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Nature as a Higher Power

The 12 Step Program “Higher Power”: What is it and how do you choose one?

The concept of having a Higher Power to guide us is an integral part of the 12-step vision of recovery. Indeed, six of the steps deal directly with the relationship between members and God. This concept serves a crucial purpose in the process. Recovery involves a realization that our own best judgment has derailed our lives and led us to an unmanageable state. To pursue a better path in the future, we humbly put our life path in the hands of greater power. This process is at the core of the first two-steps.

Why it’s included in the 12 step program

The program encourages not only belief in a Higher Power, but rather forming a spiritual relationship with that entity which is an integral part of our lives. Many of us fall into addiction and relapse because we feel powerless and lose our self-esteem. The cultivation of a daily relationship with our Higher Power can restore meaning to our lives. We do this through daily meditation and prayer. Prayer helps us talk to our Higher Power, while meditation helps us listen. This is the essence of step 11.

A deep spiritual connection with a Higher Power also helps alleviate some of the core causes of addiction: loneliness and isolation. The importance of this aspect of recovery cannot be stressed enough. Once the steps are completed, we know our place in the world and that our Higher Power cares for us. For many of us, knowing we are being watched over makes us feel part of something important. Knowing that we have a place in this world and that we aren’t alone can motivate us to quit drinking or using it. This can be a key part of recovery.

Perhaps the best-realized portrayal of the role of the Higher Power in the early stages of recovery was penned by Paul McCartney. In the classic Beatles song Let it Be, this type of relationship is envisioned like this:

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

-Paul McCartney

Handing over power to, and developing a relationship with, a Higher Power is an essential component of the 12-step vision of recovery. It would be impossible to work the steps without one. If so, how do we choose one?

Does your Higher Power need to be the God that you grew up with?

The various groups do not require that you choose a monotheistic God as your higher power. The founders of AA recommended that members look to “God as we understood Him.” Indeed, trying to force yourself to believe in something that feels wrong, may be detrimental to our recovery. What will assist you in traversing the road to recovery, is to bring into your life a power greater than yourself which puts you at ease and brings you happiness, purpose, and peace.

In theory, the options are almost limitless. Having said that, believing in a monotheistic faith will make this process easier. If you have a strong belief in one God, or you identify with a cultural background rooted in monotheism, this should not be a difficult process.

Organized Religions

Therefore, many members choose divine entities central to the major monotheistic religions they feel closest to. A Higher Power in this context can be conceived in different ways. Some examples include a belief in Heavenly Father, Allah, Yahweh, Jesus Christ, or other conceptions of divinity in line with the teachings of those religions.

Some Eastern religions have a different view of spirituality. Conceptions within those traditions can be easily accommodated within the 12-step program. For Hindus that Higher Power may be Brahman: which is a metaphysical force which is the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists. Buddhists will look to Nirvana or Buddha.

If you are atheist or agnostic or have a general aversion to organized religion, selecting your relevant Higher Power is a bit more complex. Those who are more spiritually inclined within this group may look to Mother Earth, the universe, nature, or energy as their Higher Power. Some prefer to look to the recovery group itself.

If you are confused, you do not have to choose a specific Higher Power. You can pray and meditate in conversation with a force greater than yourself, without fully understanding who or what you are praying to. As your connection is established, the identity of the power may become clear to you. Or not. And that is fine, because doesn’t spirituality always have an element of the unknown? Does anyone truly understand their Higher Power? We should allow the connection to emerge without overthinking categories and definitions.

Are 12 step programs based on Christianity?

There is a certain tension within the recovery world over the higher power issue. While the official stance is that it is not a religious program, there are elements of the Christian religion in the program. The founders of AA were, after all, members of a fundamentalist Protestant Christian movement.

The 12-steps refer to the Higher Power as God on more than one occasion. Perhaps the most blatant one of these is the common recitation of the Lord’s Prayer after meetings. This prayer can be problematic for some atheists since it is addressed directly to God. Although the content is not necessarily objectionable to Jews and Muslims, it is a prayer taken from the New Testament and therefore alien to their traditions. Indeed, the Catholic Church refers to the prayer as “truly the summary of the whole gospel.” For many, the fact that the steps of AA also address the Higher Power as Him raises gender problems.

Despite these issues, most 12-step programs are very tolerant of alternate conceptions of spirituality and a Higher Power. On our way to recovery, we should focus on maintaining sobriety and receiving the support we need. The 12-step program can work for you, no matter what your spiritual beliefs may be. If you allow it to, the Higher Power as you conceive of it will guide you on to a better path.

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