A phrase in Alcoholics Anonymous that has always stood out for me comes from the Foreword to Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: "AA's Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole."
There are many other AA catchphrases and quotations that speak of principles, including the slogan "principles before personality" and Step Twelve language guiding us to "practice these principles in all our affairs."
Throughout my 45 years in the recovery field, I've discovered and rediscovered the transformative power of spiritual principles in shaping our journey. When we invest our energy in positive spiritual principles such as respect, honesty, compassion and acceptance, we grow in good and purposeful ways—toward becoming "happily and usefully whole." When we invest our energy in negative spiritual principles such as disrespect, arrogance, greed or dishonesty, we take our lives in a very different direction.
Recovery from addiction is essentially the movement away from dependency on a negative spiritual framework for life and toward the adoption of positive spiritual principles, until these values reshape our lives by directing our choices and behaviors.
Over the years, I've come to four simple truths about spiritual progress and the unfolding process of recovery, faith and living to good purpose.
In the words of French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience." And as spiritual beings, we are given freewill to choose the operating principles by which we lead our lives—that is, unless addiction takes hold.
Just as the disease of lung cancer works to destroy our respiratory system, addiction is a disease that works to destroy our personal value system and diminish our freewill. As addiction progresses, our freewill is increasingly replaced by dependency on negative spiritual principles we can enlist to justify, reinforce and protect our drinking and using behaviors. Eventually, as addicts and alcoholics, we're at risk of becoming just as dependent on our negative belief system as we are on the addictive behaviors that consume us. This is, in AA's words, "what it was like"—and why recovery from addiction involves spiritual healing.
While positive spiritual principles have healing and transformative qualities, negative spiritual principles have primitive, survival qualities that help to protect us from perceived or real threats. Addiction turns this arrangement upside down in terms of perception and reality, so that positive spiritual beliefs and behaviors such as honesty are perceived by the addict or alcoholic as threats. In active addiction, if we're honest about the consequences of our alcohol or other drug use, we destroy the house of cards we set up to support our addiction. So we seek the protective shelter of dishonesty. Over time, the byproduct of taking refuge in dishonesty, denial, resentment or other negative beliefs and behaviors is spiritual decay and pain. We become trapped in spiritual pain because we keep turning to negative rationales and practices—blame, deceit, spite—to make sense of what is happening in our lives.
The good news is that abstinence from alcohol or other drugs helps us reframe our outlook so that our perceptions more clearly match reality. Relying on a positive spiritual framework gives us clarity to make sense of what is happening in our lives and to make our way forward with honesty and humility.
When we speak of recovering addicts or alcoholics, we are speaking of people who have adopted positive spiritual principles and are working to live by those values until they embody those values. We not only strive to operate by the principle of respect, for example. We work to embody the principle of respect, eventually becoming respectable people. Likewise, the AA practice of making amends is about living differently, not just apologizing for our wrongs but changing our behavior to align with our belief system. As great philosophers through the ages have told us, "We are what we repeatedly do." Reclaiming our lives from addiction isn't one single act, it's a way of life.
One of the biggest challenges of living up to the positive spiritual principles we hold in esteem is the willingness to put aside our egos. This is especially true for addicts and alcoholics who "want what we want when we want it"—a trait we struggle with even in recovery. Humility is the gift of joining in the spirit of connectedness with others and seeing that, together, we can create a community based on the values we all share. Respect. Dignity. Kindness. Acceptance. Integrity. Trust. Forgiveness. Truth. Fellowship. These are all virtues and values that help to power spiritual healing and connectedness—the "we" of recovery that strengthens us all.
Addiction doesn't happen overnight, and neither does spiritual healing. By the time most of us sought help for addiction, we were living by a value system based on negative beliefs and behaviors. The beauty of recovery, and part of why AA has been so helpful for so many, is that the Twelve Steps offer a positive spiritual value system that we can borrow until we reclaim the principles we once lived by or create for the first time for ourselves a spiritual framework for living to good purpose.
If you'd like to learn more about this topic and ways to use specific principles in your everyday challenges, I've written much more about practical spirituality in my book: Finding Your Moral Compass: Transformative Principles to Guide You in Recovery and Life.
Craig Nakken is the author of several Hazelden Publishing titles, including the bestseller The Addictive Personality. He is a popular public speaker and a highly respected private practice counselor, with years of working on the frontlines in a number of treatment facilities.