Spiritual principle behind Step Twelve: Service

What are the spiritual principles behind Step Twelve?

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Service is the primary spiritual principle associated with Step 12.
The list of spiritual principles behind any of the steps is, in reality, a long one, and Step Twelve is no exception. A few of them are acceptance, love, honesty, tolerance, generosity, strength, serenity, giving, fortitude, faith, brotherhood, service, gratitude, understanding, courage, wisdom, and humility.

I slept, and dreamt that life was joy.
I woke, and saw that life was service.
I acted, and behold, service was joy.

Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror, p.33

By the time a recovering person has reached Step 12, s/he has had a spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening has actually occurred. How extraordinary this is! The promise of a spiritual awakening is the most amazing and profound promise found in the AA literature. So, having had a spiritual awakening as the result of working all the steps thus far to the very best of our ability/willingness, we are asked to carry the message of recovery to those who still suffer, thus paying forward the gift that was freely given to us. We have found the statement, In order to keep it, you’ve got to give it away, to be 100% true over time.

The joy of living is the theme of A.A.’s Twelfth Step, and action is its keyword. Here we turn outward toward our fellow alcoholics who are still in distress. Here we experience the kind of giving that asks no rewards. Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety. When the Twelfth Step is seen in all its full implications, it is really talking about the kind of love that has no price tag on it.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.106

As we carry the message of a spiritual solution to our common problem and pass our knowledge of the Twelve Steps to others, it becomes an endless cycle of service to others that leads us to the spiritual solution over and over and helps make the world a better place by producing a net decrease in global suffering and a net increase in spiritual awakening. Every little bit helps. As Mother Teresa said, We cannot do great things, we can only do small things with great love.

Taking others through the Twelve Steps is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Is sobriety all that we are to expect of a spiritual awakening? … No, sobriety is only a bare beginning; it is only the first gift of the first awakening. If more gifts are to be received, our awakening has to go on. And if it does go on, we find that bit by bit we can discard the old life—the one that did not work—for a new life that can and does work under any conditions whatever.
Bill W., December 1957


Step Twelve declares that as the result of these Steps, we experience a spiritual awakening that compels us to carry to others our message of a spiritual solution. Step Twelve traditionally equates to service work. It’s Step 12 that encourages us to sponsor other alcoholics and addicts, take on service commitments, greet newcomers, participate in the meeting before the meeting and the meeting after the meeting, serving as treasurer for your home group, taking hotline calls from drunks and addicts who want help, going to hospitals and prisons to lead meetings for those who cannot get out, and other outreach activities. It is this very spirit of service which has kept AA groups thriving and spreading since 1935. Service work is the cornerstone of the 12-step program, and it also happens to be the cornerstone of spiritual growth. It’s why the Big Book implores us to help another alcoholic when all else fails.

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The gradual process of working the Steps, moving bit by bit from ignorance to awakening, from being lost to being “saved,” may seem boring and anti-climactic in comparison to the stories we read and hear about concerning sudden spiritual awakenings, white light experiences, and burning bushes. It may cause us to ask, Have I missed something?

Let’s just be glad that the spiritual awakening appears by Step Twelve and not in Step One. It is the result of a process of taking action after action, the challenging inner work and outer work that comprises the first eleven Steps. The Steps promise us a spiritual awakening – not romantic, emotional, or material salvation – an awakening which is in a sense inevitable, as it is THE result of working the first eleven Steps. We may not see all the ways we’ve changed, and the spiritual awakening may not take the form you wanted or expected. But the awakening is real, and one can see it who carefully examines oneself and one’s life objectively.

What is emotional sobriety?

This is a good time to introduce the concept of Emotional sobriety, which is essentially recovery language for emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the capability of individuals to recognize their own and other people’s emotions, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide one’s own thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments and achieve one’s goals.

Emotional sobriety can be described as the ability to deal with feelings in a constructive manner. It is the ability we develop over time to simply feel our feelings. Emotionally sober folks no longer have the urge to escape feelings by climbing into a bottle, smoking a joint, popping pills, or running toward any other temporary chemical solution. Emotionally sober men and women are willing and able to deal with whatever comes their way because they have, over time and with consistent spiritual practice, developed a deep inner strength that allows the successful weathering of emotional storms. Emotional sobriety is closely linked to serenity, an unshakable sense of inner peace that people eventually find in genuine recovery.

Addiction stunts our emotional development

Life is a real struggle and contains much suffering for folks who are unable to handle their emotions. It is a plain fact that the lack of emotional sobriety makes it impossible to find lasting inner peace. These individuals are highly likely to continue or revert to active alcoholism, drug addiction, and other addictive behavior. They will continue to use a chemical solution as a means to temporarily escape the pain caused by their emotions.

As long as a person addicted to alcohol or drugs, emotional development completely stops for all practical purposes. They become stuck. When a person finally gets into treatment or otherwise manages to halt the use of alcohol or drugs, s/he will quickly find they lack the tools to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life. In the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, this struggle/learning process is often referred to as growing up in public. Emotional sobriety does not mean that one escapes or avoids unpleasant emotions; rather, one no longer plays the role of hapless victim to the endless tides of emotions that occur to all humans throughout life.

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See also  Spiritual principles behind Step Ten: Acceptance

Signs of emotional sobriety

Here are a few signs of emotional sobriety or emotional intelligence:

  • Experiencing present moment mindfulness most of the time without dwelling in the past or experiencing anxiety about the future
  • Making sane choices when it comes to regulating our behavior, reducing the likelihood of falling into addiction or other self-destructive patterns
  • Demonstrating an ability to cope with the vicissitudes of life
  • Avoiding being a hapless victim of strong emotions when they occur
  • Facing life without succumbing to extreme moods
  • Practicing acceptance, maintaining a healthy perspective despite challenging life situations
  • Developing deep and meaningful relationships with other people
  • Being free of harmful levels of stress on an ongoing basis

Sometimes emotional sobriety is about tolerating what you are feeling. It is about staying sober no matter what you are feeling. It means that you don’t have to blame yourself or your program because life can be challenging. It means that you don’t necessarily need to do something to make the feeling go away. Many people will take their bad feeling and try to pray it, meditate it, service it, spiritually distract themselves from it, thinking that this means they are working a good program. This experience is actually called spiritual bypass.

John Welwood coined the term spiritual bypass and defined it as “using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment.” The shorthand for spiritual bypass is when a person wears a mask or presents a false spiritual self that represses aspects of that person’s true self. Spiritual bypass involves bolstering our defenses rather than our humility. Bypass involves grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting.
What Is Emotional Sobriety? Hint: It doesn’t necessarily equal happy, joyous, and freePsychology Today

As we have dedicated ourselves to change and becoming better men, it is of great importance to remember that in essence, we are who our friends are:

I will choose my friends with care. I am who my friends are. I speak their language, and I wear their clothes. I share their opinions and their habits. From this moment forward, I will choose to associate with people whose lives and lifestyles I admire. If I associate with chickens, I will learn to scratch at the ground and squabble over crumbs. If I associate with eagles, I will learn to soar great heights. I am an eagle. It is my destiny to fly.
The Traveler’s Gift: Seven Decisions that Determine Personal SuccessAndy Andrews, 2005

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