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How Does the Program Really Work?

Author: Herb K.
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

My previous article was When Did Meetings Become the Program?  This article addresses my understanding and experience of how the program of recovery works.

Based on my 33 years of experience, there are many wonderful and helpful components to support the initial approach to recovery in AA:

  • Attending and participating in a variety of Twelve Step meetings;
  • Taking and performing commitments at those meetings;
  • Having and regularly attending a home group;
  • Getting and fostering an effective relationship with an experienced sponsor;
  • Obtaining and reading the literature, especially the books Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions;
  • Knowing and understanding the Twelve Steps.

But these, singularly or cumulatively, are NOT the program of recovery outlined in the Big Book Alcoholics Anonymous! The program of recovery is the actual application of the suggested Twelve Steps to our personal life.

Thinking that one can achieve the Step Twelve promise of a Spiritual Awakening by reading the Twelve Step literature, sitting in meetings, and discussing it with our sponsor, is like sitting in our garage, reading the auto manual with our mechanic, and expecting the car to be fixed.

Change is not going to happen until there is the application of the information in the manual!

My understanding of the AA program of recovery is a series of suggested personal actions described precisely in the Big Book:

We establish a personal relationship with:
Power: Steps 1-3 = our experience of “no choice” & a decision about and for Power
Self: Steps 4-7 = our identification & removal of the obstacles in us to Power
Others: Steps 8-9 =our willingness to change & to repair the damage we caused others.

It is a process based on a sequence of rigorous actions…


… leading to the experience of the promised Spiritual Awakening. We are changed!

We continue to foster these relationships through a consistent daily practice of:

Step 10:   Inventory = Examining our disturbances and resulting behavior on the spot
Step 11:   Prayer and Meditation = Improving consciousness twice a day = a.m. and p.m.
Step 12:   Principles and Service = Enlarging compassion as an organic 24/7 attitude

In Step Ten the Big Book confirms that “We have entered the world of the Spirit. This is Our Way of Life, which we commence at the same time we start making our Step Nine amends: a commitment to continue the personal changes of one’s self and the repair of historical damage to others.

Although the program of recovery is not meetings or sponsorship, it is greatly facilitated and supported by both. However, going to meetings and talking to a sponsor will not produce or sustain the necessary personal Spiritual Awakening. This experience is the single promise of reaching Step Twelve. The program of recovery is a process of establishing and then maintaining an effective personal relationship with Power, our self, and with others.

The litmus test and sure evidence of an individual having experienced this Spiritual Awakening is a personality transformation – a measurable, visible change in thinking, feeling, and especially behavior. This conversion experience is positively disproportionate to the amount of work done by that individual – bigger than that person’s contribution warrants by itself. It is done TO us not BY us.

Step Twelve suggests we “… carry this message …”. Chapter 7 contains the practical suggestions for ”Working with Others.” It promises that this work will provide “immunity” from the spiritual malady. The consistent message throughout the text book is the need for and benefits of helping others. How then do we explain the lack of growth in AA membership and the deplorable rate of individual relapse?

Contrast AA’s slow growth in the last 40 years with the experience of modern multi-level marketing schemes. Those with financial incentives and a properly structured organization have outcomes showing exponential contact growth. At the same time, the recent development of social media and its successful use in advertising, also demonstrates geometric contact outreach.

What is AA’s growth problem? Has there developed a dis-connect from the original message and the tools that fostered it? AA was originally designed to produce freedom from alcohol through a spiritual incentive and to replicate that freedom for others through a personal outreach structure.

Could it be the classic “human problem”: loss of focus and the complacency of an easier, softer way? Has there been a gradual growth of an AA culture that perpetuates the misunderstanding of what is the “program of recovery”? Does most of the AA membership believe that meetings are the program? How relevant to the majority of AA’s membership is the application of ALL the Steps as contained in the book Alcoholics Anonymous?  Has the spirit of fellowship replaced the Fellowship of the Spirit?

These challenging questions raise even more questions. Has this unhealthy change in focus permeated the AA culture for so long that even the AA GSO Leadership and AA Board of Trustees, coming out of that culture, are shaped by it without being conscious of it? Perhaps their vision has been blurred by cultural cataracts.

Is it time for a thorough and rigorous inventory of the current understanding and integrity of AA’s 1st Legacy? Taking this inventory may allow AA to step out of the current culture to examine and evaluate the structure and outcome of events like the 2015 International Conference in Atlanta. This inventory may allow AA to pause and examine our current alignment with the original AA intent and mission. This process may help us develop themes and topics for our future regional and local Conferences/Roundups which will eventually foster a re-vitalization throughout the worldwide AA Fellowship with respect to AA’s 1st Legacy.

The actual intended program of recovery is a personal transformation through following the “precise” suggestions for each of the 12 Steps as described in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. The writers tell us, if we want what they have, we DO what they DID!

What did they do? Perhaps we need to revisit the ingredients and actions of the original founders and inventory our current ingredients and actions. Has there been a loss of focus through culture creep and distortion?

We can’t give away what we don’t have. But we will give away what we do have. If a person has an untreated spiritual malady, that is what they will transmit. If a sponsor doesn’t understand the program of recovery and has not experienced a personal spiritual awakening, then that sponsor will perpetuate and aggravate this culture of ignorance and slogans. They don’t know what they don’t know; they can’t see what they can’t see! They are passing on what was passed on to them. Activity is believed to be effective and meaningful action.

Perhaps the solution is to get back to basics. What did the first 100 do? They submitted to a process of ego deflation and personal transformation which freed them from alcohol by giving them a relationship with Power. They fostered their new power by helping others experience a Spiritual Awakening through this same conversion process – giving them a daily reprieve; helping them maintain and improve their personal spiritual condition.

Let’s use our vital current spirit of fellowship to return to our roots:

  • Accessing Power through the Big Book’s “program of recovery” experienced in the Steps!
  • Helping others find Power through the vital current of the Fellowship of the Spirit!
  • We need both meetings and Steps to survive and flourish.
  • The spirit of fellowship acknowledges our humanity. Without it, we become disconnected and heartless! With it, we have a forum for freedom.
  • The Fellowship of the Spirit recognizes our divinity. Without it, we become impotent and soulless! With it, we have a formula for freedom.
  • Are we human beings trying to have a spiritual experience? Or, are we spiritual beings trying to have a human experience?  YES! Both are true!
  • Is it time for the AA Fellowship to pause, take a breath, pray a prayer, and ask for guidance?
  • Is it time to set aside our slogans, our beliefs, our understanding of recovery?
  • Is it time to revisit our textbook, the Big Book Alcoholics Anonymous?
  • Is it time to reexamine our personal experience of each of the Twelve Steps?
  • Is it time for a new experience of awakening?
  • Is it time for an Alcoholics Anonymous renaissance?

THANKS for listening.

My prayer and hope is that you discuss these thoughts with your recovery community and take appropriate and helpful action!

Herb K. was given the gift of freedom from alcohol February 21, 1984. As a result of the application of the Twelve Steps as contained precisely in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, he experienced a profound spiritual awakening in 1988. Since then he has been very involved in carrying the message of recovery through presentations, facilitating workshops, and leading retreats.

He has authored three books to help people access the instructions and confirm the actual process contained in the Big Book for experiencing a spiritual awakening: Practicing the Here and Now: Being Intentional with Step 11 (2017), Twelve-Step Guide to Using the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book (2004) and Twelve Steps to Spiritual Awakening: Enlightenment for Everyone (2010). His books are available on Amazon and other locations.

When Did AA Meetings Become the AA Program?

Author: Herb K.
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

Atlanta was my first International AA Conference - 2015; we celebrated AA’s 80th birthday. At the same time, my family and I celebrated my 75th natal birthday and my 31st year of the gift of sobriety.

I have been on a spiritual quest all of my conscious life: studied to be a priest in a monastery for 7 years; pursued psychology for four and therapy for more; experimented with most of the self-help panaceas of the 70s and 80s. I did not change. I could not see that I did not see. I was a seeker but not a finder.

In 1984 I was willing to attend a treatment program to support my wife’s recovery from her alcohol problem. After several weeks they asked me to not drink during the treatment time. I was willing to stop to support her. The next day was my first day without alcohol - February 21. That became my sobriety date! After several weeks they also asked me to write out my history of my experiences with drinking. I was willing to write and be honest. Within 60 minutes of writing I discovered a 30 year pattern that described my first drink at age 12: I drank all there was; got knee buckling drunk; blacked out; passed out; and woke up in the morning covered with my own vomit. The biggest surprise was not that I had a drinking problem. What really startled me was that I had never seen any of the VERY visible evidence. The treatment team suggested I go to an AA meeting. I was willing to do that. I attended my first meeting in April, introducing myself as “Herb, exploring being an alcoholic!” After several meetings I admitted I was an alcoholic and the elders suggested I get a sponsor. I was willing to get a sponsor. He suggested I call him every day, go to a meeting every day and be of service at those meetings. I was willing to do these things and did so for the next 4 years. I stayed sober but I did not change. I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I continued to be a seeker but not a finder.

The key to my initial recovery was a twofold gift:

Abstinence, for which I did nothing; people call this Grace;

My “willingness” to take the suggested actions; I call this Grace!

However, during these four years of being a “good” AA, my pre-sobriety behavior continued and I was restless, irritable, and discontent! I was having trouble at work, at home and most everywhere. The “bedevilments” were rampant. I was a man without integrity and clueless about internal guiding principles.

In 1988 in an AA meeting, I heard a man share about having an experience of being changed through a precise application of the Twelve Steps from the book Alcoholics Anonymous.  I asked for his help. Over the next year he guided me through that process. By the completion of the Ninth Step I was aware I had been radically changed. I had had an authentic spiritual awakening: a dramatic change in the way I felt, thought, and behaved; and it was done TO me not BY me! I lived with a sense of serenity, peace and  contentment. I knew that experience for the very 1st time. I had become a finder! My career problems were resolved; my marriage became healed; and, I found a personal relationship with the “Mystery” that I never knew was possible.

I have continued to be a seeker. Over the next 15 years I went through the complete Step process four times with 4 different Step Guides. Each time I was led by the Spirit to a deeper experience and a more profound awakening – more light, more change, more finding, more usefulness!

Based on my history and my experience I began to realize the power of the 12 Step program. At the same time, I also began to become conscious that, although an integral part of recovery, meetings are not the program. The Steps on the wall are not the program. The meeting mantras: “Put the plug in the jug and go to meetings” and “Meeting makers make it” may in fact be death sentences!

The Twelve Steps in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, applied to our personal lives, are the only “program of recovery”!

I have a growing concern about AA membership’s focus on meetings – as if meetings are the “program of recovery”. The GSO organized and sponsored International Conference put this concern on steroids. Over three days there were 220+ topic meetings; only 30% were directly or indirectly about the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the Twelve Steps, Spiritual Awakening, or living “Our Way of Life” (Steps Ten, Eleven and Twelve).

Over the last 27 years I have facilitated numerous in depth workshops on the Steps, the Traditions, and the Concepts. My understanding of AA’s primary purpose is to be an organization that supports a Fellowship wherein alcoholics share their experience of gaining freedom from alcohol through a Spiritual  Awakening - the promise of the Twelve Steps. My understanding also is that AA GSO is the administrative guardian and the AA Board of Trustees are the policy custodians of this 1st Legacy – the Twelve Steps as contained in the book Alcoholics Anonymous.

My initial experience of freedom from alcohol was pure Gift. My sustaining that freedom for four years was the direct result of my connection to a sponsor and meetings. My having a Spiritual Awakening during my 5th year is the direct result of a rigorous personal application of the suggestions in the Big Book for each of the Twelve Steps.

The program of recovery is contained in the Big Book – a “text” book with a “precise” set of suggestions for working each Step. The sole purpose of this Step work is to find Power through the experience of a Spiritual Awakening.

The Big Book boldly states in Step Ten that we will be placed in a position of neutrality with respect to alcohol – we have “recovered” - perhaps referring to the 1st half of Step One. Step Ten promises that “We have entered the world of the Spirit.” It also declares “we are not cured” - perhaps referring to the 2nd half of Step One. We have a daily reprieve from the original bondage of alcohol as long as we have a daily practice of staying awake by practicing Steps Ten, Eleven and Twelve. We find freedom from the “bondage of self”.

Step Twelve promises: “Having had a Spiritual Awakening as the result of these steps…”. In the Alcoholics Anonymous textbook, meetings are only mentioned twice:

A place where newcomers can gather once a week to bring their problems;

To meet frequently in each other’s homes to have fellowship.

It is very clear, meetings are not the program! Meetings are not included in the Big Book as any part of the suggested Spiritual Awakening process.


Alcoholics Anonymous had a meteoric rise in membership for the first forty years, until about 1976, as revealed in the various Big Book Forwards:

1939                           100

1955                    150,000

1976                 1,000,000                  700% growth

2001                 2,000,000                  100% growth

Although it is wonderful to see the increase in membership from 1976 to 2001, why has the rate of AA Fellowship growth slowed down so dramatically?

The alcohol addiction problem in America has not been diminished. Let’s estimate:

  • approximately one out of ten adults are alcoholic = 10,000,000;
  • about 10% attempt some treatment intervention = 1,000,000;
  • perhaps 10% of those find some long term recovery, most in a Twelve Step program = 100,000 a year. Apparently, by 2001, they are not coming, nor staying, as they were up to 1976!

The Big Book Second Edition (1955) speculated that “… of those who really tried …” about 75% recovered eventually. “Really tried” is the key. We can wonder what that meant to Bill Wilson, the author of these words? Perhaps:

  • Submitting to the entire Twelve Step process
  • Finishing amends
  • Living daily in a consistent practice of:
    • Inventory
    • Prayer and meditation
    • Practice of principles and service

Or, do we believe “really tried” meant going to lots of meetings?

Is it the correct question for a person’s sponsor or the members of the home group to ask about a person’s recent relapse: “How many meetings were you going to?” The recent book on recovery research: “If You Work It, It Works” reviews scientific studies about the effectiveness of 12 Step programs. The evidence is wonderful and very supportive of the wisdom heard in meetings: 90 in 90; get a sponsor; be of service. However, the success criteria of these studies focus mostly on meeting attendance, as if this were the principle component of the AA program of recovery.

It seems as if both the Fellowship itself, and the professionals who study it, reveal a basic misunderstanding of “powerless” and the process of accessing “power.” They reveal a basic ignorance of the real “program of recovery”: Big Book as a textbook; Steps as a process; Spiritual Awakening as the promised product; Steps 10, 11, & 12 as a daily practice of a way of life to sustain the experience.

Maybe what CS Lewis said in his book “Mere Christianity” can increasingly be said about AA:

AA has not been tried and found wanting; it hasn’t really been tried.

The middle way is usually the healthy solution. My experience reveals that both meetings and Steps are vitally important. Meetings fostered the necessary spirit of fellowship; Steps provided the required

Fellowship of the Spirit. Meetings provided me a forum to find the “program of recovery”; the 12 Steps provided me the formula for experiencing the “program of recovery.”

Perhaps you’re regional Conference Committee could select the topics for meetings based on the “precise” process of the Steps and underscore the promise of a Spiritual Awakening suggested in Step Twelve. Perhaps the focus of your local Roundups could be on the actual 1st Legacy “program of recovery.”

Is not this focus our primary responsibility to “…carry this message…”?

Let’s all pray, hope and work for a Big Book and Twelve Steps renaissance!

THANKS AA for my life that flourishes!!



Herb K. was given the gift of freedom from alcohol February 21, 1984. As a result of the application of the Twelve Steps as contained precisely in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, he experienced a profound spiritual awakening in 1988. Since then he has been very involved in carrying the message of recovery through presentations, facilitating workshops, and leading retreats.

He has authored three books to help people access the instructions and confirm the actual process contained in the Big Book for experiencing a spiritual awakening: Practicing the Here and Now: Being Intentional with Step 11 (2017), Twelve-Step Guide to Using the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book (2004) and Twelve Steps to Spiritual Awakening: Enlightenment for Everyone (2010). His books are available on Amazon and other locations.