Here we will focus on the spiritual principles behind the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is the second in a series of articles on the broad, challenging subject of spirituality in recovery.
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. After all, no human communication is 100% objective. This material springs from the writer’s personal experiences in working the steps, some knowledge and advice received from Discovery Place (both times!), input from other addicts and alcoholics who have worked the steps, 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!
A closer look at the spiritual principles behind the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
Over the years we have seen two or three lists of the spiritual principles behind the steps, each list differing as to the specific principle pertaining to a couple of the steps. This is of course no big deal, as there is no such thing as an official list of the spiritual principles behind the 12 steps, per se. In truth, there are dozens of spiritual principles that would be applicable to the 12 steps, individually or as a whole.
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.
Real spirituality and the related spiritual principles are simple and easy to understand.
There is absolutely nothing complicated or hard to understand with regard to spirituality and its principles, including the spiritual principles behind the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Even so, this fact certainly does not eliminate confusion and fear. Due in general to certain factors, a person’s thinking and attitude toward spiritual principles are muddled by fear of the subject of spirituality. This misplaced fear one might have concerning spirituality is bred by such things as:
- Unfamiliarity with what spirituality really is;
- Closed-minded ideas about spirituality, religion, and/or God;
- Mistakenly equating spirituality with religion;
- Assuming spirituality requires or is predicated on a particular religion or a specific or narrow concept of God;
Thoughts and actions that are spiritual for an individual are those that move one toward inner peace, happiness, and contentedness, regardless of our specific beliefs or lack thereof. Spiritual thoughts and actions center around oneness, inclusion, and an orientation to serving and helping others and our community in general.
Here we shall do our best to simplify the meaning of the principles behind the 12 steps for those who may be having difficulty. We also seek to dispel certain preconceived notions about the nature of spiritual principles in general. “Working the steps” requires, among other things, applying and incorporating spiritual principles into every facet of our daily lives. Putting these spiritual principles into action gives us an ongoing spiritual practice, whether or not one realizes it or chooses to frame it as such. The Twelve Steps are tools for living a life of less obsession about self and increased thinking of others, leading to and improving such desired traits as self-esteem and self-confidence (via the reduction of fear by walking through said fears).
Thus we continue our quest to discuss spirituality in recovery. We are going to tackle the first six steps in this article and cover step 7 through step 12 in the followup article. Let’s get down to the basics of the action-oriented principles behind the steps.
The spiritual principles behind the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs
Step One: Honesty
Step Two: Hope
Step Three: Faith, open-mindedness
Step Four: Courage
Step Five: Integrity
Step Six: Willingness
Step Seven: Humility
Step Eight: Brotherly love; discipline/self-discipline; action
Step Nine: Justice; forgiveness
Step Ten: Perseverance; acceptance
Step Eleven: Spiritual awareness; awareness of God; spirituality
Step Twelve: Service; gratitude
Spiritual principles behind Step One
We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
The primary principle powering the practice of Step One is honesty. Other spiritual principles applicable here include acceptance, courage, surrender, open-mindedness, willingness, and humility, to name a few.
The bottom line where honesty is concerned is, if we cannot get honest about the scope of our problem and honest about a sincere effort to resolve it, we will not succeed in our recovery. One of the shorter definitions of honesty is the absence of intent to deceive. Staying on the destructive path of addiction has required that we try to fool ourselves and others on an ongoing basis. I behaved as though I believed every bit of my BS for quite a long time. Honesty with self – honesty on the inside – must serve as the foundation for the lifetime practice of honesty on the outside.
Honesty refers to a facet of moral character and connotes positive and virtuous attributes such as integrity, truthfulness, straightforwardness, including straightforwardness of conduct, along with the absence of lying, cheating, theft, etc. Honesty also includes being trustworthy, loyal, fair, and sincere. (Wikipedia on honesty)
In practicing Step One, we must get brutally honest with ourselves about our addiction to alcohol and other mood-altering substances. We reflect on the past, on the various methods we used in our attempts to control our drinking and using. How successful were they, really? An honest look may reveal a complete powerlessness over drugs and alcohol.
This is perhaps the first paradox (only a seeming contradiction, really) that you’ll run across in 12-step recovery: One wins when one completely surrenders to the realization of an apparent truth – in this case, powerlessness over mind-altering substances.
Surrender to win? How can that be?
You’ll come to see that this is true with some honest reflection and contemplation on the matter. Our eyes open a bit and we find that surrendering or letting go of our attachments leads to freedom and brings one closer to the goals of inner peace, contentedness, and usefulness to our fellows and to our community. We find that the genuine, heartfelt admission of powerlessness is a personal triumph, not a personal failure. Without a doubt, admitting that one is an addict/alcoholic requires courage and humility.
Who cares to admit complete defeat? Practically no one, of course. Every natural instinct cries out against the idea of personal powerlessness. It is truly awful to admit that, glass in hand, we have warped our minds into such an obsession for destructive drinking that only an act of Providence can remove it from us. (Step One, Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions, p.21 [ PDF ])
Ultimately addiction is, among other things, a disease of perspective; my drinking/drugging viewpoint, worldview, and self-image were all seriously skewed. Thus I have had to change my thinking – and drastically so.
Providence – that is, God/nature/higher power as providing protective or spiritual care – really can remove our obsession for destructive behavior from us when we become willing and open-minded.
Life vs. life situation, unmanageability
At this point it is useful to look more carefully into what we mean by our lives had become unmanageable. My sponsor makes a clear distinction between one’s life and one’s life situation. When we’re in small book study groups with the men who are currently guests at Discovery Place, we ask them, What is your life? What does your life consist of? The men usually point to relationship with significant other, job or career, what we do for fun, and so on. From my sponsor’s perspective (and mine as well), all of these external things represent one’s life situation. One’s life, he says, consists of what’s going on in one’s mind: Thoughts, decisions, intentions, all of which which lead to our actions.
Where is life unmanageable? The unmanageability is in our minds, what with our obsessive thinking, resentments, judgments, thinking we know best or that it will be different this time, fretting about the past, anxiety and fear about the future, and so on. This is unmanageability, which of course manifests in our life situation. Thus the correction that needs to be made is our thinking, our attitude, our perspective.
Spiritual principles behind Step Two
Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
The operative spiritual principle in Step Two is hope. Other applicable spiritual principles behind Step Two include open-mindedness, humility, and acceptance, for starters.
In setting our course for addiction recovery, we must have hope of success. The hopeless seem to be stuck at what might be called Step Zero. Having failed miserably in our own attempts to fix ourselves, we come to realize we cannot do it on our own. This step gives us that hope. We find that are not alone, that something greater than us can help conquer our alcoholism and addiction along with all the despair and negativity that goes with it.
Step Two is about having an open mind. In a sense, this is the beginning of the end. You will end your old life and begin your new one, having developed a fresh, new faith – faith in whatever you choose.
As the previous step was about letting go of pride, Step Two is about letting go of preconceived notions about what AA is and how it works, what God is, and making room for change and new thinking.
In Step One we conceded defeat – that we are powerless addicts and alcoholics, and as a result our lives had become unmanageable. Here in Step Two, there are two biggies:
- The source of the power we need to recover is a power greater than ourselves.
- We are apparently insane and thus need to be restored to sanity.
Hope: The feeling that what is wanted can be had, or that events will turn out for the best (Dictionary.com definition of hope); Hope is an optimistic attitude of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large; as a verb, its definitions include: to expect with confidence and to cherish a desire with anticipation (Wikipedia on hope)
Why it makes perfect logical sense to have hope
There are many thousands of folks experiencing real recovery, and we can see that the program seems to be working well for many of those in our local recovery communities – an understanding that generates hope and faith that it can work for us, too. Another process to find your way to some hope is to realize that recovery is not a question of your ability, intelligence, perceived level of goodness or badness, or willpower alone. Your hope of recovery lies in your action, persistence, and application of the principles in all areas of your life.
Step Two is about hope, faith, and ultimately deep realization. It’s a step towards God, or to whatever our conception of God may be. In some ways, this step begins the process of stepping outside ourselves. Whether agnostic, atheist, or former believer, we can all stand together on Step Two. True humility and real open-mindedness can lead us to recovery if we are persistent.
Step Two is about hope, about possibility, about open-mindedness. In this step we come to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. With some effort, perhaps, we open our minds to the possibility that help is available. Help must be available, as we see many apparently happy, joyous, and free with months and years of sobriety in our recovery communities. We are willing to at least consider, and eventually access a source of assistance that can do for us what we have been absolutely unable to do for ourselves. We’ve tried everything to conquer addiction and alcoholism on our own, and it did not work. Maybe something else will work. We don’t have to believe that it will happen, only that it could happen.
This little bit of hope, this chink in the walls of misery in which we’ve imprisoned ourselves, is enough to show that we are at least willing to move in the direction of wellness. Once we understand that the possibility of help exists, it seems worthwhile to explore a relationship with a power greater than ourselves. A little willingness can go a long way toward producing some faith and hope, and with persistence, our new faith and hope become an ongoing fact in our lives. With the strong boost we get from a power greater than ourselves, eventual serenity and the restoration of our sanity become realistic hopes.
Spiritual principles behind Step Three
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
The spiritual principle necessary to some degree to practice this step is faith; other applicable principles include willingness, open-mindedness, and humility.
The words as we understood Him are very important for all of us, especially those whose understanding of God or higher power may differ from the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God. There are caveats and explanations of this open-mindedness regarding God or higher power throughout the Big Book.
It is vital that all of us, regardless of our belief or lack of belief in a deity, eventually come to settle on a higher power concept that makes sense to the individual. The Big Book asks that we take a series of actions necessary to work the steps and to help those around us; it does not ask us to adopt any particular belief.
In our personal stories you will find a wide variation in the way each teller approaches and conceives of the Power which is greater than himself. Whether we agree with a particular approach or conception seems to make little difference. Experience has taught us that these are matters about which, for our purpose, we need not be worried. They are questions for each individual to settle for himself. (We Agnostics, Big Book, p.50)
Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?
This novel idea is surely one of the reasons Alcoholics Anonymous has thrived all these decades (around 80 years now). As for me, I’m extremely grateful to both Ebby Thacher and Bill Wilson for this weighty, sage advice (choosing our own conception of God). Without this approach, I’d probably consider AA as just another religious group attempting to proselytize me, brainwash me, mold me into its conformist template. Without the open-minded notion of choosing a higher power that makes sense, Alcoholics Anonymous would probably not exist in its present form – far from it, most likely.
But the brilliant idea of having our own concept of God was communicated by Ebby and recorded by Bill, making it available to all of us — creating a fellowship beyond what anyone could have imagined at the time. This is truly amazing!
An encouraging truth upon which most of us can perhaps agree is this: Whatever the concept of God or higher power, it is certainly accessible to everyone who genuinely seeks. It seems this higher power can be found only by going deep within oneself; those who look for God externally may encounter barriers until the searchlight is turned inward.
Bill W. put it this way:
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. (Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous, We Agnostics, p.55)
The distinguished American psychologist, William James, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, indicates a multitude of ways in which men have discovered God. We have no desire to convince anyone that there is only one way by which faith can be acquired. If what we have learned and felt and seen means anything at all, it means that all of us, whatever our race, creed, or color are the children of a living Creator with whom we may form a relationship upon simple and understandable terms as soon as we are willing and honest enough to try. Those having religious affiliations will find here nothing disturbing to their beliefs or ceremonies. There is no friction among us over such matters.
We think it no concern of ours what religious bodies our members identify themselves with as individuals. This should be an entirely personal affair which each one decides for himself in the light of past associations, or his present choice. (Big Book, There is a Solution, p.28)
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. At the start, this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth, to effect our first conscious relation with God as we understood Him. Afterward, we found ourselves accepting many things which then seemed entirely out of reach. That was growth, but if we wished to grow we had to begin somewhere. So we used our own conception, however limited it was.
We needed to ask ourselves but one short question. “Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?” As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we emphatically assure him that he is on his way. It has been repeatedly proven among us that upon this simple cornerstone a wonderfully effective spiritual structure can be built. (Big Book, We Agnostics, p.47)
Spiritual principles behind Step Four
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
The overriding spiritual principle for Step Four is courage; other applicable principles include honesty, courage, willingness, and humility.
In taking Step Four one must exhibit the courage necessary to honestly and thoroughly examine oneself. One must really hone in on how one’s perspective has been very skewed; we find that our views are/were certainly not based on an accurate view of reality. Our past is riddled with dishonesty – with self and with others – in our repeated, befuddled attempts to justify our selfish, sick, addictive behavior. Making an honest assessment of yourself and your interactions with others is a requirement for progress. This action requires honesty, willingness, courage, and humility. Courage also includes perseverance and patience.
One must be brutally honest when it comes to the moral or character defects we displayed every day. Such an examination can provide some insight into why the boozing and the drugging started in the first place.
We must accept that all of the things that happened were created by us, and we can begin to eradicate the word blame from our vocabulary. The truth is, you and you alone created the misery; you are solely responsible for your behaviors, regardless of what others might have said or done.
Step 4 is known as the Inventory Step. This simply means taking an honest appraisal of all of your good and bad character traits. We peel back the layers of the onion and expose all of it. When we take inventory, we write it all down in the manner we were instructed by our sponsor.
You may be thinking, You mean I have to document all of my negative character traits? My defects and shortcomings? I have to admit that I hurt others? I have to own my insanity? I have to take responsibility for all the times I manipulated, lied, didn’t show up, and on and on?
Yes! Believe it or not, this process – when genuinely performed – allows us to embark on a journey of solid and life-changing recovery.
Courage is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation in spite of our fears. Physical courage is bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship, death or threat of death, while moral courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, discouragement, or personal loss. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is making a decision that something is more important than our fear and acting on it. (Wikipedia on courage)
None of the previous steps seem as daunting as the Step Four. Folks that are new in recovery often dread the Fourth Step so much they relapse over it. In comparison to the first three steps – Step One where we were admitting powerlessness, Step Two when we come to believe our sanity can be restored, and Step Three in which we made a decision to have faith in a higher power – Step Four is quite substantial, requiring more time and effort. To be searching and fearless requires a great deal of courage as we delve into our past and document each and every resentment, list our fears, and review all of our sexual behavior.
What is a resentment, exactly?
The word resentment is derived from the Latin word sentire which means to feel, and when re in front of any word, it means again. Therefore to resent means to feel again. When we perceive that someone has wronged us, we usually experience some level of frustration or anger. Later, the event plays in our head, and not just once – causing us to re-feel anger, frustration, and anxiety again and again. Now we have a resentment. Often, after many repeated replays, the story we tell ourselves can become twisted to the point we heap all the blame on them. Selfish alcoholics and addicts seem to have the tendency to keep score.
Your sponsor will guide you through it.
We work this step closely with a sponsor who will help guide us through the process; we soon realize there is nothing to be afraid of here. We just do it. Working closely with one’s sponsor is a must, and it helps tremendously. One’s sponsor will share some of their stories with you, and admit their defects to you, too; this provides comfort and security with the realization that we are not alone in our sick behaviors.
Here we begin the process of determining the causes and conditions of our drinking and using. Patterns of selfishness and self-centeredness emerge, allowing us to examine our behavior, our character defects, and our many errors in thinking in order to prepare ourselves for a life of sobriety, one day at a time.
Spiritual principles behind Step Five
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
The operative spiritual principle behind Step Five is integrity; others include humility, willingness, honesty, forgiveness, open-mindedness, acceptance, prudence, and serenity.
It’s pretty obvious why we need to share our inventory with someone else: We are masters at believing our own BS, our justifications and half-truths. After all, we used to say, and sort of believe, that we didn’t have a drinking or drug problem. We told ourselves again and again that we were doing fine – as we were slipping ever deeper into the dark abyss of addiction and alcoholism.
Admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs seems difficult at first, especially discussing our embarrassing defects and behavior with another person. Many newbies think they have done well enough in admitting these things to themselves. Not so; in practice, we find a solitary self-appraisal to be quite insufficient. We now realize it is necessary to go much further. We will be more comfortable and willing to discuss these things with another person when we understand there are very good reasons to do so.
The most important reason first: If we skip this vital step, we may not overcome our drinking and drugging. Time after time newcomers have kept certain facts about their lives to themselves. Almost invariably they got drunk or high. Later they wondered why they relapsed. It’s probably because they never thoroughly cleaned house. They took some inventory but hung on to some of the darkest, most embarrassing items in stock. They had not learned enough of humility, honesty, and willingness.
Integrity means being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness. It is generally a personal choice to hold oneself to consistent moral and ethical standards.
Integrity is doing the right thing for the right reasons, even when no one is watching. Integrity is taking the higher road in an argument or disagreement, allowing others to save face. Integrity includes choosing to be happy instead of being right; it’s living by a higher standard. For addicts and alcoholics this is a new code of ethics, applying spiritual principles in all areas of our lives. None of us came to the rooms brimming with Emily Post-level manners and etiquette, overflowing with kindness and respect for ourselves or others. Step Five opens the door to living with integrity.
Step Five helps us to ease the anxiety, irritability, and depression that inevitably results from hiding the worst parts of ourselves. We are able to rid ourselves of isolation and loneliness once we come out into the open. Step Five of Alcoholics Anonymous teaches you that you can be forgiven for your shortcomings and also forgive others who have hurt you.
Folks often feel a huge weight lifted off their shoulders when they honestly and thoroughly confide in another.
Step Five is much more than merely reading our Fourth Step to the other person. A good Step Five includes revealing your most embarrassing, tormenting, distressing memories to another person — usually your sponsor. It is crucial to be as honest as possible with the individual hearing our Fifth Step; we look closely at who we are and what we would like to become as we move forward with our sober living.
Go all the way; be vulnerable and don’t hold back. Your sponsor (or other person) will usually talk about his past as well, having done many of the same dumb things you did. He will possibly note some of your most glaring character defects that kept popping up as you went through your lists. We accept advice from our sponsor with an open mind. This will allow you to move on to Step 6 in a place of humility.
Spiritual principles behind Step Six
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
The main spiritual principle behind Step Six is willingness; other spiritual principles that apply to this step include honesty, open-mindedness, acceptance, and humility.
Here we become fully prepared to rid ourselves of the flaws, character defects, shortcomings we learned about in Step Five. Step Six displays character and one’s true willingness to recover.
Step Six speaks of being entirely ready to have God remove all our defects of character. Yet we find that we often cling to some of our defects of character because they give us a certain amount of pleasure.
What defects could possibly give us pleasure? Well, possibly revenge, for one. Some tend to spend quite a lot of time spinning mental scenarios in which those who have hurt them are punished. Some of us get a great deal of enjoyment from thinking that we are right about the vast majority of things – clinging to our pride and ego. At this point we are well aware that such thinking displays defects that get in the way of being the kind of men we want to be today. That kind of thinking and behavior prevents us from treating ourselves and others with love and respect. There are reasons galore to let these things go, to surrender them – but to do this, we must become willing to lose the egotistical thinking they represent. We let go of the sick, fleeting pleasure we felt from those thoughts and related actions.
One’s recovery will remain stunted as long as one remains unwilling to give up shortcomings. If we want wellness, we must turn over our will, our lives, and our character defects to our higher power.
Are the small, fleeting, often twisted pleasures we get from living out our defects of character worth the price we are paying to keep them as part of us? If not, if we can see the potential damage and lack of growth in recovery that results from acting out on those defects, we may be entirely ready to let some of those defects go today.
The principles behind the 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous
I’m not sure if all of these technically qualify as spiritual principles, per se (e.g., identity, purpose, structure), but we won’t follow our alcoholic desire to overanalyze here!
Tradition One: Unity
Tradition Two: Trust
Tradition Three: Identity
Tradition Four: Autonomy
Tradition Five: Purpose
Tradition Six: Solidarity
Tradition Seven: Responsibility
Tradition Eight: Fellowship
Tradition Nine: Structure
Tradition Ten: Neutrality
Tradition Eleven: Anonymity
Tradition Twelve: Spirituality
If you or anyone you know needs help with alcoholism or addiction, please call the Discovery Place admissions staff at 1-800-725-0922. You’ll talk to someone who has been through the experience himself and can relate to you.
This article was written by Stephen Frasier, alumnus of Discovery Place, web content writer, and web designer/developer.
Resources: The spiritual principles behind the 12 steps
- The 12 Steps and the Principles Behind Them – Sober Recovery
- Spiritual Principles of the 12 Steps – eSober Buddy
- A.A. History: The AA Principles and Virtues – Barefoots World
- Friends of Bill W.: The AA Principles & Virtues from the 12 Steps – Friends of Bill W.
- Everything Alcoholics Anonymous: The Twelve Principles of Alcoholics Anonymous – Alcoholics Anonymous Blogspot