Traits of Spirituality in AA

In “Bill’s Story” on page 14 of the Big Book, there is the oft-quoted line,

“For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead.”

Great quote. Sounds good, but what does he mean here?

The Dilemma of Distinguishing Spiritual Life

One of the complexities this passage encounters is the challenge of distinguishing between spiritual and non-spiritual life. What, after all, signifies a thriving spiritual life? Does achieving long-term sobriety verify it? Conversely, a lapse into drinking seemingly confirms a lack of spiritual growth. The conversation around spirituality, particularly within the context of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), can be somewhat ambiguous, creating confusion and misunderstanding.

Spiritual Discourse and Its Implications

The Big Book of AA speaks extensively about spirituality, leaving the reader with the impression that spirituality is crucial to the AA program and sobriety. Concepts such as spiritual awakening, spiritual experience, and spiritual sickness play significant roles in the AA recovery process. However, the Big Book doesn’t precisely articulate what spirituality means to its author. The confusion was such that an appendix titled “spiritual experience” was added in the second edition.

This ambiguity is further compounded in meetings, where discussions about spirituality often take disparate paths. The term “spirituality” is commonly used as a catch-all for elusive ideas, reducing its clarity and potential impact.

My Personal Definition of Spirituality

Personally, I define spirituality as an “inner” state. However, I’ve observed a disconnect between what people express about spirituality in meetings and how they enact it in their personal lives. Speaking about and living according to spiritual principles are two distinct things, and sadly, they often don’t align. Recognizing this dichotomy, I propose we explore spirituality from a different angle.

Six Spiritual Traits: A New Approach to Understanding Spirituality

To better understand spirituality, let’s consider specific signs or “breadcrumbs” typically exhibited by individuals with a rich and deep spirituality. I’ve identified six traits, divided into basic and advanced categories. These traits provide a clear, practical roadmap for our inner (spiritual) self.

The Basic Traits

  1. Calmness: Spiritual individuals often exude a sense of peace, which affects those around them positively.
  2. Measured Reactions: Instead of rash responses, spiritual individuals demonstrate thoughtful reactions, awareness, and control over their emotions.
  3. Acting on Principle rather than Emotion: Guided by their calm and measured approach, spiritual individuals base their decisions on principles, leading to fewer problems.

The Advanced Traits

  1. An Elastic and Right-sized Sense of Self: Genuine humility, an understanding of one’s place and time, and action driven by duty, not ego, characterizes spiritual leaders.
  2. Lack of Fear: Spiritual individuals, driven by inward conviction, overcome obstacles that typically hinder others. Their focus is on courage, service, and love.
  3. Consistency: Spiritual people demonstrate consistency in their actions, often without any major inconsistencies.

Striving for Spirituality

Admittedly, these are lofty goals. Few achieve them all, which is why those who do are so distinct. But with good fortune and deliberate effort, we can at least experience some of these traits some of the time. And that’s why setting high goals is worth it: when we strive to embody these traits, we feel like our best selves.

The Path to Spiritual Growth

Spiritual growth is not accidental—it is something we must consciously seek. What is encouraging about AA is that our founder, Bill Wilson, despite not achieving all these spiritual traits, was open about his struggles. His honesty makes him a beloved figure and an atypical spiritual leader. He constantly reminds us, “the point is to grow along spiritual lines!” Now, perhaps, we have a clearer target to aim for. Know that you will fall short, but like Bill, you’ll stay sober through it all and become a better person.



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