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

Spiritual Disciplines

Spiritual disciplines are the second set of basic principles, in addition to the virtues, which make up the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Like “virtue,” the term “discipline” is not an important part of the AA lexicon. The word appears only eight times in our two texts: three in the Big Book and 5 in the 12&12. Moreover, its use conveys different, if related, meanings.  

One of these meanings is discipline (without the indefinite article "a") in the sense of self-control or self-imposed order. We find this in three sentences. First:  “Then he fell victim to a belief which practically every alcoholic has—that his long period of sobriety and self-discipline had qualified him to drink as other men” (BB p.32). Second: “What often takes place in a few months [as a result of a spiritual awakening or experience] could seldom have been accomplished by years of self-discipline” (BB p.567). And third: “These are the sort of fundamental inquiries that can disclose the source of my discomfort and indicate whether I may be able to alter my own conduct and so adjust myself serenely to self-discipline” (12&12, Step 4, p.52).

Another meaning of discipline is adherence to an externally imposed order or forced submission to rules and authority, as in the following two questions in the 12&12:  “Would they be able to take discipline, stand up under fire, and endure the monotony and misery of war?” (Step 3, p.38), and “Did anyone ever hear of a society which couldn't somehow discipline its members and enforce obedience to necessary rules and regulations? (Tradition 9, p.172). 

Still another meaning is that of discipline as correction, in the sense of putting us back on the right course or inducing us to follow “good orderly direction,” as suggested in this Big Book entry:  “We alcoholics are undisciplined. So we let God discipline us in the simple way we have just outlined” (p. 88). Though this is not what this particular text intends, correction, of course, can take the form of punishment, as when a parent “disciplines” a child.

The original meaning of discipline can be traced to the Latin root of the word, discere, “to learn,” as found in discipulus, “student,” from which we get “disciple,” denoting one who follows or adheres to the teachings of a master or authority. From this derives the idea of a discipline, that is, a field of knowledge or instruction, such as economics, history, or physics. 

It is in this sense of a discipline or a set of disciplines that the term is relevant to recovery. The basic idea is conveyed by this lexical entry: “Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement” (American Heritage Dictionary). The notion of training is inherent the AA ideas of program, steps, and principles. Working the Steps and practicing their principles constitutes in effect a training program, one that is designed to help us change as people, to build character and to grow spiritually, morally, and emotionally.

That's the idea behind these two sentences from the 12&12: “Confession is an ancient discipline” (Step 5, p.6), and “In all these situations [involving a spot-check inventory], we need self-restraint, honest analysis of what is involved, a willingness to admit when the fault is ours, and an equal willingness to forgive when the fault is elsewhere. We need not be discouraged when we fall into the error of our old ways, for these disciplines are not easy” (Step 10, p.91).

In both statements discipline is used with direct reference to specific principles that are connected with specific Steps and whose practice can help us bring about the desired change. The first clearly identifies one particular principle (confession) as a discipline. The second, however, doesn’t distinguish between principles, conflating discipline (self-examination) with virtue (self-restraint, honesty, willingness, forgiveness).

As we have noted in PTP, that’s not surprising. For a variety of reasons, our two texts do not attempt to be systematic in their presentation and explanation of the principles contained in the 12 Steps. Again, that is part of the reason for the lack of clarity about what the principles are, their relation to the Steps, and how we are to practice them.

The conflation of the disciplines and virtues stems in part from the fact that the practice of the virtues requires discipline in the sense suggested by training: regular, consistent, ordered, methodical, intentional, and purposeful action. As regards spiritual disciplines in particular, which are emphasized in some religious sectors, the conflation arises from certain theological allegiances which privilege the concept of discipleship and are averse to that of virtue and of principles in general. 

Nevertheless, in AA, the relationship between the two sets of principles—the way they are shown to work together in the Steps—demonstrates that disciplines and virtues are different, and that the differences are of practical importance. Indeed, the distinction is central to our understanding of them and therefore to our working of the Steps.

We have discussed this at length in PTP. Our purpose here is to summarize some of the main points in that discussion. Ordinarily, we would supplement this with a substantial selection of quotes. However, after reviewing hundreds of quotes, as we typically do for these posts, we have found that most of them reflect a religious view of spiritual disciplines which has little or no relevance to the AA understanding and practice of them. As a result, our initial selection is unusually small. We will add more as, and if, we find them.

Some basic points about the spiritual disciplines:   
1. The disciplines in the 12 Steps are surrender, self-examination, confession, rest-
    itution, prayer, meditation, service, witness, and fellowship. In the 12 Traditions
    they are surrender, anonymity, service, witness, and fellowship. The specific
    practice of some of these may vary according to the particular Step or Tradition.

2. These principles are properly said to be disciplines because, as noted above, they
    require certain kinds of repeated, well-ordered, and purposeful activities. Thus, such
    activities begin to develop into disciplines properly speaking, not when we first do
    them once, but when we continue to do them on a regular, daily basis, which is what
    we do with Step 10 as regards the actions involved in Steps 4 through 10, and with
    Step 12 as regards the disciplines in all of the Steps, when we start to practice them
    in all our affairs.

3. The disciplines are a series of practices designed to foster the development of
    specific patterns of behavior and the acquisition of specific traits of character
    in our spiritual and moral life, which is to say in our relations with God and with

4. Beyond helping us to stay sober, their purpose is to help bring about a spiritual
    awakening which enables us to receive the knowledge, the understanding, and the
    power to live as God wills for us to live, particularly as it affects our relations with
    our fellows.

5. Because of this overarching goal, all the disciplines, including the moral ones (e.g.,
    self-examination and restitution), are rightly considered to be spiritual.

6. Disciplines and virtues are closely related and interdependent. They both require
    consistent and repeated effort whose aim is to make their relevant activities habitual.
    They’re both ordered to our relationship with God and neighbor. They share the
    common end of effecting a spiritual transformation that brings about a change in our
    character and in our emotional and behavior patterns.

7. The disciplines, however, aim to effect this change indirectly, through the practice of
    certain acts that remain external to us (e.g., self-examination, restitution). The
    virtues, on the other hand, aim to bring about this change directly, through the
    practice of certain acts which ingrain in our character specific interior qualities (e.g.,
    honesty, humility) of which the acts are the outward expression.

8. In AA, the disciplines are the means through which we practice the virtues. For
    instance, surrender (Steps 1, 2, 3, 6 & 7), self-examination (Steps 4 & 10),
    confession (Step 5 & 10), restitution (Steps 8 & 9), prayer (Steps 7 & 11),
    meditation (Step 11), and witness and service (Step 12) all call for humility,
    most of them for honesty, many for willingness, and some for courage.

9. Disciplines and virtues are therefore complementary, but they’re not equivalent.
    Disciplines involve external acts, while virtues include their motivating traits.
    Disciplines are what we do, virtues are how we do them and what we become as we

10. Thus, if we are consistently honest when we take inventory, when we admit the
      exact nature of our wrongs, and when make amends for them, and if we consist-
      ently practice these principles in all our affairs, we will gradually change and over
      the course of time we will acquire the virtue of honesty. We will become honest

11. The virtues are the spiritual substance of the disciplines. Without them, the
      disciplines can easily become mechanical acts, hollow practices, mere

12. Without the disciplines, however, the qualities we call virtues cannot take root in our
      character and thus become virtues properly speaking. They will remain occasional,
      haphazard, and inconsistent acts, acts moreover whose motivation may not always
      be moral or spiritual and which cannot help us to change and to grow. 

The pages that follow build on these ideas and their original discussion in PTP. For an introductory discussion of the disciplines there, please see chapter A: These Principles; For their role in Steps 1-3, please see the discussion in those Steps. See also on this site "The Disciplines," an excerpt from chapter A under submenu of "These Principles."

[Image: Young Dr. Bob.]
“Now we try to put spiritual principles to work in every department of our lives.” – Big Book
“A.A.’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”
– 12&12 
“A Spiritual Discipline is an intentionally directed action which places us in a position to receive from God the power to do what we cannot accomplish on our own.” – Richard Foster
“Spiritual discipline: any activity I do by direct effort that will help me do what I cannot now do by direct effort.” – Mark Buchanan
“The purpose of a spiritual discipline is to give us a way to stop the war, not by our force of will, but organically, through understanding and gradual training. – Jack Kornfield
“Gaining mastery or excellence in any of field of endeavor requires following a particular discipline, a set of methods, exercises or practices peculiar to that field. Recovery in AA is no different. It too has its own set of disciplines.” – PTP
“We can look at the virtues as the goals or ends, the spiritual qualities, character traits, and mental and emotional dispositions to which we aspire; at the disciplines as the means through which we strive toward them.” – PTP 

For posts on the virtues and the disciplines, please click on Practice These.