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Steps to Awakening: 12 Suggestions for Spiritual Growth

As I wrote about it my first blog post, I have been experiementing with using a modified version of AA's 12 steps as a practice for spiritual growth that is focused on awakening rather than sobriety. Over the past few weeks I have continued to read 12 step literature and discuss these steps with my spiritual explorations group. After numerous revisions it feels like they are ready to be shared.

STEP 1: Seeing the depth of suffering in the world around us, and recognizing the intractability of certain of our own personal causes of suffering, we have come to recognize our powerlessness in these areas.

This step is focused on identifying those causes of suffering, those addictions, cravings, aversions and avoidances that cause suffering, and that our will and efforts so far have been powerless to free us from.

We each have our own addictions – physical, emotional, and psychological compulsions, through which we try to find happiness and avoid or alleviate suffering. They may include addictions to substances, to anything from sugar and junk food to drugs and alcohol. We may have addictions to activities – to watching television, our cell phones, or shopping. We may be addicted to emotional patterns, such as victimhood and blaming, or the feelings of superiority that come with always needing to be right. We may be addicted to toxic relationships. Perhaps the deepest addiction we all share is to our habitual thought patterns – to our beliefs, opinions, and conditioned ways of thinking.

In addition to our personal causes of suffering, the more that our heart is open the greater we are pained by the suffering of others. There are so many causes of suffering in the world that our best individual and collective efforts seem powerless to alleviate.

STEP 2: We have come to believe that only a power greater than ourself can awaken us and bring lasting peace, sanity, and joy to our lives.

The focus of this practice is on awakening, rather than sobriety. It assumes sobriety as a starting point. The purpose of this path is twofold -- to relieve the suffering of our separate self while that is what we experiences our self to be, and to ultimately get at the root cause of all suffering by revealing the ultimate truth of who we are beyond our separate self. With this step, we trust that the One, of whom we are each manifestations, can and will awaken us, in its own way and time.

Awakening can happen on many different levels and to different degrees. For example:

  • We can awaken to a heretofore unknown aspect of ourself – a buried feeling, a hidden motivation, a secret wish, an unrealized ability. Each time we become more aware of some aspect of ourself, we are more awake.

  • We can awaken into a new stage of growth, into a wider or large perspective than we have experienced before.

  • We can awaken into a new or deeper state of consciousness or awareness that we have experienced before.

  • We can awaken into a greater sense of unity and Oneness than we have experienced before.

  • We can awaken to our Higher or True Self, which transcends our egoic sense of self.

  • We can awaken beyond our individual self sense, to the ultimate Oneness of nonduality.

For these last two levels of awakening, surrendering awakening to our Greater Power can be especially important, because our egoic self cannot awaken itself from itself, and its efforts to do so may only strengthen it.

By “a power greater than ourself” we mean something that is larger and more powerful than our individual self. Each person is free to define their Greater Power in whatever way makes the most sense and works the best for them. For the purposes of awakening, the most important characteristic of each person’s Greater Power is that, “It’s not me.” In other words, it’s something that transcends my separate, individual self. For example, our physical bodies transcend and are “greater” than any one of the 30 trillion cells that comprise it.

This step recognizes two kinds of powerlessness:

  • The powerlessness of our egoic self to control people, circumstances, situations, aspects of our own self, etc.

  • Our powerlessness as the egoic self, to transcend itself.

STEP 3: We have made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a power greater than ourself, as we each understand it.

This is the step of surrender, the surrender of our will, our lives, and our sense of self – of who and what we believe our self to be – to something that is greater than us, something transcends us. It means making a conscious choice to give up control and trust in something larger or greater than our individual self.

In order to help expand the possibilities of a Greater Power beyond the idea of an anthropomorphic being up in the sky, we use the term “Greater Power” rather than “Higher Power.”

STEP 4: We seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our Greater Power as we each understand It, asking only for guidance and the ability to understand and follow that guidance.

Daily prayer and meditation, in whatever form works best for us, is a key element of our practice. It focuses our awareness and sets our intention for the day. It gives us a few moments of present moment awareness, acceptance, and surrender and reminds us to practice these throughout the coming day.

We ask each day for guidance from our Greater Power, so that we can meet any challenges that come our way with wisdom and love, and so that our actions and activities will be a blessing to ourselves and others. In asking only for guidance, rather than that our personal wishes be granted, we are again surrendering our lives and our will to our Greater Power. This is a daily practice in transcending our egoic self.

STEP 5: We engage in honest ongoing examination of our words, actions, and behaviors to determine if they have caused, or are causing, harm to ourself or others.

Each spiritual tradition has a list of “sins” – thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to be avoided because they harm ourself or others. Psychology calls them dysfunctions – unhealthy behaviors or interactions. Examples of such harmful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors include:

  • Fear, anger, jealousy, and resentment

  • Greed, excess, self-centeredness, and pride

  • Exploitation of others, including sexual misconduct

  • Lying, gossiping, stealing, and killing

STEP 6: We engage in honest ongoing examination of the inner thoughts, feelings, and motivations of our egoic self.

By "egoic self" we mean our thinking mind and the sense of being a separate self that our thinking mind creates and maintains. Examples of the workings of our egoic self include:

  • Its attempts to protect, defend, and build itself up, often at the expense of others

  • Its cravings and attachments

  • Its aversions and avoidances

  • Its storytelling and self-deceptions

  • Its mental and emotional habits and patterns

  • Its attempts to use, manipulate, or control others.

STEP 7: When our behaviors or egoic patterns have caused harm to ourself or others, we admit our wrongs to ourself, to our Greater Power, and to another person.

The purpose of this step is twofold. First, such honesty is necessary to reduce feelings of isolation and maintain our caring connections with others. And second, it helps us transcend our ego’s desire to always be right or perfect. This step allows us see and begin to let go of the places where our ego is keeping us stuck in suffering.

STEP 8: We are entirely ready and willing to surrender our harmful behaviors and our egoic patterns to our Greater Power, and humbly do so.

Having recognized the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are causing suffering and keeping us stuck in the suffering of our separate self, we reach a point where we are ready and willing to be free of them. And, recognizing the inability of the ego to free itself from itself, we willingly surrender these limitations to our Greater Power.

STEP 9: We nurture caring connections. We forgive those who have harmed us, and make amends for any harm we have caused to ourself or others where doing so would not cause additional harm.

Nurturing caring connections with others includes reaching out to create and maintain healthy relationships, and treating each person we encounter with kindness and respect. If Oneness is the ultimate truth of reality, then each caring connection we create and maintain has the potential to bring us closer to that truth.

Forgiving ourself and each other is a practical step that reduces our suffering and the suffering of others. Each time we forgive another or acknowledge and make amends for a wrong we have done, we are taking another step in letting go of our ego. Ultimately, forgiveness recognizes the truth that, at the deepest level, we are One, and so to forgive another is to forgive ourself, and to love another is to love ourself.

STEP 10: We accept all aspects of the present moment as it is to the best of our ability, and do not fight against anyone or anything.

Present moment awareness and acceptance is key in every level of awakening. We must acknowledge what is, and the fact that it already is, as a starting point for any growth. Awareness and acceptance are the doorway to spiritual awakening. We cannot awaken in the future, because the future does not exist except as a thought in our mind in this present moment. Neither does the past.

Our True Self, and our Oneness with all that is, exists right now in this present moment. They are not something we attain or become. They are what we already are. The only thing we can be missing is our recognition of this truth in the present moment, and the only way this recognition can be found is by turning our awareness and acceptance to the present moment.

The fact that we do not fight against anyone or anything does not mean we do not take helpful action in the world. Rather, it means that any truly effective action must spring naturally from who and what we really are at the deepest level of our being, beyond our separate egoic self, and present moment awareness and acceptance are the only way to access this level of our being. From this level of being we have access to depths of wisdom and love that come from a larger perspective, one that sees the whole in a way that no individual person can. Rather than fighting against something or someone, we work for something – to increase the awareness, love, and compassion in the world, in whatever ways we are guided to by our Greater Power, rather than by our own limited egoic desires and opinions. Egos battle. Souls connect.

STEP 11: We engage in the ongoing practice of these principles in all areas of our lives, one day at a time.

This practices does not compartmentalize our lives into separate areas – spiritual practice, work, relationships, etc. Rather, it recognizes that these steps are meant to be applied in all areas of our lives. Our Greater Power guides us, as we go throughout the activities of each day, in how to best apply the principles in these steps to each task, situation, and encounter that comes our way. Living our day to day lives in this way is our spiritual practice.

This is a one day practice. It is for today only. It is not focused on future days. Nor is it concerned with past days, except in those cases where we have caused harm to ourself or others in the past that we need to make amends for today. Our practice is focused on the guidance we need today, and how we will encounter the people, circumstances, and situations that come our way today.

STEP 12: With gratitude for all that we have received we share freely with others, as guided by our Greater Power.

Giving freely of our time, talents, and possessions is another practice that can help us transcend our separate self. Possessions that we identify as “mine” become an extension of our egoic sense of self. It can be helpful to think of our possessions as things we have temporarily been given to use and to share.

Sharing freely means not giving in order to get something from those we give to. This means not giving in order to get appreciation, admiration, status, return favors, or anything else.

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