The 12 Steps as Myth-transcending Technology

(Article is by guest writer James Jarrett. See bio below.)

I can already guess what you may be thinking. “The 12 Steps? Isn’t that for people with problems? You know, like uncontrollable addictions that lead to things like job loss and jail time? What help are the 12 Steps for us ‘regular’ people?”

A little background on the 12 steps.  Bill W. was introduced to Dr. Bob S. in Akron, Ohio in 1935 when Bill W. realized that he could not stay sober himself unless he shared the help he had discovered with another suffering drunk. The relationship that developed between these two alcoholics–one a Wall Street businessman and the other a Midwestern physician–led to the development of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as a spiritual program for recovery.

Influenced by Carl G. Jung, the group dynamics of the Oxford Group, and the pragmatic philosophy of William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, the following twelve steps have become a practical foundation for recovery. Beyond alcoholism, they have helped people address many kinds of addictions, including those involving other forms of substance abuse, behaviors, and relationships.

Here are the twelve steps of alcoholics anonymous:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  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.
  12. 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.  (Copyright (c) 1952, 1953, 1981 by Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing (now known as Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.) All rights reserved.)

With 8 references to “God” (complete with capital “G’s” and “H’s”) it is not surprising that the 12 Steps of AA arise out of the religious tradition of Christianity. It has been said that the 12 Steps are a modern form of the historic Christian practice of purgation (or purification). In contemplative Christianity, according to Richard Rohr,  purgation is the initial phase of the spiritual journey that goes on toward illumination and union with the divine. 

However, neither the god-language nor the particular religious soil from which they have sprung need prevent people of other faiths, including non-theists, from practicing the 12 Steps with benefit. Bill W. always insisted that AA was spiritual, but not religious. He said:

It must never be forgotten that the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made on anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.  (Bill W., Letter to Father Marcus O’Brien, written in 1943, and quoted in The Soul of Sponsorship by Robert Fitzgerald.)

And Dr. Bob S.:

The spiritual life is by no means a Christian monopoly… Consider the eight-part program laid down in Buddhism: Right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindedness and right contemplation. The Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified by these eight points, could be literally adopted by AA as a substitute for or in addition to the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love and welfare of others rather than considerations of self are basic to Buddhism.  (Akron Pamphlet, “Spiritual Milestones in Alcoholics Anonymous”, edited by Dr. Bob, 1940.)

Again, Bill W.:

In Step Two we decided to describe God as a “Power greater than ourselves.” In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words “God as we understood Him.” From Step Seven we deleted the expression “on our knees.” And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery.” AA’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only.

Such were the final concessions to those of little of [sic] no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer may pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”   (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Page 167, 1957.)

Why even bother with the 12 Steps? Why not just use an alternative “science-based, self-empowered” recovery program such as SMART Recovery? The simple answer is that while the 12 Steps may not be for everyone, they still help people in a way that works. I am suggesting here that this has less to do with unprovable metaphysics and much more to do with the subjective human experience of responding to and interacting with a natural healing process. In other words, the 12 Steps are a myth-transcending technology* that works.

Throughout human history, people have associated transformation with spirituality. I imagine Alan Watts might say, “You only need transformation if you think you do.” Recognizing the insidious game played by our ego-self, Watts observed, “The you that needs to be improved is the one that is doing the improving.” Einstein put it this way, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” This is why any ego-based program of self-improvement is ultimately unsustainable. A power greater than our ego-selves is needed.

The brilliance of 12 Step spirituality is that the Steps lead people through the roadblock of ego-based self-improvement by adopting a rigorously pragmatic, results-oriented approach. “Is it working?” may, in fact, be the only relevant question.

Based on my own extensive research into the history of AA and 12 Step spirituality as well as my own experience as a participant in a 12 Step group for several years, my proposal here is that the 12 Steps work not because there is a being in the sky pulling strings, but because the process of working the 12 Steps actually helps people learn to function in more adaptive ways. The “power greater than ourselves” is our natural human efforts on the spiritual path of learning to see through our ego-games.

Regardless of one’s background, religion, philosophy, education, or particular combination of addictions, a universal experience of every person is that sooner or later in one way or another, life becomes unmanageable. Whether our own maladaptive behaviors (typified in many of the addictions that bring people into the 12 Step rooms) or the forces of life and nature beyond our control, it does not take much for life to feel unmanageable.

From a purely pragmatic point of view the question arises, “If life is unmanageable, how might it become manageable again?” The 12 Steps are one technology that has helped millions of people answer that question. Without the need for dogma, hierarchy, property, money, or paid professionals, the 12 Steps offer a free spiritual practice available to anyone who wishes to try it.

What if when life becomes unmanageable all the higher power we need to restore us to sanity is the gestalt of our human participation in the process of death and rebirth as patterned in the whole of nature and the universe?

The first 3 Steps set the course: 1) Acknowledgement of a problem and life’s resulting unmanageability (helplessness). 2) Awareness that only a power greater than the ego-self can restore one to sanity (help is available); and 3) A surrender of the ego-self (“my life and will”) to the care of the higher power of our own understanding (surrender = removal of the ego’s roadblocks to help).

Our own understanding is the important thing here. For people comfortable in the tradition of the Abrahamic Faiths, it may seem natural for the Higher Power to be God as defined by those religions. For Hindus the higher power is the Universal Self–Brahman. For Buddhists, it is the no-self of anatman. For atheists it might be the group of fellow addicts, or one’s own understanding itself informed by observation and deduction. One’s higher power could be a sense of Love or Justice or a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies shared with another person.

Far less important than who or what the higher power may be, the critical insight of the 12 Steps is that my ego-self is not it. Acknowledging that my own ego is not-god and surrendering to something–anything–greater than my ego is the key.

The experience of “hitting rock-bottom” initiated with the first 3 steps, orients a person seeking manageability in life toward a greater openness to such practices and postures as rigorous honesty (Steps 4-5); accepting responsibility for one’s own shortcomings (Steps 5-6); openness toward their integration (Steps 6-7); amends-making with others who have been harmed (Steps 8-9); continuing to own our own “stuff” (Step 10); and a spiritual practice of seeking guidance through prayer and meditation (ongoing practices of de-centering from the ego-self) (Step 11). The spiritual awakening that results from practicing these Steps inspires one to integrate the practice into “all our affairs” and to share it with others (Step 12).

Such an experience of transformation at the deepest levels of one’s awareness may aptly be called a “spiritual awakening”. The major religions and philosophies, as they are commonly practiced around the world, either lack or have not widely developed technologies for confronting the ego-self or initiating what Bill W. calls, “ego collapse at depth”. Whether Christian or Atheist, Communist or Capitalist, Hindu or Ethicist, the “all or nothing” ego reinforced by religious or philosophical dogma can be every bit as destructive as alcohol or heroin to a user and the people close to them.

Like the practice of Zen, the 12 Steps invite (and force) self-confrontation with one’s problems and through that, the letting go of the ego illusion on the path to more adaptive perspectives and behaviors. It is the process of an instant and of a lifetime.

We human beings tend to use substances, behaviors, stories, and relationships to manage our feelings and sense of well-being in the chaos of life. The 12 Steps invite us to practice using awareness through faith in a power greater than ourselves, fellowship with fellow sufferers, and service to others as a helpful way of engaging with life’s unmanageability.

Regardless of whether an actual benevolent power external to the human brain exists, the very process of letting go the ego illusion undertaken with the 12 Steps is, without more, a powerful path toward freedom, integration and restored sanity. The Serenity Prayer is a handy power tool within the 12 Step toolbox that is often collectively voiced at 12 Step meetings:

May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.

From a Spiritual Naturalist perspective, considering the 12 Steps as a myth-transcending technology for managing life, the relevant question is not, “Is it true?” but rather, “Does it work?” The answer of many people in recovery has been, “It works if you work it, and you’re worth it!”

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(*”Myth-transcending technology” is my phrase informed and crystalized by some comments by Michael Gungor, co-host of The Liturgists Podcast in this episode.)

(For more on the 12 Steps in relation to the world’s great spiritual traditions, see: “The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning” by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum. For more on the 12 Steps from a non-theist perspective, check out: “One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps” by Kevin Griffin. Also, the online community, “AA Agnostica” exists to support non-theist alcoholics in their recovery with AA and the 12 Steps. They have an extensive collection of Relevant Quotes for Secular AA.)

James Jarrett lives with his partner Katie in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. They have six children. A licensed attorney and former church planter, James is endorsed by The Humanist Society as a Chaplain and Celebrant supporting people full-time in Hospice care. He posts poetry, articles, and random thoughts on his blog Becoming Human.

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