The phrase which concludes the 12 Steps and lays out the path to our continuing recovery raises three key questions: what are “these principles,” what does it mean to “practice” them, and what does it mean to do so “in all our affairs”?
These are in essence the questions we explore in Practice These Principles. The short answers to each are relatively simple.
“These principles” are the activities each of the Steps calls for and the qualities required to do them well. In Step 4 the activity is making a moral inventory of ourselves and the qualities such things as humility, honesty, and thoroughness. “In all our affairs” means in all moral situations in life, those which involve right and wrong action, doing good or doing harm. “Practice” means taking the right action repeatedly and intending its good consistently.
This practice is what we wish to make a few introductory remarks about here. It’s been known since time immemorial that we become good at doing something by doing it over and over again. The maxim “practice makes perfect” encapsulates this familiar bit of ancient wisdom.
Experience has always shown that, if we repeat an action enough, it will become a habit, that is, something we don’t have to think much about but instead do more or less automatically and with a minimum of conscious and deliberate effort. We’ll find it easier to do and therefore will do it better.
Now, that’s all well and good. Few of us would argue with that, nor would many have any trouble seeing how it applies to anything that involves learning, from the simplest activity like riding a bike or driving a car to the most complex such as mastering a particular specialty in physics or mathematics. It is probably fair to say, however, that most of us would have a lot of trouble seeing how it applies to the moral life, to mastering ourselves, doing good and avoiding evil, living well, being happy. And no wonder: that is, after all, the most complex thing of all.
And yet, AA says it does apply. That’s the whole thrust of that last phrase in the last Step. To the extent that living well is a function of our character, and our character a function of habit, to that extent it is a function of the things we practice and the person we become. We are what we repeatedly do, the ancients suggested, from which it follows that, as we are, so do we live.
“Habit,” said Steven R. Covey, “is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).” It is crucial that we know the principles we are to practice. Only on the basis of such knowledge can we practice them effectively. Otherwise, our practice amounts to little more than mindless action. It is like trying to learn to play the piano by banging repeatedly on the keys, oblivious to the components of the process and how it unfolds.
In Practice These Principles, we argue that the activities embedded in the Steps are properly understood as spiritual disciplines, and the qualities needed to do them well as the traits of character traditionally understood as virtues. These are the sorts of principles we are called to practice and turn into habits. The notion of habituation is intrinsic to both. A discipline is “Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement” (American Heritage Dictionary). A virtue is precisely that, a particular character or pattern of behavior, a good or excellent moral trait produced by the training.
We need to know therefore what is a discipline and what a virtue, what are the specific disciplines in each Step (e.g., self-examination in Step 4) and what the specific virtues (e.g., honesty in that Step), and we need to know how to practice the ones through the others (e.g., honesty in self-examination).
Finally, we have to have the desire to know and to do all these things. If we don’t have the desire, we won’t do them. It’s like that with drinking. If we don’t have the desire to stop, we’re just not going to, no matter how many meetings we go to or how many times we read the Big Book.
Going to those meetings and reading that book can awaken the desire, however, especially if we’re hurting. Pain is a great motivator. That’s why the program says we need to hit bottom. Most of us won’t do what we have to do unless our backs are up against the wall.
That turns out to be the silver lining in the pain, however, for it is “the price of admission into a new life” (12&12, S7, p. 75). Pain is “the touchstone of all spiritual progress” (S10, p. 93) because it opens us up to the spiritual awakening which makes such progress possible.
Using humility as an example, the 12&12 acknowledges that this can be a very long process. “To get completely away from our aversion to the idea of being humble, to gain a vision of humility as the avenue to true freedom of the spirit, to be willing to work for humility as something to be desired for itself, takes most of us a long, long time” (S7, p. 73).
But when we do become so willing, when we do desire it for itself, we discover that humility is “a healer of pain.” Recounting that kind of experience, the book observes how “We began to fear pain less, and desire humility more than ever.” Gradually, “We saw that we needn’t always be bludgeoned and beaten into humility. It could come quite as much from our voluntary reaching for it as it could from unremitting suffering. A great turning point in our lives came when we sought for humility as something we really wanted, rather than as something we must have” (p. 75).
It works like that with every virtue. We can truly practice it and make it our own when we desire it for itself, not because some authority tells us we must have it, or because it will help keep us out of trouble, or for some other reason extraneous to the virtue itself.
In AA, personal transformation comes about by the grace of God through an interactive process of spiritual awakening and the practice of spiritual principles. The awakening enables the practice and the practice furthers the awakening. Both issue from surrender and humility, first forced on us by defeat and humiliation and then freely embraced as the road to freedom.
Continuing and repeated practice turns principle into habit and habit into trait of character. ”Like states arise from like activities,” writes Aristotle, “we acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way. We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.” So too do we become honest by telling the truth, grateful by giving thanks, kind by doing kindly deeds.
In doing we become, and in becoming we change. To change is to exchange habit for habit, ceasing to practice anger and greed and fear and practicing instead forgiveness and generosity and faith.
[Image: Bill with the violin and Lois at the piano. For Lois's autobiography, see Lois Remembers: Memoirs of the Co-Founder of Al-Anon and Wife of the Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.]
* This is erroneously attributed to Emerson, among others. It originates with Beckwith.
** This is erroneously attributed to Aristotle. It's Durant's paraphrase of him.