Spirituality and the 11th Step
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
“God enters by a private door into each individual.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the chapter on the 11th Step in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, AA’s guidebook to the Steps, Bill W. writes:
There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation, and prayer. Taken separately, these practices can bring much relief and benefit. But when they are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakable foundation for life.¹
Together with the 10th Step which focuses on self-examination, the 11th Step shows us the way to establish and maintain that “unshakable foundation for life.” Through practicing these spiritual disciplines, we discover that prayer and meditation are not just helpful but indispensible practices if we are serious about grounding our new lives on a solid spiritual foundation. And the collective experience of AA demonstrates that if we keep growing spiritually by building on that foundation, then we will free ourselves from bondage to the self-seeking anger, fear, isolation, and despair that once ruled us and fueled our drinking and other addictions.
But if we don’t nurture our growing spiritual awareness through the persistent practice of prayer and meditation, then we will almost certainly stunt our own spiritual growth. If we fail to build on that solid foundation, then we put our own recovery at risk, for when the inevitable storms of life strike and knock us for a loop, we’re far more likely to seek the illusory relief of drinking (or other addictive behavior) instead of turning to the spiritual connection with our higher power.
Almost all of us already have several ideas about spirituality when we enter recovery. They’re usually connected with our beliefs about religion—both for and against. Whether such pre-existing beliefs help or hinder our recovery may depend on our ability to be open-minded—especially about things we’re certain we already know. Bear in mind that non-religious persons are sometimes as dogmatic and closed-minded as the most extreme religious fundamentalists. And remember that if any of us really had all the answers, then we wouldn’t have needed the program in the first place.
Note also that nothing in the 11th Step contradicts any theology—not even atheism. It contains neither dogma nor a requirement to believe or reject any particular spiritual or religious point of view. Even those who think they are atheists or agnostics need not be hindered by the reference to “God as we understood Him.” Over the years many thousands have understood G-O-D as little more than a convenient acronym for “Group of Drunks” or “Good Orderly Direction.” Both constitute powers demonstrably greater than a lone alcoholic or other addict whose life keeps falling apart despite her best efforts to hold it together.
Religious folks who are wary of Step 11’s non-dogmatic approach to spirituality might consider that prayer and meditation are recognized as vital spiritual practices by all of the world’s major religions. Yet many believers fall short in the practice of one or both. To them the 11th Step says, in effect, that building a relationship with God through prayer and meditation is critically important for the spiritual growth necessary to meet life’s challenges successfully. Belief alone will not build that relationship. Practice is required if we would transform our hopeful belief into faith based on knowledge.
Even non-believers can embrace prayer and meditation as effective paths to spiritual growth and healing. We don’t have to be religious or believe in God to appreciate the research showing that people who practice such spiritual disciplines tend to be happier and healthier than those who don’t.² Yet some of us object so strongly to certain ideas about God or religious beliefs that we resist opening our minds to broader conceptions of God and spiritual practices.
We’re challenged to step back from our pre-existing beliefs and to start fresh with a blank slate. It helps to recognize that if God exists—that indefinable primal something that created and sustains everything in our infinite universe, including the “laws” of nature—then our limited human understanding could no more comprehend such a God any more than a stick figure drawing could capture the manifold complexity of a living human being. All of our conceptions of God are approximations at best—rough sketches based on fleeting glimpses described by sleepwalking witnesses. If we let others’ religious ideas or conceptions of God hold us hostage to their beliefs, thus preventing us from practicing the 11th Step, then we might not only sabotage our own recovery, but also miss discovering our own true nature as spiritual beings.
Prayer and meditation are time-tested methods for exploring that essential nature from within. Prayer is a particularly effective form of positive affirmation. Even though most people may think of it as directed toward an external agency (such as the child’s idea of God as a wish-granting Santa in the sky) others may regard prayer as directed toward our own higher selves, whether conceived as the divine spark of an eternal soul (the “child of God” within) or simply as the self-actualizing, enlightened, psychologically-integrated mature self that has our real best interests at heart.
Likewise, meditation has long been practiced and encouraged in most cultures as a primary means of stilling the mind and expanding one’s spiritual awareness. The benefits are difficult to imagine for many driven, Type “A” personalities, especially when their sense of self is limited to just that: their personalities. But we are not our “personality,” any more than we are our permanent school record, our physical type, our bank account, the car we drive, or our job title. What we are is something much more than all of that, and something very different from what we sometimes imagine ourselves to be.
We are not really human beings who are striving to have a spiritual experience; rather, we are spiritual beings who are having a human experience. And aside from exceptionally rare “burning bush” experiences, meditation is the only means of getting to know this truth about ourselves, to experience it in the very core of our being. It’s this knowledge, grounded in direct experience and not merely intellectual belief, that fundamentally changes our outlook on the world and our place in it, enables us to shed old behaviors and attitudes, and empowers us to become the men and women whom God wants us to be.
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¹ Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, AA World Services, Inc., 1952 p. 100
² See, for instance, “The Psychological and Physical Benefits of Spiritual/Religious Practices,” by Ellen Idler of Rutgers University
Questions to think about when working Step 11:
(With help from the book, Alcoholics Anonymous)
On awakening, do you think about the 24 hours ahead and consider your plans for the day?
Before you begin, do you ask God to direct your thinking, especially asking that it be divorced from self-pity, dishonest or self-seeking motives?
Do you refrain from making requests for yourself only, except in cases where others may be helped?
How do you handle indecision? Do you ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision? Do you relax and take it easy, or do you struggle?
Do you pray to be shown all throughout the day what your next step is to be, and that you be given whatever you need to take care of such problems?
Do you ask for freedom from self-will?
Do you refrain from making requests for yourself only, except in cases where others may be helped?
Are you careful never to pray for your own selfish ends?
If circumstances warrant, do you ask your spouse or friends to join you in morning meditation?
Do you attend to your religious morning devotion, if you have one?
Do you pause when agitated or doubtful, and ask for the right thought or action?
Do you remind yourself that you are no longer running the show, humbly saying to yourself many times each day, “Thy will be done”?
Links to more information about Spirituality and the 11th Step:
“Step 11,” from the12steps.com
Dick B. on “Eleventh Step Prayer and Meditation” from Silkworth.net
12Step.org on Step 11
The Big Book Bunch on “Taking Step 11”
Aussie Chuck on “A Non-Theist View of Step 11”
“Passage Meditation and the Eleventh Step,” from meditationandrecovery.org
Selfgrowth.com’s “Meditation and the 11th Step”
From the Sacred Connections project, an article about relating 12 Step principles to traditional religious practices
A short and simple article about prayer and mediation from spiritual-experiences.com
Links to sites about Prayer & Meditation in traditional religious practice at concetrinc.net
Meditation: A Simple Eight-Point Program for Translating Spiritual Ideals into Daily Life, by Eknath Easwaran. A gem of a book by a gifted writer who demystifies meditation with his gently humorous and down-to-earth approach to the subject.
Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, by Philip Yancey. A hard-nosed look at prayer and it’s role in building an authentic relationship with the God of our limited understanding.
Terence Gorski, Understanding the Twelve Steps: An Interpretation and Guide for Recovering People A practical, straightforward guide to understanding and practicing the 12 Steps, written by an alcohol and drug abuse counselor with many years of experience in the field.
Darren Littlejohn, The 12-Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery from Any Addiction A guide to practicing the 12 Steps from a Buddhist perspective.
The Twelve Steps, A Spiritual Journey: A Working Guide for Healing Damaged Emotions A guide and workbook to all 12 Steps, based on Biblical teachings and written especially for Christians seeking to understand the principles of the Steps in relation to their religious beliefs and practices.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions The official Alcoholics Anonymous supplement to the “Big Book” explaining each of the Steps—and the Traditions—in greater detail.