Practice These Principles
Living the Spiritual Disciplines and Virtues in 12-Step Recovery

Spiritual Awakening: The Caring Heart (Updated 08/09/20)

As we have amply demonstrated in the preceding three posts, the Big Book and the 12&12 leave no doubt what the 12 Steps are all about, what their ultimate goal is. It is to have a spiritual awakening. That’s the transformational experience that what will relieve us of the obsession to drink and enable us to become “happily and usefully whole” as we saw the 12&12 put it.

As we have argued, this involves a radical change in the way we view and value things. In the last post, we discussed the first, the reordering of our vision. In this we discuss the second, the reorientation of our heart.

We find this idea of a deep, inner realignment throughout our two basic texts. The Big Book speaks of it with direct reference to the heart. In it, “heart” is a metaphor for the things that we care about, the things that matter, that are important, meaningful, or significant to us, the things that we are attached to or invested in and which therefore motivate us, stir our desires, arouse our emotions, and move us to act. 

We noted that we find this change linked to a spiritual awakening in There Is a Solution: “The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous” (p.25).

We’ll find it again in We Agnostics, with reference to Fitz M. (“Our Southern Friend”), “a man who thought he was an atheist,” but who, having had a spiritual experience, “His change of heart was dramatic, convincing, and moving” (p.55).

In “To Employers,” the change is related to the issue of the reordering of our concerns, of giving things their proper value. “Though you [the employer] are providing him with the best medical attention, he should understand that he must undergo a change of heart. To get over drinking will require a transformation of thought and attitude. We all had to place recovery above everything, for without recovery we would have lost both home and business” (p.143).

And in the last chapter of the Book, A Vision for You, we are shown how, as we continue to grow along spiritual lines, our hearts are increasingly reoriented away from the selfish and self-centered concern with ourselves which is the mark of our disease: "Being wrecked in the same vessel, being restored and united under one God, with minds and hearts attuned to the welfare of others, the things which matter so much to some people no longer signify much to them” (p.161).

Following Jung (and to some extent Freud), the 12&12 takes a more psychological tack on the cares of the self-centered heart, identifying the source of the problem in our natural, inborn desires and instincts. That’s why, at first, we have such a hard time working the Steps and practicing the principles in them.” That's just not how we are made.

“Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant?” we are asked rhetorically in Step 1. “Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done? Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry A.A.’s message to the next sufferer? No, the average alcoholic, self-centered in the extreme, doesn’t care for this prospect—unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive himself” (p.24).

“Since most of us are born with an abundance of natural desires,” we are told in Step 6, “it isn’t strange that we often let these far exceed their intended purpose. When they drive us blindly, or when we willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures than are possible or due us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God wishes for us here on earth. That is the measure of our character defects, or, if you wish, of our sins” (p.65).

Therefore, “If we place instincts first, we have got the cart before the horse; we shall be pulled backward into disillusionment. But when we are willing to put spiritual growth first—then and only then do we have a real chance” (Step 12, p.114). That simple willingness is the first sign of a change of heart. We begin to care for the right things and in the right order.

The Big Book describes this process in How It Works: We become “less interested in ourselves, in our little plans and designs” and more interested in others; “in what we could contribute to life” (p.63), not just in what we could get out of it. We begin to value and to desire the things of the Spirit above everything else. These are the things of which the Steps are made, embodied in spiritual principles that represent God’s will for us.

As we practice these principles in all our affairs, our lives are reordered. Our heart is reoriented and our vision restored. Gradually, imperceptibly, we begin to care the way God wants us to care, to see the way he wants us to see, to live the way he wants us to live.

Why is a spiritual reordering of our heart central to our recovery? Because the heart is the lens through which we view and value things. Our perception of how the things we care about are affected in a given situation arouse our emotions. And our emotions then drive our acts.

If our concerns and our perceptions are distorted, so will our emotions and our actions be. To act rightly, we need to feel rightly, and to feel rightly we need to care and to see rightly. A spiritual awakening makes this possible.

[Image: Ebby T, who carried the message of a spiritual awakening from Rowland H. to Bill W. and became Bill's sponsor. To hear Ebby tell his story, please click on the link.]

“We found, too, that we had been worshippers. What a state of mental goose-flesh that used to bring on! Had we not variously worshipped people, sentiment, things, money, and ourselves?” – Big Book

“We had lacked the perspective to see that character building and spiritual values had to come first, and that material satisfactions were not the purpose of living.”
– 12&12

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” – Matthew 6:21
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” – Proverbs 4:23

“Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” – Plato

“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” – Socrates

“All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire.” – Aristotle

“No one is wholly free; you’re either a slave to wealth, or to the law, or to the people you’re trying to please.” – Euripides


“Home is where the heart is.” – Pliny the Elder

“Let us train our minds to desire what the situation demands.” – Seneca

“Good does not mean merely not doing wrong, but also not desiring to do wrong.” – Democritus

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” – Epicurus

"You too, let your desire go; covet not too much." – Epictetus


“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”
– Medea, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

“Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe, to know what he ought to desire, and to know what he ought to do.” – Thomas Aquinas

“Those speak foolishly who ascribe their anger or their impatience to such as offend them or to tribulation. Tribulation does not make people impatient, but proves that they are impatient. So everyone may learn from tribulation how his heart is constituted.” – Martin Luther


“Whenever a man desires anything inordinately, he is presently disquieted within himself.” – Thomas à Kempis

“The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” – Blaise Pascal


“Man often thinks he is in control when he is being controlled, and while his mind is striving in one direction, his heart is imperceptibly drawing him in another.” – Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld

“A desire to be noticed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows is one of the earliest as well as the keenest dispositions discovered in the heart of man.” – John Adams

“If you desire many things, many things will seem few.” – Benjamin Franklin

“The only way to break the hold of a beautiful object on the soul is to show it an object more beautiful.” – Thomas Chalmers

“The discipline of desire is the background of character.” – John Locke

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” – Samuel Johnson


"Better to rule in hell, than to serve in heaven.” – Satan, in Milton’s Paradise Lost

“Each Man takes care that his neighbor shall not cheat him. But a day comes when he begins to care that he does not cheat his neighbor.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson


“There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” – George Bernard Shaw

“We can’t change things according to our desires, but our desires gradually change.” – Marcel Proust

"O why are we so haggard at the heart,
So care-coiled, care-killed . . . so cogged, so cumbered.”
– Gerald Manley Hopkins

“There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect.” – G.K. Chesterton

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” – Oscar Wilde

"Our longing, our craving, our thirsting for something other than Reality is what dissatisfies us." – William Butler Yeats

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”
– Theodore Roosevelt

“It is with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“Teach us to care and not to care.” – T.S. Eliot

“You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first. From which it would follow that the question, 'What things are first?' is of concern not only to philosophers but to everyone.”    – C.S. Lewis

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt 


“Tell me what draws your attention and I will tell you who you are.” – José Ortega y Gasset


“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” – Harry Truman


“Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.” – Arthur Schopenhauer


“A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.” – Thomas Merton

“Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” – J.M. Barrie

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright

“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
– Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

“If you set your heart on power, you’re controlled by power; if you set your heart on human approval, you’re controlled by the people you want to please; if you set your heart on family you’re controlled by your family.” – Becky Pippert

“I feel when the gun goes off I have 10 seconds to justify my existence.” – Harold Abrahams, "Chariots of Fire"
 “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” – Eric Liddell, "Chariots of Fire"


“Then I'll know I’m not a bum.” – "Rocky"

"I have to proof I'm somebody." - Madonna

"Making money made me feel like a man." – Ted Danson's character in "Dad"


“Perception is a function of character; it is not a morally neutral faculty but one that sees only that which the person already values. Transformation of the person down to her most important values, therefore, is necessary to correct the vision of the heart.” – William C. Spohn  


“The natural tendency of the human heart is to take good things and turn them into ultimate things.” – Tim Keller

“[V]irtue consists in selective differentiation of concern: intense concern for what is worthy of it, and relatively little concern for what is less worthy.” – Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology

“He who would have beautiful roses in his garden must have beautiful roses in his heart.” – S. R. Hole

“It is only by frequent deaths of ourselves and our self-centered desires that we can come to live more fully.” – Mother Teresa

“What is more important: to be right or to be happy?” – Anonymous

“To make a difference in someone’s life, you do not have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful, or perfect. You just have to care.” – Anonymous

“My recovery must come first, so that everything I love in life does not have to come last.” – Anonymous 

“AA is for those who want it, not just for those who need it.” – AA Saying

“Pride stands sentinel at the door of the heart and shuts out the love of God.”
Twenty-Four Hours a Day

“Are my priorities in order? Am I so busy with smaller, less meaningful concerns that I run out of time for the really important considerations? Today I will make room to think about what really matters.” – Al-Anon’s Courage to Change


“[Health] is measured by our detachment from those things we can do nothing about as well as by our engagement with those things we can.” – The Promise of a New Day

“A spiritual awakening that wholly reorients our heart and makes God and his will for us the ground of our view of life and of the things that we value makes it possible for us to practice the disciplines and virtues as distinctly spiritual principles.” – PTP


“In the fullness of time, doing his will and growing into the person he wants me to be becomes my overarching, master concern, the passion or desire that motivates me above all other concerns and orders and gives them form, what gives meaning, purpose and direction to my life.” – PTP

For shareable images for this post, please click  on link.

For more PTP passages on caring and concern, see “New Outlook, Different Motivation,”
pp. 47-52. For more BB and 12&12 passages, click on and search for heart, concerned, desires, and instincts. See also  "Spiritual Awakening: The Concept," and "Spiritual Awakening: The Seeing Eye," in "Spiritual Awakening," plus “Billy’s Death,” in “Reflections.”

Additional Resources

     1.  Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues, by Robert C. Roberts

     2.  “Chariots of Fire,” 1981 movie with Ben Cross and Ian Charleson. Two Olympic
          runners, one motivated by a passion to win and prove himself, the other by a
          passion to excel and honor God. A classic. Four Academy Awards

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