There are many useful principles discussed in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that provide help to the process of building of our character. Honesty and humility are top contenders and many of us learn the value these principles bring when we practice them in our daily activities. Willingness is an essential ingredient to the practice of these foundational principles. In the forward to the book TWELVE STEPS and TWELVE TRADITIONS, we find “A.A.’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”
Many of us have no real experience when it comes to acting on principles that are spiritual in nature as they go against our own self-centered nature. Our willingness to put forth the effort to practice spiritual principles is often dependent upon the level of pain we have due to the circumstances we have from our behavior. The pain of our initial consequences that brought us to A.A. eventually subsides and with some sobriety under our belt we finally arrive at those steps that help us understand the defects in our character that have given us so much grief in our life. We reach that point where see the need to change and move into Step Six “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” and Step Seven “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.” And this is where we encounter the problem and that problem is – SELF struggling with spiritual principles.
Many of us have never had even basic discipline instilled in us so our dilemma is directly related to the lack of it. Now the spiritual discipline necessary to be able to discipline our own life – to always do the right thing, becomes a major hurdle. Spiritual discipline is very essential to spiritual growth. Many of us take a look at Step Seven and develop an attitude that it is God’s job to remove our shortcomings. We fail to see that the process of removing shortcomings requires our full participation. It is going to require some self-discipline and effort if we are to gain the fruits of the 12-Step promises and find peace and serenity. Spiritual discipline, if it is to take hold, requires at its foundation the rudiments of plain old self-discipline.
Self-discipline does not seem to be an important topic in A.A. – perhaps that’s because we may have an incorrect understanding of the term powerlessness. The first step in the program is to admit to our powerlessness over alcohol. Once we gain some sobriety and turn our will and life over to God our powerlessness diminishes as we and God work together at abstaining from drinking. If we stop going to A.A. meetings, drift away from spiritual principles, fail to grow spiritually, and start hanging around with drinking folks, it’s likely we will be tempted to drink and fall into active alcoholism again. It requires self- discipline to maintain long term sobriety. It also requires self-discipline in order for shortcomings (character defects) to no longer dominate our lives. Most of us understand this when it comes to the drinking issue but it is not so clear about the removal of character defects. Perhaps a primer on self-discipline will help.
Self-discipline is the ability to make yourself do things when you should, even if you do not want to do them. It also means to prevent yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do even though you may want to. We usually associate self-discipline with individuals who have focus, have established priorities and stay consistent within them. Disciplined individuals achieve success in many different fields such as music, academics, and business. Most of these successes are by people who have formed habits of doing in their fields what no one really wants to do in that field. Successful musicians have long hours of practice under their belts. The same is true for people who have attained long term sobriety. They have simply practiced not drinking on a day by day basis and it has become a habit. There are other factors of course but if you are in Alcoholics Anonymous this is a common experience.
At a basic level self-discipline essentially comes down to having a reason to do something and sticking to it for the long-haul. For this to happen it is important to have a strong desire for something and motivation to bring the thing you desire to fruition, regardless of how long it takes. Patience is also a virtue that helps. In addition it is also about our ability to control our desires and impulses such that they do not interfere with the main objective. It will also require focus on what needs to get done to successfully achieve our desire. As such, self-discipline involves committing to long-term gains without falling victim to short-term self gratification along the way.
Desire plays a major role in achieving successes in A.A. When we first get into sobriety our desire to not drink is very strong. The level of our pain acts as a major motivator and we began practicing the simple things that can keep us sober. As time goes by the initial pain subsides so we must find another source of the motivation we need to continue in the program. Hopefully we start to see the value found in sobriety as we both observe the recovery of others and in ourselves. We also begin to see more positive things happen to us both as a result of not drinking and as a result of changing the way we behave. Over time the experiences of positive sobriety accumulate and our desire to not drink stays dominant and the dislike of slipping adds to our motivation. The recovery process starts with pain with gives us the kick start we need to practice the things that successful recovering folks do.
There are moments where wrongful desires and impulses are in play. Hopefully we are practicing self-discipline through those moments. Sometimes the impulse wins and we may have to pay the piper until the pain becomes intense enough again to motivate us to restart our recovery. These experiences all help us see the value of self-discipline. The impulse to drink is nothing more than an intense desire to have the euphoric serenity we once had with alcohol. Counteracting that desire with truth is very important. If we have some fear that our next drink may be our last because we have an awareness of the deadly consequences a relapse holds, it also is a good motivator.
Our common recovery experience in A.A. is an example of self-discipline in action. Initial pain motivation, desire for recovery, desire to not drink, the motivation we find through better experiences and the tools and strength we discover when those moments of impulse happen are all part of the self-discipline we practice in our program. All of the ingredients are there. It helps if we develop habits of doing the simple things each day that aid our recovery. The actual practice of self-discipline will result in specific habits that can help us be successful in our outcomes. In other words, it’s about taking small consistent actions that help us form the habits that subsequently help us achieve the desired aims.
Habits can be both good and bad, much like principles. Habits are actions we repeat, without thinking, that appear to deliver some benefit. Habits are simply behavior patterns formed by frequent repetition. That deserves repeating – habits are simply behavior patterns formed by frequent repetition. Repetition occurs whenever the consequences of the actions we take appear to be fruitful. These benefits provide confirmation to the underlying belief that is forming. (Eternal Sobriety, Chapter Two, Habits)
Bad habits have the characteristics of feeling good as you start practicing the action. This makes the practice easy to do but bad habits have hidden long-term destruction associated with them. Good habits are just the opposite. They do not feel good as we try to practice them. They are difficult to do but bring long-term benefits we enjoy. Practicing spiritual principles has the characteristics of good habits. The good thing about it is that when the good habit is finally formed and the actions are in the abstract, the dislikes of doing the specifics no longer carries the displeasure they had in the beginning. It is often said of old-timers in AA that they just wear the principles because they have formed a habit of doing those things in A.A. (principles) that makes for successful recovery.
That brings us to the dilemma of removing character defects. How is that to be accomplished? It is going to take some self-discipline. They are not going to be zapped out of us. It is going to take constant practicing of principles that form habits that counteract the defect. If we want to eliminate dishonesty we need to practice honesty. It’s also going to take both desire and motivation. We also need to have discipline to counteract the wrong impulse that will come. It’s one thing to have enough self discipline to achieve personal financial goals buts its entirely different to have a desire to remove a deep rooted habit of compulsive anger. Only through the practice of spiritual principles can this happen.
Spiritual principles are not like common principles. They are unique in that their very nature – that is, they are spiritual because they require actions that oppose our own selfish self-centered nature. Our natural instincts have been in charge for a long time when we arrive at A.A. They are also deep-rooted habits of behavior that have an abundance of different forms – many that we are not even aware of. So it is important to understand why the 12-Step program calls for a partnership with God. The practice of spiritual principles is where the rubber meets the road and we will struggle forever in our own strength. Not only that, it is an impossible task unless we are partnered with the true biblical God. That is when the real spiritual solution takes place. The founders of A.A. knew that and it is why the bible was initially the main text.
We will cover that in the next article.
Building Character – As God Sees It – Self Discipline – The Spiritual Solution
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)