AA Spiritual Experience: The Ultimate Promise?
What does the AA program promise?
I think the first half of the 12th Step sums it up as succinctly as ever…“Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message…”
It’s funny, if you ask a million different people what the AA message is they will likely provide you with a million different answers.
However, the answer is simple.
The message is this: as a result of working the steps you can have a spiritual awakening.
That does leave loads of questions though, does it not?
Like what the hell is a spiritual awakening?
Spiritual Experience Defined
The Big Book isn’t shy on this prescription.
In other words, a spiritual experience is necessary within the AA system.
You might have noticed that I use the terms spiritual awakening and spiritual experience interchangeably.
There is a good reason for this – because the book does!
In Appendix II Spiritual Experience they try to clear up the murky waters a bit. Apparently many in the early fellowship thought the term “experience” had connotations of “suddenness” as if a burst of new life and energy was intended to be thrust upon them.
If the burning bush variety experience didn’t occur, many thought they had failed. The appendix was designed to clear up the confusion.
Spiritual Experience Appendix II
The terms “spiritual experience” and “spiritual awakening” are used many times in this book which, upon careful reading, shows that the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us in many different forms.
Yet it is true that our first printing gave many readers the impression that these personality changes, or religious experiences, must be in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals. Happily for everyone, this conclusion is erroneous.
In the first few chapters a number of sudden revolutionary changes are described. Though it was not our intention to create such an impression, many alcoholics have nevertheless concluded that in order to recover they must acquire an immediate and overwhelming “God-consciousness” followed at once by a vast change in feeling and outlook.
Among our rapidly growing membership of thousands of alcoholics such transformations, though frequent, are by no means the rule. Most of our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the “educational variety” because they develop slowly over a period of time. Quite often friends of the newcomer are aware of the difference long before he is himself. He finally realizes that he has undergone a profound alteration in his reaction to life; that such a change could hardly have been brought about by himself alone.
What often takes place in a few months could hardly be accomplished by years of self-discipline. With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.
Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it “God-consciousness.”
Most emphatically we wish to say that any alcoholic capable of honestly facing his problems in the light of our experience can recover, provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual principles. He can only be defeated by an attitude of intolerance or belligerent denial.
We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. WILLINGNESS, HONESTY AND OPEN MINDEDNESS ARE THE ESSENTIALS OF RECOVERY. BUT THESE ARE INDISPENSABLE.
“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance–that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” –-HERBERT SPENCER
The Importance of Spirituality in Recovery
The AA philosophy is adamant that a failure to develop spiritually can lead to relapse. This is due to the belief that when the spiritual malady is corrected, the physical and mental follow suit.
This is why the first step of AA requires abandoning the belief that you can no longer pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. The second step of AA swiftly follows, recognizing that a Higher Power can indeed pull you up.
Each step was created with the goal is to increase conscious contact with God and others. The below diagram represents the connection and disconnection, respectively.
Alcoholics Anonymous claims that an alcoholic may have tons of will power in other areas of their lives but when it comes to alcohol they are “strangely insane.”
This strange insanity refers to the inherent lack of power in the alcoholic not to drink even in the midst of terrible consequences.
The strange insanity is the diagnosis, which is also referred to as “powerlessness.”
The prescription is then Power.
A power that can correct the strange insanity or as step two suggests: “Came to believe a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Independence is certainly a valued commodity and it’s done wonders for human evolution. However, to tackle the problem of addiction we must evolve to the next stage of evolution: interdependence.
Interdependence is a new way of thinking and interacting with the world, it’s that delicate dance of connection between Self, God, and Others as illustrated in the diagram above (see “the self loop” in my article on powerlessness).
Ken Wilber has a refreshing and understanding take on this journey from dependence to independence to interdependence.
Let’s look at the stages of development he proposes.
Egocentrism (preconventional) – this view cannot see past itself. The world revolves around I, me, mine, and more. If something goes wrong it’s either entirely someone else’s fault or entirely my own. It’s either against me or proceeding from me. We can call this the “either/or position.” Not much meaning in this sphere, one is basically at the mercy of circumstance. One becomes the dog tied to the cart, a product of a merciless fate; a victim.
Ethnocentrism (Conventional) – this view begins to see others. The world now revolves around us, in a sense. I start to see how my actions affect others. This is the arena of personal responsibility and community action. This position is very tribal and is a great manufacturer of cliques. We are no longer at the mercy of the cart, instead our cart becomes better than your cart. It reeks of independence, breaking the chains of what came before us. One becomes either inferior or superior; a constant power struggle.
Worldcentrism (postconventional) – this view is connected to others. I begin to revere diversity and the idiosyncrasies that define us. My sense of self is broader, and I find my fulfillment invested in the world around me. Additionally, all the five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, autonomy or freedom, and fun, can be satisfied, which I call “emotional fulfillment.” One no longer envisions a cart but is instead enjoying the ride with whoever the other passengers may be.
When we fail to achieve emotional fulfillment we seek to find it in artificial substitutes and inauthentic connections.
The 12-Steps ultimately traverse the same journey just without the philosophical minutiae. Rather than having to understand the mechanics of the process, the program asks one to trust the Divine to handle providing the insight at the necessary times.
Along these lines, A.A. is a strict “not religious but spiritual” methodology (check out the history behind this by clicking here).
Therefore, a Higher Power can be any conceivable thing so long as it’s a “power greater than yourself.”
In the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W shares his experience grappling with the concept of a Higher Power, “To acquire it, I had only to stop fighting and practice the rest of A.A.’s program as enthusiastically as I could.”
Many of the agnostic or atheistically inclined members make the group as the High Power.
A beginning has to be made somewhere and AA strongly attempts to meet the individual where they are.
The Benefits of a Spiritual Experience
The Big Book is very clear what a spiritual experience looks like. It’s not necessarily this amazing experience riddled with high levels of dopamine and visions.
Rather it’s a new relationship to your thoughts, and of consequence, a new interaction with the world around you.
Alcoholics Anonymous provides 12 promises that capture this new relationship to the world:
- We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
- We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
- We will comprehend the word serenity.
- We will know peace.
- No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
- That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
- We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
- Self-seeking will slip away.
- Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change.
- Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us.
- We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
- We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Some refer to the mindset that embodies these promises as one of serenity. Others call it grace. Call it what you will.
It’s impossible to scientifically scrutinize the direct experience of others. We can try, but we can never really quantify your experience nor can we place qualifiers on it.
In the end, members of Alcoholics Anonymous collectively assert the powerful and lasting effects spirituality has on their lives. In other words, where empirical data may be difficult to produce, a plethora of anecdotal data suggests this is something worth striving for.
Criticisms of the AA Spiritual Experience
One of the major criticisms swiftly follows what was just mentioned.
A “spiritual experience” is outside the realm of science and is therefore not truly a solution to addiction, particularly if addiction is a disease as understood by the scientific method.
However, this need not be the case.
For example, we know that genes, one’s upbringing, and stressors can cause neurochemical deficits in the brain resulting in depression.
We also know that people have had profound and moving insights that suddenly shift the manner in which they viewed the world, resulting in neurochemical balance and turning depression into contentment fairly quickly.
We also know the power of belief has a huge impact on one’s physiology, but that opposite is also true.
Life is not so easily placed in a neat package.
Some criticize that the program is too religious and abandons those without religious belief.
Undeniably, the program has a semi-Christian heritage. Much of it’s framework is built upon Christian Liberalism of the early twentieth century.
However, Christian Liberalism is the borrowing of Christian terms and concepts and endowing them with new more secularly relevant meaning. If anything, this is a pretty clean break from religion.
Additionally, the amount of agnostics and atheists that have use the 12-step system to sober up attests to this fact.
Another criticism is that continuous relapsers feel immense guilt for failing to truly turn their lives over to a higher power.
Often the member is instructed to return to the group and work harder and harder on the steps to produce the necessary spiritual experience.
Unfortunately, this is poor guidance.
It’s more a criticism against individuals’ opinions rather than what the organization itself teaches.
There could be a host of other issues blocking the person from experiencing total freedom.
They should utilize professionals. This is actually a directive in the book!
They should consult a doctor to check the health of their bodies; a therapist to examine their minds; psychiatrist to assess their neurochemistry, and a social worker to examine their interpersonal relationships and social systems.
A spiritual life in no way precludes a holistic one.
Instead, it demands it!
==>Click below for a PDF of Appendix II Spiritual Experience