Eckhart Tolle (author of The Power of Now, A New Earth, and other excellent spiritual books) defines acceptance as a this is it response to anything occurring in any moment of life. There, strength, peace, and serenity are available when one stops struggling to resist, when one ceases hanging on tightly to what is so in any given moment. What do I have right now? What am I experiencing at this moment?
This holds true for feelings and emotions as well as situations and conditions. Can one accept being sad when one is sad, afraid when afraid, depressed when depressed, happy when happy, judgmental when judgmental, overthinking when overthinking, serene when serene, and so on?
There are some formal ways to work this Step, such as writing it down throughout the day or at night. My own sponsor suggested that I take a few moments each night, take out my notebook, and document my assets and liabilities throughout the day in two columns simply marked with a plus sign (+) for assets and a minus sign (-) for liabilities. It’s an excellent way to prevent a new set of mistakes from building up, risking falling back to a pre-Step-Four condition wherein we’re once again loaded down with unresolved issues. Such a practice requires persistence, willingness, honesty, and humility at the very least.
Maintaining an ongoing awareness of one’s impact on others is one way to keep the slate clean. It is suggested that AA members review their day each evening for any signs of unfinished business, both with others and within themselves. This calls for a classic combination of honesty and humility. While some pieces may be obvious, others may be hidden under rationalizations and other defensive maneuvers. For some people, a printed list of reminders is useful in reviewing the day. Similarly, beginning each day with a review of the day to come can help prevent problems before they begin.
Mark Schenker PhD, A Clinician’s Guide to 12 Step Recovery, p.54
An ideal Step Ten might be remaining mindful of the present moment throughout the day such that we’re addressing items when they come up, a practice that implies a consistent moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts and behavior. When we are mindful and honest, we are less able to sit with our suffering for very long and are usually prompted by our conscience, our innermost selves, the Holy Spirit, or our Higher Self – whatever one may choose to call it – to take the appropriate action: admit we are wrong and make the amends before we proceed with anything else.
We need the consistency of repeating an action on a daily basis for it to become a habit and to solidly internalize the related spiritual principles. As our days of continuous abstinence turn into weeks and months and years, the personal inventory comes to be second nature. Consistently tracking our spiritual fitness then comes naturally, and we tend to notice right away when we’re headed for trouble.
The spiritual axiom
It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. If somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also. But are there no exceptions to this rule? What about “justifiable” anger? If somebody cheats us, aren’t we entitled to be mad? Can’t we be properly angry with self-righteous folk? For us of A.A. these are dangerous exceptions. We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.90
An axiom is an unprovable rule or statement accepted as true because it is self-evident or particularly useful. An axiom typically serves as a premise or starting point for further discussion, reasoning, or contemplation. In AA we treat the spiritual axiom described above as a principle — a simple, universal truth to understand, practice, and take in to the depths of our being.
When I am angry, resentful, afraid, anxious, depressed, judgmental, frustrated, or bothered about anything within our outside myself, that means there is something wrong with my thinking. There’s something to which I need to pay close attention and meditate upon. There is something I need to do, one or more actions I need to take, to settle the restlessness — the emotional waves within myself — and this is where Step Ten comes into play.
The spiritual axiom is advanced spirituality
The spiritual axiom is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, spiritual meat to digest. The spiritual axiom is without a doubt an advanced spiritual teaching which cannot be consistently practiced until one has had a spiritual awakening. Although the premise is simple to to understand intellectually, it can be quite difficult – especially in early recovery – to fully assent to the idea that ANY disturbance in our mood or well-being we EVER experience represents a problem in our own thinking, perspective, or attitude. It is even more difficult to put that idea into practice on a consistent, moment-to-moment basis in our everyday lives. But this is what we must do if we are to remain sober and fully undergo a significant psychic change.
Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
Even so, as imperfectly as we will practice and apply the spiritual axiom in early stages of spiritual development and even in our sustained, active recovery, it is nevertheless critical to keep it mind as much as possible and to keep trying to apply it anytime we are less than content.
Specifically, what should we be monitoring in and about ourselves as we continue to take personal inventory?
- Physical condition
Exactly how do we monitor all those things?
Here are a few good ways recovering people have actively performed Step 10 over the decades.
- Do a quick spot check anytime, anywhere.
- Perform a daily written review in the form of an assets and liabilities list. The assets would be spiritually principled actions of the day, and the liabilities would be the actions you would not have taken in retrospect, or things you failed to do.
- Create a daily to-do list either at night (for the following day) or first thing in the morning.
- Keep a journal or diary.
- Check in with a trusted friend in recovery either in person or by phone.
- Do a group wrap-up at night. While in treatment or LTR, this can be done in the van on the way home if you’ll be getting back late.
Spiritual principle behind Step Eleven: Awareness
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.
There are many spiritual principles that go hand-in-hand with Step 11; these include mindfulness, knowledge, self-knowledge, connectedness, humility, love, harmony, truth, open-mindedness, faith, compassion, understanding, self-forgetting, willingness, wisdom, and serenity, for starters.
Step Eleven implies that we already have a conscious contact with the God of our understanding, and that we should now perform actions to improve and strengthen our spiritual connection with that power. Back in Step Two we began to seriously consider a higher power that makes sense to us. In Step 3 we made a big decision, which was to trust that Power, to think and act in accordance with the will of God, which in AA basically means to practice spiritual principles. We came to rely on our spiritual connection many times throughout the Steps. Each time we called upon our concept of God for help, we improved our relationship with our higher power. Step Eleven recognizes that reaching out to the God of our understanding, most often referred to as prayer and meditation in the literature. When we reach Step 11 we deeply contemplate and explore our own concepts of prayer and meditation, ensuring they are in step with our particular spiritual path, beliefs, etc. The critical spiritual principle of open-mindedness continues to be essential for us.
What if I still don’t have a specific idea of a higher power, God, etc.?
Do not consider it negative if you reach Step 11 before you have a concept of God that makes sense to you. We may find that the religious institutions we were raised in do not hold the key for us, and that is okay. But what if we cannot think of a specific concept of God more fitting to us than that which we were taught to believe in as children? If this applies to you, then this an extremely important and exciting time for you. You’re starting from scratch on this. The search for a personal spiritual practice and the exploration involved is one of the most important journeys you will ever take!
How to find a fitting spiritual path
Many happy, successful recovering alcoholics and addicts have gone about the business of forming a personal spiritual practice in the following ways. (These are but a few ideas.)
- Visiting many different places in the community relating to spiritual practice and religion
- Asking many different people in the recovery community about their personal journey to a God or higher power that makes sense to them
- Observing others to see how their actions correspond with their professed beliefs, religion, or spiritual path
- Reading many different books on the subject of spirituality, personal development, etc.
- Carefully, deeply contemplating and meditating upon these things to see where your heart takes you, what your deepest feelings may be, etc.
Endless possibilities: A very broad highway
Remember, your experience as a seeker will be undermined by an attitude of closed-mindedness – thus the importance of exploring spirituality with a mind that’s wide open to the multitude of possibilities.
We may never permanently settle on any one spiritual practice or a particular system of beliefs. In a sense, this can be a positive thing as we are not moving forward unless we continue to seek. Many longtime AAs adopt what the Narcotics Anonymous basic text calls an eclectic approach to spirituality. In this case, it’s critical to understand that an eclectic or varied approach has worked for countless AAs and will serve the spiritual needs in successful recovery just fine.
Whether an individual chooses to be “spiritual not religious,” to go with Zen, Christianity in the form of Catholicism, Protestantism, or another variety, Taoism, Islam, Buddhism, ecospirituality, or Jainism — or whether one’s higher power consists of AA, an AA group, spiritual principles in general, the Spirit of the Universe, Native American spirituality, or none of the above — recovery still works exactly as it is supposed to as long as spiritual principles are practiced to the best of one’s ability in all facets of life. We have come to learn that AA does not ask that you adopt any particular belief or faith; what AA asks us to do is take the time-tested actions that invariably will lead to a spiritual awakening and eventually enlightenment, salvation (with or without the religious context), etc.
When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.
Big Book, We Agnostics, p.47
To many newcomers, conscious contact with a God of our own understanding sounds mysterious, corny, childish, scary, primitive, religious, unrealistic, or even impossible. The truth is that conscious contact is extremely, even deceptively simple! It just means that we have a conscious awareness of our link to a higher power; we feel spiritually connected to God, to others, to the earth, to nature, to the universe, to the cosmos, all of the above, and so on.
How do I know if I’m spiritually connected?
Attempting to describe a spiritual connection is in most ways beyond the scope of this article, but we’ll do our best to give a brief, simple answer.
When we are connected with God or our higher power, we can sometimes sense this connection in our body, whether it’s only a slight feeling or a major epiphany. Some describe feeling warm, comforted, fulfilled, or uplifted – the feeling that all is well, or that everything is OK. One may feel relatively free of suffering even with negative feelings or emotions; one may feel there is no need to worry about anything, ever. The outcomes of our worldly pursuits don’t seem to matter as much. It often manifests itself as an ongoing contentedness with the way things are, and the absence of “grass-is-greenerism” thinking (“Things will be good/I’ll be happy when [fill in the blank]”).
The spiritual journey does not consist of arriving at a new destination where a person gains what he did not have, or becomes what he was not. It consists of the dissipation of one’s own ignorance concerning one’s self and life, and the gradual growth of that understanding which begins the spiritual awakening. The finding of God is a coming to one’s own Self.
Intuitively, being spiritually connected feels like becoming more alive, or a clearing of mental/emotional junk. While praying or meditating, one may get the shivers, goosebumps, or even be moved to tears. One may feel a deep appreciation for life, for nature, for all creatures, etc. One may feel it through the unconditional love of a sponsor, friend, family, or the recovery community. These are only a few of countless examples.
God is not to be found so much as as discovered within yourself. The statement I and the Father are one is not just some arcane scripture and is much more than a mere ecclesiastical or theological saying. It is a true statement of your reality. Ego is that which makes us believe that we are separate from others, separate from God/HP. With continued spiritual practice we come to realize that we are NOT our egos. We are the innermost self, the deeper conscious awareness which is capable of observing, recognizing, and halting ego chatter when it occurs.
… deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God… We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us… If our testimony… encourages you to search diligently within yourself… then, if you wish, you can join us on the Broad Highway.
Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, We Agnostics, p.55
Why practice awareness, or mindfulness of the present moment?
To many of us, mindfulness is the big gun in our spiritual toolkit. Right action, avoiding “sin,” connecting with HP/God and others, and virtually anything having to do with right living cannot be accomplished without mindfulness. In the present moment, all is well, God is present, and there are no problems. (It’s when our thinking becomes egoic or dwells in the past/future that we are lost.) Here are a few of the benefits of mindfulness.
- Being present and aware helps you stay focused on what’s happening right now, and thus allows you to do whatever you happen to be doing better, more fully, and more completely.
- Mindfulness significantly lessens anxiety and largely removes instinct- or habit-driven behavior.
- Awareness helps prevent binge eating by your making healthier food choices when you pay attention to what you eat.
- Being mindful enhances your social savvy and communication skills because it fosters empathetic listening.
- Present-moment mindfulness helps you more fully experience and enjoy what you are doing.
- Being here now helps you make better decisions since you are more present and have the opportunity to assess the facts more realistically.
- Mindfulness bolsters your immune system by allowing you to be more relaxed and deliberate.
- Being present reduces stress since you’re in tune with your thoughts and your body.
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. On a daily basis we must employ basic, universal spiritual principles in all situations, especially when doing so is uncomfortable or difficult. This is one of the primary ways we grow spiritually, thus the daily maintenance of our spiritual condition.
We learn to recognize, accept, and engage the resources that foster that spiritually connected feeling. Step 11 spiritually stimulates us to use our awareness and our resources to:
- Grow in abiding strength
- Gain wisdom
- Enjoy life more and more as time passes
Spiritual awareness is self-awareness
Spiritual awareness is a highly individual, subjective phenomenon. It must be experienced, not merely known on an intellectual level (the level of knowledge). What is spiritually helpful to one person may be totally meaningless to the next guy. Having and experiencing full awareness of what gives us hope, strength, or peace does not mean we can analyze or “figure out” a spiritual connection. We may not know specifically what gives hope, strength, and peace to others, either. Our only responsibility is to recognize and use what helps us, enabling us to help others, pay it forward, and live service-centered lives.
There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation, and prayer. Taken separately, these practices can bring much relief and benefit. But when they are logically interrelated and interwoven, the result is an unshakable foundation for life. Now and then we may be given a glimpse of that ultimate reality…
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Step Eleven
Spirituality is increasingly engaged as we psychologically, mentally, and emotionally grow into fully developed, self-actualized 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 Western culture each of us is socialized and “domesticated” (as spiritual teacher Miguel Ruiz describes it) into something far less than we are capable of being. Step 11 reminds us that we have virtually limitless potential and opens up a slew of possibilities!
Spiritual principle behind Step Twelve: Service
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The list of spiritual principles behind any of the steps is, in reality, a long one, and Step Twelve is no exception. A few of them are acceptance, love, honesty, tolerance, generosity, strength, serenity, giving, fortitude, faith, brotherhood, service, gratitude, understanding, courage, wisdom, and humility.
I slept, and dreamt that life was joy.
I woke, and saw that life was service.
I acted, and behold, service was joy.
By the time a recovering person has reached Step 12, s/he has had a spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening has actually occurred… How extraordinary this is! The promise of a spiritual awakening is perhaps the most amazing and profound promise found in the AA literature. So, having had a spiritual awakening as the result of working all the steps thus far to the very best of our ability/willingness, we are asked to carry the message of recovery to those who still suffer, thus paying forward the gift that was freely given to us. We have found the statement, In order to keep it, you’ve got to give it away, to be 100% true over time.
The joy of living is the theme of A.A.’s Twelfth Step, and action is its key word. Here we turn outward toward our fellow alcoholics who are still in distress. Here we experience the kind of giving that asks no rewards. Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety. When the Twelfth Step is seen in all its full implication, it is really talking about the kind of love that has no price tag on it.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.106
As we carry the message of a spiritual solution to our common problem and pass our knowledge of the Twelve Steps to others, it becomes an endless cycle of service to others that leads us to the spiritual solution over and over and helps make the world a better place by producing a net decrease in global suffering and a net increase in spiritual awakening. Every little bit helps. As Mother Teresa said, We cannot do great things, we can only do small things with great love.
Taking others through the Twelve Steps is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
Is sobriety all that we are to expect of a spiritual awakening? … No, sobriety is only a bare beginning; it is only the first gift of the first awakening. If more gifts are to be received, our awakening has to go on. And if it does go on, we find that bit by bit we can discard the old life—the one that did not work—for a new life that can and does work under any conditions whatever.
Bill W., December 1957
Step Twelve declares that as the result of these Steps, we experience a spiritual awakening that compels us to carry to others our message of a spiritual solution. Step Twelve traditionally equates to service work. It’s Step 12 that encourages us to sponsor other alcoholics and addicts, take on service commitments, greet newcomers, participate in the meeting before the meeting and the meeting after the meeting, serving as treasurer for your home group, taking hotline calls from drunks and addicts who want help, going to hospitals and prisons to lead meetings for those who cannot get out, and other outreach activities. It is this very spirit of service which has kept AA groups thriving and spreading since 1935. Service work is the cornerstone of the 12-step program, and it also happens to be the cornerstone to spiritual growth. It’s why the Big Book implores us to help another alcoholic when all else fails.
The gradual process of working the Steps, moving bit by bit from ignorance to awakening, from being lost to being saved, may seem boring and anti-climactic in comparison to the stories we read and hear about concerning sudden spiritual awakenings, white light experiences, and burning bushes. It may cause us to ask, Have I missed something?
Let’s just be glad that the spiritual awakening appears by Step Twelve and not in Step One. It is the result of a process of taking action after action, the challenging inner work and outer work that comprises the first eleven Steps. The Steps promise us a spiritual awakening – not romantic, emotional, or material salvation – an awakening which is in a sense inevitable, as it is THE result of working the first eleven Steps. We may not see all the ways we’ve changed, and the spiritual awakening may not take the form you wanted or expected. But the awakening is real, and one can see it who carefully examines oneself and one’s life objectively.
What is emotional sobriety?
This is a good time to introduce the concept of Emotional sobriety, which is essentially recovery language for emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence (EI) is the capability of individuals to recognize their own and other people’s emotions, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide one’s own thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments and achieve one’s goals.
Emotional sobriety can be described as the ability to deal with feelings in a constructive manner. It is the ability we develop over time to simply feel our feelings. Emotionally sober folks no longer have the urge to escape feelings by climbing into a bottle, smoking a joint, popping pills, or running toward any other temporary chemical solution. Emotionally sober men and women are willing and able to deal with whatever comes their way because they have, over time and with consistent spiritual practice, developed deep inner strength that allows the successful weathering of emotional storms. Emotional sobriety is closely linked to serenity, an unshakable sense of inner peace that people eventually find in genuine recovery.
Addiction stunts our emotional development
Life is a real struggle and contains much suffering for folks who are unable to handle their emotions. It is a plain fact that the lack of emotional sobriety makes it impossible to find lasting inner peace. These individuals are highly likely to continue or revert into alcoholism, drug addiction, and other addictive behavior. They will continue to use a chemical solution as a means to temporarily escape the pain caused by their emotions.
As long as a person addicted to alcohol or drugs, emotional development completely stops for all practical purposes. They become stuck. When a person finally gets into treatment or otherwise manages to halt the use of alcohol or drugs, s/he will quickly find they lack the tools to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life. In the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, this struggle/learning process is often referred to as growing up in public. Emotional sobriety does not mean that one escapes or avoids unpleasant emotions; rather, one no longer plays the role of hapless victim to the endless tides of emotions that occur to all humans throughout life.
Signs of emotional sobriety
Here are a few signs of emotional sobriety or emotional intelligence:
- Experiencing present moment mindfulness most of the time without dwelling in the past or experiencing anxiety about the future
- Making sane choices when it comes to regulating our behavior, reducing the likelihood of falling into addiction or other self-destructive patterns
- Demonstrating an ability to cope with the vicissitudes of life
- Avoiding being a hapless victim of strong emotions when they occur
- Facing life without succumbing to extreme moods
- Practicing acceptance, maintaining a healthy perspective despite challenging life situations
- Developing deep and meaningful relationships with other people
- Being free of harmful levels of stress on an ongoing basis
Sometimes emotional sobriety is about tolerating what you are feeling. It is about staying sober no matter what you are feeling. It means that you don’t have to blame yourself or your program because life can be challenging. It means that you don’t necessarily need to do something to make the feeling go away. Many people will take their bad feeling and try to pray it, meditate it, service it, spiritually distract themselves from it, thinking that this means they are working a good program. This experience is actually called spiritual bypass.
John Welwood coined the term spiritual bypass and defined it as “using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment.” The shorthand for spiritual bypass is when a person wears a mask or presents a false spiritual self that represses aspects of that person’s true self. Spiritual bypass involves bolstering our defenses rather than our humility. Bypass involves grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting.
What Is Emotional Sobriety? Hint: It doesn’t necessarily equal happy, joyous, and free – Psychology Today
As we have dedicated ourselves to change, to becoming better men, it is of great importance to remember that in essence we are who our friends are:
I will choose my friends with care. I am who my friends are. I speak their language, and I wear their clothes. I share their opinions and their habits. From this moment forward, I will choose to associate with people whose lives and lifestyles I admire. If I associate with chickens, I will learn to scratch at the ground and squabble over crumbs. If I associate with eagles, I will learn to soar great heights. I am an eagle. It is my destiny to fly.
The 7 Decisions of Success, by Andy Andrews