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?
Spiritual = Many Things
What is difficult about this passage is the underlying question of how does one distinguish between spiritual life and non-spiritual life? Moreover, what is the evidence of a flourishing spiritual life? Does merely obtaining long term sobriety make the case? Conversely, get drunk, and we all learn you were not growing your spiritual life. Simple as that.
Spiritual talk is awkward. The Big Book talks a lot about spirituality. To the reader, spirituality sounds essential to the AA program and sobriety. Spiritual awakening, spiritual experience, and spiritual sickness are all concepts critical to the AA recovery. Yet, what spirituality means to the Bib Book author is not well conveyed. So confusing is this, they even added an appendix entitled “spiritual experience” in the second edition.
Making matters even more confusing is the bandying about spirituality gets in meetings. As with moth meeting discussions, concepts are all over the map. People are free to say whatever they want. As a result, the word serves as a catchall for things hard to explain, not providing much clarity.
For me, I define spirituality only as “inner.”
Walk Like They Talk
Also, many who espouse spiritually eloquently in meetings, often don’t demonstrate it very well in their personal lives. Speaking and living are two very different things. It’s nice when they come together. Too often, they don’t. We all know that hypocrisy is part of the human condition.
Still, I think when people think of some type of spirituality, they want to see at least some consistency. People should at least try to walk like they talk and be honest about it in meetings. And, most, given a choice would say, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one!”
Given that most discussions of spirituality are riddled with confusion and demonstrations are often succumb to hypocrisy, I thought I would propose another angle at looking at spirituality.
Let’s look for specific signs, aka breadcrumbs, that are typically left behind by a people with a rich and deep spirituality. I have come up with six traits. The first three are very basic. The second three are more advanced. I do think we can all agree that those who demonstrate them all have something good going on with their inner (aka spiritual) self.
Six Spiritual Traits – The Basics
Calmness – I think we’d all agree that when we think of spiritual people, above all else, these are people who are at peace with themselves and the world around them. Because they are calm, they, in turn, calm us. They bring something, perhaps otherworldly, to the table in their demeanor.
Measured Reactions – I don’t think spiritual people “fly off the handle” or are prone to much overreaction. Instead, they are measured. They pause when agitated. They are aware of what is going on inside them. Instead of reacting, they thoughtfully respond.
Acting On Principal rather than Emotion – Having this measured and calm approach to life, spiritual people can make decisions based on principals, not one-off emotional in-the-moment check-ins. Doing “the right thing,” for instance, would be based on fairness, kindness, or justice (or some other lofty principal). Consequently, they get in far less trouble.
Six Spiritual Traits – Advanced
An Elastic and Right-sized Sense of Self – When you think of spiritual leaders, typically, you’ll see genuine humility more than an unbridled ego. Also, you’ll see transcendent leaders know their place and time. They act up at precisely the right time (when the situation calls for it). This timely action is nearly always driven by a sense of duty (I had to do it; it was up to me). Commitment, not ego.
Lack of Fear – Spiritual people are not full of fear. Instead, they are driven by an inward conviction and confidence that allows them to overcome all sorts of obstacles that would tangle others. Besides, they are unconcerned with the thoughts and ideas that drive fear. Money, power, and stuff, what concerns most of us, are typically not a focus – at least full time. Instead, they are focused on courage, service, and love.
Consistency – I don’t know, maybe Mother Theresa would head out to the Casino every once in a while to blow off steam. Maybe the Dali Lama goes to the strip club when he gets stressed out. Who knows? What I do know is the spiritual people I’ve known are pretty consistent. No secrets. No gross inconsistencies.
Good to Aim High
Lofty goals for sure. Few attain them all. That is why those who do stand out so much.
Most of us, with good fortune and deliberate effort, can at least experience some of them, with some frequency, too. But we have to aim high. Raising the bar on ourselves is why I have found big goals worthwhile to pursue. When I am calm, measured, acting on principle, being right-sized, and consistently acting without fear, I feel like I am my best self. And that makes me feel good.
And that is the point of this article; spiritual growth doesn’t happen by accident or serendipity. Spiritual growth is something that must consciously seek.
What I love about alcoholics anonymous is that our founder, Bill Wilson, fell short on attaining most, if not all, of these. He was candid about not getting there, arriving at several spiritual plateaus during his journey. That is why he is so endeared and beloved. He was a very different kind of religious leader in that Bill was always human.
We hear every meeting, “the point is to grow along spiritual lines!” Now, maybe you a better idea of what to aim for. Just know, upfront, you will fall short. But, like Bill, you’ll stay sober through it all, and become a better person.