As the Big Book and the 12&12 make clear—and as we have discussed in the previous two posts—the goal of the 12 Steps is to take us through a process of spiritual awakening that will change the person we have been and enable us to live a useful, happy, and productive life. Not drinking is but the first step in that endeavor.
Expanding on the Big Book, the 12&12 describes what all experiences of such a spiritual awakening have in common as “a new state of consciousness and of being” that enables a person “to do feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone” (pp. 106-107).
Throughout both texts, this awakening is consistently associated with a fundamental change in our outlook, our perception, the way we view or look at things, our perspective or vision.
This is based on the understanding—which is implicit in the Big Book and the 12&12 and which we make explicit in PTP—that how we feel and what we do is essentially a function of the way we look at things and the value we attach to them.
The basic reasoning is simple: If X is important to us and we perceive it to be negatively affected by Y, we are going to feel and to act differently than if we perceive to be affected positively. If X is not important, Y’s effect on it will have no impact on how we feel or what we do.
That’s straightforward enough. The problem of course is that our vision is often warped and our heart is in the wrong place. For us alcoholics that means that we tend to view and value things through the distorted lens of our spiritual disease: selfishness and self-centeredness. This distorts our emotions and our actions and cause us to harm ourselves and others.
The goal of a spiritual awakening is to heal us of our spiritual illness and enable us to see and to care about things from “a spiritual angle,” to experience a change of heart and of vision which makes it possible for us to live in harmony with ourselves, other people, the world, God.
Consider the matter of outlook. The subject of its transformation comes up early on in the Big Book, in “Bill’s Story,” where it is unmistakably linked to a spiritual awakening. Ebby was sharing the experience that enabled him to stop drinking. Aware of Bill’s negative reaction to anything having to do with God, he made a very simple suggestion: “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”
Bill recounts how Ebby’s question hit him hard. His description of the change he experienced is rich in the language of perception: it “melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow” he had “lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.”
Bill awoke to the simple fact all that was needed was for him to be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself. He “saw that growth could start from that point,” that upon that simple foundation he could build what he now “saw” in his friend (whom he had earlier seen as a religious “crackpot”). “Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us when we want Him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view.”
Bill then recalls the fleeting spiritual experience he had felt at the old Winchester Cathedral in England as a young soldier, an experience of the presence of God which “had been blotted out by worldly clamors, mostly within myself. And so it had been ever since. How blind I had been” (pp. 12-13, our emphasis in all quotes).
Another direct connection between a spiritual awakening and a new way of seeing things can be found further on in the Big Book in connection with the promises of Step 9. Two promised changes in perception function as pivotal changes from which other changes follow regarding our attitudes, concerns, and emotions.
The first: “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” A spiritual awakening enables us to see our painful past in a different light. As a result of this change, “That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away.”
The second: “Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.” As a result of this even more encompassing change, “Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves” (p. 84, our emphasis in both cases).
Other direct associations between a spiritual awakening and a change in perception can be found elsewhere in the Big Book. Describing such an awakening among “we agnostics” in Step 2 for instance, we read that “We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up” (p. 55, our emphasis).
We’ll also find indirect associations. For example, in Step 4 of the Big Book, we read that, having written down our resentments, “We were prepared to look at it from an entirely different angle. We began to see that the world and its people really dominated us . . . we saw that these resentments must be mastered . . .” (p. 66, our emphasis). These changes are all part of a gradual process of awakening to a spiritual view of things.
The same connection is found throughout the 12&12. In Step 1, for instance, we’ll find the following description of our radically different perception of our powerlessness in the face of our alcoholism:
“But upon entering A.A., we soon take quite another view of this absolute humiliation. We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built” (p. 21, our emphasis).
In Step 11, the 12&12 explains that “Self-searching is the means by which we are able to bring new vision” to illuminate the “dark and negative” aspects of our nature (p. 98, our emphasis).
Further on in Step 11 a spiritual awakening is linked to a nascent perception of God’s will for us and of the things that really matter in life. The result is a sense of peace and serenity in the face of things about life and the world that used to disturb us in the past:
“The moment we catch even a glimpse of God’s will, the moment we begin to see truth, justice, and love as the real and eternal things in life, we are no longer disturbed by all the seeming evidence to the contrary that surrounds us in purely human affairs” (p. 105, our emphasis).
In Step 12 the entire process is summed up in the following words:
“So, practicing these Steps, we had a spiritual awakening about which finally there was no question. Looking at those who were only beginning and still doubted themselves, the rest of us were able to see the change setting in. From great numbers of such experiences, we could predict that the doubter who still claimed that he hadn’t got the ‘spiritual angle,’ and who still considered his well-loved A.A. group the higher power, would presently love God and call Him by name” (p.109, our emphasis).
Thus, as we grow in our spiritual awakening, how we see and what we care about gradually become grounded in the spiritual, not in the material, in God, not in self. This gives our emotions a new and spiritual foundation.
The way we react emotionally to situations is a function of the way we see those situations affect the things that we care about. Therefore, as our seeing and caring become spiritually anchored, so will our emotions.
This steady shift in outlook and motivation is fostered by all the Steps, and in particular by Steps 4 and 10. When taking inventory and examining ourselves, we need always inquire: How am I looking at this? What defects are distorting my vision? What principles can help me correct it? Am I seeing this from a spiritual perspective? Do I have my AA glasses on?
[Image: William James, whose book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, given to Bill W. by Ebby T., helped him understand the nature of the experience he'd had at Towns Hospital and helped shape AA's understanding of a spiritual awakening. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]