12 Step Recovery: Higher Power

  1. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  2. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Some people struggle with the Higher Power in the 12 Steps. For others it is a deal-breaker that excludes them from the program. I’ve heard of some other recovery programs described as “like the 12 Steps but without a Higher Power,” which is an oxymoron. The whole premise of the program is captured in the first three steps: I do not have enough power; something or somebody else has sufficient power; I am willing to let go of the steering wheel and let the Higher Power drive.


Yggdrasil – Oluf Olufsen Bagge, 1847

“How we understand Him,” is actually the first obstacle. If we can only imagine Him objectively, categorically, as “Him over there,” physically as matter or energy, then we are in trouble. Any such Power is dubious at best and intellectually insulting at worst. God – He (pardon the old but convenient language) has to be transcendent. He has to go beyond subject/object divisions, all categories, time or space. After that, you can understand Him any way you want. The Perennial Philosophy says that He is the “ground of all being,” but all language and concepts necessarily fall short of capturing God’s essence. Perhaps the most honest description can be borrowed from quantum physics: “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.

The “who God is” is directly tied to the “how God is.” How does God “restore us to sanity?” God does not zap us from on high to cure us of alcoholism or anything else. In a paradoxical way, we effect our own sobriety when we give up our illusion of autonomy and begin to participate in the cosmos and the divine-human community. What a relief it is not to be struggling for our private self-worth and happiness-amidst-chaos on a moment to moment basis! How you position yourself is everything. If you are a self-sufficient island, your life becomes unmanageable. If you are participating, connected, even dependent in some kind of Ultimate Reality, then overall management is no longer your headache. You are “saved” by your deeper identity.

This place of self-positioning has always been there. It does not “happen” when you decide to work the steps. You only start to benefit by opening yourself up to what has always been available. This is how T. S. Eliot can write:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Higher Power is latent inside of you, where you started, but it is not you – wholly other. Expand into it (“turn our will and our lives over to”) and you will see yourself as if for the first time.

12 Step Recovery: Powerless

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

All great spirituality is about letting go. Indeed you have to start this way. Otherwise spirituality or religion is just one more ego accomplishment, as if you have God in your back pocket, so to speak. Recovery begins with a true surrender.


Boy Cutting Grass with a Sickle – Vincent van Gogh, 1881

Surrender is a very unappetizing word. Little wonder that we resist it past the point of denial. Strength, resilience, toughness, determination all employ the rallying cry, “Never surrender!” Adult success is synonymous with independence. You can take care it. You’ve got this!

So little and yet so much needs to be let go. This first step is not an abrogation of responsibility nor a switch to total passivity. It is a breaking of the ideal of self-sufficiency, a movement out of oneself. The accompanying feeling is humility, a word from the Latin humus, meaning ground, as in being grounded. Sobriety happens on the ground, not when you are “high.”

The added difficulty with the primary addictions (to the core programs for happiness) is that our lives do appear to be manageable – if only other people would behave and cooperate with us. It takes long, hard introspection to recognize that you have a problem. Folks will notice that you are insecure, or grandiose, or a control freak, but everybody has “defects of character,” right? This blindness is why the alcoholics et al are kinda fortunate. They are already attuned to the addictive process.

Therese of Lisieux, the Carmelite nun of the late 19th century nicknamed “The Little Flower,” is a good role model for humility. A teenager with little education, her spiritual intuition became known as “The Little Way.” She somehow knew that her divine daughtership was nothing to be earned or won through perfection.

“I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way—very short and very straight, a little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have elevators instead. Well, I mean to try and find an elevator by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. […] To get there I need not grow; on the contrary, I must remain little, I must become still less.”

Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

Admitting that we are powerless is a defeat of the ego, not the soul. Indeed, the soul needs this posture to continue maturing into the second half of life, a time not only of sobriety, but of wonder and wisdom.

Solution Talk: The 12 Steps

What do indigenous mythologies, gospel music and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous all have in common? They are three spiritualities native to America, and, I believe, the three most historically significant. In the first you have a reverence for Nature, God’s first bible. In the second you have a form of communal contemplative prayer. And in the 12 Steps, you have a program for the Purgative Way, the first stage in spiritual maturity across many faith traditions.


Haiku Stairs – Oahu

Spiritual discipline or treatment plan for substance use disorder? The 12-steps are both at once, demonstrating that spiritual and psychological wellness are the same endeavor. When one is purged of egocentricity and its attendant “defects of character,” life flourishes and God rushes in. (God, like Nature, abhors a vacuum.) Alcohol is mentioned in the first step but is apparently forgotten thereafter. Nowhere does it say, even indirectly, when and how one will stop drinking. Instead the focus is fully on emotional sobriety, the real project.

The 12 Steps and the companion 12 Traditions are very practical (i.e. American) spirituality and not weighed down with theological headiness. It has no purity codes or barriers to admission. “The only requirement … is a desire to stop drinking.” This attitude is closer to the Christian Gospel than mainstream Christianity, I’m afraid.

Luke’s version of the Gospel has a cluster of parables of something lost and being found, then rejoicing in the recovery (sheep, coin, son). An AA birthday meeting, where members celebrate milestone recovery periods, feels very much like this kind of celebration. There is something very special to God about recovery, without diminishing those who were never lost. The personal, the communal and the transcendent all come together in one moment as each birthday alcoholic comes forward. I would dare to guess that nobody ever relapsed soon after such a gathering.


Solution Talk: Divine Therapy

One reason why addictions are seductive and self-reinforcing is that they sorta, kinda work, in the moment. In the long term they are a growing disaster, which you experience in the moments afterward as a growing sense of futility and self-hatred. Emotional addictions are even more insidious. With a substance, you know at some level that it is a cheat – a fake comfort. Our programs for happiness, (security, esteem and control), however, feel like honest, clear thinking.


Canopy Walk, Mulu National Park, Malasyia

Yet they can not and will not work. Although we are designed for happiness, we are looking for it in the wrong places, says the Trappist monk, Thomas Keating.¹ Only a transcendent and infinite source can completely secure you, reassure you, steady you. To the extent that these needs are neurotic, their roots extend to the unconscious mind and only a divine light can find them all in that darkness.

Keating notes that we don’t turn to the divine therapy initially because we develop our wounds in childhood before a spiritual experience is really possible. Babies come into the world in divine and maternal fusion, a unitive though undifferentiated experience. As the child develops a Self, a private ego, that unity is lost and s/he has to respond, alone, to any deficits or defects in the caring environment. During this time, the self-reliant programs for happiness are invented.

It is also human nature to depend on yourself as much and as long as possible. A lack of this instinct is considered to be a disorder in the mental health world. How ironic that full sobriety requires a radical form of dependence on the Other.

Keating advocates a method of divine therapy called contemplation, an ancient form of thought discipline and attentiveness. Very, very simply, contemplation means to see the situation without getting caught up in it. In a focused period of contemplation, every thought is noticed and let pass (you are sitting down, inactive). Painful feelings and old memories can come up, be observed and let go without deploying any of the usual defenses. Wounds buried in the unconscious have to pass through the conscious in order to be relieved.

In the Christian scriptures, you can see why Jesus’ first word is “metanoia.” The word is usually translated as “repent,” but it literally means to change or go beyond your mind, your usual way of thinking. Nothing less will suffice for emotional sobriety, for healing, for salvation.

  1. Keating, Thomas. The Human Condition: Contemplation and transformation. Paulist Press, 1999.

Solution Talk: Transformation

“No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it” (Albert Einstein). Emotional addiction is a central process in consciousness. We are hyper-alert to an emotional siren that will set us off toward more seeking, more manipulation of our exaggerated needs. If Albert is correct, it follows that a raised consciousness is necessary to recovery. I am simply calling it transformation.


Haiku Stairs – Hawaii

Life is a series of transformations. Many theorists have created maps of human development with anywhere from two to ten stages. Moving from one stage to another is a transformation. The childhood stages happen almost automatically, propelled by biology and the care of families. By adulthood (some would say adolescence) transformation becomes more intentional, requiring more support from the culture and contact with the natural world. It relies on self-emptying, which lets something new get in.

Ken Wilber describes a 1-2-3 process of transformation.¹ The first step, fusion, is where you are at now – your current worldview. A better way of relating to everything is enfolded within you, but you are not conscious of it. Next comes differentiation, the unfolding. It sounds pretty but it feels more like falling apart, even dying. Yet in the process you glimpse something new, a taste of the next stage. It is, by definition, an expanded view – more tolerant, more plurality. Finally, there is integration, where you put yourself back together and regain stability.

An important concept in Wilber’s psychology is that the new stage does not replace, but instead integrates the previous stage. The old self is not rejected. It is part of something bigger.

Ken Keyes gives us one of these maps which anticipate where we are going. He describes seven “centers” of consciousness.² The first three are the addictive centers of unhappiness: security, sensation and power. The next two are in the recovery zone and the last two are transcendent. Let’s consider the recovery centers.

Love Center

Transformation also requires a practice. The essential practice in the crossover from emotional addiction to recovery is to “uplevel” your supposed need for satisfaction into a preference. More optional than a need or even a desire. We can prefer lots of things. No limit, really. When something else arrives we can accept it if we only preferred it. Your tolerance for the objective environment and subjective experience increases.

To go further, you realize that everybody else is also struggling with or driven by their emotional addictions. They do not act for the purpose of thwarting your happiness. You do not need to change them, though you would prefer their own recovery.

Cornucopia Center

In this center, you have everything you need. It is a world of abundance (“cornucopia” means “horn of plenty”) instead of a world of scarcity. Your standard reaction to anything is either, “It’s OK,” or, “It’s enough.” This center of conscious stands in contradiction to the addictive attitude, which says, “It’s never enough.”

Even life’s challenges and provocations are giving you what you need – the opportunity to practice your recovery.

  1. Wilber, Ken. The spectrum of consciousness. Quest Books, 1993.
  2. Keyes, Ken. Handbook to Higher Consciousness. Berkeley, Calif: Living Love Center, 1975.

Solution Talk: Pathways To Sobriety

People in recovery structure their stories along the lines of “what it was like; what happened; what it is like now.” There is a curious tendency to emphasize the first part – the problem. Alcoholics call it the drunk-a-logue. Therapists call it the problem-saturated story. The solutions are surely mysterious and even people who have experienced one may not always have the language to conceptualize it or describe it.


Tianmen Mountain Road (China)

If the solution involves a transpersonal strength – a higher power or something larger than ourselves – there actually is no language available to describe it. All spiritual language is necessarily metaphor. There is a saying attributed to Henrich Zimmer: “The best things in life cannot be told. The second best things are misunderstood. The third best things are everyday conversation.” Spiritual solution talk is second best.

I have come across three solution paths in my travels and two are overtly transpersonal. There are, I assume, many other possibilities. Again, I am concerned with emotional sobriety. Sobriety (or harm reduction) from substances or behaviors is and should be the immediate problem. In the case of certain substances recovery requires intensive medical care. Go there first.

For “users and players” emotional sobriety is the second, further journey. For everybody else, they might start out on one of these three paths:

  • the path of Higher Consciousness – using the thought of Ken Keyes and Ken Wilber
  • the path of Divine Therapy – using the thought of Thomas Keating
  • the path of Twelve Steps – from Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous

In the next three blog posts I will attempt a sketch of each one, adding how I make sense of them in an integrated life.