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

These Principles

Spiritual in Nature

The same is true of human life. It too has its principles. If not followed, life doesn’t work, and may even collapse or crash. While we may acknowledge this about those aspects of our lives that have to do with our physical health, we are less likely to do so when it comes to our emotional and spiritual well-being.

That there is an order to life and that there are principles governing that order are ideas largely foreign to the mind of the active alcoholic. Chaos marked our lives. We lived in reaction to instincts, feelings, desires, obsessions, compulsions, and impulse—all ignited and fueled by self-will.

Our parents may have tried to instill certain principles in us when we were young. They did not succeed: we rejected those principles, or could not put them into practice. In some cases, of course, they may have been false principles that did not work in real life. At various junctures, too, we may have subscribed to different ideas and even to certain ideals that we thought would give direction to our lives. Some of these may have been drawn from philosophy, religion or the social sciences; in some cases from the arts or literature. These too didn’t work, or we wouldn’t be where we are.

AA offers us the principles we lacked. If we practice these principles as a way of life, the obsession to drink will be removed and we will be able to live whole, useful and happy lives. This is no empty promise. The experience of countless alcoholics proves that these principles work. We are reminded of this fact at the end of practically every meeting we attend: “it works if you work it,” we say, sure that we have the goods to prove it.

What is the nature of these principles, which work where everything else failed? The Foreword to the 12&12 is explicit: the 12 Steps are a set of principles “spiritual in their nature.” This claim, that the principles of the program are fundamentally spiritual, is repeated and sustained throughout the Big Book and the 12&12. Yet, it is not readily apparent why this is so. This gives some of us reason, particularly if we have trouble with the spiritual part of the program, to look for alternative, i.e., secular, accounts of the principles.

If we are to practice these principles, and not some other principles, and if we are to practice them in their full scope, it helps to know in what sense AA says they are spiritual. A number of things, all closely related, come to mind.

First, these principles have a spiritual purpose: to lead us to a spiritual awakening, to lay our spirit open to a relationship with God as the Higher Power who can restore us to sanity. Second, they have a spiritual application: they represent practical expressions of God’s will for how we are to live a life of sobriety in all its dimensions, as it affects our character, our emotions, and all our God-given faculties. Third, these principles are guides to continued spiritual progress; they give us direction as we grow along spiritual lines in our relationship with God and with our fellows. Fourth, these principles cannot be practiced on our own power, but by the power of God, granted through grace. It is the Spirit of God, working in our own spirit, who enables us to live these principles out in the real world.                                                         

As we come to accept the spiritual nature of the principles of the program, we find ourselves changing in unexpected ways. We start to shed old attitudes and begin to see things in a different light, drawing more of our inspiration from the things of the spirit. We grow more conscious of God’s presence and of his power working in us. We become aware that we are doing things that we could not possibly do by ourselves.

– From "Steps and Principles," pp. 10–11