Simplicity: The Twelve Steps

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. This is the fourth in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.


Exploring what we can learn about God and Simplicity from people’s experience of the Twelve Steps.

When I started the series of interviews that I conducted for my Eva Koch scholarship I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect to find such a deep well of spiritual simplicity within the realms of addiction.

One of my very first interviews was with someone who described himself as an alcoholic in recovery, and it was incredibly powerful. His responses to my questions were so strong and clear. ‘But it’s simple…’ he said, time and again, of his relationship with God, spirituality, and material things. This Friend was involved with the Twelve Step programme through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and it had changed his life. I knew immediately that this was something that I wanted to write about.

Until recently I was unaware of the strong ‘religious’ or spiritual basis of the Twelve Step programme. The stages are outlined in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, written by a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as in the AA ‘Big Book’. The initial steps include: Admitting powerlessness and that our lives have become unmanageable, recognition of a ‘Power greater than ourselves’, and relinquishing lives ‘to the care of God as we understood him’. In Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, Richard Rohr suggests that we are all addicts and puts forward the argument that ‘the Gospel message of Jesus and the Twelve Step message of Bill Wilson are the same message’, comparing each step to aspects of Christian spiritual growth.

So what lessons do the Twelve Steps have for us in practising simplicity?

During my interviews I spoke to four recovering alcoholics, two family members who attended Al-Anon, and two co-dependent Friends who had also done the Twelve Steps. One Friend said that the programme was ‘the place that I found the greatest mental and spiritual simplicity… not within Quakers’ because ‘people come to Twelve Step from a place of brokenness’. He spoke of how simplicity is necessary to address pain, which he felt was often treated as a commodity. A co-dependent Friend talked of recognizing pain and then having to ‘let go and let God’, a simple but also complicated practice she achieved through meditation, in nature, and at Quaker Meeting for Worship.

The Twelve Steps are fully engaged with spiritual simplicity and transformation. Step Eleven seeks ‘through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him’; many Friends described these spiritual practices as part of simplicity. Quaker educators have picked up on these links and one Friend had attended a Quaker Spirituality and the Twelve Steps course at Woodbrooke. She found this very helpful, especially the approach of ‘just for today… I’m going to do…’ as an aid to keeping things simple.

Further to this, Quaker practice has a lot in common with the Twelve ‘Traditions’ by which AA functions; set up to answer the question ‘How can AA best stay whole and so survive?’ (The Big Book). The Traditions state that authority lies with ‘a loving God’ expressed in the group conscience rather than with the society’s leaders. This, together with encountering the ‘God of our understanding’, has an affinity with Quaker theology which doesn’t seek to pin down the nature or language of God, emphasizing God as personally experienced and also acknowledging the group experience of God in a ‘gathered’ Meeting for Worship.

The affinity of experience drew two Friends who had done the Twelve Steps to Quakers. One said: ‘in that complicated world that I came from, being able to have a God or Higher Power of your own choice… was really simplifying to a level that I could get to grips with’. For another the ‘keep it simple’ slogan used in AA also chimed with Quaker practice, although he got frustrated by our tendency to talk and felt Quakers could learn from the Twelve Steps by putting love first, not thinking.

Material and structural simplicity

Alcoholics Anonymous also addresses material and structural simplicity. Tradition Six states that AA groups should never endorse or finance other enterprises ‘lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.’ Tradition Seven says that AA groups should be fully self-supporting and decline outside contributions. AA also decided to have ‘the least possible organization’ with public relations ‘based upon attraction rather than promotion’.

A willingness to forgo prestige or profit to maintain integrity echoes Quaker testimony and experience, especially regarding business and simplicity. ‘Experience has often warned us that nothing can so surely destroy our spiritual heritage as futile disputes over property, money, and authority’ says the Big Book. Surely this has a message for Friends, who often find that running and financing a meeting house, or employing staff, or making funding choices, can cause conflict or distraction from spiritual values.

The dangers of double addiction

There are inherent dangers in a process that has such a transformative impact on people’s lives. ‘Even the much needed Twelve Step Programs have become their own kind of addiction and avoidance of the painful mystery of things,’ says Richard Rohr in his book Simplicity. This echoes the experience of a Friend who attended the Twelve Steps but felt that people had become addicted to AA instead of alcohol and that thus ‘in some way or another it (alcohol) never left their lives.’

Another Friend felt the Twelve Steps could be dogmatic, ‘like evangelical churches’. The ‘all or nothing thinking’ of dry drunks is a problem says Rohr in Breathing Under Water, citing psychological research that showed many twelve steppers were childish, emotionally selfish and grandiose. Rohr likens this to Christians and clergy who ‘never went to the inner room where Jesus invited us’.

Finding the atmosphere at AA difficult, one Friend’s solution came through the book Rational Recovery by Jack Trimpey. She was a Quaker prior to trying and rejecting the Twelve Steps, which she said ‘didn’t speak to my condition’. The book worked because she felt the author ‘came from the same place’ and its message was ‘so simple’.

Transformation, bottom up

Is it somehow easier for people who have hit rock bottom to access God? Rohr seems to think so, saying you will not learn to draw on, or even know the existence of, a larger source ‘until your own sources and resources fail you’.

Friends’ experience of the Twelve Steps illustrates the power of letting go of our own attempts to control our lives and handing this to God, and of a simple spirituality. ‘The most precious thing I’ve been given is choice,’ said one Friend of the effect the Twelve Steps had on his life. But we also need to keep our connection to listening and responding to the God we have found. ‘Many twelve steppers settle for mere sobriety instead of a real transformation of the self,’ says Rohr.

Bill W, who developed the Twelve Steps after a friend passed on his own experience of gaining God’s help to overcome alcoholism, clearly experienced transformation. His wish to share the ‘good news’ is born out of this transformation, and returns us to Rohr’s comparison with the Gospel message. But I feel it’s appropriate to finish by returning to that original interview: ‘Belief is a real powerful thing,’ our Friend said, ‘because it works’.

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 28/10/2016

© Anne de Gruchy

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