Origins of this Blog (November 27, 2021)
Recently a good friend shared some of their experiences as a relatively new member of AA. I was struck by two things as I listened to them. First, they said that after decades of looking for a spiritual practice community (after leaving the church they were raised in) they felt like they had finally found one that fit. They felt like they had found a community that was free of the unnecessary cultural baggage and dogma of every other organized religion they had tried, and where they genuinely belonged and didn’t feel out of place.
Second, as I listened to them describe their actual day-to-day experiences putting teachings from the 12 steps into practice, I was alternately reminded of the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti, Buddhist practices, and practices from mystical Christianity -- all paths that I have explored, and in which I found truths I love, but never found a practice community where it felt like I truly belonged.
I felt envious of my friend, first, because she had found the kind of community I also have been looking for, for decades. A community focused on actual practices, without all of the cultural baggage that seems to come with all religions. I envied both the feeling of belonging my friend had found, and the clear focus on and support for living the day-to-day practice of the teachings, free of any cultural and theological baggage.
In the days that followed, I began to wonder if the principles she had found in the AA 12 steps could be used in a broader spiritual practice group that was not focused on recovery from alcoholism, but on spiritual awakening in the broader sense, as explored in each religion’s mystical teachings. So I got copies of and read the foundational AA 12 step texts.1
The more I read and pondered, the more I became convinced that such a thing -- using principles and practices from the 12 steps in a practice community, with the practices focused on spiritual awakening rather than recovery from alcoholism – could work. I remembered something I read years ago from a leader in a Christian (I think) monastic community. He wrote, in effect, that they were not a community with a spiritually realized master leading them, but rather a community of equals -- friends on the journey, so to speak -- who were all helping each other walk the path. (I’ve searched for years, unsuccessfully, to find that exact quote again, with no luck.) As I pondered the possibilities with principles from the 12 steps, I thought about how this is exactly what such a community could be -- a spiritual self-help group of equals with the common purpose of spiritual awakening.2
As I read through the 12 step literature, I thought about how the steps might look in such a practice community. My initial thoughts were:
STEP 1 -- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable.
This step made me think of the deepest addiction we all suffer from -- the addiction to the ego, to the habits of our thinking mind and the sense of being a separate self in a world of other separate selves that our thinking mind creates. This shared addiction generates all sorts of suffering, including: loneliness, fear of what “others” might do to us, fear of sickness and the death of our body, fear of loss at another’s gain, craving for things “out there” that we believe will make our “self” happy, and the often frustrated desire to get rid of anything that makes our separate self unhappy.
I thought of the statement attributed to Jesus, that we must lose our life (as a separate self) in order to find our life (our true identity).3 And I thought of the Zen Buddhist axiom, “No self, no problem.”4
I thought about a recent discussion in a spiritual explorations group I belong to, where, one-by-one, we admitted to being failures at waking up through meditation -- how it just hadn’t worked for us. I thought about the fact that the egoic, separate self seems powerless to wake itself up -- and how all its attempts to do so can be seen as just another attempt of the ego to get something to make itself feel better -- to be happy all the time, and not feel alone. It seems the ego cannot wake itself up, and its efforts to do so just amount to more ego.
The bottom line is, no matter how successful the ego is (or isn’t) at keeping our lives manageable, it is powerless to wake itself up, to transcend itself.
STEPS 2 & 3 -- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
I broadened the idea of this step to the idea that a power greater than ourselves -- a power greater than our separate, egoic self -- could awaken us to the truth of reality and our own Higher Self, our Buddha Nature or Christ Nature. This, in turn, made me think of Ken Wilber’s idea about Spirit in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person. Basically, his idea is that we can experience God or Spirit in 1st person -- as our own deepest true nature, in 2nd person -- as a divine “other” with whom we can be in relationship, and in 3rd person -- as the great web of life of which we are all a part, or in more narrow terms, the view of scientific materialists, who see the objective material world as ultimate reality.5
I grew up in a devout Mormon family, and my first understanding and experiences of God were of a loving Heavenly Father. In the decades since I stopped being a believing or practicing Mormon and expanded my spiritual worldview, my views about God have evolved, spanning both agnosticism and a range of ideas about, and experiences of, God that Wilber would describe in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person understandings and experiences.
As I listened to my friend describe their day-to-day experience practicing 12 step principles, it sounded like these principles are based on a “Spirit in 2nd person” understanding and experience of God. That was appealing to me, having started my spiritual journey as a child understanding God in this way. (Although I understand this is not necessarily so for everyone in AA, since many atheists practice the 12 steps and have are in recovery from alcoholism.)
A 2nd person approach to God also made sense to me when I thought about the steps as a path to spiritual awakening. In any endeavor, we have to start where we are and go from there. Where I currently am could be described as being cognitively aware that a deeper level of being exists, a level where there is only One and I am That, but my day-to-day reality is that I experience myself as a separate self in a world of other separate selves. So relating to God, for now, as an “other” whom I can be in a 2nd person relationship with, and who can help awaken me from my predicament as an apparent separate self, makes sense. It meets me where I am, within my egoic self’s current predicament. It also quells the cosmic loneliness that results from experiencing myself as a separate self in a world of other separate selves.
Currently I would describe my understanding and experience of God as the All. I understand God as having two aspects -- one manifest, and one unmanifest. I think of God’s “body,” if you will, as the entire manifest universe, the entire cosmos. That means that I, and every other person or thing in the material world is a piece of God’s body. But that is not all God is. God is also the unseen source of the entire manifest realm, a source that, conceptually, is a mystery. In the words of the Tao te Ching, you can’t know it, but you can be it.6
When I think of God as the All, it’s easy to trust It as a power greater than my one, separate self. Certainly the whole of existence has a perspective, and understanding, and a wisdom greater than I or any other single human being could attain. And certainly the power that explodes stars and galaxies, that creates planets and evolves life on them, that makes the ocean’s depths and the songbird’s call, and causes my internal organs to function in ways I neither fully understand nor can control, is a power greater than my one separate self.7 I feel a sense of relief and relaxation at the thought of surrendering my will and my life, and my spiritual awakening, to the care of the greater or higher power of the All.
The idea of relying on the All to awaken me from the dream of separateness whenever It, in its wisdom, chooses to, brings a huge relief and relaxation to my spiritual life. I love this idea and the ability it brings to let go and trust something greater than myself.
For me, these steps also point to the longing for self-transcendence, the longing to belong to, and be a part of, something greater than my individual, separate self. It’s the search for both meaning and belonging that characterize much of the suffering of our seemingly separate selves. I love this quote by Jeff Foster:
"And so the moment you have separation, you also have a longing. It's the longing to end the separation. To heal the divide. To end the sense of contraction and expand back into the vastness.
It's the wave longing to collapse back into the ocean. But of course, what the wave cannot see is that there never was a wave separate from the ocean. The wave was always a perfect manifestation of the ocean. It was always one hundred percent water. It was always soaking wet. Drenched in Being.
You have never been separate from the ocean. You have never been separate from the whole. That was the dream of separation. And the search of a lifetime was always the search for home.
But of course, it was never recognised as that. The longing for home always manifested as the desire for a new car, for more money, for that man or woman.
The longing played itself out on a very worldly level, though what you always secretly longed for was the loss of your world and a plunge into Life itself."8
STEP 4 -- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
When I think of this step in terms of a broader spiritual path, I think of being willing to fearlessly and honestly examine what I call the antics of the egoic self. For me, the value in this lies not in concepts such as sin or repentance, but rather in terms of self-awareness. When I am identified with my “self” as only this one, separate person in a world of other separate people, the base emotion of this separate self is often fear, even when I am not consciously aware of being especially afraid in any given moment. When I look deeply into the feelings and motivations of my own separate self, fear is often what I find. For example, fear of losing someone or something, fear of not getting something, fear of financial insecurity, fear of not being good enough, fear of others not loving me, fear of sickness and death -- the list goes on and on.
When I am identified as this separate self only, it means there is a whole world of people and things out there that can harm me, or reject me, or take something I want. It is normal for separate selves who experience this one bodymind9 as all that they are to fear, and to engage in all manner of tactics to alleviate this fear and find a measure of safety and security. We all seek this security in a variety of ways, some of which are more functional, and some of which are dysfunctional, to varying degrees. Separate selves seek security in money, relationships, social status, mental points of view, social roles, group belonging, accomplishments, and power over others. Again, the list goes on and on.
Reading more about this step in the two 12 step books referenced above also made me think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, especially the needs he defined as “deficiency” needs (meaning that they are based on a feeling of lack or deprivation). These include basic physiological needs (such as the need for food, water, sleep, shelter, sex, and physical well-being); safety needs (including the need to be safe from threat or danger, to live in a fair and predictable world, and the need for a sense of security); love and belonging needs (including the need for love, affection, caring relationships, and a sense of belonging to a group; and esteem needs (both self-esteem as well as the respect of others, including the need for confidence, competence, achievement, and recognition).
So in a broader context I can also think of this step in terms of being willing to look at all of the ways I have harmed myself and others in my attempts to get the needs of my separate self met -- to look at everything my egoic self says and does to itself and others to protect, defend, and enhance itself, and get its needs met. In order to transcend the separate self by surrendering it to God, I first need to see it honestly for what it is and does. I cannot surrender something I am not aware of and haven’t owned as “mine”. Otherwise I don’t “have” an egoic separate self sense that I can let go of. Rather, it has me.
STEP 5 -- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
In traditional religions this step has meant confession to a cleric of some sort. When I read about this step, I immediately thought of a relatively new Zen Buddhist practice I participated in for several years called Big Mind.10 Developed by my Zen teacher, Genpo Roshi, Big Mind has its roots in a technique called Voice Dialogue, developed by psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone.11 The basic idea behind this technique is that our egoic self has many sub-selves, and we can speak to each sub-self to learn more about it (and thus learn more about ourselves). Examples of these sub-selves include the Controller, the Protector, the Seeker, Anger, and Fear. These are just a few of our sub-selves. In reality there are hundreds, and we can temporarily step into and speak from any aspect of the self -- functional or dysfunctional – to learn more about it.
Roshi’s brilliance was in discovering that he could also ask to speak to the voice of Big Mind (or Awakened Mind, or Enlightened Mind), and in doing so could make a temporary switch into a state of mind that would normally take years to reach through more traditional techniques such as sitting meditation or koan study.
The 5th step made me think of Big Mind because my experience of it was that, when in the voice of a sub-self and no longer identified with the egoic self as “me,” participants, myself included, were easily able to step into and own that voice's dysfunctional and harmful behaviors. Often we confessed easily, in a room full of strangers, to behaviors that pride may have prevented us from ever admitting to, had we not temporarily dis-identified from our egoic selves and assumed the voice and identity of a particular sub-self. Becoming aware of one of these egoic sub-selves and its antics can be a first step toward surrendering it to the All, to do with as It will.
Another thing that resonated with me as I read about this step was how admitting our dysfunctions and flaws honestly to another human being can greatly lessen our loneliness, the loneliness inherent in experiencing our self as a separate self in a world of other separate selves. (And it is often this loneliness that leads to many of our dysfunctional behaviors.) It also seems to me that if the ultimate truth of reality is a Oneness that is temporarily manifesting as the many, then each step we take that connects us to others can be a step toward the truth of Oneness.
STEPS 6 & 7 -- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character, and humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
This step followed naturally after I contemplated steps 4 and 5. Having seen and admitted the antics of the ego for what they are and the suffering they cause, I become willing to surrender my separate, egoic self and its failed tactics to God. In this way the ego is not so much conquered as seen through and released. I see this step as offering my entire “self” to the All, to make whatever use of it It will, and, ultimately, asking the All to show me the truth of who or what I am that is deeper than my seemingly separate self. That’s the part of me I want to live from, for however long my bodymind remains in this apparent world of separate selves.
STEPS 8 & 9 -- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
When I read about this step I thought about a book I read on the root causes of depression, called Lost Connections.12 If the ultimate truth of reality is that we are One, then as was mentioned above in step 5, anything that creates or restores our connections with others can be a step toward awakening to the ultimate truth of who and what we all really are. I thought of this step in terms of looking at the broken connections in my life, and how I could restore and/or strengthen them. The AA material talked about how this step is the beginning of the end of our isolation from others and from God.
I also thought about how this step can show us where we still cling to the ego’s positions of rightness, image, or status and how these positions might damage our connections with others. Until and unless we can let go of the ego’s clinging to all of its positions and “rightness,” we cannot realize our true Self.
STEP 10 -- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
In this broader context, this step could mean that I maintain a willingness and a practice of regularly identifying my ego’s antics, it’s tactics and motivations for getting what it wants, and how these might harm myself and others. When this happens, I own it, take steps to mend any damage it has caused, and once again surrender it to God. I could see how this could become an ongoing practice.
The AA material pointed out how all of us, including me, are frequently wrong, so humility, tolerance, and forgiveness are the best attitudes with which to engage others. It said that we need to give up possessively loving the few, ignoring the many, and fearing or hating anybody. This is especially true from the perspective of the ultimate truth of Oneness, because all of these other people are really “me.”
STEP 11 -- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our continuous contact with God as we understood It/Her/Him, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
Prayer and meditation have played various roles in my life over the years. As a child I learned to approach God in petitionary prayer, expressing gratitude for my blessings and asking for what I believed I needed. As I outgrew my belief in what I now call the Santa Clause God -- an all-powerful man in the sky who will give me what I want if I behave well and ask in the right way -- my prayers changed to asking mainly for comfort, understanding, and answers, and strength where and when I fell short. These seemed like more realistic things to pray for, and I found they were more often granted. When I ultimately had to question if God even existed, and had to admit to myself that the chances were probably 50/50 (I call this my agnostic phase), I stopped praying altogether.
Luckily, around this period in my life I found mediation. In mediation I discovered that the source of peace, comfort, guidance, and sometimes even joy that I experienced earlier in my life as coming from God was actually within my own being. I remember one time in a Big Mind session with Rosh after he asked to speak to one of the voices of the Transcendent (I forget which one), as I let myself sink into the voice and become it, I realized with great surprise and joy, “Oh! I know this voice! This is Jesus, the Jesus I felt so loved by as a child!” Remembering this moment of discovery can still move me to tears.
I undertook mediation with a goal -- the goal of permanent spiritual awakening, of realizing the ultimate truth of reality and of my “self.” In the words of Ken Wilber’s integral theory,13 I wanted permanent, at-will access to a nondual state of awareness, and the uncaused peace and joy that characterize this state of pure “self”-less Beingness. Alas, I was not a great meditator, and my lackluster efforts failed to achieve the desired end. In personal meditation and reading, when alone in nature, and in Big Mind sessions, I experienced glimpses of the pure Beingness I sought permanent access to, but that was all I could get.
So I have ended up just sort of muscling and enduring my way through life -- practicing as I can when suffering causes an urgency or inspiration strikes, and accepting that I may not wake up in this lifetime. At least I have the consolation of believing that when this bodymind dies, I will return to the bliss of God’s Beingness.
And this was where I find myself as I listened to my friend share her experiences with the 12 steps. Once again hope has arisen that I can find and/or create a spiritual practice community that really works, and that if my separate self is powerless to transcend itself so that the real “I” can wake up from the dream of life -- then maybe I can turn this whole endeavor over to God. Maybe I can entrust it to the All and stop trying to make it happen myself.
The step 11 idea of praying only for God’s guidance, and for the understanding and ability to carry out that guidance feels right to me. As I said earlier, I gave up the idea of the Santa Clause God many years ago, because I found it was an idea that just didn’t work in real life. I wrote this around 2003:
This point was brought home to me vividly after Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped. In the weeks following her disappearance, as rescuers searched for her, my mother’s little dog, Lady, got loose and ran away. We were sick with worry for her, and searched the area around my parents’ home in Herriman trying to find her, to no avail. A day or two after she got loose, Mom found her. She said she prayed to know where to find her, and felt guided to get in her car and drive down a particular road that was further away than where we had looked before. So she drove down that road, and sure enough she found Lady there.
I felt so happy and relieved that Lady was back, safe and sound. But after awhile I couldn’t help but think about the search that was going on at the same time for Elizabeth Smart. No doubt her family prayed with far deeper fervor and pleading for her safe return than my mom’s prayer to find Lady. I began to wonder what kind of God would guide my mom to find her little dog, but would not guide the parents of a missing 14 year old girl who was being raped daily, and whose rescuers were close enough that she could hear them calling her name. No God that I could believe in, much less worship.
As painful as it was, I gradually found myself simply unable to believe in a God who personally intervenes to prevent, rescue, or relieve the suffering of some, while the prayers and suffering of millions of others go unanswered. Platitudes about God having his own reasons for allowing the suffering of some, while intervening to spare others, rang hollow and untrue to me. It became far more plausible to believe in a God who helps no one, or in no God at all, than in a God who steps in to alleviate the suffering of some, but not others. Or, in a God who helps some because they have people who will pray for them, but who ignores others because they have no one to pray for them.
During this period in difficult times when I felt alone I would open my mouth to pray for help, but the words would not come out. How could there be a God who saw and would help me, when all over the world at that very moment, children were being abused, mothers were holding their dying, starving babies, young boys were being stolen from their families and forced to become soldiers, and brutal dictators were committing genocide? There were no mental gymnastics that could make my belief plausible anymore, no matter how much pain I was in. Without my belief in a personal God, I was left all alone and on my own in the Universe, in a way I'd never been before. A kind of cosmic loneliness and depression settled into me, but the only way out was through it.
This loss of belief was not a choice. In the midst of my pain and loneliness, I could hear my former devout and believing self saying that this just proved it was all true – that the way to be happy in life is to have faith in God, and the fact that losing that faith leads to pain and suffering just proves that God is real, and that believing in God is the only way to be truly happy. The problem was, I didn’t make a choice to give up my belief. The truth simply became apparent to me, and there was nothing I could do about it. The best analogy I’ve heard to describe my predicament during this period of my life goes something like this: imagine you are deeply unhappy, and someone comes along and says they have the cure for your unhappiness – a 100% guaranteed way for you to be deeply happy again, and stay happy for the rest of your life. All you have to do is to simply stop knowing how to read. Of course, it can’t be done. This was a bell that couldn’t be unrung.
At this difficult point in my life my spiritual search became all about trying to find out what is actually "real." I wanted to know if there was anything larger than myself out there that I could trust in or count on. Was there any higher power of any kind? Was there any larger purpose to our lives, any divine pattern or flow or energy that I could somehow get myself in sync with that would bring me peace and happiness? Was there any source of help or guidance beyond myself that I could count on during the hardest times of my life? More than anything, I just wanted to know what was really real, even if the answer turned out to be bad news.
In the years since I lost my belief in the Santa Clause God, I have explored many different ideas of God and tried different ways to connect with It. I wrote about this in two “spiritual autobiographies” that I shared with a support group at the Unitarian church for people transitioning out of Mormonism.14
One of the things I kept reading in the two 12 step books was that practicing the 12 steps is “a faith that works.” I wondered if this could be an answer to my question from years earlier about what I could really count on. Faith in the Santa Clause God is not a faith that works. But the idea of God as the All (which includes all of reality, both seen and unseen, exterior and interior, or both Consciousness and all of its objects) of which I am a part – an All whose intelligence, wisdom, power, and perspective are so much greater than my own that I can never fully conceive of them, yet of which I am a part (not just “connected to,” but an actual part of) – I can see how asking that All for guidance to know Its will, and the understanding and ability to carry out that will, sounds like a faith that could work.
As I contemplated this all I thought of this analogy – maybe the 12 step prayer is like one of the individual 37+ trillion cells in my body asking my whole body for guidance, and for the resources necessary to carry out that guidance. The universe is full of examples of the interconnectedness of everything. My brain communicates with my big toe by sending both chemical and electrical messages to it. Plants communicate with each other and with animals through molecules of scent carried through the air. The moon communicates with the ocean through a gravitational field. Birds communicate with the earth through a magnetic field. Why couldn’t the All communicate with me, one part of itself, through some field of energy or consciousness? A prayer for guidance from the All and the ability and understanding to follow that guidance seems like it would at least be worth a try. It seems like it could be "a faith that works."
And trying it is just what I did. The day before Thanksgiving last month I drove down to St. George to spend the holiday with my sister and her family. Normally when I make this drive I have an audio book to listen to (I’m partial to Michael Connelly’s crime novels) to keep myself awake on the drive. But this time after a few minutes of listening to the book I decided to turn it off and practice an awareness meditation that sometimes puts me into a peaceful, joyful state while I drive. It’s really just practicing present moment awareness – relaxing and being aware of what I am aware of moment-to-moment. I don’t know why it works so well when I’m driving a long distance. Maybe it’s something about sitting still – and with cruise control I’m really sitting relatively still – for long stretches while observing movement happening around me.
Whatever the reason, this time it worked. I soon found myself in a state of peace and joy that lasted the whole drive, with no sleepiness at all. And as I drove I prayed to the All, asking for guidance to know Its will and the understanding and ability to carry it out. And one thing settled in my mind as I sat there in peaceful awareness as the miles moved past me was to start a blog, this blog. So here I am.
STEP 12 -- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
I especially like the idea in the 12 step material about sharing this practice with others who could benefit from it by it sharing it through attraction rather than promotion. Let’s see if it works in actual practice, and, if it does, let’s let our lives be our message, rather than trying to convince anyone else of anything. I also like the idea that these steps are practiced on an ongoing daily basis, and in all areas of our lives.
So, these are my initial thoughts as I read through the 12 step AA material and thought about a broader spiritual practice path. In coming posts I will explore in more detail what such a path might look like.
1. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (1981). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. (3rd Edition). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (1981). Alcoholics Anonymous. (3rd Edition). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
2. There are many words that could be used to describe this common purpose, all pointing toward the same thing. For example: spiritual awakening, self-realization, union with God, enlightenment, awakening to the true nature of reality, etc. The particular words used are not important -- it is the shared purpose that matters.
3. Matthew 10:39, 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24, 17:33; John 12:25.
4. Thubten, A. (2013). No Self, No Problem: Awakening to our True Nature. Shambala.
5. Wilber, K. (2006). The One Two Three of God, Audio CD. Sounds True.
6. Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao te Ching, Chapter 14. HarperCollins.
7. When I speak of the All, I use the “It” terms instead of Him or Her. I do this for two reasons. First, him and her are both partial, and for me God is neither male only, nor female only. That would limit God to a species. Rather, for me, God is an All that both includes and transcends all maleness and femaleness. And second, It is a less defined term than him or her, and leaves more room for the mystery that the All is.
8. Foster, J. (2009). An Extraordinary Absence: Liberation in the Midst of a Very Ordinary Life. Non-Duality.
9. The term “bodymind” is often used in Buddhist traditions. It refers to the separate, individual self that we habitually perceive ourselves to be as we go about our day to day lives -- our individual body, emotions, and thinking mind.
10. Merzel, D. (2008). “Introducing Big Mind,” in Tricycle, the Buddhist Review. Winter, 2008.
11. See https://www.voicedialogueinternational.com/.
12. Hari, J. (2019). Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. Bloomsbury Publishing.
13. Click here to learn about Integral Theory.
14. Click here to read my Spiritual Autobiography.