Step 8

Out of the darkness

March 31, 2024

By Andy F

Categories: The twelve steps

Step eight for an agnostic

Unquestionably, step 8 was a complete game-changer in my recovery. Despite being an agnostic, I can honestly say that the method I was shown was instrumental in experiencing a non-God-centered spiritual awakening.

You may wonder if an agnostic can even have a spiritual experience. If you read to the end of the blog, I hope to demonstrate why I can call the way I experienced step eight spiritual.

‘The Doctor’s Opinion’ (AA Big Book)

The first section of the AA Big Book is called “The Doctor’s Opinion.” In it, Dr Silkworth, the author of these letters, makes the following statement:

“…..unless this person can experience an entire psychic change, there is very little hope of his recovery.” (From alcoholism)

The Doctor’s Opinion p. XXIX

Dr Silkworth mentions the importance of the “psychic change” twice more. He clearly considered the “entire psychic change”  pivotal to a successful recovery.

Chapter Two ‘There is a solution’ (AA Big Book)

Then, we move on to Chapter Two. Bill W, the author of the Big Book, called this chapter ‘There is a solution.’ He describes a conversation between Roland Hazard III, an early AA pioneer, and Dr. Carl Jung, a world-famous psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and founder of analytical psychology.

In a similar way to Dr. Silkworth, Jung tells Roland H that, in his experience, alcoholics will not recover from alcoholism unless they have what he called a ‘Vital spiritual experience.’

“Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences.”

(BB p. 27)

Please note that neither Dr. Silkworth nor Dr. Jung mentions God when describing the necessity of experiencing these two spiritual phenomena during the recovery journey.

The two statements these two men of science made are relevant to my experience with step eight. I will describe what happened while I was making a list of all the people I had harmed, and you can draw your conclusions. 

Step eight in the Big Book

Before I share the method I was shown, it may be interesting to go back to the Big Book and quote Bill’s instructions for the eighth step. Remarkably, he describes the whole step in two short sentences:

“We have a list of all persons we have harmed and to whom we are willing to make amends. We made it when we took inventory.”

(BB p. 76)

Bill’s description of step eight implies that every AA member can make their list however they choose. Usually, members are shown how to do their step eight list by their sponsors, who in turn share how they did it with their sponsors. Since coming to AA, I have seen several different methods of tackling this step. 

I will be grateful that I was shown the method I am about to share with you for the rest of my life. It was so powerful that it was life-changing. I can confidently report that, despite remaining agnostic, step eight facilitated the “vital spiritual experience” described by Dr. Jung in Chapter Two of the Big Book. Moreover, it would also be honest to call it the “entire psychic change” described by Dr. Silkworth.

The actual eighth-step format

I have seen the method that I was shown several times. This technique even appeared when I put the words ‘step eight’ into Google images. It certainly isn’t unique. The method is drawn out in three equally spaced vertical columns on an A4-sized lined writing pad or exercise book. 

In the first column, I was asked to write the name of the person, place, or institution that I harmed. Then, in the second column, I had to record the specific nature of the harm. Finally, in the third column, I had to write down how I would have felt if I had experienced the same harm I caused.

The three columns of my sponsor’s eighth-step list

The Person, Place, Thing, or Institution that I HarmedThe Exact Nature of the HarmHow Would I Feel if this Specific Harm Was Done to Me?  

The victim’s belief system

In steps four through seven, I learned that the whole essence of my suffering, both as a dry and wet drunk, was a victim belief system that I developed in childhood. There was no question that at that age, I certainly was a victim of harm acted out by my primary caregivers.

Sadly, this belief system began a miserable and defeatist way of experiencing how I interacted with others. It became increasingly ingrained as I passed out of childhood and adolescence.

As a supposed adult, I took this belief to a new level. The victim belief system was grounded in resentment, which I felt unable to let go of. It was at the very heart of the self-destructive tendencies of active alcoholism. I acted out this belief in every area of life. The only thing that helped to subdue the painful effects of the victim mindset was copious amounts of alcohol.

Alcoholism: A disease of perception

I’m telling you this because my perception of reality had become so distorted, blaming others for supposed harm, that it never occurred to me that I might also be a victimizer. As I discovered in steps four and five, I was a classic example of the type of alcoholic you frequently hear described in AA meetings. 

Namely, – “Hurt people, hurt others.” 

The truth was that far from being a helpless victim, I was frequently a bully and a user of people. What do I mean by a user of people? I would go to any lengths to fill a poignant loneliness and inner emptiness. More often than not, this was at other people’s expense. The uncomfortable truth was that I was a taker and not a giver.

“Selfishness – self-centeredness! That we think is the root of our troubles.”

(BB p. 62) 

In step 8, I finally faced the truth.

Writing the list

As I sat there at the kitchen table, one person after another went down on the list. I harmed a lot of people, but most of all, I injured myself. My sponsor made me aware of a powerful existential truth. “What goes around comes around.”

In harming others subconsciously, I had also caused considerable harm to myself. My sponsor made sure that the list was exhaustive. I wondered how I might feel if I found myself on the receiving end of how I treated people. 

As I wrote, tears started rolling down my cheeks—this was irregular, as I rarely cried. Suddenly, I broke down completely. The floodgates of guilt, shame, and remorse came pouring out. I wept like a child when I saw on paper the pain I had caused others. 

From the perspective of the “entire psychic change” and “vital spiritual experience,” it was a critical moment. I knew that I could never be the same person again!

The spiritual awakening aspect of the eighth step

For the first time, I connected with a part of myself that I had buried since childhood. The AA literature confirmed that this occurred when I took my first big resentments. This step had such an impact that I was suddenly transported to a new level of surrender. There, I had my first true encounter with humility.

Another powerful effect of this work was that I connected with empathy and compassion. Today, I know they had always been there but were concealed behind thick layers of selfish dishonesty. I had caused pain to others, and the truth of the step eight list was staring me in the face. I went into the twelve steps as a mean-spirited, self-centered alcoholic and came out with a heartfelt desire to become a better person.

A non-God-centered spiritual awakening

At about the same time as I was going through the program, I was attending a school of spirituality in London. Its focus was on ‘metaphysical’ spirituality. I will never forget one particular lecture I attended. The lecturer made a statement that had a powerful effect. It didn’t matter that I didn’t fully understand what he said. It completely resonated at an intuitive, perhaps even spiritual level. 

 “Compassion,” he said, “is a quality that contains the highest vibrational frequency in the conscious universe.”

It certainly got my attention. As someone who had just connected to empathy and compassion, it gave me the confidence to acknowledge that I had experienced a powerful spiritual awakening during step eight. Despite being an unbeliever, I couldn’t deny the truth of what I had just experienced.

Quite literally, it was the entire psychic change mentioned by Dr. Silkworth in the Doctor’s opinion. Moreover, it was also the vital spiritual experience mentioned in Chapter Two of the Big Book by Carl Jung.

A belief in the traditional idea of a monotheistic God was unnecessary to gift me with this life-changing experience.

In fellowship

Andy F

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