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Cartesianism and the Third Step

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

 “Made the decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Step Three of Alcoholics Anonymous


“We now honor our connection with the divine, as we understand it, and we accept the process of change.” Step Three of The Spiral Steps


“Made a decision to align our Will and our lives to that of True Will and place the care of our lives into the hands of the God/dess as we understand Him, Her, It, or Them.” Step Three of The Twelve Steps for Pagans by Khoury


"Made a decision to connect the powers within and without and see them as One.” Step Three by Anodea Judith


As I mentioned in a previous post, independence is a hallmark of Pagans and Witches. We like to do things our own way, and we relish marching to the beat of our own drum. It is not easy, then, to confront this third step that tells us that surrendering our will is the way forward. For many of us, the fear that leaps into our mind is perfectly explained within the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:


“Yes, respecting alcohol, I guess I have to be dependent upon A.A., but in all other matters I must still maintain my independence. Nothing is going to turn me into a nonentity. If I keep and turning my life and my will over to the care of Something or Somebody else, what will become of me? I’ll look like the hole in the doughnut.” P 36, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions


I’m so fascinated by this fear of being a nonentity because I think it speaks very deeply to the fear that the reality of interconnection and interdependence bring up in modern man and woman. To admit that we are deeply connected, on a spiritual and physical level, is to dismantle the idea of individuality itself. We’ve all heard about how we are made of stardust, and this can feel inspiring. But it also reminds us that we are not our own; that the very physical material of our bodies is borrowed and communal. it was once one thing, and it one will day be another. Many Pagans have worked hard to dismantle ontological dualism and Cartesianism (the philosophy perfected by René Descartes that the world is divided into three different areas of existence-that inhabited by physical matter, that inhabited by the mind, and that inhabited by God) and have placed enormous emphasis upon the sacredness of our bodies. Thus there is not one set of laws governing our material self and our spiritual self; the one is embodied in the other (they are the same). Thus, our whole selves dip from a common well, and if these energies can be said to belong to us in any way it can only be for a brief wink of the cosmic span of time. I breathe, but at what point can my breath be said to be my own? In those moments when it is held like a cup by the material of my lungs which is made from organic material that I am only borrowing? It feeds me and sustains me, but it is not mine. I can only dance with it.


Making a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understand him, is to embrace this idea that even things as seemingly all-consuming and steady as a desire or a want is washed away in the sea of all-beings. Surrendering our will is shorthand for behaving as if things are more deeply connected than ontological dualism asserts and that there might then be a higher purpose for us than what our desires dictate. This can be very frightening. This fear that our autonomy and sovereignty will be lost is described later in the 12 and 12 as “a fear of losing something we already possessed or failing to get something we demanded.” When we work the third step, we turn directly into that fear. What would happen if we didn’t get what we wanted? What would happen if we lost something we thought we needed? If we turn into these fears having surrendered to the idea that we exist less uniquely than we thought, the fear fizzles and, according to the Big Book, “we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not even dreamed.”


The discussion until now has gone along spiritual terms, but what does this look like in practical application? A chief indicator of our existential fretting in active addiction is the amount of energy and time we would devote towards trying to manage people, events and outcomes so that we would get what we want or avoid losing what we had. We also tried to manage our drinking or drugging like this, trying to imbibe the correct amount, or in the correct order, so that we could get to just the right place that would provide relief from pain but also avoidance of harsh consequences. Trying to manage is a deeply existential activity. it is built on the idea that we need certain things to happen in order to be happy or comfortable, and that being happy or comfortable is the chief aim of our lives. It supposes that we, in our infinite wisdom, are the best determinants of what is best for us, and that we should not cease to struggle until we make those things a reality.


When we work Step Three, we walk away from this idea. We cease our love affair with managing people, places, things, drugs, drinking and other behaviors. This might mean that Susan stops engaging in being a people pleaser all the time because she realizes that trying to make everyone like her is really just an effort to manage her own reality. Joey might cease trying to make Mom and Dad get along and accept that they hate each other. Rebecca might work Step Three by letting go of the idea that she has to be the one to play Devil’s Advocate in her office. For me, it looked like ceasing my efforts to play the victim so that others would feel sorry for me and take it easy on me.


From those examples above you might have gotten the secret about Step Three. This is a Step about responding in a different way we don’t get what we want or lose something we had. In this way, this is an alchemical step. We are turning dross into gold. Turning dross, or base metals, into gold was just one of the many aspirations of the alchemists. This is the alchemy we perform when we work Step 3. We take the dross of life- all the things and people that didn't turn out or act the way we wanted them to- and we turn our experience of them into gold by showing up in that situation in a fresh new way. What fresh new ways are possible? It could be an attitude of acceptance. It might be a focus on service (i.e. how can I make myself of use to others in this situation?). Gratitude is a very powerful attitude to show up with in the face of something disappointing or difficult. These are just some examples; there are many options. “Okay,” some of you might be saying at this point. “That makes sense, but why does ‘God’ with a capital G have to be involved with this? Now that I have a new understanding about my unmanageability and powerlessness from Step 1, why can’t I just begin to behave in a different way?” I welcome you to try, but I offer this wisdom from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous


“If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could wish these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn't there. Our human resources, as marshaled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly. Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves.” P 44, Alcoholics Anonymous


What does that mean, exactly? Logistically, it means we plug ourselves in so the current can flow from this power to ourselves. That can look very different to different people within different traditions. Some people might begin spending more time contemplating in nature. Others may take up a serious meditation practice, or engage in regular devotional work. You could begin to engage in trance work, or ecstatic dance, or simply praying. Probably we need to find a way to incorporate some service work into our lives, and take up a gratitude practice. These simple actions can have the effect of radically shifting our perspectives so that we can do what was discussed above-showing up in fresh new ways to challenging situations.


The Third Step, when understood and activated in your life, actually puts you into a very “Pagan” mindset. This is a world in which you are not the center of the Universe. Your needs and wants are not more or less important than those of your neighbor. You are neither queen or victim. You are part of a vast web, and you hold a responsibility to other beings in that web. You are willing to work with what shows up and flow with the energies present, not demanding that reality reshape itself to your preferences. As you encounter difficult people and situations, you hold a sense that there is a sacredness and a usefulness immanent in all things, and that possibility lurks behind every corner. I see this as in keeping with the life-affirming, interconnected conception of divine immanence that many people identifying as Pagan share. I believe this is a very holy and sacred way to live our lives, and in ceasing to struggle with the world I have actually had the freedom to be more myself as I actually am: an expression of energies in a unique configuration for a moment in time.


As always I look forward to what you think. What do you think about the Third Step? How do you work with it in your tradition? In what ways does the traditional wording create tension for you, and how do you resolve that-or not?


Coffee's on!

Last modified on
Hope M. celebrated her seventh anniversary of being clean & sober in January. She has a sponsor and has the privilege of sponsoring other women, and has worked the Twelve Steps. She also has a homegroup and holds a job there. She has been a practicing witch since she was 12 years old.  After many years as a solitary witch, she recently began learning in the Reclaiming tradition. She writes this blog anonymously out of respect for the anonymity tradition of Twelve Step recovery groups.


  • Melanie Swaim
    Melanie Swaim Tuesday, 07 January 2014

    This is where I am with this process. I am struggling to know how much of my will, choices, etc. is given over to a Higher Power. Every decision? All my dreams and wishes? If an addict's will is a liability, I think, yes, every decision is handed to a Holy Power. I think addiction, in part, is a spiritual illness, and a miracle and gift that can happen is right relationship to God/Gods. I am not use to saying "Thy Will Be Done," but it is at least within my mind now when it wasn't before.

    I am also struggling with numbers, which is kinda nonsense... I worship many Holy Powers, and I am confused about my various devotions and priorities to different Powers. I am lucky and blessed to have a Patron, so this is probably my inner terrorist addict giving me trouble here, but I have obligation to several other Gods. If I say, Thy Will Be Done to one, am I gonna be in trouble with another? I was really confused about which Power a few weeks ago and could see how that process could be confusing to others. There is so much that could be said about that... I think this is part of the process of handing over will. I do will to worship other Gods...even that gets to be handed over (I have an urge to at least sort it out).

    What else? I fought with God. It wasn't utter hubris or cursing or anything, just a silent resistance. I don't understand why a particular God and not others... Um, since when do we humans get to decide? So much of addiction is arrogance and selfishness, and I think Step 4 deals with that.

    I don't understand how to hand my will over. I think I will be in trouble if I don't figure it out. That's what I have for Step 3.....Heathen style.

  • Hope M.
    Hope M. Tuesday, 07 January 2014

    I would say all of our will and choice needs to be given over to a higher power. The program says that we have to practice these principles in ALL our affairs, not just those touched by addiction. We have to practices these spiritual principles in all areas of life.

    No one knows how to hand their will over at first, and no one becomes an expert at it. It never becomes an EASY thing to do. The 12 and 12 reminds us that we have already made a start of this when we come to the 12 step program. We turn our will and lives over to the care of a higher power (the fellowship) when it comes to drinking. And some others things too. They suggest we get a sponsor….we do. They suggest we shower everyday….we do. They suggest we go to meetings….we do. These are the first ways in which we turn our will and our lives over to the care of a higher power.

    Turning your will over is not something you do once, and then it is over. We decide to do it once, and then we actually DO it in small ways a million times a day. I decide to take a suggestion when my sponsor offers it. I decide not to indulge my rage when someone cuts me off on the highway. I decide to pay my credit card bill instead of blowing the money on shoes. I decide to take a deep breath and take a walk around the building to cool down instead of screaming at my coworker. I accept a disappointment with grace by believing that my higher power has a different plan for me. Turning your will over is behaving as if there is a better way to do things than your first instinct would have you react. It is opening myself up to possibility that there is something BIGGER than what I want exactly in that moment.

    As for the many masters…Wow, that is a lot to swallow. Not being a devotional polytheist myself, I am not sure how to answer. But since this is a question about the nature of the Gods, I would ask them! But if you have a Patron Deity, I would really let that be your lead in how to move forward with this stuff. Especially if your patron chose YOU, then I don’t think you really are going to have much of a choice in the matter, and the other Gods, not having claimed you as their own in this special way, should be understanding in varying degrees.

    I wish you luck!

  • Melanie Swaim
    Melanie Swaim Tuesday, 07 January 2014

    Thank you. You said a lot of great things here and in your column. I really appreciate the insight that this is about there being a better way to do things and that there may be something bigger than what is wanted in any given moment (seeing the bigger picture).

    I am doing the work to hand my will over to my Patron (I have landed at the 3rd Step) and trying to stop creating obstacles for myself...and fighting...doing what I want... I think the Higher Power part of recovery is, of course, unique from one person to the next, and getting Pagan, Heathen, Wiccan, Polytheist, etc., perspectives is great work to be doing. Thanks again.

  • Patrick Califia
    Patrick Califia Thursday, 10 April 2014

    I wanted to thank you for this whole series. I have been struggling in a 12-step program in the Deep South. I am the only pagan. My issues are as many as the arms of Kali, but never getting any validation for my spirituality is near the top of the list. It is wonderful to not on only see your posts (validation for the existence of other clean-and-sober pagans!) but also see such intelligent exposition on the unique issues presented by 12-step teachings for those of us who would like to abandon self-harm. it has been important for me to remember that Bill W. and friends were doing the best that they could with the spiritual toolbox available to them in their time; the people who make the Big Book into a secular sort of Bible are, I think, ignoring the flaws of fundamentalism. I say this knowing that it is dangerous for me to go off on my own concocting versions of sobriety based on an addict's skewed perspective. But sometimes I have to slightly edit what I hear in meetings, or just walk out the door. Many Christian churches, for example, no longer insist on God having a male gender. I hope we will see some progress on these issues soon because they drive many people who need help away from meetings. Thank you again for this bright and absorbing essay.

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