By Steve K.
In the context of Twelve Step recovery, there is the concept of ‘having had a spiritual awakening as the result of practicing the 12 Steps.’ (1) The American psychologist and philosopher William James suggests that this awakening is often an educational process. (2)
My experience of this process over 25 years in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is one of growth in terms of my spiritual and moral awareness, coupled with a developing emotional balance and maturity. I’ve also experienced significant changes in outlook and attitude towards myself, others and life in general. I’ve found this recovery process a very slow experience; and one that is ongoing with the help of the principles contained within the Twelve Steps, and the support of the AA fellowship. I’ve also engaged with other sources of growth, such as education, voluntary work, community groups and psychotherapy.
The ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’ outline the process of a spiritual awakening as follows:
“Maybe there are as many definitions of spiritual awakening as there are people who have had them. But certainly each genuine one has something in common with all the others. And these things which they have in common are not too hard to understand.
When a man or a woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being. He has been set on a path which tells him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered.
In a very real sense he has been transformed, because he has laid hold of a source of strength which, in one way or another, he had hitherto denied himself. He finds himself in possession of a degree of honesty, tolerance, unselfishness, peace of mind, and love of which he had thought himself quite incapable. What he has received is a free gift, and yet usually, at least in some small part, he has made himself ready to receive it. A.A.’s manner of making ready to receive this gift lies in the practice of the Twelve Steps in our program.”
As an agnostic within the AA fellowship I have had my struggles with its spiritual, and quite often outright religious, language and ideas. I‘ve always found it helpful to be able to relate AA’s spiritual concepts to humanistic ideas and philosophy.
One such idea in relation to AA’s suggestion of a spiritual awakening is that of “Self-Actualization”; a concept that originated in the field of humanistic psychology.
Self-actualization is a term that has been used in various psychology theories, often in slightly different ways. The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential. Expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to society are examples of self-actualization.
The concept of self-actualization was most prominently promoted in the theories of psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Maslow’s famous model of human nature puts self-actualization at the spearhead of human innate motivations in his “hierarchy of needs.”
The above five stage model was later expanded upon to include cognitive needs, aesthetic needs and transcendence needs (beyond the ego – helping others to learn and grow- think Step Twelve!).
The first four stages of Maslow’s hierarchy are referred to informally in AA’s Step Four inventory look at human nature (see Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd edition, p.65). The inventory process of Step Four asks the alcoholic to look at their difficulties in relation to material security needs, emotional security needs, social instinct, and needs for sexual relationships or expression.
AA literature suggests that self-centred fear drives the alcoholic to excess in these areas and is the cause of their character defects and ultimately the spiritual bankruptcy of alcoholism (or any other addiction). The Twelve Steps are viewed as a spiritual solution to this self-centred fear and resulting character defects; and the driving force of spiritual growth or awakening.
Maslow’s model and the concept of self-actualization can be viewed in a similar way. When one’s lower level needs are unfulfilled, or damaged (think about the effects of physical, emotional or sexual abuse), there will be a sense of threat or fear and an intense drive to try and meet those needs, often in a dysfunctional or selfish manner. This then can prevent the higher level needs being fulfilled or actualised. The self-actualizing potential for spiritual, creative, and moral growth will be impaired by the lower level unmet or damaged needs.
In sobriety, we are more able to meet and heal our lower level needs for material, emotional, social and relationship security. We are aided in our innate motivations by the principles contained within the Twelve Steps, and the support of the AA fellowship and other supportive relationships and resources.
When our lower level needs are more fulfilled, we are then free to develop our potential for creativity, moral and spiritual awareness and growth. This includes development of our capacity to serve others, which in turn helps them to fulfil their potential or to self-actualize.
Spiritual awakening compared to self-actualization
As someone who to tends to view spirituality in a naturalistic sense, I see strong similarities between the description of a spiritual awakening in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and the characteristics of self-actualised people. There is certainly an overlap between the two phenomenon. The following is Abraham Maslow’s identified characteristics of the self-actualised person:
Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the fake and dishonest, and are free to see reality ‘as it is’.
Comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.
Reliant on own experiences and judgement. Independent, not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views.
Spontaneous and natural. True to oneself, rather than being how others want.
Task centering. Most of Maslow’s subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem ‘beyond’ themselves (instead of outside of themselves) to pursue.
Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent.
Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life’s basic goods. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an “innocence of vision”, like that of an artist or child.
Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep loving bonds.
Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing people value solitude and are comfortable being alone.
Non-hostile sense of humor. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself.
Peak experiences. All of Maslow’s subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beauty, goodness, and so forth.
Socially compassionate. Possessing humanity.
Few friends. Few close intimate friends rather than many superficial relationships.
In summary, self-actualizers feel finally themselves, safe, not anxious, accepted, loved, loving, and alive, certainly living a fulfilling life.
When considering the “promises” in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and what people in recovery often describe as the qualities of a spiritual awakened person; I personally can easily see the above characteristics of self-actualisation.
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.
No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away.
Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change. Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us…. Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.”
Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 83-84.
Our Tendency to Grow….
In relation to identifying the qualities of a spiritual awakening or self-actualization within myself, I can see some, but certainly not all, of the above characteristics. For me, recovery and the associated principles and practices are an ongoing process of personal growth and maturity; which result in a unique way of being for each individual. I’ve still got a long journey to achieve my own unique expression of all the above qualities of a spiritual awakening or self-actualisation.
In relation to the lower level needs of Maslow’s hierarchy being fulfilled, some in recovery are more fortunate than others. Some, quite often due to developmental difficulties, such as neglect or abuse, struggle to meet their needs in areas such as loving and supportive relationships and a healthy sense of self-esteem.
These deficits can prevent growth in relation to the higher level needs of self-actualization. They can impair one’s ability to be content, to flourish in life creatively, and to fulfil one’s potential. They can hinder a sense of spirituality and a feeling that life is good.
However, human nature is profoundly resilient, and we can often heal and recover from great setbacks in life; moving forward to attain things we never thought possible for us.
Our basic nature possesses an inherent actualizing tendency to grow positively according to humanistic theory; and my experience of life seems to confirm this belief. All we need to aid this tendency to fulfil our potential as human beings is a reasonably nurturing environment and resources, and the freedom to make use of them. In my opinion, sobriety and Twelve Step fellowships, and the principles they are based upon, are good examples of such a nurturing environment and resources.
So, with these thoughts in mind, let us live in hope and faith in ourselves and others, as we continue along our road of “Progress, not perfection”, in our journey of recovery and self-actualization.
1. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.109.
2. Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 569.