I thought writing this piece would be a cut and dry task, especially with Process managing partner, Justin Etling, providing both premise and reasoning. Instead, I found myself swept down an unexpected rabbit hole. I started searching for an elusive Bill Wilson quote, but quickly became engrossed in the history of 12 step recovery and, later, the major criticisms of 12 step programs. Most of the major criticisms are based on the notion that 12 step programs are the only way to treat substance use disorders.
Ironically, through my research, I discovered that the co-founder of Alcoholic’s Anonymous, Bill Wilson, may have heartily agreed with these criticisms – and so do we. After all, Bill Wilson was so committed to helping alcoholics, he experimented with LSD in order to discern whether or not it might be a helpful treatment tool. Author Ernie Kurtz writes, “Bill never lost what recent self-styled spiritual mentors apparently never gain: the sense of humor that warned him that he could be wrong. Bill Wilson never forgot that if he, as an alcoholic in recovery, had any spirituality, it was a spirituality of imperfection”.
Beyond Bill’s open-mindedness to experimenting with new and/or adjunct solutions, he also wrote the following in the A.A. Grapevine in July of 1965:
“Newcomers are approaching A.A. at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture, and religion. In A.A., we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy whatever should be of first consideration for us all. Let us not, therefore, pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive”.
Spirituality – the Other Major Criticism
Article after article bemoans spirituality as the other problem with 12 step programs – and that’s where our agreement diverges. In fact, we would argue that it would benefit all recovery fellowships to be more spiritual, especially 12 step ones. But why? Spirituality, as a concept, is widely misunderstood. To be spiritual simply means to be concerned with one’s inward condition rather than external things. Process managing partner, Justin Etling, explains spirituality as “defining meaning and purpose in life”. A University of Minnesota publication identifies spirituality as “a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience—something that touches us all”.
The clarion call of 12 step recovery haters is, “Give us more evidence based practice”. However, to say that “concern for the inward condition” isn’t evidence based would be to dismiss the entire field of psychology.
“I feel like the message of 12 step recovery has kind of been lost in trying to tell people what to do and, in ways, wanting to control what we think people should do,” Justin laments. “If you think about the fundamental message of 12 step recovery, it’s: ‘Go to meetings, get a sponsor and work the steps’. Bill W. references people being led to the light. How is that done? It’s done through people being the Light to Follow; every one of us has the same light or life force inside of us. We can light up others through love, understanding, compassion, open mindedness and humility. Once this trust is established, people can surrender to the spiritual practices they need to implement. Surrender requires no effort – it does require action – but once you’ve surrendered it becomes effortless success. It’s letting go of the resistance and believing in the path, which in turn makes it more of a flow, a drafting of sorts on the hip of others, requiring less drag (resistance), in scientific terms, but creating more momentum for everyone in the recovery direction”.
The Science Behind Ego and Spirituality
It’s hard to conceptualize the link between ego, spirituality, and science, but Justin connects the dots. “The ego prison has been created with a Newtonian science ideology and accompanying belief systems: black or white, this or that, right or wrong. It has to be one or the other. This is a controlled (ego) environment that lacks the spiritual power that Bill W. was referencing in terms of being rocketed into a 4th dimension of existence. Science has been able to detect the 4th dimension in quantum mechanics, which flipped Newtonian science on its head when it demonstrated the existence of duality: this and that”.
“Is A.A. better than N.A. or Smart Recovery? Or are A.A., N.A., and Smart Recovery all of the same fabric? Can we evolve to a belief system that incorporates quantum mechanics? Can we change our beliefs to be this and that, like Bill W. suggested, and support people to the light with the practice of principles, and less opinion on what’s best? If you believe your way is the best, you’re living in some ego. In living in that ego, you’re portraying a message to other people: ‘this is the way’. How do you know what their way is? How do you know what their path looks like? How do you know how their inner journey will unfold? Bill W. didn’t care about the ‘how’ – support people on their path to the light. Are you still on the journey to light – and sharing how that has evolved over the years – or has that journey stopped?”
“It’s built into our society that we do things for an outcome. Are you doing things to learn more about yourself or are you doing things to be produce a result? There’s a difference. There’s a spiritual aspect that can be lost. It becomes what you know and not who you are. Who you are is energetically the same as everyone in a room, and we express this properly through principles. Has your identity become your ‘clean time?’ We’d be lying if we said 12 step programs haven’t created a hierarchy of ‘clean’ time, and the pride that follows. Since we’re living in a system of status, and who people are based on ‘clean time’, and who’s worked the steps and who hasn’t, we are living in an ego ecosystem of recovery. It’s almost gotten to the point where the program is people’s spiritual belief. That’s it. They’re living in a limited belief system of 12 step recovery. The truth is, the journey to who you are goes well beyond 12 step recovery, and will connect you with everyone”.
The Role of Meditation in Dissolving Ego
A.A. literature says, “Those of us who have come to make regular use of meditation would no more do without it than we would refuse air, food, or sunshine”. Bill Wilson is also quoted as saying, “I always felt that something was lost from A.A. when we stopped emphasizing the morning meditation”.
Justin clarifies why meditation is essential to maintaining a focus on our inward condition versus our desire for control:
“If we don’t meditate – if we’re not listening to our intuitive selves – it only makes sense that we end up living in some ego – because we’re talking too much and we’re not listening enough. You’ve lost the spiritual aspect because you’re not listening. You start to believe that, ‘this is what worked for me, so this is what has to work for other people’. As a result, if they don’t do what you ask them to do, you’re comparing and not identifying, and not loving. 12 Step fellowship becomes a place where you can find love, but you can also find judgment and ego, and people telling you exactly what to do, and not feeling like you’re the exact same person because they have years of recovery, and you have a day”.
“Energetically – we are all one. The way that Bill W. laid it out – and had a vision of what it would be – is it what he thought it would be today? That’s what I would question. Are people being rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence? At what point have we gotten lost in an egotistical prison and not conveyed the spiritual path laid out by the predecessors?”
How the Process Recovery Center Does Things Differently
“I would say that we try to remain openminded to what’s right for the person, and let them find spiritual aspects that work for them, no matter where they’re going to get them,” says Justin. “So, if you go to a Tuesday night meeting of A.A. that you think is great, and you go to a Thursday night meeting of SMART Recovery – you’re not chastised at the cross. If you’re pursuing your spiritual wellbeing, we’re in full love and support of that. At the end of the day, it’s about learning about yourself. It’s about going inward. As long as you’re doing inward work, you’re not in competition”.
“At the Process Recovery Center, we encourage all pathways of recovery. We encourage people to surrender to a plan of action that works for them and they believe in. We don’t decide that the plan of action is, ‘Go to just A.A., get an A.A. sponsor, and work the steps’. We don’t discourage anybody from that either. We try to empower people on their spiritual path. They should be loved and supported no matter what. I don’t care if you’re on Suboxone. It shouldn’t matter. But it matters too much. It’s too much of a concern. We’re looking at what separates us and not what connects us. We’re looking at it as this OR that and not this AND that. At the end of the day, if you’re living in this OR that, you’re living in an ego realm”.
“Back to the science proving that: The Law of Duality. Two things that appear to be in competition are actually not. They both just exist. In the Law of Relativity, they’re both supposed to be there. Bill W. saw it that way. Bill W. understood by reducing your ego through meditation, he could live through a scope of the Law of Duality. But egotism has evolved in the program, as it has evolved in mankind. It’s a mankind conundrum. We are sold with consumerism: this OR that. That’s what consumerism is built on. That’s how dollars are made. And that’s what political opponents run on. We literally live in a belief system of this OR that. One of the beautiful, pure things about the 12 step program is that it bucks that convention when operating ideally. But is it continuing to operate ideally? Is it evolving? Part of spirituality is evolution”.
“At what point are we going to all be working together in a recovery realm of what we share in common and not what the differences are, and not which ones are better than other ones? Because – as a result – we’re pushing people away from the solution. When are we going to evolve to not just be A.A.? When are we going to evolve to be A.A. and N.A., and Refuge Recovery, and SMART Recovery, and people on Suboxone? They all exist because they need to exist, and lives are being saved by all of them. So that’s the principle we’re based in at the Process Recovery Center: This AND that”.
“We ask the question that nobody else asks. What is your solution to this problem? Because you have the inner wisdom to decide. If you’re going to truly maintain something, you have to believe in what you’re choosing. So just telling people to do stuff – is it really an effective tool for them? Sometimes it is. It does work for some people. But on the same note, people like input. People want some input into who they are and what they’re doing. So, we’re just saying, ‘It’s your bus. You’re driving it. There are a lot of cars that can drive on this road. What kind of car do you want? What color is it?’ If you want a Prius, fine. If you want a BMW, fine. Guess what? The Prius and the BMW get to the same place – judging each other the whole way. Why? It’s ludicrous. It hurts to see people not resonating and not connecting”.
Justin Etling/ Contributor
Autumn Khavari/ Contributor