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: 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.

Radical Marriage: Anyone Will Do (in theory)

What is the point of working on my marriage if my partner isn’t doing likewise? Doesn’t it take two people to make a relationship work? Should I bother to seek individual counsel and direction?


Two Men Courting Girl’s Favor, Norman Rockwell, 1917

Remember that you create half of the relationship. Anything that you do better, in either giving or receiving, can only improve the situation. Of course, you cannot arrive at a consummate marriage, a reciprocal union, from only one side. But you can move towards it. Your healthy human needs will not be adequately addressed by your stagnant partner. (This is a problem that needs a separate discussion.)   But you can grow in wisdom and love and partially reshape a relationship that will then look and feel different to both of you. Your personal growth continually renews and updates the invitation to your partner to join you in a dialogue of eros.

The soul purpose of life is to grow in capacity to love. Philosophy and psychology alone will not get you there. Love is too big of a mystery to tackle in the abstract. A bottom-up approach is needed. Start with an example, not a concept. Perhaps this soulful purpose adds to the basic desire for romantic coupling. Grow to love this specific, flawed, frustrating, infuriating, ordinary person in front of you. If you can love any one particular person unconditionally, unrestrictedly, unreservedly, then you can love anybody. Then you will know a greater love than connects all things. Ironically, what seems like an individual, one-sided endeavor actually helps you participate in something even more inclusive than your marriage. So, yes, working on “relationship issues” by yourself is still worthwhile.

In this sense, it does not absolutely matter who that specific person is. The beauty and the suffering of marriage is that any person, fully revealed, is difficult to love. Some are more difficult than others, of course, and we all might prefer a shallower learning curve. Since perfect love is not attainable and all are equally worthy of love, you are ultimately tackling the same project with whomever you choose; it just has a different shape. And it’s the same project no matter how many times you choose.

Priests and Prophets in Corporate Leadership


Zacharias (Michelangelo)

A wise manager – who is only wise because he learned from outside as well as inside his field – gave me this memorable parallel between corporate and religious leadership. People “of the Book” (Jews, Christians, Muslims) are all familiar with the history of the prophets. They critique the system from within, though from the margins of the organization. Prophets do not predict the future in detail but call out trends, disruptions, downward slides and divergence from core values. They see a higher ideal, a higher level of group consciousness. An organization with no capacity or tolerance for self-criticism will blindly march toward irrelevance or extinction.

But prophets are rarely popular within their organization. They do not win mass conversions and in biblical times they usually ended up dead (now retired, fired, transferred, sidelined, etc.) (Mark 6:4). They face the priesthood, whose job it is to justify and perpetuate the system. Priests provide continuity, policies (dogma), procedures (rituals) that allow the organization to join forces and move as one; they embody and give voice to the company. Every organization is self-justifying and self-perpetuating, just like every organism. Criticize it and the priests will circle the wagons. This is just normal reactivity, not some kind of evil.

Priests have a much longer life expectancy than prophets in corporate leadership. Know which one you are before you invest too much in that career path.