Step Two

The question you would seem to have to answer to be religious or spiritual is, “do you believe in God?” Even if you have no formal religious background or affiliation, belief in a God of some sort can seem like the main issue. Read More

The question you would seem to have to answer to be religious or spiritual is, “do you believe in God?” Even if you have no formal religious background or affiliation, belief in a God of some sort can seem like the main issue. Yet strangely enough, I don’t think it is. I also think there’s a more important issue in this question that usually gets overlooked. I want to take a look at this in part because I think it can have special relevance for people in recovery.

First of all, just to get it out of the way, although the history of religion in the developed western world overwhelmingly has been focused on a God-idea of one kind or another, there are great, long-lived traditions that have millions of followers who don’t believe in any of those God-ideas at all, yet consider themselves devoted to their faiths. The most obvious one is Buddhism, which at last count was about 400 million strong. Siddhartha Gautama, the prince who renounced the throne to search for enlightenment and became the man we know as the Buddha, rebelled against the religious establishment of the India of his day. While the tradition has many different branches with widely differing viewpoints, the core teachings of the Buddha include a denial of a God and the denial of a soul in the sense of something separate from the physical body that leaves it at death. On some of the great metaphysical questions, he remained silent, saying that he was more interested in teaching people how to transcend their suffering than answering unprovable philosophical matters.

These viewpoints became an important issue for a number of young American men during the sixties and early seventies, before Richard Nixon eliminated the draft. Some of them, influenced by the wave of eastern teachers and teachings that swept Europe and America from the mid-fifties on, declared themselves Buddhists and asked to be excused from military service on that basis, since Buddhism teaches non-violence. The various branches of the armed forces replied, “but you say you don’t believe in God, so how can you be religious?” They couldn’t get their heads around the notion that their familiar definition of what it means to be religious was far from the only one.

I bring this up because in the history of the recovery movement in roughly the last century, questions of religious belief and spirituality have played an important part. The Twelve Step program, the most well-known and probably the most effective one in helping members to overcome addiction, was started by its two main founders on what can look like an upfront religious basis. It was their contention, as codified in the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, more commonly known as “The Big Book,” that the first two steps on the path to recovery were 1) admitting one’s own powerlessness over addiction, and 2) acknowledging that only a power greater than one’s own could free one from it. This power they called “God.” 

Later, of course, as the movement spread and had surprising success in treating addiction, and as people of every background started coming to meetings, including those from non-Judeo-Christian backgrounds and those with no religious views at all, that early language changed. “God” got re-branded as “Higher Power.” Then Higher Power got redefined as almost anything you could put your belief in as a source of healing.

This change solved the immediate practical problem of “how do you make the program work for those who can’t accept it’s basic principles as originally stated?” But it may have also introduced some unexpected and overlooked wrinkles into the program that can limit its power and effectiveness.

There are two issues I want to address about that. One is the nature of what we mean by “Higher Power”; the other is the matter of “belief.”

This is a blog about meditation and spirituality. I’ve written a lot about many different types of meditation, most of which I’ve had at least some experience with personally. But while I’ve also touched on questions of spirituality, I haven’t commented much on what I consider its core, its heart—which has a lot to do with this whole subject of “God,” “Higher Power,” and “Belief.”

One of the reasons I haven’t said more on these things is because they are all so hard to define, and the words can mean very different things to different people. I also wanted and continue to want to deeply respect the varying views and needs of everyone. Recovery is hard enough without someone seeming like they’re telling you your ideas are wrong.

So I’m not doing that, and I’m not going to do that. Instead, I hope to sketch out a way of looking at these issues that may bring some clarity and open a possibility of touching into something useful, particularly for anyone who has struggled with the underlying religious skeleton of the Twelve Steps.

I said earlier that I didn’t think “do you believe in God?” was necessarily the essential question to answer in order to determine if someone is religious or spiritual. However, I do think there is a risk of missing something essential about what “powers” the programs if the definitions become so vague as to be no definitions at all. The statement below is from the AA website:

A Higher Power doesn’t have to be God; it could be nature, the universe, fate, karma, your support system, the recovery group itself, medical professionals or whatever you feel is outside of and greater than yourself/your ego. What you believe to be a Higher Power is a very personal thing.

I agree with much of the statement: that a Higher Power doesn’t have to be “God,” especially not anyone’s trademarked idea of God; that it is very personal; and that many things outside oneself and one’s own limited box of ideas can be tremendously helpful. Crucial, in fact. But there’s something left out.

What is addiction, in the first place? It’s an attachment to something—a substance, usually, but also sometimes a process, like shopping, eating, gambling, or taking unsafe risks. And what do all of these have in common? They are all things that fall apart and go away. They’re all material, limited, and temporary. They fill a need, perhaps, but only for a while. And they have to be acquired. We don’t have them with us all the time, automatically. So we want them, and spend time, energy, and money getting them. If they are harmful, or become harmful in the way we use them, the cycle of craving, acquiring, using, and using them up begins, and repeats itself endlessly until something interrupts and ends it.

All of that is also true of nature, a support system, a recovery group, medicines, or anything that is a part of the physical world that we perceive with the senses. But that is not supposed to be true of God, a Higher Power, Spirit, Buddha Nature, the Tao, or whatever name we choose to give to such an idea. The whole point within religion and spirituality is the view that there is a reality beyond the physical. It’s by no means always some sort of God-idea. But neither is it a “whatever”—the modern creed we say when we mean something makes no difference, or is met by our own indifference.

Speaking strictly for myself here, my personal experience is that I have come to sense, feel, intuit, that there is some kind of higher or deeper reality, and that it can be accessed by human beings. I don’t pretend to know exactly what it is, in a way that can be tightly defined; and I remain open to the possibility that I am mistaken, or that maybe it’s just the belief itself that empowers us to do things we otherwise couldn’t. A kind of placebo effect on steroids. But I honestly don’t think so. Because it doesn’t seem like a form of belief, at all, which is where I beg to differ from the traditional Twelve Step language. And it’s advantage—why I think it matters—is that it isn’t something limited that passes away, like everything else. Conscious contact with it can change your view of things in an instant. People everywhere in the world, of every race, ethnicity, nationality, belief system or no belief system, educated, uneducated, developed, or indigenous, have spoken and written about and testified to such a reality since before writing was developed. 

The great advantage of such an intuition is precisely that it doesn’t suffer from the limitations of the things we turn to for help or deliverance in this world. Groups break up. People all have egos. If you have, not a belief, but an experience of such a reality that is compelling and sustained, you have something that helps you under all circumstances and conditions. That doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes lose that connection, or doubt it. But religion and spirituality dare to make the outrageous assertion that at the heart of everything is a condition of infinite energy, consciousness, and love that is a part of us. You don’t have to believe it. In fact, you can’t. But you can look into it, and see what you find. And you just might see it finds you.

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