Spiritual disciplines are the second set of basic principles, in addition to the virtues, that 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” (Big Book, p. 32). Second: “What often takes place in a few months [as the result of a spiritual awakening or experience] could seldom have been accomplished by years of self-discipline” (Big Book 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, S4, 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 [AAs serving in the armed forces during WWII) be able to take discipline, stand up under fire, and endure the monotony and misery of war?” (S3, 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? (T9, 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, expert, or authority. From this derives the idea of a discipline, that is, a field of specialized knowledge or expertise, such as economics, history, physics, or, as in the case of Dr. Bob, medicine.
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 in 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 alter our conduct and change as people: to build character and to grow spiritually, morally, and emotionally.
That's the idea behind these two sentences in the 12&12: “Confession is an ancient discipline” (S5, 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” (S10, 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's 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, the conflation arises from certain theological allegiances which in some religious traditions 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. We are unable to do that here because, after reviewing hundreds of quotes, as we typically do for these posts, we have found that most of them reflect either a secular or a religious view of the concept of discipline which has little if anything relevance to the AA understanding and practice of it. The secular is concerned with worldly success and stresses self-control and will power in the pursuit of goals which revolve around such things as physical exercise, losing weight, study, work, and business. The religious shares some of the practices of the spiritual, but it tends to direct them to the otherworldly, ignoring if not entirely rejecting the idea of principles, the relationship between disciplines and virtues, and the practical goals of character and emotional growth.
Here then are some basic points about the spiritual disciplines as understood in the Big Book and the 12&12:
- The basic disciplines in the 12 Steps are surrender, self-examination, confession, restitution, 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.
- These principles are properly said to be disciplines because, as already noted above, they require certain kinds of repeated, ordered, and purposeful actions or activities. Thus, such actions begin to develop into disciplines properly speaking, not when we first do them once, but when we continue to do them on a regular and consistent basis. This is what we do in Step 10 with regard to the actions involved in Steps 4 through 9, in Step 11 in relation to prayer and meditation, and with Step 12 as it relates to the disciplines in all of the Steps, when we start to practice them in all our affairs.
- 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 neighbor.
- 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.
- Because of this overarching goal, all the disciplines, including the moral ones (e.g., self-examination and restitution), are rightly considered to be spiritual.
- 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 behavioral patterns.
- 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 inner qualities (e.g., honesty, humility) of which the acts are the outward expression.
- 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.
- 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 do.
- 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 consistently practice these three principles (self-examination, confession, restitution) 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 people.
- The virtues are the spiritual substance of the disciplines. Without them, the disciplines can easily degenerate into mechanical acts, techniques, hollow practices, mere formalities.
- 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 therefore will not help us to change and to grow.
- Because practicing the spiritual disciplines requires discipline in the sense of regular, consistent, and methodical work over an extended period of time, all of them also require the practice of two particular virtues, namely, patience and perseverance.
The pages that follow build on these ideas and the discussion in PTP.