12 Steps recovery – What higher power?

12 steps

The original 12 steps recovery programme is still used by AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). Many alcoholics have a hard time admitting that they can’t control their alcohol use. If they believe that they are unable to stop on their own, AA say the recovery process can begin. There is a big idea they promote. Most of all, AA say, people with an addiction need to look to something greater than themselves to recover – a higher power.  When you are desperate you strongly feel you need something pretty powerful to make you better.

AA’s success rate for long term sobriety is between 5% and 10% which isn’t bad when you consider the intractable nature of the problem. Although doing so somewhat in a disparaging way, one well known scientist affirmed the importance of turning to the spiritual.

“The only cure for dipsomania is religiomania” (William James psychologist and philosopher)

Most noteworthy, the 12 step approach is now used by self-help groups of drug users, compulsive gamblers, sex addicts, depressives and others who feel they cannot deal with their problem behaviour without a powerful spiritual form of help.

Belief in a higher power of the 12 steps programme

Sociologist Darren Sherkat was interested in the belief of Americans in a higher power. So, he based his research on data from 8,000 adults polled by the Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center. Among his findings were that 8% stated “I don’t believe in a personal god, but I do believe in a higher power of some kind.” This is a similar figure to that found by other pollsters.

We might wonder what the respondents understood by the term ‘higher power’. Likewise, what different ideas are around regarding such a notion?

Those working with the 12 step programme may not believe in the God of traditional religion. They are encouraged to adopt an open mind before dismissing the notion of a ‘higher power’. They are free to choose whatever meaning works for them. The term  is sometimes thought of as a transpersonal force or deity, or some other conception that is loving and caring.

Here are four different views. You may like to consider each and then decide which suits your way of thinking. Take your pick!

Higher consciousness and the 12 steps programme

Those who regularly practise meditation sometimes speak about their experience of a higher state of mind. What might be called a mystical or sublime awareness. Four characteristics seem to apply as follows:.

  • Awareness of the non-material
  • What is beyond the individual
  • Timelessness
  • What is outside of space.

Those practising regular meditation often claim this state of higher consciousness has the power to create for example calmness, patience, and tolerance.

Creative life-force and the 12 steps programme

There is also the concept of a higher power as life force. This idea is of one creative energy, with wisdom to know how to design things in nature, and power to create them.

For example deism affirms that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to show the existence of a single creator of the universe.

“The first power of all powers and first cause of all causes; and this is it which all men conceive by the name of God, implying eternity, incomprehensibility, and omnipotence.” (Thomas Hobbes, philosopher)

Included in those influenced by this idea were leaders of the American and French Revolutions. Today, some deists believe in the intervention of deity in our lives.

Another example of belief in a life force behind the cosmos is classical Hinduism. This is a polytheistic religion. Nevertheless, Hindus widely accept that the individual divinities are expressions or representations of a single ultimate spiritual power they call Brahman.

In the early Upanishads sacred writing, Brahman was thought of as ‘without attributes’, above ‘name and form’ ‘not this, not that’.

In other words a non-material force which is the origin of all that is good, inspiring and creative. You cannot see it but you can notice it’s physical effects.

Universal spirit of love and the 12 steps programme

In addition, the loving spirit behind compassion and kindness can be seen as a higher power. The person who has this universal spirit present in his or her attitude, wants other people’s happiness and looks for ways of doing good for them. Belief in the power of love can give hope for our own difficulties.

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” (Jimi Hendrix, electric guitarist)

Scholars say different things about the Eternal Buddha nature. Compared with the world of appearances, this transcendent Buddha nature is said to be the sole true reality. Can we say it includes the power of pure compassion?

Divine Being and the 12 steps programme

Some think of a higher power as a Divine Being who feels love, understands wisely, and acts usefully. For believers, this means they can have a personal relationship with this spiritual source. An Eternal Spirit who strives for union with each of us through mutual love.

The devotional form of Mahayana Buddhism turns for aid to the Eternal Buddha nature. Devotees privately pray to the various forms of the Buddha. This is done to obtain help with the trials of this life. For them, the Buddha not only teaches but saves.

“In the later Upanishads … the conception of Brahman becomes more personal…. No longer ‘It’…It becomes possible to pray to Brahman in human terms and to hope for an answer … in one’s prayers.” (T. Patrick Burke, professor of religion)

Thus the later sacred writings of Hinduism recognise this idea of what the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg termed ‘the Divine Human’. A concept that might be also called, by people in the western world, ‘the Christ within’.

Similarly, the AA’s 12 Step programme encourages members to use the Serenity Prayer to seek guidance.

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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Transcendent – Personal

Divine Source – How to think of it?