Step Eleven: Cultivating conscious contact with a Higher Power
In 1938, an alcoholic stockbroker named Bill W. declared his intention to write a book about an obscure new program of recovery from alcoholism. The program, which included twelve suggested steps, was unabashedly spiritual. Bill’s goal was to present this aspect of the program in terms so simple and so practical that one alcoholic could easily explain it to another.
Today there are more than 25 million copies of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA World Services, Inc.) in print. And Bill managed to distil the essence of spiritual practice into the 32 words of Step Eleven: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
Before practicing the Twelve Steps, Bill had been a sceptic about spiritual matters. This personal history of doubt qualified him to answer atheists, agnostics, and other AA newcomers who rebelled at any suggestion of prayer or meditation, let alone belief in God.
Bill’s response to objections was pragmatic: Just try it. You’ll discover that Step Eleven works, and that “almost the only scoffers at prayer are those who have never tried it enough.”
Specific instructions for receiving spiritual direction through prayer and meditation are included on pages 85-88 of Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book. These are organized under three basic headings: what to do in the morning, throughout the day, and at night.
“On awakening let us think about the twenty-four hours ahead,” notes the Big Book. “We consider our plans for the day. Before we begin, we ask God to direct our thinking, especially asking that it be divorced from self-pity, dishonest or self-seeking motives.”
Of course, people in recovery often face uncertainty. Even when we’re open to good orderly direction, we can still be unclear about moment-to-moment choices in daily life.
In response, the Big Book suggests that we “relax and take it easy.” Instead of struggling, we can wait patiently for an answer to come. Over time, we’ll find that “what used to be the hunch or the occasional inspiration gradually becomes a working part of the mind.”
The Big Book further suggests that we end our morning meditation with a prayer to receive guidance throughout the day for the next action to take. And the sum total of our needs in this area can be summarized in one phrase: Thy will, not mine, be done.
Fred Holmquist, director of the Lodge Program at Hazelden, emphasizes the timing of morning meditation and prayer.
“The directions for what to do on awakening are truly about what to do on awakening,” says Holmquist. “These are not things to be done on going to the bathroom, on making coffee, or on feeding the cat. Rather, it’s on awakening that I do a litmus test of my spiritual condition by thinking about the 24 hours ahead. If I’m already full of self-pity, dishonesty, or self-seeking motives, then this is a practice that literally gets me out of bed on the right foot.”
After grounding our day in morning practice, we can stay open to guidance throughout the day at work or home. When we’re feeling emotionally unbalanced or confused, we can simply stop for a moment and ask our Higher Power for an appropriate thought or action.
The Big Book also includes a list of questions to ask at night as we review and end each day. For example:
- Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid?
- Do we owe an apology?
- Have we kept something to ourselves that should be discussed with another person at once?
“In the earlier Steps, I clean up the wreckage of the past,” Holmquist says. “In Step Eleven, I clean up the wreckage of today—how my imperfections as a human complicate my life. This Step defines what it means to completely give ourselves to this simple program.”
From; Alive & Free is a health column that offers information to help prevent and address addiction and substance abuse problems. It is provided by Hazelden, a non-profit agency based in Center City, Minn.