Good old fashioned Spirituality for Atheists and Non-Theists in and out of 12 Step Fellowships
At twelve-step meetings, one often hears people say that one may choose whichever God or Higher Power one fancies. This recipe has worked miracles for many in AA. On the other hand, it fails to acknowledge that there are very serious non theistic traditions in the world that have no deity at all. I refer to Advaita and Secular Buddhism for example. It also fails to take atheism and agnosticism serious enough. A well-reflected agnostic will hardly surrender his or her sense of critical thinking to a higher power for which there is no proof. If he did he would fall short of his own moral standards and that cannot possibly be the way to spiritual experience. Allowing these people a temporary baby God of their own imagination until they see the light is not only patronizing but also an insult to their intelligence. It also fails to pay respect to the very definition of what God is - the supreme being and creator of the universe.
Yet modern philosophy, while highly critical of religion and faith, is beginning to accept the need for spiritual experience as proven through the fact that millions of people the world over still find in religion a deep sense of fulfilment and moral guidance despite scientific evidence that contradicts their supernatural beliefs. This confirms the central fact of the big book of AA - which stipulates the urgent need for a spiritual experience as a prerequisite for the change of character needed to survive addiction. In so far as parts of science and even outspoken atheists such as Sam Harris now support this urgent need the debate as presented in the big book of AA is outdated. The big book presents atheism and science on one side and religion and spirituality on the other side. This is no longer where the dividing line is situated in the 21st century.
As a member of the recovery community who not only had a spiritual awakening but lost his religious faith as a result of it, I find it not good enough to tell people coming into the rooms that they might choose the sunset or a doorknob as their higher power. No offence to my fellows on the path but the group won‘t do either. None of this will provide the profound spiritual experience needed to provoke the fundamental change of character needed to recover from our selfishness and self-centeredness or mastering the human condition which is one of utter lack of control and defencelessness against all sorts of life‘s dangers. What the Big Book rightly tells us is that without a profound change of character which can only occur as a result of a spiritual experience we will be without defence against that first drug. Fortunately this does not require faith in a higher power or God at all. It does however require an authentic spiritual experience and is incompatible with the “issues and boundaries” type of recovery program one often finds in secular meetings.
What is required is the common factor in any spiritual experience. That common ground, that holy grail of you wish, is the authentic transcendence of self. Traditional AA teaches the transcendence of self through submission under a higher power. For this to have any effect, our surrender to that Higher Power must be absolute, as if we seized to exist only continuing life as a tool of God. Then and only then do we experience real freedom from self. This makes it obvious why a doorknob will not suffice to get the job done.
Yet an alternative path to spirituality is available and way more palpable to people from different cultures and modernists alike: it is the path of meditation and wisdom which can reveal our true nature as being one with all – in a very literal, non esoteric sense – and the unveiling of our sense of being a separate permanent self as an illusion. This is not only in line with many Asian schools of wisdom – it is in line with modern neuroscience that will confirm there is no separate, permanent self in us, but only a sense of it. Our spiritual malady is caused by the fact that we are totally identified with this false sense of self. The more we live as it, try to protect it and live life propelled by it, the more unmanageable life becomes. Here is my current understanding of the twelve steps. When hearing the word God, I see it as a metaphor for oneness or reality of all that is. The ocean would be another metaphor, in which we are the waves: drops have no permanent separate existence apart from the ocean. They are utterly powerless and incapable of living without ocean.
The central point I’m trying to make is: where true religion is practised and true spirituality is lived, the two meet each other on common ground: where one will transcend the self through totally surrendering the false self under God the other will experience, accept and act in line with knowing that there is no separate self to begin with. If either path is practised seriously the result will be much the same. The common ground these two paths culminate in is the mystic‘s path – the path that leads to spiritual freedom. Both fundamentalist faith and esotericism are two distortions of that path that have nothing to contribute to recovery or human life but confusion and further entrapment in self.
Newcomers should be warned not to believe in the self – help, self – improvement, answer a thousand questions way of fixing oneself taught in twelve step communities that have lost their touch with what this program is all about. This self-fixing approach to recovery is a falsification of the profound spiritual toolset laid out in the Big Book and will only result in increasing our self-centredness and spiritual malady. There is only two states for addicts and drunks alike: self centred and relapsed or centred in the eternal and recovered. In order to find your center in the eternal you must get rid of self. And self will never get rid of itself.
So here are the steps I took, and which humbly represent my current understanding of a program of recovery:
We admitted we were powerless over drugs/alcohol and our human condition - that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that our sense of being a permanent, separate self was an illusion and that we could be restored to the sanity of living centered in the knowing and experiencing that we are not that self but that in which all things occur or ocean/oneness.
Made a decision to stop declaring ourselves separate and to remain committed to what is, at all cost.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
We admitted to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of wrongs manifesting in our personalities.
Were entirely willing to experience the removing of all these defects of character.
Were entirely ready to humbly have these shortcomings removed.
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.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation or meditation to improve our conscious awareness of oneness, hoping only for total acceptance of what life brings for us and the power to practice radical acceptance and devotion to that reality.
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.
This alternative path does not exclude prayer, yet doesn’t require it: since we do experience a false sense of self it may, in fact, be useful for us to pray to a seemingly separate higher power at times. What differentiates this from religious praying is our knowing that the idea of a separate power communicating with us is delusional. However, since praying as if it was true is in line with how we feel and experience reality at certain stages of our development it will have a healing effect at these times - maybe as a form of self-hypnosis. Only you can be the judge of when and if that is the case for you. Were meditation is mentioned I refer to simple meditation practices without esoterical or metaphysical touch to it – such as awareness of breath (anapanasati) or body scan (vipassana) techniques.
My hope is that these thoughts help secular people to find a meaningful spiritual experience in the rooms that goes beyond taking the group as a temporary god and then getting more and more entangled in self by trying to fix it with self. My hope is that people from nontheistic backgrounds can join the fellowship one day and enjoy sharing the common ground between the two paths of jnana/wisdom and surrender/submission on the traditional side. Maybe secular people and religious members can find common ground in realizing that if taken seriously their paths culminate in the same thing.
- By “human condition” I basically refer to the three marks of existence as laid out by the Buddha: impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anattā).
- The words „ocean“, „oneness“, „that in which all things occur“ are descriptions of our true nature of which there is but one. They are metaphors for that which contains the illusion of self. You may choose to call that God if you wish but only if it helps your understanding. We need to always remember that the truth that can be told is not the eternal truth.