Here’s Some Help with Step 11

12-StepsI was teaching at The Bridge Recovery Community last night about Step 11 in the 12 Steps. In my prep for this talk, I came across some great information from the Hazelden website. I referenced some of this information in my talk, and people asked about it, so I thought I’d include the information here. Enjoy!

Step Eleven: Cultivating conscious contact with a Higher Power

In 1938, an alcoholic stockbroker named Bill W. wrote a prospectus for the One
Hundred Men Corporation. The name of this entity referred to the number of people who had gained sobriety through an obscure new program of recovery from alcoholism. Bill planned to make this program the subject of a book, but first he needed money to finance its publication. For this purpose he was soliciting investors.

The program that Bill championed was based on 12 suggested steps. It was also unabashedly spiritual. In fact, the One Hundred Men prospectus noted that the spiritual aspect of the program had to be so simple and so practical that one alcoholic could easily explain it to another. Bill’s yet-to-be-written book would show how.

Today there are over 25 million copies of Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”) in print. And Bill managed to distill the essence of spiritual practice into the 32 words of Step Eleven: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

Bill’s ‘white light’ experience

Before drafting the Big Book, Bill had been a skeptic about spiritual matters. In his autobiography, he describes himself at one point as “incapable of faith.” That changed later, when Bill came to see himself as an alcoholic doomed to an early death unless he stopped drinking.

One night, during a hospital stay, Bill cried out, “If there be a God, let him show himself.” The response was immediate:

Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. . . . Then came the blazing thought, “You are a free man.” (From Bill W. My First 40 Years, page 145)

After that night, Bill never drank again. The story of his “white light” experience became a mainstay of AA tradition.

Even so, Bill later doubted the experience. “My scientific education asserted itself,” he wrote. “It told me that I was hallucinating, that this just couldn’t be so.” Bill came to accept his new spiritual viewpoint–and the notion of his sanity–only after consulting a psychiatrist.

For believers, atheists and agnostics

Bill’s persistent doubt qualified him to answer atheists, agnostics, and other AA newcomers who rebelled at any suggestion of prayer or meditation, let alone belief in God. Bill had once stood squarely in the unbeliever’s shoes, noting that “we recoiled from meditation and prayer as obstinately as the scientist who refused to perform a certain experiment lest it prove his pet theory wrong.”

Eventually, Bill’s attitude became more pragmatic: Do the experiment. You’ll discover that prayer and meditation work, and that “almost the only scoffers at prayer are those who have never tried it enough.”

By the time atheists and agnostics in treatment reach Step Eleven, they’ve come to some resolution about the “God language” of the Twelve Steps, says Scott Chapman, a spiritual care counselor at Hazelden. “The phrase ‘God as we understood Him’ is a reminder that we’re not about telling others what they should believe. We’re only suggesting that you begin with your own understanding of a Higher Power. It’s a phrase that expresses real respect for each individual and his or her own intuition.”

Chapman adds that many people in treatment turn to the immediate experience of the AA fellowship as their Higher Power. The acronym GOD can stand for Good Orderly Direction that comes from any source–even a Group of Drunks.

Newcomers to the Twelve Steps can also be reminded that as practicing alcoholics and addicts, they already displayed a capacity for faith.

“Before finding sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous, I displayed great faith and remarkable persistence–in drinking,” writes Mel B. in Step 11: Partnership with a Higher Power. “I worshipped the bottle; I took every problem to the bottle; I leaned on the bottle with almost childlike trust. I persisted in this sick devotion long after the bottle had repeatedly betrayed me and wrecked my life.”

Step Eleven channels that capacity for devotion in a new direction–one that can sustain sobriety for a lifetime.

Origins in ‘quiet time’

In suggesting prayer and meditation as the primary practices for “conscious contact” with a Higher Power, Bill was influenced by the morning “quiet time” practiced by members of the Oxford Group, a movement dedicated to rediscovering the principles of early Christianity. Bill had probably read How to Listen to God, an Oxford pamphlet that listed basic conditions for quiet time: “To be quiet and still. To listen. To be honest about every thought that comes. To test the thoughts to be sure that they come from God. To obey.”

Bill echoed this openness to spiritual direction in his instructions for prayer and meditation on pages 85-88 of the Big Book. Admitting that it “would be easy to be vague” about these subjects, Bill tried to boil down his knowledge of spiritual practice into a short list of “definite and valuable suggestions” relating to Step Eleven. These he organized under three basic headings: what to do first thing in the morning, what to do throughout the day, and what to do at night before going to sleep.

In the morning

“On awakening let us think about the twenty-four hours ahead,” notes the Big Book. “We consider our plans for the day. Before we begin, we ask God to direct our thinking, especially asking that it be divorced from self-pity, dishonest or self-seeking motives.”

Of course, people in recovery often face uncertainty. Even when we’re open to good orderly direction, we can still be unclear about moment-to-moment choices in daily life.

In response, the Big Book suggests that we “relax and take it easy.” Instead of struggling, we can wait patiently for an answer to come. Over time, we’ll find that “what used to be the hunch or the occasional inspiration gradually becomes a working part of the mind.”

The Big Book further suggests that we end our morning meditation with a prayer to receive guidance throughout the day for the next action to take. And the sum total of our needs in this area can be summarized in one phrase: Thy will, not mine, be done.

Fred Holmquist, director of the Lodge Program at Hazelden, emphasizes the timing of morning meditation and prayer.

“The directions for what to do on awakening are truly about what to do on awakening,” says Holmquist. “These are not things to be done on going to the bathroom, on making coffee, or on feeding the cat. Rather, it’s on awakening that I do a litmus test of my spiritual condition by thinking about the 24 hours ahead. If I’m already full of self-pity, dishonesty, or self-seeking motives, then this is a practice that literally gets me out of bed on the right foot.”

Throughout the day

After grounding our day in morning practice, we can stay open to guidance while moving through events at work or home. When we’re feeling emotionally unbalanced or confused, we can simply stop for a moment and ask our Higher Power for an appropriate thought or action.

At especially difficult times we can repeat a helpful passage from our reading or a particular prayer that we find meaningful.

At night

During his lectures about Step Eleven, Holmquist emphasizes the unity of the Steps. In fact, Steps Four to Nine prepare us for most of the processes described in Steps Ten and Eleven. This is especially clear in the Big Book’s list of questions to ask at night, as we review and end each day. For example:

  • Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? “This means asking how I did on my Fourth Step today,” says Holmquist.
  • Do we owe an apology? “This is asking about how I did on my Steps Eight and Nine.”
  • Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? “This means: How did I do on Step Five today?”

“In Steps Four through Nine, I clean up the wreckage of the past,” Holmquist adds. “In Steps Ten and Eleven, I clean up the wreckage of today–how my imperfections as a human complicate my life. These two Steps define what it means to completely give ourselves to this simple program.”

Releasing self-will

At any point in recovery, especially in the early stages of making conscious contact with a Higher Power, our inspiration can falter. We can fall into the trap of being certain about what would work best–and then praying for a Higher Power to rubber-stamp our decision.

John MacDougall, DMin, director of Spiritual Guidance at Hazelden in Center City, offers an analogy to help us understand the flaw in this approach. It’s based on a childhood memory: He grew up in New York City during the days when you could buy gum from vending machines in the subways. You put a penny in a slot, pulled a red lever, and got a stick of gum.

“A lot of people have a concept of prayer that’s just like that,” says MacDougall. “We’ve been good. We’ve prayed. We’ve pulled the red lever. So where’s our stick of gum? We expect to get just what we asked for. What AA is saying is: Open up to what God wants us to do. In the words of Step Eleven, we pray ‘only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.'” (See MacDougall’s column on Step Eleven.)

Expanding the practice

The instructions in the Big Book and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions are sufficient to begin a powerful practice of prayer and meditation. However, they are not intended to be complete. In fact, we are encouraged to explore the world’s religious traditions for ways to extend and enrich our practice.

Elene Loecher, spiritual care director at Hazelden’s Dan Anderson Renewal Center, finds inspiration in insight meditation, a practice with roots in ancient Buddhism. One technique from this tradition is called noting–simply noticing each sensation or thought as it arises in our field of awareness. Loecher says that this gives people a way to quiet their mind in a way that they never thought possible.

“The whole point is to enter the present moment and practice bare attention,” says Loecher. “This means observing events without adding any story or interpretation. Making up all our judgments about events is what creates all our emotional turmoil in the first place. When we meditate, we become aware of how we do that. Our thoughts become more calm and clear.”

This kind of clarity is one of the many rewards of practicing Step Eleven. Another is a newfound lightness and sense of ease. Trying to arrange the world to conform to our desires takes a lot of effort. Giving up that self-centered quest frees up energy for sobriety, for joy–and for the life of service described in Step Twelve.

Thanks to Hazelden for this information. You can find the original web page with this article here.


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