12 Step Spirituality (part 1)

Last Updated on 6 January 2024

A Universal Addiction

by Richard Rohr ofm

The addiction and overdose crisis… does not so much reflect moral failings of individuals as it does reveal a sickness that has infected the country and our collective consciousness. — Timothy McMahan King [1]

Living School alumnus Tim King fairly attributes the United States’ epidemic of addiction to “the failures of religion and of an anemic spirituality.” [2] Thankfully, I believe the Twelve-Step programs are a movement of the Spirit in our time. In creating Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith, with typical American pragmatism, designed a truly practical program that really worked to change lives. Twelve-Step spirituality rediscovered the real transformative power that is the core of the Gospel. It is the spirituality of imperfection that Jesus taught, Paul clarified, Francis and Clare of Assisi lived, and Thérèse of Lisieux brought to light for the modern world. Transformation has little to do with intelligence, willpower, or perfection. It has everything to do with honest humility, willingness, and surrender.

Here are four assumptions that I am making about addiction:

We are all addicts. Human beings are addictive by nature. King writes: “The question for each of us is not whether we are addicted but how we are addicted, and to what. Denial of the existence of addiction in your life is not a mark of moral accomplishment but a sign of blindness.” [3] Addiction is a modern name and honest description for what the biblical tradition called “sin” and medieval Christians called “passions” or “attachments.” They both recognized that serious measures or practices were needed to break us out of these illusions and entrapments.

“Stinking thinking” is the universal addiction. Substance addictions like alcohol and drugs are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of thinking and doing. These attachments are at first hidden to us. We cannot heal what we do not first acknowledge.

All societies are addicted to themselves and create deep codependency. There are shared and agreed-upon addictions in every culture and every institution. These are often the hardest to heal because they do not look like addictions—because we have all agreed to be compulsive about the same things and blind to the same problems. In the United States we’re addicted to oil, war, and empire. The church is addicted to its own exceptionalism. The white person is addicted to superiority. The wealthy person is addicted to entitlement and power.

Some form of alternative consciousness is the only freedom from this self and from cultural lies. If the universal addiction is to our own pattern of thinking—which is invariably dualistic—the primary spiritual path must be some form of contemplative practice—or “prayer”—to break down this unhelpful binary system of either-or thinking and superiority/inferiority. Prayer is a form of non-dual resting in “what is”; this contemplative practice eventually changes our whole operating system! This is well recognized in Step Eleven of the Twelve Steps:

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out. [4]

Gateway to Presence:

If you want to go deeper with this meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

The Spirituality of Powerlessness

I believe that Jesus and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are saying the same thing but with different vocabulary:

We suffer to get well. We surrender to win. We die to live. We give it away to keep it.

This counter-intuitive wisdom will forever be resisted, denied, and avoided until it is forced upon us—by some reality over which we are powerless—and if we are honest, we are all powerless in the presence of full Reality.

This brings us to Step One of the Twelve Steps:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. [1]

Or as Paul expressed it:

I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the very things I want to do and find myself doing the very things I hate… for although the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not. (Romans 7:15, 18)

My good friend Father Thomas Keating (1923–2018) taught that this is the human condition. He wrote:

This first step highlights the fact that all human beings are deeply wounded. From earliest childhood we start out on the path to self-consciousness without any idea of what happiness actually is, apart from the gratification of our instinctual needs for (1) survival and security, (2) affection and esteem and approval, and (3) power and control….

But human nature being what it is, and the world being a hazardous place, we can’t count on the fulfillment of our instinctual needs, and some children are terribly deprived in one or all of these three areas. Everyone, of course, is deprived in some degree because no parents are perfect, and even if they are, they can’t control the environment, teachers, and important others that enter the child’s life…

To be powerless means to be absolutely helpless…. This, oddly enough, is the best disposition for the beginning of a spiritual journey. Why is that? Because the deeper one’s awareness of one’s powerlessness and the more desperate, the more willing one is to reach out for help. This help is offered in the next two steps. You turn yourself over to a Higher Power who you believe can heal you and work with you in the long journey of dismantling the emotional programs for happiness…

The real spiritual journey depends on our acknowledging the unmanageability of our lives. The love of God or the Higher Power is what heals us. Nobody becomes a full human being without love. It brings to life people who are most damaged. The steps are really an engagement in an ever-deepening relationship with God. [2]

[1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.

[2] Thomas Keating with Tom S., Divine Therapy and Addiction: Centering Prayer and the Twelve Steps (Lantern Books: 2009), 5-6, 9-10, 11-12.

Help from a Higher Power

Step Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. [1]

Yes, we are carrying our own death warrant with us, but it is teaching us not to rely on ourselves, but on a God whose task is to raise the dead to life. —2 Corinthians 1:9

I’m told that often the people who are most in need of the Twelve-Step program have a very negative attitude toward God that was taught them by immature religion. This can be challenging since the essence of both the spiritual journey and the healing journey of AA is “a movement from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.” [2] Moreover, Bill Wilson insisted on the necessity of a “vital spiritual experience.” Here’s how Thomas Keating explained how AA can handle this challenge. Naturally, Keating, who was one of the original creators of Centering Prayer, would have liked to see contemplation introduced into the program much earlier than the Eleventh Step as an aid to relating to God.

People can harbor very negative feelings about God. For example, “God does not love me; God is a tyrant demanding instant obedience; God is a policeman always on the watch for my least misstep; or, finally, God is a judge who is always ready to bring down upon me the irrevocable verdict of guilty.” Most people in this category will develop corresponding emotions of fear of God. Since you don’t think about God at all in non-conceptual meditation, God has a chance to introduce God as God actually is. And in the silence of meditation… it gives the negative feelings or negatively charged thoughts about God a chance to calm down and to be moderated by the experience of a certain peace and calm that ordinarily comes from the interior silence of meditation itself…

In AA you have a chance to get acquainted and there is no great rush. You are just open to the possibility that God is not the way you think God is from your particular cultural background or human experience thus far. In actual fact, God is existence and must be present in everything that is. So instead of thinking of God, you can think of God’s presence, which is the source of everything that is. It is this presence that supports the whole movement of AA…

Many AA people are sponsors helping others in their effort of recovery. God is present in service. God is present in human love. God is present in conjugal relationships. God is present in the flowers, in the sunsets, and in the fields. God is present in all of nature without calling it God. Being open to the Higher Power actually opens us to the fact that all creation is penetrated by a presence that transcends our sensible faculties and introduces us to a world both of mystery and experience.

A Radical Surrendering

Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. [1]

We each have our inner program for happiness, our plans by which we can be secure, esteemed, and in control, and we are blissfully unaware that these cannot work for us for the long haul—without becoming more and more controlling ourselves. Something has to break our primary addiction, which is to our own power and unworkable programs for happiness and security.

When Jesus taught, “If anyone wants to follow me, let them renounce themselves!” (Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23), I am pretty sure that Jesus meant exactly what Bill W means in Step Three: a radical surrendering of our will to Another whom we trust more than ourselves.

A common substitute for renouncing our own will is “the myth of heroic sacrifice.” There is a love that sincerely seeks the spiritual good of others, and there is a love that seeks superiority, admiration, and control for itself, even and most especially by doing “good” and heroic things. Suicide bombers, resentful and manipulative people, and codependents are invariably sacrificial. “Codependency” is the disease of those who support and contribute to others’ disease by what we call “enabling” behavior. Sometimes the enabler is sicker than the alcoholic and does not know what to do when the alcoholic enters recovery.

Another way we avoid surrender is what Timothy McMahan King, one of our Living School alumni, describes as “the myth of redemptive suffering.” King writes:

Addiction is, by definition, a self-harming behavior. Increasing the amount of harm, through punishment and incarceration, for those struggling with addiction is a failing strategy…. When our view of the cross is that God demands blood in order to redeem, it is little surprise we have a country and culture that wants to see people suffer even more before help will be provided. But when we understand a God who enters into our suffering, we see that it is that kind of grace through which we are transformed. [2]

The absolute genius of the Twelve Steps is that it refuses to bless and reward what looks like any moral worthiness game, and it refuses to punish weakness and failure. With Gospel brilliance and insight, AA says that the starting point and, in fact, the continuing point, is not any kind of worthiness at all but in fact unworthiness! (“I am an alcoholic!”) Suddenly religion loses all capacity for elitism. This is what Jesus affirmed in prostitutes and tax collectors and what Paul praised when he said, “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). When the churches forget their own Gospel message, the Holy Spirit sneaks in through the ducts and the air vents, which is what it has done in the Twelve-Step Program and other therapies.

  • [1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.
  • [2] Timothy McMahan King, Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals about Us (Herald Press: 2019), 201. King explores how the United States scape-goats addicts, criminalizing addiction rather than focusing on healing or curing the disease. I would add that the “War on Drugs” disproportionately targets people of color and has more racist motivations than justice-oriented ones. See, for example, www.drugpolicy.org/issues/race-and-drug-war.

The Twelve Steps as Shadow Work

Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. [1]

Jesus said, “The truth will set you free,” (John 8:32) and I always feel compelled to add, “But first it will make you miserable.” There is no other way to describe the humiliation and grief that comes from seeing your own failures and weaknesses clearly, perhaps for the first time. Only in the presence of Great Love do any of us have the courage to attempt that kind of inventory. Today, Ron H., a beloved staff member here at the Center for Action and Contemplation, shares from his own experience how humility and honesty are needed throughout the Twelve Steps.

About five years into my recovery journey, I got to know a man in Los Angeles named Pepe. Like so many we get to meet in the rooms, he was a compelling character. His stories were spellbinding and masterfully delivered, his wisdom was simple and always rang of truth, and his heart was out there where you could see it, humble, genuine. When he told of how he took his wheelchair-bound teenage son Tony, dying of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, to the river to go fishing, the entire room would hang on every word (no matter how many times we had heard the story). Completely bereft as he watched Tony painfully work to get his line in the water, Pepe began to cry. “Dad,” Tony said, “Why are you crying? There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just my Earth suit that is having trouble. Nothing is wrong with me.”

As you meditate for a moment on what must have been the seat of Tony’s identity, as the whole room would do each time Pepe drove home this line, notice the shift in your own heart and body. Pepe would look down for a moment and then bring it humbly and powerfully:

“This program is a program of truth-telling,” Pepe would sometimes say and then pause to let it sink in. “Because it’s the truth that will set you free. The truth sets us free. The first step? We’ve been lying, distorting, denying, hiding from the truth. The first step is a truth-telling step. We admit who we are. The fourth and fifth steps are a huge exercise in finally telling the whole truth. [2] The tenth step? Learning to tell the truth on the fly, and to call ourselves out and correct it when we didn’t. [3] This program is a truth-telling program. That’s how it turns us into free people.”

That simple and profound description came to me years later when I heard Richard and others talk about Carl Jung’s concept of persona and shadow. Where my “persona” is the me that is presented for the world to see, my “shadow” is the undiscovered or undisclosed me (often unseen even by me). Shadow is a concept much like “denial” in the recovery context. It’s not even necessarily that I see it and deny seeing it, it’s that my mechanisms for protecting myself from seeing certain aspects of myself are so effective that I’m blind to them.

  • [1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.
  • [2] Step 4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
  • Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
  • [3] Step 10: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
  • I am most grateful to Ron H. for sharing this original reflection with Daily Meditation readers.

Accountability Is Sustainability

Step Five: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. [1]

So confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, and this will cure you. —James 5:16

Both Christianity and the Twelve Steps believe that our sins and failures are the setting for transformation and enlightenment. Grace isn’t a gift for getting it right but for getting it wrong! But as any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge; and what you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control of you from within, harming you and those around you, particularly those you love. Step Five sets forth a clear structure of accountability for knowing, speaking, and hearing the full truth so that it does not ultimately destroy the addict or others. But it is not an easy step to take. Both Bill Wilson and Thomas Keating understood the essential role that humility plays in the process of transformation. Keating wrote:

[Humility] is a great subject because it is the most fundamental religious disposition. It undergirds the stages of the spiritual journey. It gets deeper as we go along. Humiliation is the way to humility. So, you have to go through the fifth step… You lose the sense of shame and you gain more and more inner freedom. The point may come when you actually love your weaknesses and faults because they keep you humble. The feelings of shame and humiliation give way to a loving acceptance of the truth and a complete trust in God’s infinite mercy… We’re not asking anybody to think that we are good, because now we see that whatever good we have comes from God. We don’t deny that we have this basic goodness, but we acknowledge that we have made a mess of our lives… and that God is healing us. Instead of grieving because of our sins, we realize that God has used them for our great benefit…

Humility is the truth. That is to say, humility is the capacity to accept whatever happens, peacefully. Then you can decide whether God is calling you simply to accept the situation, or to do something to improve or correct it. Humility is a constant and permanent disposition that puts one in tune with the universe and with whatever is happening in the present moment…

We know that whatever happens, the love of God is always with us and that [God] will turn even our failures into perfect love. [2]

When we accept what is, letting go of our hope for a different or better past, we are led into a much greater freedom. And as long as there is accountability and forgiveness as part of the process, healing will almost inevitably follow.

  • [1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.
  • [2] Thomas Keating with Tom S., Divine Therapy and Addiction: Centering Prayer and the Twelve Steps (Lantern Books: 2009), 63-64, 65, 66.
  • Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), 38, 48.

Practice: Mindfulness

As we grow in wisdom, we realize that everything belongs and everything can be received. We see that life and death are not opposites. They do not cancel one another out; neither do goodness and badness. There is now room for everything to belong. A radical, almost nonsensical “okayness” characterizes mature believers, which is why they are often called “holy fools.” We don’t have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore reality anymore. What is, is gradually okay. What is, is the greatest of teachers. At the bottom of all reality is always a deep goodness, or what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness.” [1]

This week’s practice is really an encouragement to find or continue with a regular practice to deepen your experience of everything belonging. It is taken from Doctor Gabor Maté’s book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.

At a recent meditation retreat, however, I had a breakthrough: I realized that my expectations for meditation practice had been too harsh—on myself. I wanted to be “good” at it, I wanted spiritually uplifting things to happen, I wanted deep insights to arise. I now know it’s a gentle process. One doesn’t have to be good at meditation, achieve anything, or look for any particular result. As with any skill, only practice leads to improvement—and improvement is not even the point. The only point is the practice. What I have found is that when I do practice meditation, I find more ease in my life. I’m calmer, more emotionally present, more compassionate to others, and far less reactive to external triggers. In other words, I’m more of a self-regulating adult and am less prone to self-soothing, addictive behaviors.

Mindfulness practice will not by itself cool the addiction-heated mind, but, addicted or not, it is an invaluable adjunct to whatever else we do. It’s a way of working with the most immediate environment, the internal one. “Mindfulness changes the brain,” psychiatrist and brain researcher Daniel Siegel points out: “Why would the way you pay attention in the present moment change your brain? How we pay attention promotes neural plasticity, the change of neural connections in response to experience.” [2]

Mindfulness can be practiced throughout the day, not only on the meditation cushion. There are many techniques for this, but they all come down to paying close attention to one’s experience of each moment, without seeking distraction. When I go for walks now, I no longer have earphones piping music into my head. I try to stay present to the physical, aural, and visual sensations I experience, as well as noticing my mental processes and reactions. Sometimes I can keep this up for as long as thirty seconds at a time before my mind scurries off into la-la land. I call that progress. [3]

  • [1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 55-56, 61; and How Do We Get Everything to Belong?, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2004), CD, MP3 download.
  • [2] Daniel J. Siegel, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (W. W. Norton: 2007), 25.
  • [3] Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (North Atlantic Books: 2010), 372-373.
  • Printable version: 12-Step Spirituality
  • Published by the Center for Action and Contemplation (https://cac.org/) from 8 Dec 2019 – 20 Dec 2019.
  • Image credit: Femme Assise (Melancholy Woman) (detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902-1903, Detroit Museum of Art, Detroit, Michigan.

Continued in Part 2

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