Big Book Recovery

Working the 12 Step Programme

Step Twelve

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practise these principles in all our affairs.

General Reading:

The whole book is included but the chapter Working With Others is good for the traditional “12th step” work. The following bulleted points are approaches to service and practising these principles in all our affairs that we have found work well for us and act as the foundation for our AA lives:

• We continue to call newcomers and now we must try to share (before Step Five we may share) this message (AA’s) at meetings wherever possible (more about sharing later).

• We should aim to have service commitments at all times. These can be at the group, and, as soon as we have the sobriety qualifications, at the telephone office, intergroup, conference etc: we should aim to get involved.

• There is no need to call the sponsor daily once we are through the steps, we have found a minimum of weekly contact is usually fine.

• For all members, we find a minimum of two meetings a week is the best. At these core meetings (Home Groups, see later), we arrive early and go out for coffee afterwards. (See How May Meetings do I Need to Attend? for more details).

· • Read the AA literature and be reminded that it is obedience to the principles of AA that get us well, not our sponsors.

The following deals with commonly occurring situations and questions:

1.     AA Service

• Sharing

• Sponsorship

• How Many Meetings Do I Need to Attend?

• What is a Home Group?

2.     Practise Spiritual Principles in All Our Affairs (How to do the right thing)

3.     A Spiritual Awakening, or, Misery Really is Optional

4.     But I Think I’m Doing the Programme and I Still Feel Down

AA Service

Right from the beginning in AA, we should start trying to adopt an attitude of service and a what-can-I-contribute approach in all areas of our lives. However, for the alcoholic, it is vital that this should include particularly passing on the message of AA’s programme of recovery on to suffering alcoholics. This can take a variety of forms, direct or indirect, and can be aimed at both alcoholics who are already in AA in the AA group; and those who are outside AA and yet to stop through the Intergroup and General Service structures and even just as we go about our daily lives. The chapter Working With Others in the Big Book is the primary source for guidance here. The Twelve Traditions are invaluable to us in our consideration of how best to carry the message.

Sharing in meetings

Speaking while the AA meeting is in session (which is usually referred to as “sharing”) whether from the floor or the chair, is a key part of “carrying the message”, in line also with Tradition Five, which says: Each group has but one primary purpose to carry its message [that means the AA message] to the alcoholic who still suffers. With this in mind, we have found that when we try to offer AA’s message of hope to the still-suffering alcoholic, we get the most direct benefits in return.

What information should we aim to be sharing? (See also Tradition Five) The guidance for the content our sharing is on page 58 where it says: “Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it then your are ready to take certain steps.” We have received the greatest rewards from sharing by trying to understand first why we do so. The paragraph just quoted (and it is a complete paragraph) shows that the purpose of revealing our stories is to indicate to the still-suffering alcoholic, in a general way, what we have now so that they are in a position to make the choice offered to them: do they want what we have?

If we disclose information in a general way, there is no need to reveal details in a meeting that should be for our sponsor’s ears only. This might save us later embarrassment, or making others feel uncomfortable as they hear it. Certainly, in order to communicate the general picture of what we are like now and how we have changed, it is likely to be helpful to illustrate the point with some details, but only insofar as it contributes to disclosing a true picture of the general situation. And the Big Book tells us of one specific detail of our story that we should include when building up this general picture. On page 29 it says: “Each individual, in the personal stories, describes in his own language and from his own point of view the way he established his relationship with God.” Taking this to heart, we also try to include a description, however brief, of how we came to establish a relationship with God, as we understand Him.

What is ‘honest’ sharing? Some people feel that the “honest” sharing is that which focusses only on what we are unhappy with at this precise moment. For us, this selectively negative approach does not give a true impression of our general situation when we are working the programme. If it is true that generally our lives have improved since we came to AA, then it is dishonest for us to give any other impression. If things are worse, as in our very early days, then we have found it best to keep quiet and listen to the experience of others so that we can learn how to have happier lives.

On the whole, we try to offer positive experiences of the programme to encourage the newcomer and to indicate the truth of our general situation so they will gain hope that an improvement in their is available for them too.  However, this is not to say that life goes exactly as we would wish it to. The AA programme does not guarantee that life will always be to our satisfaction. Most of us with any length of sobriety have had to face the ups and downs in life that most face (illness, the suffering or even the death of a loved one, rejection, unemployment etc). And although most would not choose to experience these things, we find that the programme does give us the tools to face these events responsibly and for the most part, happily, and with dignity. We try to follow the guidance of the Big Book, where it says, on page 133: “If trouble comes, cheerfully capitalize on it as an opportunity to demonstrate His omnipotence.” If I can put in the work (and the programme shows me how) to enable me to consider a sober day a good day, then all days are good. We find it helpful to share the details of how the programme has helped us to overcome our difficulties.

Share gratitude in meetings, and problems with your sponsor. Many feel that they should share problems in meetings because they are under the misconception that it will somehow help them to deal with the feelings associated with the problem. We have found that although there is momentary relief, it does not deal with it permanently. In fact, if we work on the premise that “we get what we give”, then sharing of difficulties in a meeting will actually increase the unhappiness. For those of us who did not yet feel any gratitude, it was suggested that it might be more helpful to be quiet and listen. As it was put to us: “take the cotton wool out of your ears and stick it in your mouth”. Then we should ask an oldtimer for help with our problems in a one-to-one, so that we can be shown directly how the programme can help us. A good rule of thumb might be: share gratitude in the meetings and problems with your sponsor.

When should I start sharing in meetings? The Big Book tells us on page 164: “But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got. See to it that your relationship with Him is right…etc” This sentence reinforces the idea that if the purpose of sharing is to carry AA’s message to the still suffering alcoholic, in line with Tradition Five and Step 12, then we shouldn’t speak at meetings at all until we have some recovery to offer. Some of us who were initially shy or reticent about sharing, were actually relieved to learn that we needn’t feel any obligation to do so at this stage. We found that once we had completed Step Five, we had sufficient experience (and also had lost sufficient self-centredness) to be able to offer something to the still-suffering alcoholic through our sharing. Even those who were always completely silent in meetings up to that point did not find that it hampered their progress through the steps in any way.

The AA Preamble, a guide to our sharing. All of this is summarized beautifully in the AA preamble that is read out at every meeting. “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.” Many in AA share experience, but it is often forgotten that it is only that experience which reveals our strength and hope that is to be offered in a meeting. This is why it was advisable for many of us not to share in a meeting until we have all three to offer: experience and strength and hope.

Sponsorship

A key part of service to the still suffering alcoholic is guiding him or her through the steps: sponsorship. Clearly we need to have experience of the steps if we are taking people through them. Beyond that, some suggestions were made to us at the outset that were helpful:

We were told to read AA Comes of Age. This book contains a lot of the background to the early days of the fellowship and will give us a feel for how the oldtimers approached sponsorship.

This is an arrangement both sponsor and sponsee go into willingly. It takes two to tango! For a sponsor/sponsee relationship to work, both parties need to go into it willingly, which means that at any point either may decide to end it. Nobody is bound to sponsor anybody else if they don’t want to. Nobody has any obligation to have a sponsor they don’t want.

As sponsors, we were told to be ready for rejection from sponsees and to try not to take it personally. However unwise we may think it is, and however surprised we may be that someone does not want our help, the sponsee is free to reject it and to get another sponsor or even to decide not to have one at all. Some may decide that they don’t like you; and others may feel that they are not ready to put in the amount of effort that is required (even though, in reality, doing the Steps is the easier, softer way). So all who sponsor should be ready for rejection. When it occurs, we remind ourselves that the reason we sponsor is to stay sober ourselves: if that help isn’t wanted there are other people who might want it and even if no one else wants our help directly, there are other sorts of service. Also, on occasion, the sponsee can resent the sponsor for the suggestions made: blaming the messenger for the AA message. Then it can lead to acrimony and we should take care to try not to let bad feeling govern our behaviour or indulge in gossip, whatever the other person may be doing. Of course all of this is dealt with through the programme, by taking our inventory for example and looking honestly at our part in what has happened. But it is just as well to be aware of what might happen before entering into it.

Sponsors should have sponsors themselves. In taking an individual through the steps the sponsor is showing the alcoholic how to rely on a Higher Power. We show them, in the light of our experience the principles of the programme. These principles can be applied to any situation in our lives and so once we have a feel for them, we can apply them, on behalf of others, in areas we haven’t experienced before ourselves. For example, honesty is a spiritual principle. We do not need experience of robbing banks to know that robbing banks is dishonest and to suggest to someone that they should stop robbing banks for a living if they want to stay sober. Having said that there will be situations faced by our sponsees, when they seek help, that we have not experienced and we are not sure what the right thing to do is. This shows one reason for the importance for sponsors to have their own sponsor, because then we can tap into their experience and through them, the collective experience of AA as a whole on the sponsee’s behalf (and with their knowledge and permission).

We only sponsor those who want to hear what we have to say. The Big Book tells us on page 161 that, “No one is too discredited or has sunk too low to be welcomed cordially.” This indicates that the steps should be made available to any alcoholic who wishes to recover. There is one qualification, the sentence goes on: we are told that any person will be “welcomed cordially — if he means business” – in other words there is a condition attached to that welcome. This may seem a harsh attitude, especially as it says on page 89 in the chapter Working With Others that:  “To be helpful is our only aim.”

We can conclude from this that we are not being as helpful as we could be if we are trying to work with those who do not “mean business” that is, those who are not willing to follow the suggestions contained within the Big Book. There are two reasons given as to why we should adopt this approach: the first is that it does not help the individual to indulge him or her with attention before there is willingness to do the programme, in fact it might even hamper their recovery, for the Big Book says on page 90 that if you “waste time trying to persuade him. You may spoil a later opportunity”; and the second is that if we waste time with those who are not willing, we are denying the opportunity for others, who are willing, to benefit from our experience. We may be of some help, but we are not being the most useful we can be. As the book says on page 102: “Your job now is to be at the place where you may be of maximum helpfulness to others…”

These points are reinforced a number of times in the book, particularly in the chapter Working With Others: for example, it says on page 95: “We find it a waste of time to keep chasing a man who cannot or will not work with you” and also: “To spend too much time on any one situation is to deny some other alcoholic an opportunity to live and be happy.”

So how should this be reflected in our attitude to sponsorship? If someone is not willing to follow our suggestions we find that it is best to do as the book says and, “drop him until he changes his mind”.

Of course, this is no reason to be rude or dismissive to anyone. After all, we just want to give people a chance to have what we have been given. Some people don’t want it. They cannot be blamed or reproached for that – everyone is at liberty to reject help. We wish the person well and make it clear that if ever they change their mind, the door is still open.

The Big Book is our safeguard. For a sponsee to follow a sponsor’s advice in this way requires great trust. One way of building up the necessary trust between sponsor and sponsee is to encourage the sponsee to read daily the Big Book. This contains the principles we are applying and if the sponsee can see this, they will be reassured that they are getting the real thing and that everything they are doing is leading them towards the life promised to us.

How often do I need to attend meetings?

General minimum requirement: One of the key principles of this daily programme is to do a bit of AA service every day to guarantee sobriety for that day. We aim go to meetings to be of service to other alcoholics and in so doing, help ourselves. Not all AA service is done in the groups. For example, we can telephone a newcomer to try to help her or him. So once we start to do AA service outside the group, there is no need for daily meetings. However, the service we do at an AA meeting is a special sort of service and should never be stopped altogether.

In common with the writer of the story ‘A Vicious Cycle’ in the Big Book {p231} we have always committed to two meetings a week (home groups). Note, we do not mean that we attend any two meetings a week: we mean a solid commitment to attending and supporting the same two AA meetings at the same times each week. We give regular attendance and doing service at our two home groups the highest priority.

Beyond this we find a routine that enables us to be in contact with the fellowship often enough so that we never feel that we ‘need’ a meeting. So some people find that their own personal minimum is greater than this. Many find for example that in long-term sobriety two home groups plus one ‘floater’ is a happy minimum.

Many people like going to a lot more meetings in the week than this, even those who are sober a long time. This is fine. But it is one thing to go to lots of meetings because we enjoy them and happen to have lots of free time; it is another to go to so many because we have to just to be able to deal with life. Once we have been around a while, if we find that we still have to go to meetings daily there is something wrong and we should re-examine our programme. Sometimes we hear people who have been around quite a long time justifying very frequent meeting attendance with the following sentence: “I only need one meeting a week to keep me sober but I don’t know which one it is, so I go to one every day.” We do know which meetings are the ones that keep us sober – our two home groups. That is why we can reduce the attendance rate to two meetings a week if we want to.

What do we mean by a home group?

For most AAs, membership in a home group is one of the keys to continuing sobriety. In a home group, they accept service responsibilities and learn to sustain friendships.” {The AA Service Manual, S23} As already stated, we have committed to two weekly meetings. Where multimeeting groups are the norm, this is likely to mean a commitment to two regular weekly meetings of one group. This was the case for the writer of The Vicious Cycle {p231}: “Very rarely do I miss the meetings of my neighbourhood AA group, and my average has never been less than two meetings a week.” Many, especially if multimeeting groups are not common in the neighbourhood, commit to two weekly meetings that are also two separate groups. In this case we have two home groups.

If we are going to rely on these two meetings to keep us sober, then it is important to really make them count. We learnt that we could not sustain friendships until we were first a friend to others. So we always make a point of offering fellowship and time to those who come to the meeting. We take responsibility for making the groups happen. Even before we have accepted formal service jobs within the group, we always turn up when the hall is opened up and make sure that we are there to help to set up the meeting, put out the chairs etc, and similarly we pitch and help dismantling afterwards.

The precise details of how this is put into practice will vary, but many of us do the following: we try to make sure that the meeting is fully set up with chairs out and coffee ready well before any earliest visitors or newcomers are likely to turn up. So we allot half an hour beforehand to setting up and catching up the regulars; and make sure that the meeting is ready to welcome people for an additional half-hour period before the advertised starting time. This means we open up the hall a full hour before the advertised meeting start time. Also, we make sure that we are not just closing the meeting and rushing off. We go for the ‘meeting after the meeting’: members of the group go on to a café or coffee shop and invite visitors and new members along for fellowship. This is how we make our home groups the place where we “accept service responsibilities and learn to sustain friendships”.

How often should I attend meetings in the early days? The general principle just described applies to newcomers and oldtimers alike. However, there are a few points concerning its application that might be of particular interest to newcomers:

Before we are calling newcomers or doing any other AA service outside the meeting, a meeting is the only place where we can do AA service, so daily meetings is a good idea -- once there even if we don’t hold formal service positions, we can always look to help others: we pitch in and be useful, volunteer to wash up, clear away etc.

As soon as we have started to phone newcomers in accordance with the Daily Suggestions, we can do daily AA service over the phone and can start to drop the number of meetings attended down to the minimum as defined above.

Before coming to AA, many of us had ‘social lives’ that revolved around drink. If all of a sudden we are not going to pubs and bars it leaves a huge gap of time in our lives. It is always better to be at a meeting than sitting in a pub drinking orange juice, or sitting at home staring into space, or just watching television on our own (more than occasionally). Therefore, rather than just reducing meetings for the sake of it and ending up with nothing to occupy our free time, many new people go to more than this minimum even once we start phoning newcomers regularly. We have found that it is best to start from a foundation of lots of meetings and let the number of meetings drop gradually as they are replaced by the non-drinking social activities that will inevitably develop as we move on in sobriety. As we were told: few people regret going to too many meetings in their early days.

What if there are not daily meetings where I live? In big cities we have the luxury of daily meetings at many different times, so the ideal of daily AA service is immediately achievable for even the newest member. However, where there is a small AA population (eg in some rural areas and smaller towns) there will not be daily meetings. If there aren't daily meetings, then provided we have the willingness to go to any lengths and are aiming for that ideal of daily AA service, God will look after us. We should focus on developing the telephone network of newcomers all the more vigorously. The model here is the example of the pioneers in AA when they only had perhaps one meeting a week. So although they did less meeting-based service they kept in daily contact with newcomers and did a lot of service outside the meeting (eg hospitals) very quickly. We can read about this in Dr Bob and the Good Oldtimers.

Do I need to do ‘90 in 90’? No. We quite often hear it suggested to people to do 90 meetings in 90 days when they first come in. This practice was not part of our experience. As we understand it, it did not arise at the instigation of AA members but of the US justice system, which offered convicted drunk drivers a choice of sentences of either 90 days in prison or ‘90 meetings in 90 days’. While this practice is not necessarily going to cause any damage to an alcoholic, our experience is that provided we follow the guidelines given above it is usually not necessary to go to that many meetings if we don’t want to.

Maximum numbers of meetings to attend in a week:

Some people like going to lots of meetings even into long-term sobriety. If that is what we want to do that is fine. Once we have been through the programme it will be done as a matter of choice rather than through a fear of facing the outside world. But all of us have other responsibilities to attend to. If we are drinking, we can’t be of much use to anyone, so we have to go to meetings frequently enough to ensure our sobriety. However, while we are free to devote all of our own time to attending meetings if we want to, we must not go to so many meetings that we use AA as an excuse for neglecting our responsibilities to others. So this gives us our rule for a maximum: As long as we attend the minimum requirement of meetings a week, we can go to as many meetings as we want provided that we don't neglect our outside responsibilities. For example, those with spouses, partners and families have very clear obligations. As a rule of thumb, when we have spouses etc the maximum number of meetings a week is four, even in the earliest days. For those of us with very young families, it may well be that the demands on time are such that two meetings a week is all we can do. If we try to develop as soon as possible the habit of calling newcomers on our non-meeting days then that will help to ensure our sobriety.

In trying to summarise the above, we have produced the following guidelines:

• As a minimum requirement, we have always committed to two meetings a week (home groups/meetings).

• We aim to do some AA service every day to keep us sober. In early days, a meeting is the only place where we can do AA service, so daily meetings is a good idea. As soon as we have started to phone newcomers, we can start to reduce the frequency down to a comfortable minimum, never going below our two home groups.

• As long as we attend the minimum requirement of meetings a week, we can go to as many meetings as we want provided that we don't neglect our outside responsibilities. Those with spouses, partners and families especially must not neglect their responsibilities and we have found that a maximum of four meetings a week is about right. Again we would try to maintain commitment to the two home groups as a minimum.

How should we dress for an AA meeting?

We hear a variety of opinions on this ranging from "every man must wear a suit and every woman a dress", to "it doesn't matter, it's your conduct at the meeting that counts."

The underlying principle here is that of attraction: seeking to attract the suffering alcoholic to the AA programme. So in that sense also, it is part of Step 12, in an unspoken way, we are seeking to carry the AA message of recovery through the example we provide.

We feel that it is the overall conduct of the individuals at the meetings that attracts the alcoholic to the AA programme. Do we come across as warm and welcoming? Does our behaviour give a positive impression of the sober life? But conduct for us means not just what we do, but also it includes consideration of how we do it. One part of this is how we appear. Visual impressions, particularly first impressions can have a huge impact.

One guideline in regard to the application of this principle is in the Just for Today card. Through this comes the suggestion that we dress "becomingly". "Becomingly" means "attractively". It also means in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity of a situation or responsibility (as in conduct that becomes an officer). This last definition indicates that what can be considered becoming dress in one situation, might not be becoming in another. If for example the dignity of a situation or responsibility increases then so should the standard of dress. Jeans and a T-shirt might be becoming for the supermarket, but we dress up to go to a wedding. It is possible to overdress as well as underdress. It would be strange indeed if one always wore morning suit to go and get the groceries, and then carefully put on jeans and a T-shirt for a wedding reception.

The way in which this principle is applied in AA can vary dependent upon individual interpretations of what is dress that becomes someone in a meeting. This is how we have tried to apply it: when attending an AA meeting we feel that we do have a certain responsibility to try to appear as though we have overcome our drinking problems. This means that we may dress casually, but we try to look neat, tidy and clean. The men amongst us were told that we should shave that day, unless we had a beard in which case it should be neatly trimmed. Those who are reluctant to accept this last point may be interested to learn that the writer was particularly sceptical of the value of being clean-shaven (at this time it was fashionable to have a couple of days' growth a la Don Johnson of the TV show Miami Vice!). This was until he saw a friend in AA walk into a meeting with visible stubble on his chin. Immediately his instinctive reaction was to be fearful that his friend had had a drink and let himself go.

When we were in a situation in which in some way the degree to which we represented AA increased beyond that of the meeting, we changed our dress accordingly. Examples of this might be when giving the main talk at the meeting (sometimes called the "person in the chair" or the "lead") or when chairing the meeting (ie starting it up -- introducing speakers etc. In GB this person is called the "secretary" of the meeting). When performing these functions we are taking on a greater responsibility in that we are representing AA to a greater degree: we are delivering the main message that someone might hear, in the case of giving the main talk; and in both cases, we are a focus of attention for those at the meeting. So we dress up for the occasion. By doing this we show due respect to the newcomers (after all the whole occasion is for their benefit) and demonstrate to them that we take AA seriously. (It is worth remembering that the point here is not just that we know we have made an effort, it is important the others see it too.) What this means in terms of what we actually wear will vary according to perceptions, of course, and this is particularly true with women. With men we have found that a good rule of thumb to satisfy this is to wear a jacket and tie and trousers (not jeans). So women seeking to apply this guideline might dress up to what they feel to be an equivalent level.

What are the benefits in doing this?

We encourage people to make this effort in dressing becomingly by stressing the benefits that we have gained in trying to do this. The AA programme has been for us a continual process of taking actions and then afterwards we feel the change and the benefits. This is no exception. The efforts we make on behalf of others may or may not help them, but we are certain to receive the benefit ourselves. We find that when we make an effort to show respect to others, particularly the newcomer, we feel greater self-respect. By dressing as though we take AA and AA service positions seriously, we encourage others to do the same and we start to take it more seriously ourselves. All this serves to provide us with a greater insurance against taking that first drink. In short, this is yet another aspect of the programme that helps to keep us both sober and happy.

It is important to remember also the spirit with which it ought to be done. If our motives are not correct then this will come through. We want to encourage people to do the programme, so it must be supported by our efforts to contribute to a warm and welcoming atmosphere at the meeting. If we dress up only to attract attention to ourselves or our group - perhaps to try to demonstrate in a competitive way how committed to the programme we are - rather than trying to attract people to the principles of AA, then it is vanity and there is a danger that it will have exactly the opposite of the desired effect. We must make efforts not to appear to disapprove of those who do not dress in accordance with our perceptions of what is becoming. This attitude will create a pressure to conform, but it is a negative, social pressure, rather than a positive attraction and in the long run it will have a detrimental effect. We must welcome all who come to the meeting in accordance with AA tradition. If we find ourselves becoming self-righteous, we must remind ourselves that there may be many reasons why they do not dress as we would like them to: they may not be aware of the principle yet; they may not be able to afford any more than the clothes they wear; they may have had no option but to rush to a meeting straight from work on a building site; they may have a different sense of what is becoming for the occasion.

There is a question as to how this principle should be transmitted: through sponsorship or through the application of a dress code by the group conscience? We find sponsorship to be the best way. As with most other matters in connection with the programme, each of us simply trusted our sponsor's application of this principle and chose to follow it because we wished to follow his path. Sponsorship is the best way to present the positive reasons for doing this and to avoid the negative social pressure to conform. It can also provide a flexibility of approach that takes into account individual situations.

Practising Spiritual principles in all our affairs (How to do the right thing)

The first question is, what principles are we talking about? The first part of that answer is: the principles of the rest of the programme. So we take regular Step 10 inventory, we pray and meditate as Step 11 suggests, and we carry the AA message of hope in recovery to alcoholics who still suffer.

The second part of the answer is that we try to live the whole of our lives according to spiritual principles. We often hear the phrase in AA, ‘Do the right thing, and the right thing happens.’ This could be put another way: ‘Try to practise spiritual principles in all your affairs, and your Higher Power will look after you and keep you sober.’

What are ‘these principles’? We are talking about trying to live a morally good life. Many of us were resistant to this. It helped for us to be reminded that the Big Book is not proposing this through any religious zeal. Step 12 is like all the other Steps, built on experience (sometimes bitter experience) of what is necessary to stay sober. So, rather than thinking of spiritual principles as constraints on our behaviour, we have found it easier to think of them as guidelines for a happy and sober life. We are free to ignore them if we want to, but we believe, with the writers of the Big Book, that God wants us to be “happy, joyous and free” and he has shown us, through these principles, how to accept that gift. It can be difficult to trust that spiritual principles are the best guidelines in every part of our lives, especially as it can seem at times as though nearly every advertisement, magazine article, TV programme and movie seems to be created on the assumption that we should put ourselves first. The Big Book begs to do the opposite and follow spiritual principles when it says: ‘Abandon yourselves to God, as you understand God.’

We try practise spiritual principles in all our affairs. The danger arises for us when we don’t concede that all areas of our lives should be lived according to spiritual principles. Then we start to feel bad as a result of what we do. And, not wishing to face the fact that our own conduct is to blame -- because that would mean we would have to stop doing it -- we will dishonestly blame other things for our gradually increasing inner turmoil. So those might be, in succession, our sponsors, our home groups and then, when there is nowhere else to go in AA, we say the programme doesn’t work or that we have a problem other than alcoholism, and head for a psychiatrist. For us, at the end of this trail, sooner or later, lies a drink, unless we start to do what is right.

How do I apply these principles in my everyday life? How do I know what is the right thing to do in any situation? One approach used by the Big Book is to try to develop what it calls ‘ideals’ for right behaviour, that is, we work out how we think we should behave in any given situation and then see if it is consistent with spiritual principles. The Big Book illustrates with the example of sexual conduct (perhaps because this is an area that is of great interest to many and one where we need an overhaul). It does tell us though that, “we treat sex as we would any other problem”{p69}, which indicates that it is right to apply this principle generally. So we can ask for help from God in forming our ideal in this situation too, but applied to our particular situation:

• Please God, mold my ideal and help me to live up to it; {p 69, cf p70, paragraph starting “To sum up about sex:”}

• Please give me guidance in this questionable situation …(describe the situation); {p70, paragraph starting “To sum up about sex:”, cf p69}

• Please give me sanity and please give me the strength to do the right thing {p70, paragraph starting “To sum up about sex:”}

To help us to form this ideal, we can be guided initially by our conscience, but then we must go further. We subject our ideal to the scrutiny that the Big Book suggests: it must not allow for selfish or even inconsiderate behaviour. Spiritual principles exist, in part, to show us how we can be fully considerate of others and so avoid harming them. So our behaviour must be consistent with spiritual principles, otherwise we are harming others in some way. The Big Book tells us where we must look to the great religions for the spiritual principles to live our lives. It says on page 49: “…many spiritually minded persons of all races, colors, and creeds were demonstrating a degree of stability, happiness and usefulness we should have sought ourselves.” The Big Book also tells us how we make use of what we see in these great religions when it says on page 93, “We represent no particular faith or denomination. We are dealing only with general principles common to most denominations.” So for the purposes of staying sober, we must seek to abide by principles that are common to the great spiritual traditions of the world. So when considering how to behave in a particular situation, for example in sexual conduct, we can ask ourselves: ‘Is my ideal for sex conduct consistent with the principles that are common to most great faiths or religions? What do they have to say about what I want to do?’

We always try to live up to right ideals. Once we have formed our ideal, we never stop trying to live up to it. When opportunities present themselves, it is often tempting to tone down our ideal until it matches what it is we want to do. This will not help us. We can fail as many times as we try, but as long as we always acknowledge what is right and are sorry for falling short of our chosen ideal, we will be fine. However, the book adds a pretty tough warning on page 70 (in regard to the particular situation of sexual conduct: If we are not sorry, and our conduct continues to harm others, we are quite sure to drink. We are not theorizing. These are facts of our experience.”

We have also come across other ways of testing whether our behaviour is right. Perhaps they might be helpful to you: If we are faced with a choice then it is often easier to say what is not God’s will. For example, it cannot be God’s will that we do anything dishonest, impure, selfish or unloving (these were the guides used by a lot of the early AAs).

Gut instincts and feelings can be wrong. Also, in considering whether or not to go with gut instincts: many experienced in spiritual matters say that if the conscience pricks and gives us a strong sense that something is wrong, then there is every chance that our conscience is right and we should listen to it (and at the very least, take guidance). However, the reverse is not true, that is, if something “just feels right”: gut instinct alone is no reason for deciding to do something. Going with things that ‘just feel right’ is another way of saying, ‘I will do what I please’. It was doing as we pleased that got many of us into AA in the first place. We should ask ourselves as well: does this conform to spiritual principles? Is it a good thing to do? Through this process of continually checking our motives and the right or wrong of an action, our intuition does get better. But still, we should never rely on instinct alone. If we have an opportunity, we have found that it is often best to ask our sponsor who can offer an objective viewpoint. This is especially helpful for any major decisions.

Should we always do the opposite of what ‘our heads’ or ‘our defects tell us to do’? The short answer is: No, we don’t always do the opposite. Sometimes do, sometimes we don’t.

For us, automatically doing the opposite of selfish or resentful motives dictate is not always the right approach. The aim is to do what is right. Sometimes our selfishness can lead us to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. The point is to disregard our resentful/self-centred attitudes and do what is right anyway. We try to be guided by reason rather than emotion. There is no suggestion that feelings are unimportant, just that if we only consider how we feel, we can end up in trouble. We try to do right actions, and be guided by the good motives. If there are good motives there, and the action is a good action, then we take it. The part of us that is driven by good motives, that is by love, will always be satisfied, because love is an action without thought of return. The part of us that is driven by self-centredness will always be disappointed – things will never be totally to our satisfaction. Step-10 inventory and seeking an objective viewpoint, usually our sponsor, will help to reveal if we have mixed motives.

In saying that we should be guided by reason rather than emotion, we are not saying that we never do what we want to, just that we should consider as well whether or not it breaks spiritual principles. On the contrary, provided the proposal does not break spiritual principles, we can do whatever we want and be certain that the right thing will happen for us (even if our action is foolish or misguided). In fact, as God wants us to be happy, joyous and free, we should aim to do what we want, subject to the conditions described before. As a holy man of the past said: “Love God, and do what you want.” If we follow this, we never need to be plagued by indecision, or by anxiety about the result. God will never let us down.

So far, we have discussed so far ways in which we can decide what is right action. As alcoholics our primary motive for wanting to do the right thing, is to stay sober. Many, who are more experienced in spiritual matters than us, say that in time we grow to love this way of life. Then we want to do the right thing, because when sober, we can do God’s will. It is when there is this natural harmony between our will and God’s will, that the promises materialise. And they will for us, as the book says, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly.

Having Had a Spiritual awakening: Misery Really is Optional

We were told that this is something that makes AA unique – no spiritual tradition or programme apart from the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous can guarantee a spiritual awaking as a result of taking certain actions. The information about the other spiritual traditions may or may not be correct; but we know that this is a true promise for those who follow the AA programme. On hearing this, you may react as some of us did: “What’s so good about a spiritual awakening? And what is a spiritual awakening anyway? I came here to get sober.”

One of the appendices of the Big Book tell us that, “an awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of a spiritual experience”. For Bill W, this was given a kick start with his famous sudden flash. But for many of us, the experience is gradual, beginning with Step Two and reaching its full expression after Step Nine.

How do we know we have had a spiritual awakening? The Big Book in Appendix II (Spiritual Experience) that the result of a spiritual awakening, but that we “undergo a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery”. We don’t become spiritual people, but rather we just start to do spiritual things, such as prayer, in order to bring about the necessary personality change. What sort of life can we expect as a result of a spiritual awakening? The answer, given on page 130, is that a spiritual experience offers us “a life of sane, happy usefulness”. We have talked already about how contact with a Power greater than ourselves is necessary to stop the insanity of the alcoholic – taking that first drink. But this phrase reveals also the great gift of happiness that we get as the result of these steps – misery really is optional.

But I’m doing the Programme and I’m still feeling down.

If you think you’re doing the programme and not feeling good, then we have good news for you. There is every chance that you’re wrong — you’re not doing the programme. The answer is to find out what it is you are doing that you shouldn’t; or what it is you are not doing that you should.

Sometimes we can mistakenly look upon the programme as an exam to be passed; and accordingly, happiness as something we demonstrate in order to show that we have passed the exam. On these occasions it is easy to be dismayed when we see others who are happy and almost feel ashamed of our unhappiness. However, if we view the programme as a gift that enables us to have a happy sobriety, we should not be ashamed when we are unhappy. It is more useful to acknowledge that we could do something about our unhappiness, and when we know what it is (assuming that we do want to be happy of course), do what we need to, to resume a happy life. If we are unable to see what we could do differently then, rather than feeling ashamed and seeking to be told that it is “okay to be unhappy”, we can ask others for help. It is usually the case that others can see things that we cannot see in ourselves.

We check to see that we really are doing all that the programme asks. The programme can be broken down into Trust God,{p68}, Clean House {p68, p98} and Help Others {p90}. We can ask ourselves the following questions:

• Am I doing the things that reflect a trust in God? For example, am I saying my Step 11 prayers and meditation? Am I living by right principle, or am I doing anything dishonest, wrong or selfish?

• Did I clean house thoroughly? Am I cleaning house daily now? Was my 4th step thorough? Am I doing daily written Step 10s? We are in trouble if we held back anything that should have gone into our Step 4 inventory. Similarly, if we hold back on a Step 9 amends that, other things being equal, we could do now, we can be in desperate trouble. Some hesitate to make a Step 9 amends using the justification that they have yet to become willing. When this is really a deliberate delaying tactic, the result can be deep unhappiness.

• Am I helping others? Do I have service commitments? Am I working with newcomers on a regular basis?

 

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