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On the Issue of a "Higher Power"

Step Two- We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

The First Step leaves us in a terrible position.  We are utterly beyond human assistance. Our lives are unmanageable no matter what we do.  We will never be able to control our drinking.  Certainly this is a stance of hopelessness. 

Many alcoholics or addicts will say “I worked the First Step long before I came into the program.”  This means that they spent many years well aware of the hopelessness of their situations while still in active addiction. This was my experience as well.  I was in terrible pain, and knew my lifestyle was unbearable and untenable, but I could not envision a way to live that did not include alcohol and drugs to numb the anxiety and panic that swelled up to swallow me whenever I was sober.  I had to stop, but how?

The second step is the “how” in “how am I possibly going to do this?”  The key was that I wasn’t going to do it-I was going to rely on a power greater than myself to do it.  I had been trying to envision my escape from addiction as propelled by my own human will and power.  Things changed only after a divine source became involved.

This is what happened to me; I was young, a college student.  I had spent a summer hitting bottom, a summer I had intended to spend getting myself dried up and cleaned up before heading back to school.  It was now late August and all my well intentioned plans had failed to come to fruition, forgotten in one lost night after another.  I was confronted, not unfairly, by my mother with the fact that I was going back to school in just a week and that I hadn’t done any of the things I said I was going to do.  Angrily, I screamed at her and then rushed out of the house, intending to drive to my apartment to get drunk, to forget my feelings of shame and panic in the ease that pours from the bottle.  

But the Great Spirit did not let me.  Something about that time was different.  Was it just that I was finally desperate enough?  Halfway down the street, I stopped my car and wailed like a lost child.  “Help me help me help me help me,” I sobbed.  “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”  

The Great Spirit put my hands on the wheel, and instead of driving me back to my apartment, it had me drive to a place that had always been very sacred to me.  There, I lay in the cool sand of a dark beach and, gazing at the stars above me, I cast a circle around me for the first time in a long time.  I asked Hir to help me not drink.  I lay there and cried and was soothed by the crashing waves. That night I fell asleep without drinking.

The next day, the anxiety and shame remained, but I was able, suddenly, to keep from a drink.  And the next day, and the next.  And so on.  Suddenly something that had been impossible for me was possible.  I could stare into oblivion, at the wasteland that had become my life, and not drink.  Nights yawned before me and I felt full of fear but still, I did not drink.  I did not understand how this was possible, but it was. And I have not felt the need to take another drink for over ten years.

Before this had happened, I had stood on the shore of sickness, desperate to get to the other side to reclaim something approaching a human life.  But in-between had been this raging river of doubt and fear.  I had been delivered across that river, with no effort upon my part other than simple asking.  It wasn’t that everything was perfect on the other side.  But things were possible there that had not been possible before.  Had I been insane before? It’s a loaded word, to be sure.  We’ve all heard the maxim that to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  Well, we had certainly drank and drank again, expecting that this time, finally, we would be able to drink without consequence.  Each time, we had been shown to be wrong, yet we tried again.   Or perhaps we knew our drinking was hopeless, but we were so in its grips that we kept at it.  That was its own kind of insanity.  

As I did in my last post, I’d like to take a look at what some of the versions of the 12 Steps that have been rewritten for a pagan perspective have to say about the second step.

We came to believe that there was hope for healing, health and balance. The Spiral Steps

Came to believe we could realign the power within and the power without such that each served to enhance the other. Anodea Judith, A Pagan Approach to the 12 Step programs 

We can see that these rewritten steps have greatly changed the entire concept of the step.  In the original second step is an acceptance of the fact that while we, with our own human power, cannot solve this problem, a power greater than ourselves can and will do so.  What was once an acknowledgement of the need to look to sacred or divine places for our solution has turned into the idea that somehow the very same human powers that were not enough before will now start being enough.  For me, this does not provide the necessary transformative agent that is required for the propulsion into amended behaviors.  *

As in step one, I understand the desire to excise some of the concepts inherent in the Second Step from these rewritten versions.  First and foremost, there is the issue of “A Power Greater than Myself.”  Many Witches do not hold with an image of a sentient God or Goddess figure that is positioned higher or more superior, and they might resent the idea that suddenly they are being asked to come to believe in this figure that they are supposed to go beg for sanity from. That can seem like way too much like old ideologies that many of us left behind in the past.  I share this concern.  This is why I understand the word “greater” not to mean higher or superior, but larger. I do not personally resonate with the concept of deity, but I experience the Universe as having a Divine nature, of which I am but a small part, and alignment with the raw power of this Divine Nature enables me to pursue right living (or, obtain sanity). One of my sponsees sees her Higher Power as her best self, a sort of  Platonic ideal that encourages and inspires her.  Or maybe you aren’t convinced that your idea of deity or divinity is necessarily so concerned with humanity and our needs.  What about land spirits, or ancestors, archetypes, thought forms?  If you are a classic hard polytheist most likely you already believe in a deity that has the power to restore sanity, and you will know the proper devotions and practices along those lines.  Maybe your concept of a higher power can as simple as that sacred feeling you get when you sit in Nature and the sense of reverence it inspires in you.  If all else fails, just go with what old-timers like to snark; “There is a higher power, and it isn’t YOU.”

The authors of the Twelve Steps believed that “the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God.  This applies, to, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book.  Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you. ”   Do I expect that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous would have understood Witchcraft or Pagan spirituality?  No.  But I steadfastly believe that the steps as they were originally written were done so in a way that can accommodate all manner of belief or spiritual practices.

There is much room for creativity, and we have every freedom to construct the “"power greater than ourselves” that makes sense to us.  We should remember that when we share our experiences in the rooms to share generally so that as many people as possible can relate.  If someone else does choose to share more specifically, and uses language that makes us feel marginalized, we have to ask “Is this really about me?”  We need to examine our own attachment to labels and definitions and if we can be open to constructing a new understanding of these words. 

Why do I think it is important that we all follow the same steps as they were originally written?  I believe that one of the most harmful character defects found in almost every alcoholic or addict is the belief that their individuality is so pronounced that they are separated from the human condition to a degree that the tools other alcoholics and addicts use to recover cannot possibly work for them.  This is such a grand excuse for not going to meetings, not finding a sponsor, and not working any steps at all.   We call this being “terminally unique”, as in, you are so different from everyone else that it might just kill you.  No doubt, Witches have a unique spirituality.  But is it so pronounced that what works for millions of others will not work for them?  Is it so acute that the generous language of the Twelve Steps cannot accommodate these beliefs and practices?  My inclination is to doubt it. 

 * This is just my opinion.  Your mileage may vary.  Share below!


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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.


  • gary c. e.
    gary c. e. Monday, 17 June 2013

    hi again

    and again, let me say the 12 step program in not a silver bullet (not that you were saying that), and it is not for everybody or even necessary. for some it maybe.

    life is strange that way - one person can take a certain antibiotic and be free of his disease, another could die from taking the very same medicine or have a deleterious effect. one takes a different antibiotic/medicine.

    and as with acting - there are many "methods".

    and talking about acting, the main thing for me is transformation, self-discovery - you said;...

    re:"The Great Spirit put my hands on the wheel, and instead of driving me back to my apartment, it had me drive to a place that had always been very sacred to me. There, I lay in the cool sand of a dark beach and, gazing at the stars above me, I cast a circle around me for the first time in a long time. I asked Hir to help me not drink. I lay there and cried and was soothed by the crashing waves. That night I fell asleep without drinking.

    The next day, the anxiety and shame were not gone, but I was able, suddenly, to keep from a drink. And the next, and the next. And so on. Suddenly something that had been impossible for me was something I was capable of. I could stare into oblivion, at the wasteland that had become my life, and not drink. Nights yawned before me and I felt full of fear but still, I did not drink. I did not understand how this was possible, but it was. And I have not felt the need to take another drink for over ten years."

    truly wonderful !

    now where was the 12 steps there on the beach? your recovery sounds cathartic, even epiphanic - an alone over-nighter with creation and the great medicine (or as you say "Great Spirit") - like a vision quest?

    Hir (gender-neutral third person singular) was/is a soteriological instrument for you? Hir has many ways and much medicine!

    i kind of (not exactly) connect with the tao that way - well, being in my heart of hearts a taoist.-

    thanks for the post!


    Let Me Walk In Beauty
    Native American Prayer

    Oh, Great Spirit

    Whose voice I hear in the winds and whose breath gives life to all the world.

    Hear me.

    I am a man before you, one of your many children - I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.

    Make my hands respect the things you have made, my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise, so that I may know the things you have taught my people - the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock.

    I seek strength not to be superior to my brothers, but to be able to fight my greatest enemy - myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes, so when life fades as a fading sunset my spirit may come to you without shame.

    - Native American Prayer
    Translated by Chief Yellow Lark in 1887
    Native American Missionary and Medicine Man
    Lakota Tribe

  • Hope M.
    Hope M. Monday, 17 June 2013

    Glad to see you here again Gary!

    The Twelve Steps may not have been something I was familiar with at that moment when I was lying on the beach, but I was working the 2nd step just the same. What had spontaneously happened to Bill W happened to me as well (though I was not under the influence of belladonna!), and later I was able to interpret it through the 12 Steps. And I am so grateful for them, for giving me the right action to take next. If I hadn't been able to practice Steps 4-12 because I was taught about Step 3 when I got into the rooms about two weeks of white knuckling it later, I am pretty sure that I would not have made it much longer. Had I not been given a framework through which to understand the experience and the opportunity it offered, and to move ahead, I think I would have succumbed to the cravings and desires that plagued me for several months.

    And of course, I would never proclaim that in order to get clean and/or sober everyone needs the Twelve Steps. All I can share is that this alcoholic does!

    beautiful prayer--thanks for sharing--I appreciate your viewpoint being a part of this conversation!

  • Brian Nelsen
    Brian Nelsen Monday, 17 June 2013

    I have come to really identify with the term "Higher Power". When I found out my son was a drug addict I was first shocked and couldn't believe it, not us. When the blinders were removed I could see all the damage this drug addiction had caused my family. My daughters were scared of and hurting for their brother, my wife blamed herself because of the enabling, and things around the house were gone never to be seen again and what did I do I got mad. I got so mad it became my "Higher Power". I let anger and rage sweep over me and start consuming everything in my life. Gone was the connection to my gods, my marriage started to crumble, and everyone around me tried to stay out of my path.

    My first introduction to the 12 steps was my son's first trip through rehab. I thought, at the time, what a bunch of Christian propaganda. It's all about your connection with God is how I viewed it but because of the anger I was thinking there is no God/Goddess because who would ever do this to a family.

    About 3 weeks after rehab my son was back on drugs and my wife desperate for answers found a support group in a neighboring community. I grudgingly agreed to go feeling that I didn't need a support group because I didn't have a problem. This support group was based on the 12 steps and I have to say that step 1 was huge for me because the idea that I was powerless over the drugs and my addict was something that never occurred to me. You see I always looked at my son's addiction as just that his addiction alone. It took me about a month to accept that not only was I powerless to my son's addiction but it was also my addiction for how it affected me. This is when I recognized my poisonous anger and was ready for step 2.

    Step 2 was an odd step because I realized that the "Higher Power" that restored my sanity was my support group and the gods didn't play into this. Now eventually I did reconnect to my gods by releasing all the anger but I've come to fully understand "Higher Power". "Higher Power" can mean a god or gods, an overwhelming emotion, an idea/ideal or even a group of friends. I've met so many people on the road to recovery who only think that a "Higher Power" is only divine when it can be so much more.

  • Hope M.
    Hope M. Monday, 17 June 2013

    What a beautiful story, Brian, and I thank you for sharing it. Your experience in understanding a Higher Power as a non-divine entity is really important and something that rings true for so many people. Indeed a higher power can be the fellowship itself. In A.A. we joke that GOD stands for "Group of Drunks". Aren't we lucky to be involved in a fellowship that will carry us through times when we find it impossible to connect with whatever kind of deity or divine power we believe in?

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