Sunday, 28 December 2014

Al-Anon—Step Two—came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

Selected definitions (Oxford online dictionary):

: Accept that (something) is true, especially without proof.

sanity: The ability to think and behave in a normal and rational manner.

The practical aspect of Step Two

1. What would sanity 'look like' in your life? Specifically: in your relations with other people?

2. Have you ever experienced this form of sanity? If not: change restore us to sanity to introduce us to sanity.

3. Can you restore (or introduce) yourself to this sanity? Have you tried? How have you tried? What were the results?

4. Have you seen this sanity in others in Al-Anon?

5. How did they get 'from A to B' (how they were when they came to Al-Anon vs how they are now)?

6. Can you do what they did?

7. Is there any reason to believe that you will not be successful as they have been?

The spiritual aspect of Step Two

1. Do you currently or could you believe that there is a Higher Power in the universe that can bring about the change described above?

2. Are any negative characteristics associated with this Higher Power? Can you drop these negative characteristics? What positive characteristics can you substitute in your concept of this Power?

3. Have you ever received direction or strength from a Higher Power? What forms has this taken? What forms could this take (based on what others describe)?

4. Have you experienced 'faith' (= belief without proof) in other areas? Can you have faith that what has worked for others will work for you—and follow through with action?

5. What are the limitations to faith—what should we not trust that the Higher Power will do?

6. What would 'letting go and letting God' (or a Higher Power) mean in your life?

7. If you do not make a decision in Step Three to turn your will and life over to this Higher Power, what will be the result?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

What is the purpose of prayer and meditation?

As Step Eleven indicates, the sole purpose of prayer and meditation is to seek knowledge of God's will and the power to carry that out.

The key word: sole. One might become enlightened or experience altered states as a result, but this is a by-product, not the purpose. A lot of meditation, as discussed in AA, is about learning breathing or other techniques adopted from Eastern religions. The local Buddhist centre is usually teeming with AAs learning how to meditate.

This is, of course, meditation, according to the modern dictionary definition of it. It is not strictly Step Eleven, however, although it may support it immensely, in the same way that making tea at a meeting is the practice of Step Twelve per se but does help make Step Twelve work possible.

Here's Dr Bob's take:

'Prayer, of course, was an important part of Dr Bob's faith. According to Paul S., "Dr Bob's morning devotion consisted of a short prayer, a 20-minute study of a familiar verse from the Bible, and a quiet period of waiting for directions as to where he, that day, should find use for his talent. Having heard, he would religiously go about his Father's business, as he put it." ' (Dr Bob and the Good Oldtimers, p. 314)

I try to follow something resembling this, although it is rarely a familiar verse from the Bible that I use for study.

My purpose: what am I going to do with my day? And sometimes, standing back, what am I going to do with my week, my month, my year, my life?

I then get on with it. My day, from 8.00 a.m. to 8.00 p.m. (or so) during the week and from 8.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. (or so) at weekends, is given over to fulfilling what duties in my life I'm called upon to fulfil. The remainder of the time is given over to whatever else takes my fancy. 

The test of the efficacy of my Step Eleven is not whether I achieve an emotional connection with the universe but whether I return phone calls promptly (and kindly), whether I do what I said I was going to do when I said I was going to do it, whether I find myself spotting all sorts of ways to be of service that come to me as 'inspiration', and whether I can learn to say 'no' where necessary in order that I do not overcommit, underperform, and burn out because I'm not actually taking the time to enjoy and appreciate my life or the space to let my soul catch up.

God's role in the removal of defects

'Without God, you can't; without you, he won't.'

The removal of defects means that my attitudes, thinking, and behaviour must change.


As with everything, I need two commodities: knowledge of God's will for me and the power to carry that out.

Applied to Step Seven, this means knowledge of what the new attitudes, thinking, and behaviour should be, and the strength to implement them.

Why is strength needed?

The old attitudes, thinking, and behaviour are deeply ingrained habits that are designed, like a thermostat, to keep my emotional temperature just right by adjusting my environment. Now, the thermostat may be broken, and these old attitudes plus thinking and behaviour patterns may ultimately have a disastrous effect on my emotional temperature (anyone else discover that years of crappy thinking and behaviour result in grinding misery?); yet when they are threatened and I am called upon to believe, think, and act differently, all hell breaks loose, alarms go off, and I feel immense discomfort, as my programming informs me I'm 'getting it all wrong'.

This is why change is hard: it needs strength to override the faulty thermostat, which is convinced that the old attitudes, thinking and behaviour spell comfort and the new ones, danger. The reverse, in truth, is true.

For my defects to be removed, I'm going to need to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

Eventually, the new attitudes, thinking, and behaviour become as ingrained as the old. Until then, I need God to bridge the gap.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Step Seven: whose job is it to remove our defects?

In Step Seven, we ask God to remove our defects.

Is it all up to Him?

The summary of the Step on page 59 is necessary simplistic and misses some of the fine print.

If it were all down to God, there would be no further Steps.

God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves but will not do for us what is our responsibility, and the remaining five Steps are our responsibility.

Apart from the amends, which are discreet acts (albeit often with follow-up trains of activity), the remaining five Steps comprise altered attitudes, thinking patterns, and behaviour patterns.

We devise this with God's help; we implement them with God's help: in these regards, we are in cooperation with God. Without God, they will not be removed, but with God alone, and no resolute, concerted effort from us, they will not be removed either.

There is one thing which is 100% down to God, however.

The new attitudes, thinking patterns, and behaviour patterns will run deeply against old programming. Change is painful because it produces conflict between what we are moving from and what we are moving towards. This pain can sometimes outweigh, in our minds, the (longer-term) benefit of change.

If we persist, however, the final piece falls in place, and the new attitudes, thinking patterns, and behaviour patterns become second nature, as the Big Book says, the God-consciousness that becomes a working part of the mind. The conflict is removed, and we are at peace. That last piece in the jigsaw is the ultimate manifestation of grace: when we do God's will because it is our only wish.


Here are some basic tips for dealing with grief:

You will be hit by waves of emotion. Let the emotion happen, and if necessary name the feeling in order to be 'present' for it. Avoid constructing a mental narrative about the feeling, which produces an entirely fabricated layer of secondary feelings, as a way of avoiding the actual feelings themselves. 

For instance, one is sad because someone died, so one starts to construct angry narratives about the situation, in order to feel anger rather than sadness.

When emotion becomes too much, allow it to overwhelm you. If you suppress it, it will cause far more damage in the long run. But resume normal activities once the feeling has passed. Do not indulge yourself excessively and put everyday life completely on hold, or you will be acting against your own interests.

Have a plan for the day but do not beat yourself up for days when you accomplish only 20% of the plan because of overwhelming emotion (or exhaustion, as emotion is tiring).

Concentrate on the three things that can be changed: attitude, thinking patterns, and behaviour patterns. Isolate the ideal for each, and be willing to work towards it with God's help.

With everything else, i.e. everything external, keep it simple: change what you can and (ought) and accept what you cannot (and ought not). Very little externally can be changed, and only then with its complicity or if one is acting in accordance with its nature.
At such times, keep things very simple.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Some tips I was given on how to share at meetings

Say what you are moved to say, but make sure you include the following elements:
  • How you know you are an alcoholic—then everyone knows where you have come from, and you are less at risk of coming across as a Baptist preacher or Jehovah's Witness
  • A problem you have had—then you are at less risk of coming across as Pollyanna, Mother Theresa, or the personification of The Little Book of Calm
  • How you used the actual twelve-step programme to solve the problem—then people know that you are in the right room and have not wandered in from the church upstairs or the psychotherapy offices next door
  • What results you actually got from following the programme—miss this, and you are missing the punchline of the whole story.

What are meetings for?

Sometimes, in the world of Big Book AA, there is an insistence that the meeting discuss the Steps and the Big Book and only the Steps and the Big Book.

I have discerned three other chief purposes in meetings.

(1) To provide a fellowship

This is intangible but real. My home group is strong, discussing the Big Book and the Steps closely and faithfully every week. However, there have been occasions when I have been drowsy and barely able to follow. I still feel strengthened throughout the week by the experience of the hour in that room, and it's not because of the odd bits of wisdom or instruction that come my way. My 'second home group' (not really my home group but a group I attend weekly and perform service at) is much less focused, but oddly I feel just as at home, 'part of', and inspired about the programme. There is much that is conveyed in AA under the radar; the spirit and principles of AA can be reinforced as much by behaviour, deportment, aura, etc. as by actual words. Sometimes it is in the silence when we are asked to remember the 'still-suffering alcoholic' that major communication can take place; equally, a meeting I once attended that included a 20-minute silence often produced the same shift in my consciousness as my current home group with its almost incessant discourse.

The feeling of being subsumed into a whole that has a single purpose and sharing the strength of others (with giving and receiving indistinguishable) is at the heart of how AA works and goes far beyond the issuing of concrete instructions to newcomers.

(2) Acting as a collective twelfth-step call

Ideally, individuals are twelfth-stepped into AA and launched into their first AA meeting, sold on their own alcoholism and the solution contained in AA's twelve-step programme and eager to absorb every tidbit they can about the programme they are already so heartily engaged in following.

How often is this actually the reality? In truth, the vast majority of newcomers in AA (and a large proportion of people who drift, sometimes for decades, with a half-hearted, double-minded, cafeteria-style hodgepodge of half-misunderstood scraps of programme) are not at all sold on their alcoholism or on the solution.

The twelfth-step call function, whilst still discharged in part through the telephone service, other official access routes to AA, and individual ad hoc, opportunistic twelfth-stepping of friends and acquaintances, is in great part left to meetings. Groups that focus solely on the dry conveying of instructions (and there are such meetings) are often quite ineffective in their 'attraction' function, and the groups I know in London that have tried this approach, although technically kosher, can be spiritually deadly—as an old sponsor of mine described it, 'heavy pudding'. Newcomers I have taken are rarely keen to return.

Before we get down to conveying instructions, we need to demonstrate why we are here and that we have something to offer in terms of a solution that has transformed our lives.

A lot of apparently pointless recounting of details of life, past and present, is actually serving to fulfil this twelfth-stepping function of attracting people into the actual twelve-step programme.

(3) Acting as a holding pen

As an extension of the above ideas, most people grab the twelve-step programme with both hands only after a substantial delay. This period of delay may or may not involving slipping repeatedly.

If the only option were full-throttle AA, individuals would be faced with the choice of this or nothing, and would have to make the choice right now, and who knows how many people would be lost forever who actually do, eventually, recover, driven by the lash of alcoholism and their own egos.

The huge number of meetings that are relatively weak as far as the programme is concerned are, however, hugely effective in temporarily sobering people up, or even sobering them up reasonably long term, allowing them to be held safe until they are actually ready to work the programme.

I was one such person, and I'm glad I was not presented with 'work the programme now or leave' on arrival and could find my faltering way to a full-throttle form of AA by about six months in.

To conclude: AA meetings perform several functions, and not all are immediately evident. One might be so rash as to conclude that AA as it has developed, far from being a deviation from 'true AA' of 'the olden days', is actually precisely as God intended it, almost as if by design.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


This week I attended a memorial service for a friend in recovery, J, who died of cancer at a tragically young age.

Although a member of a different twelve-step fellowship, J epitomised the spirit of AA. In his contact with me, whom he consulted for some years as a sponsor, his primary concern was the welfare of others, as illustrated by these three quotations:

'scarce an evening passed that someone’s home did not shelter a little gathering of men and women, happy in their release, and constantly thinking how they might present their discovery to some newcomer.'

'Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs.'

'Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. "How can I best serve Thee—Thy will (not mine) be done." These are thoughts which must go with us constantly.'

(All quotations from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Big Book)

His concern certainly operated at an individual level; he was keen to maximise his usefulness to the individuals that he himself sponsored. His concern, however, was also for the fellowship as a whole of which he has been a central figure for a number of years. He wanted to ensure the growth of this fellowship, harmony and fruitful cooperation amongst its diverse parts, and the establishment of a structure that would ensure its survival and flourishing as time passed, even should its primary founders in the UK themselves pass off the scene. This has been achieved, and the fellowship he helped kick-start is indeed thriving, and I hope that those left behind will take up the gauntlet and allow God to inspire them with the vision with which J was so richly supplied.

He has also been a key figure in arranging 'Big Book Days', which bring together people from multiple fellowships, and indeed around the world, who are united in their conviction of the efficacy of the programme of action laid out in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It is hoped also that the momentum generated by these highly successful events will continue through the efforts of those left behind, not just in J's memory, but fuelled by the greater purpose that drove him.

On a personal level, J was huge fun, and it was this irrepressible enthusiasm that was key to his ability to attract others not just into the world of recovery but into the closer-knit community of those who have adopted the twelve-step programme as a way of life, not out of dogma but out of recognition that, for alcoholics and addicts like ourselves, it is the last, best hope not just for escape from active addiction but for maximising the potential placed within us to contribute to the world around us.

Another point: J was flawed. No one who knows him will deny this, but, then again, he was no more flawed than me, or anyone else I know, and these flaws were more than counterbalanced and offset by manifold virtues: active kindness, forgiveness, and industry being chief amongst them.

An interesting point is this: anyone who gains prominence within a twelve-step fellowship (not necessary welcoming it but recognising it at an inevitable consequence of sticking one's head above the parapet, daring to push boundaries and think outside existing paradigms, taking risks, and, most simply, helping large numbers of people) is going to attract some negative attention. AAs (and this is surely true of members of all twelve-step fellowships) can have a tiny habit of looking for the negative. The more one stands for ideals, the greater the scrutiny one is placed under. The question: is the individual living up to the ideals he or she espouses?

This question is rarely fair. The book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and the Big Book itself make clear that we never achieve the ideals we set but are willing to work towards them.

Furthermore, it is this spirit that we must judge ourselves against: not 'am I perfect?' but 'am I willing to grow along spiritual lines?' Moreover, one might note, it should only be ourselves that we judge coldly against this criterion.

J, for the few but rewarding years I knew him, amply and consistently demonstrated this desire for growth.

J's last year presented challenges that mercifully few of us will have to face, and it is rightly said that no one should ever judge a person unless he has walked in that person's shoes. To expand that idea, one never walks in anyone's shoes but one's own; therefore, one can never judge. One never knows for sure 'how someone feels' or 'what someone is going through'.

What matters, ultimately, is the love that an individual leaves behind, in the hearts, minds, and vision of those whose lives he has touched.

Alone the number of people at J's memorial service is testament to J's phenomenal achievement, and many people owe their lives to him, directly or indirectly. What is marvellous and heartening in this otherwise bleak situation is that the fire that was started by J's individual flame will continue burning through the darkness and devastation of lives wrecked by addiction, and people who will never know his name or that he even existed will be touched by the power he accessed and channelled into other people's lives.

Greatness is often measured not by big-ticket, one-off events or achievements but by the thousand small tasks powered by the life and light within a person's soul.

As George Eliot said: 'The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'

And it is this that provides some degree of comfort and hope. J will be sorely missed.