Saturday, 17 September 2016

What is the AA programme?

Sometimes sponsees have referred to 'my way' of working and taking others through the programme, and I have to explain that this is not 'my way' but how I have been shown to use the Big Book to recover from alcoholism and the spiritual malady that underlies it. Their comment is understandable, because, in AA meetings, one frequently hears the assertion that 'there are many ways to work the AA programme' and, furthermore, that all of these are equally valid.

Sometimes people say 'there are many ways of working the programme', and then go on to elaborate Step Four methods that have nothing at all to do with the instructions on pages 64 et seqq. The Twelve Steps are set out in page 59 of the Big Book, and the Foreword to the Third Edition talks about the Steps that 'summarise' the programme. The programme is therefore the contents of the Big Book up to page 164.

There are indeed many ways of working 'the programme' (thus defined). Grab a dozen Big Book users and you'll discover little differences between how they use the material all the way through; there are different takes on all the Steps, although all of these approaches have a huge amount in common, as all such people aim to apply the instructions contained in the relevant portion of the Big Book to the best of their abilities.

What will not do is to present systems not grounded in or based on the Big Book as a method of working 'the' programme. It may be 'a' programme; it may even work very well for the individual and for those they help; it may even help them to recover from alcoholism; but it is not 'the' programme of Alcoholics Anonymous; it is something else.


The Big Book reminds me that we have no monopoly on recovery; what we do have is a system contained in the Big Book that has worked for us, and, despite minor and usually technical differences, we do have, as the Big Book says, a way out on which we can absolutely agree, and it would be dishonest to suggest that anything at all can be labelled 'the AA programme', just because it is practised by people who attend AA meetings.

Use of the Step Seven Prayer

As I go through the day, I encounter temptation to think unhelpful thoughts (selfish, dishonest, resentful, or fearful thoughts). It is from such thoughts that all my bad behaviour stems. I don't think recovery is about not having these thoughts; I think it's about turning away promptly from them. A good way I have found to do so is to say the Step Seven Prayer as soon as a negative thought comes into my mind. Generally, if I catch the thought in the first five seconds and replace the thought with a recitation of the Step Seven Prayer, the thought does not return for a while. It is easier and more effective to do this than to let it embed itself in my consciousness and then to try and dig it out once it has grown roots.

To the man with the hammer

To the man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. There is a phase that some people go through once they recover from alcoholism through the instructions set out in the Big Book, in which a rigidity develops. For while after I recovered, I developed a contempt for anyone who did not subscribe to the same ideas as me, and was derisive and dismissive, although I cloaked this with a presentation of benevolent motives or humour, or feigned neutrality or indifference. I was also unable to engage in any good-natured discussions. My discourse was reduced to 'Do what's in the Big Book!', 'Read the black bits on the page', 'If it's not in the Big Book, it's not AA', and other similarly unhelpful soundbites.

Fortunately, this phase passed, and, whilst still following the instructions in the Big Book strictly, I have come to appreciate a lot of features of AA that are not outlined, stipulated, or envisaged in the Big Book but are undoubtedly helpful to many, including me, and are furthermore consistent with the principles set out in the Big Book. Regular home group attendance, sponsorship, and service within the AA service structure are good examples.


The marvellous thing about the set of spiritual tools laid out for me in the Big Book is that they are a set of tools for unlocking unlimited spiritual tools. I no longer have just a hammer, although I would not forego the hammer, either.

Two types of resentment

The Step Four resentment inventory invites me to examine why someone else's behaviour is affecting me. In most cases, it's really obvious, because their behaviour is getting in the way of some concrete plan I have, for what other people think of me (pride), for my own self-image (self-esteem), my ambitions, my security, etc.


In some cases, the other person is not actually interacting with me at all, yet I am still bothered. In almost all cases, the person is reminding me of some thwarted plan or failure on my part. There are thus two types of resentment: resentments which are directly triggered by someone thwarting my plan, design, or expectation, or someone who is a reminder of a failure experienced at some other time, in some other way.

Main problem

The Big Book suggests that the main problem of the alcoholic centres in his mind.

In my experience, there are many situations, and not just those involving alcohol, where 'thinking it through' does not work. Generally, I need to be raised up to a higher level, and the new perspective is given to me automatically, without me having to clamber towards it.


How does one do this in practice? Staying close to God (prayer) and performing His work well (taking the right action as revealed in Step Eleven). Given enough time, all of my cognitive distortions seem to give way to a more realistic perspective without any effort on my part.

Serving God

Page 85 of the Big Book talks about serving God. My experience of serving God is that it is motivated only by a desire to serve God. That motivation is not subject to outside influence. The reason this produces more consistent action in me than self-serving is that self-serving is all about a transaction: taking action to get something back. If I cease valuing what I get back, or I do not get back what I anticipated, the motivation falters. Self-serving is about conditional giving; God-serving is about unconditional giving.

Mighty purpose

Page 10 of the Big Book talks about a 'mighty purpose' underlying reality.


I have sometimes wondered what the purpose of life in general is, or the purpose of my life, or of some component thereof. I have ceased worrying about this. I have decided to trust God regarding what the purpose of any of these things is and focus instead on what God's will is for me today, right now, in terms of the right thought and action (page 87). I do not need to know the purpose in order to get on faithfully with what is in front of me to do.

Applying the Serenity Prayer

I cannot change how I feel about anything. I can change what I take to be true (my beliefs), my thinking (the thoughts I let inhabit my mind), my words (what I say), and my deeds (what I do). If I change the things I can, the thing I can't change directly, which is how I feel, will change automatically.

The route back

When you have strayed in your relationship with God and feel a thousand miles away, it is well to recall that the journey back is much shorter than the journey out. God has been with you the whole time. All you have to do is look over your shoulder, and there He is, as He has always been, looking after you.

Worshipping other Gods

The chapter 'We Agnostics' talks about worship of people, sentiment, things, money, or ourselves. My experience is this:

I recently heard a teaching to the effect that, whilst most sins cause proportionate spiritual harm, the sin of chasing after 'other gods' undoes and nullifies the benefit of all of the good deeds one otherwise does. The cost is incalculable. This is consistent with my experience. When something other than serving God is my priority and/or the perceived source of good in my life, I will not be at peace, regardless of how well or right I act, superficially. The harm appears disproportionate, but the reason is clear: having God as the centre and main objective of my life, without whom I am nothing, to quote Bill W, to whom I am to turn in all matters, and in whose hands I am to place everything, brooks no opposition or compromise. If I bow down before and worship other things, the entire purpose of the AA programme is confounded.