498: Spiritual wisdom for all of us from Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Steps

The following words have spiritually transformed millions of lives. As Ramadan begins this week, consider how close these lines are to the spiritual challenges of the Muslim fasting month. Yes, the physical goal of Ramadan is keeping the fast during daylight hours. But the deeper spiritual goal is very much like this … (Do you recognize the passage in italics?)

    First of all, we had to quit playing God. It didn’t work.
    Next, we decided that hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our Director. He is the Principal; we are His agents. He is the Father, and we are His children. Most good ideas are simple, and this concept was the keystone of the new and triumphant arch through which we passed to freedom.
When we sincerely took such a position, all sorts of remarkable things followed. We had a new Employer. Being all powerful, He provided what we needed, if we kept close to Him and performed His work well.
    Established on such a footing we became less and less interested in ourselves, our little plans and designs. More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life. As we felt new power flow in, as we enjoyed peace of mind, as we discovered we could face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence, we began to lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter. We were reborn.

    That’s a pretty good description of the Muslim journey through fasting, prayer, charitable gifts and scripture study during the month of Ramadan. But, do you know these italic lines?
    They’re a direct quote from Step 2 of the 12-Step program known as Alcoholics Anonymous. The words have been read—and taken to heart—by millions of people. Many will tell you that this spiritual wisdom saved their lives.
This is precisely where Rabbi Rami Shapiro begins his stirring new book, “Recovery—the Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice.”
Rami’s book connects this wisdom with various religious traditions around the world, including his own tradition of Judaism. So, this seems like a perfect interview to demonstrate broad religious connections on the eve of Ramadan this year.


    DAVID: Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step groups have saved millions of lives, but for many decades, they were regarded as a sort of shadowy community of recovering addicts that didn’t have much to do with American religious life.
    In recent years, though, historians of religion credit the founding of AA back in 1935 as an extremely important milestone. Suddenly, a whole network of lay people began unfolding—eventually reaching millions of people—with a spiritual message of healing through the formation of a caring community.
With AA, American spiritual life stepped outside the authority of organized religion in an important new way.
    From your long work with 12-Step groups, does this sound like a fair way of describing the importance of the 12-Step movement?
    RAMI: You’re totally on target with that. I teach a course on American spirituality at Middle Tennessee State University. In the class, we look at major spiritual movements in the United States and one of our big concerns is Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous. Yes, I absolutely see the emergence of that as a milestone in American spirituality.
    I would go even further when you really look at it. The whole 12-Step idea of “god as you understand god” is incredibly radical. Here’s a spiritual movement without a theology. So, in this movement, there’s no clergy, no hierarchy—and everyone is in this together. The community is tight, but the hierarchy is flat.
    What makes this movement really stand out is this notion that it is theologically wide open and that’s how you can get so many kinds of 12-Step programs. You can get some now that are very Christian oriented. Some are very New Age oriented. The fact that you can define god for yourself is deeply rooted in American individualism and also it can be deeply troubling. You can project your own egoic needs. I talk about this in the book. I have absolute respect for what this movement gives us but I also warn that this wide open theology offers us a trap—and it can be a trap of our own making.

    DAVID: Readers of this interview won’t have read your book yet, so we should explain that your book tries to open up the 12 Steps so that anyone can use this set of tools to grow spiritually.
You’ve worked through a 12-Step process yourself for your specific addiction to overeating. But you’re actually recommending this spiritual system to people, whether they’ve got a specific addiction they’re trying to survive—or whether they’re need for spiritual recovery is more general.
    One of the points you strongly emphasize is the very first Step in recovery—the admission that we’re actually “powerless” over our addictions. And, in fact, this realization of “powerlessness” can be a “gift.”
Explain a little bit about that.
    RAMI: This is not the first step by accident.
It’s first because it’s foundational. It’s the first step—and it’s always a step! You continue coming back to this notion of powerlessness.
    The conventional way of understanding it is that I’m only powerless over food or drugs or alcohol or gambling—whatever brought me to the group.
But, I take this much more deeply. We are fundamentally powerless over our lives. This lack of control leads many of us to find coping mechanisms that are harmful to us—alcohol or food or addictive sex or whatever.
    The hardest thing for people to grasp is that we are powerless. We have these ego-driven, control-oriented views of ourselves. We like to believe: I am the master of my world! I am in control of my life! I decide what my life will be!
    DAVID: In making that argument, you’re running counter to the teachings of positive-thinking movements like “The Secret” right?
    RAMI: Yes, I’m taking issue with something that’s at the heart of New Age thought. “The Secret” is not a new thing. This idea that we’re the masters of our own world—and that we can create the universe through our thoughts—that’s all part of a much longer movement that says we can control life.
    I find it very difficult to believe—this idea that I can bend the universe to my will. First of all, why would you even want to do that? Second of all, if you could do that, then it would make you god. It would put you in the divine position. I find that very hard to believe.
    I think we’re actually powerless. Yes, we can navigate the reality we encounter. Yes, we can achieve something in this life. But the things that happen to me moment to moment? I am powerless to control all those things.
    Even as we are speaking over my mobile phone and I’m driving down the highway here, a truck just passed me so close that it almost took the side of my car off. It could have hit me. I would have been powerless over that—and our interview would have ended right there.
    DAVID: We do have readers who are part of the positive-thinking movement.
    RAMI: I am not “dissing” the whole positive-thinking movement and I’m not “dissing” the Unity Church and people in those groups. They have a lot to offer. But my criticism is that they can tend toward being superficial. People tend to think that life can be all light and love and joy, if you just think about life properly.
I think that, unfortunately, this can become an obsession with the sugar side of things.
    This can almost put us into a spiritual coma and it doesn’t do the deep work of spirituality. The deep work is in the shadow side. It’s where I come to terms with the needless suffering I have caused other people.
Religion can help us with that—especially religions that offer us contemplative practices and other tools that work on this deeper reality of what happens in life.

    DAVID: We should make it clear to readers, as well, that your book isn’t about going off into an isolated corner and simply struggling with your own isolated problems. Your book—like the 12 Steps—keeps bringing readers back toward other people.
    You can’t read the explanation of Step 2 in “Alcoholics Anonymous” (printed at top today in italics) and not appreciate how this process is aimed at building an honest, compassionate community.
The AA book says: “We became less and less interested in ourselves, our little plans and designs. More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life.”
    RAMI: Right. This isn’t navel gazing. This isn’t about “me” ultimately.
    Yes, we start with ourselves because—where else can we start? But, it doesn’t end with myself. It doesn’t even point to myself—because, ultimately, we’re moving here toward embracing the other, however we define the other.
Just to be clear about it, you don’t finish the 12 Steps; you keep starting over and keep working on the steps. But by the time you’ve worked through all 12 Steps, you’ve broken your heart over the needless suffering you’ve caused. You’ve gone over a moral inventory and you’ve looked at the needless suffering you’ve caused other people. Your heart is broken and you become receptive to the pain and suffering of others, not just the suffering you’ve caused—but to the pain and suffering others are experiencing.
    There’s a Leonard Cohen song, “Anthem,” that says:
    “Forget your perfect offering
    “There is a crack, a crack in everything
    “It’s how the light gets in.”

    That’s the idea. Your heart is broken and it’s that brokenness that becomes the key to your spirituality. You begin to see other people as equally broken and equally powerless and equally addicted to whatever their means of control is and you can’t help but feel a natural compassion for their plight. That allows us to embrace one another with all our differences.
It allows for a deep connection of love and respect, based not on equal power, but on equal brokenness.
    That’s why someone who hasn’t taken a drink in decades still talks about himself as an alcoholic. They recognize that this is still their addiction, their tendency. But if we can see it, and we can name it, we can free ourselves to shift behavior.
    Psalm 34:14 says, “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” This is something you can do, even in the midst of the madness of addiction, once you realize you’re caught up in that insanity.
    DAVID: And the strength to keep turning away? To keep seeking peace?
    RAMI: That’s calling upon your higher power. That’s your day in and day out spiritual work. Meditation, prayer and chanting—all kinds of techniques we learn from the world’s religions—can help us to continually monitor our thoughts, words and deeds. When we find ourselves trapped in the narrowness of our addictive personality, then we can say: No, not this time.
This time, I’m taking a different action.
    It’s Psalm 34: Turn away and do good. Day after day, seek goodness and pursue it. To me that’s the heart of our spiritual work.


    Visit Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s personal Web site.
    Visit the Skylight Paths site for Rami’s new book.


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