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The Twelve Steps for Non-Believers

Marya Hornbacher, in her new book, Waiting, describes her own journey through the Twelve Steps as a non-believer and charts a new understanding of the spiritual course of recovery.

I was one of those people who came into the Twelve Step program and was more confused by the notion of a Higher Power than opposed to it. I figured there might be one out there, and if all these people were sure there was, they were probably right and could likely tell me how to find it.

Gradually, though, it began to seem that the belief in God-not just a Higher Power, not just a "God of your understanding," but a God that was assumed to be of all our understandings, even those of us who had no understanding of, or belief in, a God at all-was a given. I got the sense that if I did not believe in God now, it was a matter of me still being new to sobriety, and surely I'd come to my senses soon.

So I gave it a shot. Every morning I watched the sunrise and read a highly religious little meditation book and tried having a conversation with God. I waited for that sense of the presence of a Higher Power that I'd heard of. I chastised myself for not being open to real spiritual experience. It was one of the loneliest things I've ever done.

It sent me, actually, to a pretty bad place. I was terrified I was going to lose my sobriety. I wanted to know what was wrong with me that I couldn't sense or believe in the existence of a God, let alone the personal involvement in my life one might have. I spoke of it in meetings, this failure on my part; I talked to my sponsor, to other people in the program, to anyone I thought might be able to instruct me how to find this God of which everyone spoke of in such personal, intimate terms.

Finally someone pulled me aside after a meeting. He said, "Here's the thing. I don't know what God is, or if there is a God. I only know that there are moments when I feel spiritual. I can be in a church or a mosque or a temple or a grocery store or the woods. And I get that sense of being spiritual. Of something alive in me. It's not necessarily a sense that something outside me is present. It's the sense that I am present. Completely present. Alive."

And in that moment, as we stood there in the church basement kitchen while people around us rustled and chattered and headed home, I recognized that what I felt-a connection to this person, an ability to hear him clearly, to open my mind, to listen, and to learn-was a spiritual experience. It was an enormous relief. I stopped feeling like I was doing the whole thing wrong. His words undid the terrible tangle I was in, and I could move forward with a new sense of what spirit meant, and what mine felt like, and what I believed.

For all its God language, the Twelve Step program isn't actually an attempt at religious conversion. Really, it just tries to bring us to a place of new spiritual understanding that allows us to live differently in this world. The Steps are not intended to get us to heaven or save us from hell. This is not about life in another world, above or below. This is about how we live here. And though many would not agree with me on this point, it's my contention that how we live here is defined and guided by who we are, who we choose to be, who we try to become. Some believe that a God is the guiding force and principle in this evolution in ourselves. I believe what guides us is already in us, is in fact the deepest part of who we are-capable of turning us into ever-more spiritually grounded, spiritually generous, peaceful people.

That evolution itself is a spiritual process. And the Steps can be guideposts on the way. Each of them asks deep and hard spiritual questions; while some of us may need to find our way past God-centered language to reach the core of those questions, we can find that core, and having done so, can open our minds to what the Steps might teach us about how to live. The Steps are intended-it sounds simple, and it is-to make us better people, more aware, more alive, and more spiritually whole.

The Steps, at their heart, are a pathway to spiritual experiences. Not to a singular spiritual experience. They are, as you'll often hear in meetings, "a program for living." I would add that they are a program for living spiritually. Each Step is based on spiritual principles; taken as a whole, they form a map toward understanding ourselves better as spiritual people. And they are a spiritual practice, requiring not only thought and feeling but action as well.

We come to the program "spiritually bankrupt." We come spiritually bereft. Addiction starves and eventually kills the spirit; we come in need of spiritual nourishment. That nourishment comes in different forms for different people. For some it comes as God, for some it's felt as a more amorphous Higher Power. Some people are comfortable taking the suggestion often given to nonbelievers that they make their Twelve Step group their Higher Power. Some people, for reasons I don't claim to understand, find comfort in the idea that literally anything can be their Higher Power-a doorknob, a rock.

Whatever works. But it is human nature to want some source of spiritual comfort or guidance-the things a God gives to those who believe. Addicts have, over the years of their use, ultimately made their addictions their Higher Power. And when addicts come to sobriety, the sense of disorientation-the sense of being unmoored from anything solid-the sense that they are absolutely lost is overwhelming.

So we reach for something. We reach blindly outward-toward a God in whom we may or may not believe, toward a Higher Power we may not understand, toward a group of people, toward a simple inanimate thing. And for some of us, this works. We find that spiritual source we crave.
Some of us, though, do not.

It is my belief that just as much as we need to reach outward in our search for spiritual nourishment, we need to reach deeper within. For those of us who do not know God, who may not believe there is a God to know, this search within is the search for our own spiritual nature. We seek not what is out there in some abstract heaven. We seek, instead, what is here, in ourselves, on this earth.

And the search can be undertaken using the Steps. Though the language of the old literature is religious, its message is spiritual, and it seeks to bring about a spiritual experience. And if we allow it to, it does. We do not need to know a God for that to happen.

The practice of the Steps does not require houses of worship or prostrations or adherence to a creed. It requires a careful and intensive look inward, a deepening knowledge of ourselves, our actions, and our beliefs, so that we can be more intimately, spiritually connected to the world in which we live. The Steps ask us to take that look inward, and ultimately bring us to a spiritual wholeness where we have the capacity to love and serve the world outside our limited selves.
When we come to the program, we are in dire need of a spiritual source. The steps lead us to it, whatever we call it, whatever it may look like, whatever form it may take. This source feeds us; and, in turn, we are able to feed others in spiritual need.

This is a spiritual experience. This is a spiritual experience anyone may have, anyone who knows a God, and anyone who does not. This is a way of living a spiritual life; this is a spiritual practice of being alive.

Excerpted from Waiting: A Non-Believer's Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher, published by Hazelden, 2011

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