The 12 steps were written by a man named Bill Wilson in 1938. Bill was one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, and over the last 80+ years, 12 step fellowships have spread across the globe. The basic formula offered by the 12 Steps for recovery from addiction from alcohol has been expanded to apply to about every problem a person could have. The steps help people change their lives with issues from food and gambling, compulsive shopping and debting, to dysfunction with sex and relationships.
Each of the 12 steps has a principle underlying it that will help anyone grow and evolve if they're willing and interested in applying that principle in their life. Although some of the language of the 12 steps wreaks of Christianity, these spiritual principles are wisdom teachings that can be found across cultures and throughout history as guides for personal development and living a healthy life.
The principles underlying the 12 steps are:
One of the interesting things about 12 step fellowships is that they all use exactly the same 12 steps. The only difference between them is step one. And step one is where you identify or get honest about the specific problem that you're having in your life.
I personally think that the 12 steps are one of the greatest gifts to humanity that came out of the 20th century. In fact, taken as a whole, I believe that the 12 steps are the most complete path to personal transformation I have found; and I’ve followed quite a few different systems including Buddhism, Shamanism and mystical Catholicism and enough therapy that I eventually became a therapist myself.
The principle of the first step is honesty. In order to solve a problem, we have to know what the problem is and clearly identify it. The wording of the first step is, We admit we were powerless over _____ and that our lives had become unmanageable. You can fill in the blank with whatever it is that's causing you problems that you have been unable to solve yourself.
Now, there's a lot of controversy around this idea of powerlessness. Western culture is very invested in rugged individualism and using our will for our own benefit and individuation. Certainly the whole rise of scientific materialism, which came out of the enlightenment in the 15 and 1600s, the Industrial Revolution, and all of the material progress that we've made points to the ability of humans to direct their will and their energies and to be able to create amazing things. We build cities, fly to the moon, create computers, AI, and industry. The quality of life for most people around the globe has risen considerably in the past few hundred years.
But the quality of our inner life for many of us, our felt experience, our hearts, our minds, our spirits are not experiencing the same prosperity that our lives on the material plane might suggest. And the 12 steps, like all great paths of transformation, point us away from the material world and into the world of our own psyches, our emotions, and our spirits.
The spiritual principles underlying each of the 12 steps points to the idea that true joy and fulfillment are not found in the material world. They are found in healing and optimizing our relationship with God or the universe, our relationship with other people, and our relationship with ourselves. And like most great religious or spiritual traditions, it's suggested that love and service, selflessness, and humility are the principles that will bring us what we really seek.
So, like I said, the principle of the first step is honesty. We often need to dissolve the ego and the will to be open to the possibility that things could be different. So the first step has a fill in the blank. I'm powerless and my life has become unmanageable. So if you have what feels like an unresolvable or chronic problem, willingness to admit defeat can open us to something outside of the solutions that our ego-mind is offering. Admitting that we can't figure things out is a step in honesty. Acknowledging that our best thinking, efforts and willpower are not bringing us where we want to go is the first step in receiving help. This honesty may be with our relationship with food, porn, relationships, with money and of course, with drugs and alcohol.
So the principle of the first step is to get honest that we have a problem that I can’t solve by myself. This rolls us right into the second step, which holds the principle of hope.
If you don't like the word hope, we could say the principle of the second step is opening to the possibility that things could be different than I could imagine. The second step says, “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” which shoots us right into the spiritual realm, which is a stop sign for a lot of people.
Yet, the steps are very open about what that idea of higher power is. It could be your own wisdom for yourself. Could be God, divine mind, universal life force, the spirit of your loving, dead grandmother. The second step offers hope and possibility that change or healing power beyond our own limited ego resources is available to be able to help us solve our problem.
Step two says, We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. In the root of the word sanity is sanos, which is about health and wholeness. The question to ask ourselves in step two is:
“Do I believe, or am I open to the possibility that I could be restored or brought to a place of health and wholeness?” Some would say the only thing one needs to know about higher power at the second step is that it is not the limited ego self.
After hope comes the spiritual principle of step three, which is surrender. Step three is written, We make a decision to turn our will and our life over to the care of God, as we understand God.
The concept of surrender is underrated in our achievement oriented society. Surrender is frequently tied with defeat in war or in sports like wrestling. We need to tap out.
Surrender, as a spiritual principle is different. Step three is about surrendering our small self in service of the larger capital S self to align our will with divine will. And although our little human ego may feel defeated when it surrenders itself to the larger consciousness system, surrender in this way is about correct alignment and going with the flow.
Step three talks about turning our will and our life over to the care of God. It's about releasing fear and worry, attachment and agitation to how we think things need to be. We are letting go in service of a higher order than we might be able to imagine. Exactly how one turns one's will and life over is another story.
Will for me, is generally about our ideas of how things should be and how they should turn out, and it's kind of an acknowledgement that I can't see the big picture. Going back to step two, that perhaps there's a better way than I could imagine. It’s said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. This is the idea that when I bang my head against the wall long enough, it feels really good when I stop.
And there's an analogy that I use in relation to a strong will being like a team of wild horses. Untamed, that herd of wild horses can knock your house down. But organized, focused, properly trained, a strong will can move mountains, build cities, bring us places we couldn't go on our own if our will were not aligned with higher power.
So the principle of step three is surrender of will and life. But it's also about alignment. In my late 20s I was dating this guy. Very charming, handsome, really good in bed. But he couldn't tell the truth or hold a job. I was determined to make the relationship work. There were tremendous signposts, and I used every ounce of will I had to try to force my will on that relationship. And we got married for a brief time, and that marriage was one of the most painful, difficult experiences I've ever had. It ended, of course, in divorce and bankruptcy. He's dead now, and I'm less willing to force my will in any situation than ever before.
There's a prayer that goes with step three that says:
God, I offer myself to thee, to build with me and to do with me, as you will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of your power, your love, and your way of life. May I do your will always.
This prayer speaks to the interconnectedness of all things and the benefits of surrender and selfless service.
The spiritual principle of step four is courage. Step four is about facing yourself. It reads to Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step four is about self responsibility and recognizing that I have a part in any difficulty in my life. In 12 step fellowships, there's particular attention on resentment, on fear, and on sexuality, because sex, fear, and anger are the places most of us get tripped up. In a lot of 12 step recovery, when people do the steps, they actually sit down with pen and paper and write a moral inventory of themselves. They write a list of all their resentments and fears and where they have been sexually out of line.
Self-examination on this level can be quite illuminating. Honest self-examination is incredibly beneficial. Certainly, revealing deeper truths is one of the things that happens in good therapy and many spiritual and religious traditions talk about self-examination as a really important practice.
Over and over in the Bible. It suggests we examine ourselves first. Like Jesus says in Matthew 7, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” So although it can be easier and even more fun to see what's wrong with other people, it's much more beneficial to actually see what's wrong with ourself first. In fact, the 12 steps actually came out of an fundamentalist Christian organization called the Oxford Group.
The Oxford Group was a Christian organization also known as the First Century Christian Fellowship. It was founded in the 1920s by a Lutheran priest, who believed that all human problems were rooted in fear and selfishness. Oxford Group meetings were held in people's homes rather than in churches. It was very loosely organized, much like first century Christians were after Jesus' crucifixion. Over time, the Oxford group came to call itself Moral Re-Armament, and it still exists as a faith based organization affecting social change under the name of Initiatives of Change. At its height in the 30s, the Oxford Group was worldwide. It was actually at an Oxford Group meeting that Bill Wilson was introduced to these principles that became later the 12 Steps of AA.
Step five holds the principle of integrity. Step five says that We admit to ourselves, to God and to another person the exact nature of our wrongs.
This is similar to atonement in Judaism and confession in Catholicism and Christianity. The therapeutic experience of talking honestly to a counselor, a good life coach or spiritual advisor are all places where we self reveal, and self revealing brings us into integrity. Integrity, for me is when my mind and my heart and my actions are in alignment; when what I'm thinking and how I'm feeling and what I'm doing line up. That's integrity.
In step five people share all the stuff they wrote down in step four with a trustworthy person. In step five we come to understand that we have a part in any circumstance in our lives. We learn to see how we often co-create our own suffering. Self responsiblility moves us out of being a victim and into courage and empowerment. If I had something to do with what happened and how I feel, then there is something I can do to change it. This is really good news. We move out of powerlessness and into a new kind of power; the power to change and grow.
The principle of step six is willingness, and step six reads, We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
So after we take our inventory and share it with another person, we can see where we need correction. For me, this principle of willingness goes very much with the principle of surrender. What are we surrendering in step six? We're surrendering our attachments to our old patterns and ways of doing things.
Whether we're aware of it or not, we are often attached to our own suffering. We’re attached to the narratives we have about our self limiting self-beliefs, taking the past and projecting it fearfully into the future. Just like I was attached to the idea that I wanted that guy to be my husband. And although I don't think that attachment is the root of all suffering, I do believe that all suffering is rooted in attachment.
The spiritual principle of step seven is humility, a very misunderstood concept. People often confuse humility with humiliation, and they're very different. Step seven reads, Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
This is another surrender step, but a more conscious and intentional one. The seventh step prayer says:
My creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength as I go out from here to do your bidding. Amen.
So step six is about becoming willing to let things go, and step seven is actually letting them go. The question in step seven is, “Am I willing to be different?”
The principle of step eight is love and forgiveness. Step eight suggests that, We make a list of all the people we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.
This calls us to deep self responsibility.
Step eight is a karma cleaning step. You can actually transform your karmic experience by going back to people you have harmed and amending the harm you have done. Sometimes that might be actually saying I'm sorry. It might be paying off a debt or returning something you stole. Being honest with someone where you had been formerly dishonest will change you. It’s very powerful to amend our harms.
And so in step eight, we make a list of the persons that we have harmed. And in step nine, we actually go out and Make direct amends to those people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Intrinsic in these steps of cleaning up our past is the idea that we forgive everyone who ever harmed us as well. It's not written into the 12 steps, but perhaps it should be. If I could add a step, I think I would add, “and we forgive everyone who ever harmed us.”
Now, these are principles are tall orders. They're things to grow into. It may take a lifetime of practice applying these principles in all areas of our life, but I think these days we could all grow from some forgiveness, some humility, and taking responsibility in a loving way for where we've been off base.
The principle of step ten is discipline. In the 12 steps, ten suggests that, We continue to take personal inventory, and when we're wrong, we promptly admit it.
This is about clearing our side of the street and keeping it clean. If something's bothering your conscience, take care of it. Don't carry it around. The thing about taking self responsibility is that it brings with it tremendous self empowerment. Because we have no power when we're the victim of other people's actions, like I mentioned in Step five. Again, when I can take responsibility for myself and my behavior, then I have power to do and say things, and take action in ways that will change my life for the better, and perhaps the lives of those around me.
The principle of step 11 is spiritual awareness or spiritual maturity. Step 11 suggests that, We seek, through prayer and meditation, to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out.
Step eleven points us toward spending time connecting spiritually, whatever that means to us. It suggests that we find and maintain a spiritual practice that connects us with power and guidance, and develop a conscious contact with the spiritual reality that underlies our material experience.
The spiritual principle of step 12 is service, and it suggests that, We have a spiritual awakening as the result of all this other work we've done, and that we carry the message of hope to other sufferers, and to practice these principles in all areas of our lives.
Step twelve points us to practice generosity and selfless service. We are to pass on to others what we have received through this process. It’s like a spiritual pyramid scheme where everyone is a winner. Love is not a finite substance that we lose when we give it away. Love is an energy that benefits both the giver and receiver when it is shared.
The thing I love about spiritual principles is that they have no dogma, no religion, no agenda attached to them. They call us to the deepest truth and the highest expression of our self. Spiritual principles ask us to let go, but they also call us to receive. Spiritual principles are like laws of physics, they work whether we believe in them or not.
Applying the principles of the twelve steps is like lifting weights. If we pick up a weight and move it correctly, our muscles will grow. It doesn’t matter how we feel about exercise. If we lift weights it will change our bodies and we will get stronger.
So I encourage you to consider where these spiritual principles might benefit you. Where can you grow in honesty, in hope, in surrendering your will? Where can you grow in courage to tell the truth, in the integrity of self, and willingness to let go of old ways of being and cultivate humility? Are you willing to face who and what you really are, good and bad, and to grow in love and forgiveness, self-responsibility and discipline? Are you open to become clean on the inside, growing in spiritual awareness of the power and the guidance that are available to us all? Are we willing to put in the time and effort to open and to receive spiritual nourishment, and to be of service to others where we can? Are we open to experiencing the great truth that it is in giving that we most deeply receive?
Blessings on your path.
Renee LaVallee McKenna