A Practical Path to Theosophy: AA's Twelve Steps

By Mona Sides-Smith

Originally printed in the MARCH-APRIL 2008 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Sides-Smith, Mona. "A Practical Path to Theosophy: AA's Twelve Steps." Quest  96.2 (MARCH-APRIL 2008): 47-51.

mona Sides-SmithIN HER "VIEWPOINT" from the January-February 2003 Quest magazine, President Betty Bland included a quote found in HPB's Collected Works, vol. XIII, which reads:

There is a road steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a road, and it leads to the very heart of the Universe: I can tell you how to find those who will show you the secret gateway that opens inward only, and closes fast behind the neophyte forevermore. There is no danger that dauntless courage cannot conquer; there is no trial that spotless purity cannot pass through; there is no difficulty that strong intellect cannot surmount. For those who win onwards there is reward past all telling—the power to bless and save humanity.

The power to bless and save humanity is quite the reward. Betty concluded with, "As we move along; let us hone our skills for the service of others. Let us make this a year of true initiation." Both service and initiation are important principals in the Twelve Step program as well as Theosophy.

I have been involved with Twelve Step programs for almost forty years now and with the Theosophical Society even longer. Over the years, the two have enhanced each other. Theosophy made my Twelve Step path better and the Twelve Step's practical path to learning gave me a step-by-step way to get to the spiritual concepts of Theosophy and eventually incorporate them into my work as a therapist.

I discovered Theosophy by accident. During the early 1960s, I lived in Aurora, Illinois and worked at a printing company that published the American Theosophist. At that time, I worked in quality control reading press proofs for the print shop. There was a new kind of typesetting being developed called "cold" (as opposed to the "hot" poured lead type in use), and the company sent me to school to learn how to work with it. In between reading proofs, I also set type for the -. (As a matter a fact, it was one of the first publications to be published on cold type.) When the page proofs were ready, I would bring them to Wheaton where Virginia Hanson would read the galleys, and then I would take them back. I started noticing the events that were planned at Olcott and timed my proof reading visits with Virginia to coincide with when programs were taking place.

To set the type in those days you had to read the material at least three times. I was reading these theosophical articles three times and did not understand most of them any better the third time around than I did the first. I had trouble correctly pronouncing the Sanskrit words and peoples' names. Pronouncing "Krishnamurti" takes practice. It was very interesting for me and I continued, off and on through the years, to absorb the lifestyle of Theosophy into my lifestyle of the Twelve Step program. Even now I get the two mixed up and stirred together because they are so similar. My daughter Elaine explains how she separates the two by thinking of Theosophy like a "sky road" while the Twelve Steps are like an "earth road." The Steps give one a more practical or down to earth way to walk through life, while Theosophy is an elevated search. You can travel back and forth between the two as long as you balance the lofty abstractions with some down-to-earth practicality.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is not as old as the Theosophical Society (TS). The Program has its foundation in the old Oxford Group, a non-denominational Christian Evangelical association which was the source of AA concepts such as meetings and sharing for witness, finding a higher power, making restitution, and rigorous honesty. Alcoholics Anonymous has some interesting statistics. The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, referred to as the "Big Book," is the number two all time best-selling book in the world, running second only to the Bible. The Twelve Step programs are also the largest users of hotel facilities in the United States. It is an interesting statistic that always gets laughs when mentioned, but with conventions, conferences, and retreats taking place somewhere almost every weekend, there are many, many hotels around the country that are regularly utilized by Twelve Step programs.

AA began in 1935 in Akron, Ohio when word started getting around that there was a doctor who could fix drunks. Loving relatives, and not so loving relatives, began dropping off their loved ones. From those small first meetings of four individuals, AA has grown to millions of people worldwide. The international convention held in Minneapolis in 2000 drew over 50,000 people and hosted the largest AA meeting in its history.

Annie Besant, the second international president of the Theosophical Society is a hero of mine. In her lecture on "Purification" found in her book From the Outer Court to the Inner Sanctum, Annie Besant speaks about the mountain as a metaphor for spiritual growth. She asks that we visualize ourselves up in space, looking down on a large beautiful mountain and on this mountain we can see the history of our behavior. Not just of how we are now, but how we have trudged and bumbled along, and sometimes excelled. As we look down at the mountain and see the roads that circle and wind around (anyone who has ever driven in the mountains knows that the roads do not go straight up the side of the mountain), we also see there are cut backs which are very steep. Some of us try to climb straight up the mountain and end up falling down backwards. Along the way, we may get lost, try short cuts, or get distracted, as Annie Besant says "hither and thither" along the way, and we fall off the side of the mountain.

There are also stations along the way where we stop and stay awhile, reaching a plateau and resting. Sometimes, there are towers, offering a better view and as we climb up, it feels like progress, but in reality, we are just going up and down in the same place and not really moving along. We are repeating the same action and expecting different results. We climb and expect growth, but we just mark time in the same place. We do that in both our spiritual and practical life, but the road ends at the summit on this mountain.

Besant continues in her lecture describing a temple at the top of this mountain. The temple is the goal. We can look at it with closed eyes and it can be so beautiful. It is radiant. It has peace, serenity, and love. When we look with our hearts, we see these as symbols of the pure soul. The people who are at the top of this mountain have finished their course, at least for this mountain. Although their journey is finished, they remain there to help others climb up. This temple is built as the holiest of holy places. This is in the center; it is the heart, the spirit within us, God, the Higher Power, a Higher Authority. Besant mentions that there are gardens around the holy place at the top. The garden has only one gate, and as we proceed from below, climbing up the mountain to the mountain top, we eventually must go through this gate. This garden surrounds the outer court of the temple and within it is an inner court or inner sanctum.

The outer court around the temple is large and open and also has one gate. In this outer court are groups of people, Theosophical lodges, study groups, AA groups, and Al-Anon family groups. There are far more people in the outer court than in the inner sanctum. The long climb up the mountain has been accomplished and here is where the serious study begins. The goal here is to serve in order to learn how to go on.

Sometimes, when we look at the masses of people around us who are struggling, we wonder how they go on. Years pass and they go on so slowly. We are often distracted, as Besant says, by butterflies and blossoms—which we can symbolize as in-laws, outlaws, marriages, divorces, and illnesses—but we keep climbing. We are still on the mountain. We are not back at the bottom.

The Twelve Steps are very functional on this climb to the top of the mountain. The first three steps are what I call the "armchair steps." We are asked to admit our powerlessness, believe that there is an accommodating Source for a solution, and become willing to learn to access that Source. We can do all of this sitting down.

The next six middle steps are the "working steps." They are about taking a tedious inventory, talking with God and another person about strengths and weaknesses we uncover, making a list of the people we need to make amends to, and making those amends whenever possible. Character defects are not things we do on purpose. It is hard work learning to redo things and recognizing character defects helps us see what we are missing within ourselves. This is the challenge in the outer court. Success here brings us closer to finding the gate to the Inner Sanctum.

The last three maintenance steps are about prayer, meditation, and service. They are about continuing to take inventory of ourselves and righting our wrongs, and continually seeking conscious contact with our Higher Power. The Twelfth Step is about carrying the message and our own spirituality. After spiritually awakening, we carry the message to others. We are performing a service as we practice these principles in all our affairs.

Some people who are not alcoholics practice the Twelve Steps. You do not have to be a member to practice the Twelve Step program. In fact, this program has been successfully adapted by many different groups. I recommend reading Bill W.'s book, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which is a collection of essays about the Twelve Steps.

The people in the outer court are well-defined. They have climbed this path and have found themselves. The soul is growing within these people. This Definiteness—a term Annie Besant uses—is earned. It has been earned a step at a time, a day at a time. It is not an accident. Personal strength and other personal qualities are achieved. Have you ever noticed that when a person starts growing, it is visible to others? They have a sight beyond physical matter. People who have "got it" look different or shine from within. Initiations of life, the trials and tribulations, experiences of life, are our lessons. They come daily and by these initiations, we grow so that we can help others.

Some of the truths we learn are from the ancient wisdom that Mable Collins talks about in her book Light on the Path. Much of what I read today, Bill W. and Dr. Bob also read. Both Bill W. and Dr. Bob knew Dora Kunz and were familiar with Theosophical teachings. At meetings, they read ancient wisdom texts as well as the Bible. People experimented with what would help or work in their lives because they knew there was more to recovery than just not drinking.

There are four rules or truths from Light on the Path that have helped me (and confused me) over the years. As I do Serenity Retreats for the Twelve Step program, I use theosophical teachings along with the Twelve Step material without telling people that it is Theosophy. I have incorporated Theosophical references into my retreat talks without people knowing; however when there are Theosophists in the audience, they will approach me later to comment on recognizing the material.

The first truth "Before the eyes can see, they must be incapable of tears" can be translated in the Twelve Step vernacular as someone saying "Stop whining about it and get on with your life." When I am working through something confusing to me, I often bounce concepts off my friend Ruby. We might be driving along and I will throw an idea out to her, and she might respond with, "needs work," or "you are getting closer." I just hang in there. What I understand Mabel Collins saying is that it is okay to feel sorry for oneself for a while, but then you must get over whatever it is and move along. The Soul must pass from sensation to knowledge. The windows of the soul are blurred by moisture. The tears blur the work of the soul, much like when it is raining, and we cannot see out the window.

This does not mean that big girls and boys are not allowed to cry. It means that when we are crying, just go ahead and cry, but do not try to see through it and give advice or make decisions. When we are done crying, we will see more clearly. Crying is not the resolution, but it is okay to feel sorry for yourself, then get over it. Tears are symbols of violent pain and pleasure. Tears pass and the light of knowledge will eventually shine through.

The second truth reads "Before the ear can hear, it must have lost its sensitiveness." Again, in the Program we would say, "Don't take it personally." The soul must reach a place of silence in order to hear the voice from the other side. The voice of the higher power, God, whatever you have sought and found, is always soft and sweet. Outer life sounds interfere with our hearing. We must get to a place of silence where we can bring meditation into our lives. Mantras and chanting "Om" can take us to that place of silence. Silence often feels like a pall or darkness. It initially feels scary, but after the silence is when a voice sounds from the other side. It is what Bill W. referred to as his "White Light" experience. Gradually we see the gleam of the temple, catch a glimpse of God, and hear the still small voice.

People reach an emotional bottom when they have no plan. But that is when we become teachable and the Voice may be heard. It comes in many ways. It may be a feeling or a color, but it will speak in a language of its own. It may not be English, but we will understand it. Once we hear it, we know it. No earth sound can ever dull it once we have heard it. We can hear it through anything once we know what we are listening for. Mabel Collins says that these eye and ear truths must be experienced first. We have to learn not to take things personally and to stop whining.

The third truth Collins shares with us is, "Before the voice can speak in the presence of the Masters, it must have lost the power to wound" or for Twelve Steppers, "lost the desire to control." In Twelve Steps, we might suggest that someone "lighten up." This is where we share our strength, hope, and experience. We learn that the purpose of our being is to appeal to the Source. In prayer and meditation the appeal goes up, echoes back down, and goes out to the world. There is great power in prayer and meditation. What we appeal for is knowledge of how to speak without wounding. The Eleventh Step reads, "We pray for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out." Perhaps Bill W. got the idea for this step from Mable Collins. The answer we get when we pray for knowledge is what we need—the power to speak the knowledge received. We intuitively "know" things. The condition that allows us to do this speaking is that the pilgrim becomes a link between the Higher Power and the earth.

We become a servant to deliver this message and that is what we are looking for. Not servitude, but service. We have to share it for humankind. The one gate to the inner court is labeled "Service to Mankind" and we no longer seek for self alone, but for the good of humanity. In serving humankind, we include ourselves, not just others.

The fourth truth, "Before the soul can stand in the presence of the Masters, its feet must be washed in the blood of the heart" has come to mean to me: You have to give it away to keep it.

Blood is the symbol of life. Without it humans are nowhere, gone. Empty the blood from our bodies and there is no life. You can take away an appendix, a kidney, or assorted other body parts. You can even replace them with store-bought body parts, but take away the blood and there is no life. Tears are the moisture of life and blood is life itself. We have to have the willingness to pour out this blood, this life. We must give our most precious life by being willing to serve. Bill W. used to say that we become "born" again before the term was commonly used. Our lives are our energy, our thoughts, and service. We must give this life to stand with the others who give their lives, whether it be for Theosophy or Twelve Steps.

Service can become a way of life. We can live in an attitude of service, but this can be very hard to do. I can go to the grocery store with an attitude of service, or because my family ate all the food in the house. If I serve my community because no one else wants do it and feel I have to, I will feel tired and resentful. However, if I serve with an attitude of replenishing my community, my outlook changes. When we live with an attitude of service, we stand beneath the point where all knowledge is received. According to Mabel Collins, we plug in to the cosmos. We know things we did not know before. We are able to handle situations that used to baffle us and realize there is always more to learn, more to gain. Like the onion layers that we peel off, there is always more knowledge to discover. We become the wounded healer, sharing the strength and knowledge gained through our experiences. Knowledge turned into service becomes our strength, nurtures our hope, and guides our lives.

Mona Sides-Smith is president of the Serenity Retreat League, Inc., a non-profit corporation in Memphis, Tennessee, that offers Twelve Step related retreats and workshops in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and on cruise ships. She is the daughter-in-law of Dr. Bob Smith, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous. A retired addictions and family therapist, Mona organizes and facilitates retreats, counselor training workshops, and community leadership programs. Mona is a member of the Theosophical Society and active in the Memphis Lodge. (And if you are ever in Memphis, ask her about the Three Kings Tour.)

These are the original Twelve Steps as suggested by Alcoholics Anonymous:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we
understood Him.

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Other twelve-step groups have adapted these steps of AA as guiding principles for problems other than alcoholism. In some cases, the steps have been altered to emphasize particular principles important to those fellowships, or to remove gender biased or specifically religious language.