Patricia A. Merlo, M.P.M.

BREATHING UNDER WATER: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps

Adapted from: Rohr, Richard. Breathing under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011.

RESOLUTIONS: Resolve to recognize my addictions.
We are all addicts. Human beings are addictive by nature. Addiction is a modern name and description for what the biblical tradition calls “sin” and the medieval Christians called “passions” or “attachments.” They both recognized that serious measures, or practices, were needed to break us out of these illusions and entrapments; in fac, the New Testament calls them in some cases “exorcisms!” They knew they were dealing with non-rational evil or “demons.”

Substance addiction are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality. By definition you can never see or handle what you are addicted to. It is always “hidden” and disguised as something else. As Jesus did with the demon at Gerasa, someone must say, “What is your name?” (Luke 8:30). You cannot heal what  you do not first acknowledge.

From: Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. xii-xxiii


BREATHING UNDER WATER: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps
I wonder whether addiction could be one very helpful metaphor for what the biblical tradition called “sin.” I personally am convinced that is the case, which might be the first foundational connection between the Gospel and the Twelve Step Program. How helpful it is to see sin, like addiction, as a destructive disease instead of merely something that is culpable, punishable or “makes God unhappy.” If sin indeed makes God unhappy, it is because God desires nothing more than our happiness, and the willing healing of our disease. The healing ministry of Jesus should have made that crystal clear; healing was about all that he did, with much of his teaching illustrating the healings—and vice versa.
You were made to breathe the Air that always surrounds you, feeds you, and fills you. Some call it God. With these twelve important breathing lessons, you will know for yourself that you can breathe, and even breathe under water. Because the breath of God is everywhere.

From: Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. xv, xvii, 117


We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
~ Step 1 of the Twelve Steps

Until you bottom out, and come to the limits of your own fuel supply, there is no reason for you to switch to a higher octane of fuel. For that is what is happening! Why would you? You will not learn to actively draw upon a Larger Source until your usual resources are depleted and revealed as wanting. In fact, you will not even know there is a Larger Source until your own sources and resources fail you.
Until and unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot “manage,” you will never find the True Manager. So God makes sure that several things will come your way that you cannot manage on your own.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. xv, xvii, 117


We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  ~ Step Two of the Twelve Steps
Step Two is the necessary longing, delaying, and backsliding that invariably precedes the full-blown leap of faith. The statement is wise enough to use an active verb to describe this step: “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The surrender of faith does not happen in one moment but is an extended journey, a trust walk, a gradual letting go, unlearning, and handing over. No one does it on the first or even second try. Desire and longing must be significantly deepened and broadened.
To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us—and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body. That is the work of spirituality—and it is work. Yes, it is finally the work of “a Power greater than ourselves,” and it will lead to great luminosity and depth of seeing.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 7, 8 


We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
~ Step Three of the Twelve Steps

The absolute genius of the Twelve Steps is that it refuses to bless and reward what looks like any moral worthiness game or mere heroic willpower. It spotted the counterfeit and “drags it publicly behind it in a triumphal parade” (Colossians 2:15). With Gospel brilliance and insight, A.A. says that the starting point, and in fact, the continuing point, is not any kind of worthiness at all but unworthiness! Suddenly religion loses all capacity for elitism and is democratic to the bone. This is what Jesus affirmed in prostitutes, drunkards, and tax collectors, and what Paul praised when he said, “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
It is no surprise that we could not “turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood him”—because we understood God’s love as tit for tat and quid pro quo! As long as the spiritual journey was a moral achievement contest, none of us felt worthy, ready, or able to come forward. And many who did come forward, did so by splitting themselves, and by denying their own ego and shadow self, and then imposing it on others.
We will never turn our will and our lives over to any other kind of God except a loving and merciful One. Why would you? But now that you know, why would you not?

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 17, 24-27 


We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
~ Step Four of the Twelve Steps

Moral scrutiny is not to discover how good or bad I am and regain some moral high ground, but it is to begin some honest “shadow boxing” which is at the heart of all spiritual awakening. Yes, “the truth will set you free” as Jesus says (John 8:32), but first it tends to make you miserable. The medieval spiritual writers called it “compunction,” the necessary sadness and humiliation that comes from seeing one’s own failures and weaknesses. Without confidence in a Greater Love, none of us will have the courage to go inside, nor should we. It merely becomes silly scrupulosity (2 Timothy 3:6) and not any mature development of conscience or social awareness.
People only come to deeper consciousness by intentional struggles with contradictions, conflicts, inconsistencies, inner confusions, and what the biblical tradition calls “sin” or moral failure. The goal is actually not the perfect avoidance of all sin, which is not possible anyway (1 John 1:8-9,Romans 5:12), but the struggle itself, and the encounter and wisdom that comes from it. God brings us—through failure—from unconsciousness to ever-deeper consciousness and conscience. How could that not be good news for just about everybody?

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 29-31, 35 


We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. 
~ Step Five of the Twelve Steps

As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge, and what you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control of you from within, festering and destroying you and those around you.
When human beings “admit” to one another “the exact nature of their wrongs,” we invariably have a human and humanizing encounter that deeply enriches both sides—and even changes lives—often forever! It is no longer an exercise to achieve moral purity, or regain God’s love, but in fact a direct encounter with God’s love. It is not about punishing one side but liberating both sides.
This is the way that God seduces us all into the economy of grace—by loving us in spite of ourselves in the very places where we cannot, or will not, or dare not love ourselves. God shocks and stuns us into love. God does not love us if we change; God loves us so that we can change.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 37, 39, 40-42


We were entirely ready to have God remove all of these defects of character.
~ Step Six of the Twelve Steps

Here is the paradox of the chicken and the egg. We have to work to see our many resistances, excuses, and blockages, but we also have to fully acknowledge that God alone can do the “removing!” Which should come first, grace or responsibility? The answer is that both come first. The seeming paradox has been summed up in an old aphorism: No one catches the wild ass by running after him, yet only those who run after the wild ass ever catch him. It is a lot of work to get out of the way and allow grace to fully operate and liberate. We must first fully own and admit that we have “defects of character,” but then equally step back and do nothing about it, as it were, until we are “entirely ready” to let God do the job!
I like to say that we must “undergo God.” Yes, God is pure and free gift, but there is a necessary undergoing to surrender to this Momentous Encounter. As others have put it, and it works well in English, to fully understand is always to stand under and let things have their way with you. It is strangely a giving up of control to receive a free gift and find a new kind of “control.” Try it and you will believe the paradox for yourself.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 51-54


We humbly asked [God] to remove our shortcomings. 
~ Step Seven of the Twelve Steps

Prayer is a symbiotic relationship with life and with God, a synergy which creates a result larger than the exchange itself. God knows that we need to pray to keep the symbiotic relationship moving and growing. Prayer is not a way to try to control God, or even get what we want. As He says in Luke’s Gospel, the answer to every prayer is one, the same, and the best: the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13)!
Step Seven says that we must “humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.” Don’t dare go after your faults yourselves or you will go after the wrong thing, or more commonly a clever substitute for the real thing. “If you try to pull out the weeds, you might pull out the wheat along with it,” as Jesus says (Matthew 13:29). Instead you have to let God (1) reveal your real faults to you (usually by failing and falling many times!), and then (2) allow God to remove those faults from God’s side and in God’s way.
God’s totally positive and lasting way of removing our shortcomings is to fill up the hole with something much better, more luminous, and more satisfying.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 59, 61- 64


We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. 
~ Step Eight of the Twelve Steps

“Amazing grace” is not a way to avoid honest human relationships, but to redo them—gracefully—for the liberation of both sides. Nothing just goes away in the spiritual world; all must be reconciled and accounted for. All healers are wounded healers, as Henri Nouwen said so well. There is no other kind. In fact, you are often most gifted to heal others precisely where you yourself were wounded or wounded others.
You learn to salve the wounds of others by knowing and remembering how much it hurts to hurt. Often this memory comes from the realization of your past smallness and immaturity, your selfishness, your false victimhood, and your cruel victimization of others. It is often painful to recall or admit, yet this is also the grace of lamenting and grieving over how we have hurt others.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 67, 69


We made direct amends to such people wherever possible,except when to do so would injure them or others.
~ Step Nine of the Twelve Steps

The Twelve Steps are about two things: making amends and keeping us from wounding one another further. Too much earnest zeal here, “spilling the beans” on everybody’s lap, will usually create a whole new set of problems. Many people simply do not have the proper “filters” to know how to process ideas or information; they often misuse it without intending to misuse it. Even sincere people can do a lot of damage with information that they are not prepared to handle, and often make rash judgments that are not true or helpful.
One often needs time, discernment, and good advice from others before you know the when, how, who, and where to apologize or make amends. Our amends to others should be “direct,” that is, specific, personal, and concrete; in other words, probably not an email or a tweet. Jesus invariably physically touched people and met people when he healed them. It is face-to-face encounters, although usually difficult after a hurt, that do the most good in the long run.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 81, 78, 77


We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
~ Step Ten of the Twelve Steps

Consciousness is the subtle and all-embracing mystery within and between Everything. It is like the air we breathe, take for granted, and do not appreciate. Consciousness is not the seeing but that which sees me seeing. You must step back from your compulsiveness, and your attachment to yourself, to be truly conscious. Consciousness cannot be “just me” because it can watch “me” from a distance.
Wisely, Step Ten does not emphasize a moral inventory, which becomes too self-absorbed and self-critical, but it speaks of a “personal inventory.” In other words, just watch yourself objectively, calmly, and compassionately. You will be able to do this from your new viewing platform and perspective as a grounded child of God. From this most positive and dignified position you can let go of and even easily “admit your wrongs.” God forever sees and loves Christ in you; it is only we who doubt our divine identity as children of God. Don’t judge, just look can be your motto—and now with the very eyes of God.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 83, 85, 90


We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood [God], praying only for knowledge of [God’s] will for us and the power to carry that out.     
~ Step Eleven of the Twelve Steps

The word “prayer,” which Bill Wilson rightly juxtaposes with the word “meditation,” is a code word for an entirely different way of processing life. When you “pray,” you are supposed to take off one “thinking cap” and put on another “thinking cap” that will move you from an egocentric perspective—from your own private needs, hurts, angers and memories—to a soul-centric perspective, what Malcolm Gladwell calls “thinking without thinking.”
Prayer is not about changing God, but being willing to let God change us, or as Step Eleven says, “praying only for the knowledge of God’s will.” If you are able to switch minds to the mind of Christ, your prayer has already been answered! That new mind knows, understands, accepts, and sees correctly, widely, and wisely. Its prayers are always answered because they are, in fact, the prayers of God too.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 93, 94, 95


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

It is a karmic law of in and out, and what Jesus really meant when he sent the disciples “to cast out devils, and to cure all kinds of diseases and sickness” (Matthew 10:1) or to “go out to the world and proclaim the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:16). He knew you had to hand the message over before you really understood it or could appreciate it yourself.
A person will suffocate if she just keeps breathing in. The Jewish name for the Holy One, literally unspeakable, is “Yahweh,” an imitation of the sound of breathing in and breathing out. It could not be uttered, only breathed. The sacred name of God reveals the deepest pattern of all reality—the cycle of taking in and giving back out. It is the shape of all creation and of God, a Trinitarian circle of indwelling and outpouring.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 105, 107, 109


Only people who have suffered in some way can save one another—exactly as the Twelve Step program discovered. Deep communion and dear compassion is formed much more by shared pain than by shared pleasure. Only those who have tried to breathe under water know how important breathing really is, and will never take it for granted again. They are the ones who do not take shipwreck or drowning lightly, who can name “healing” correctly, who know what they are being saved from, and who develop the patience and humility to ask the right questions of God and of themselves.
You see, only the survivors know the full terror of the passage, the arms that held them through it all, and the power of the obstacles that were overcome. Those who have passed over eventually find a much bigger world of endurance, meaning, hope, self-esteem, deeper and true desire, but most especially, a bottomless pool of love both within and without.

From Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 123, 124, 125


Step Twelve of Alcoholics Anonymous says that you must pass it on. Unless you give your gift away to at least one other person the other eleven steps lose some of their power. In fact, it is in trying to pass it on that you realize you only half have it—at best! Or you have it in the wrong way—for yourself!
The One Spirit is always and only held communally. It is important to experience Spirit as shared, or we can easily become ego-inflated, most especially by anything religious, moral, or spiritual. The goal is to lessen the fortress of “I,” and not to strengthen my “I” by any separateness or superiority techniques.
There is a deep flow between the one who thinks he is giving and the one who thinks she is receiving. What seems like the obvious flow is very often completely the opposite, and I think this is most deeply what Jesus means when he says “the last will be first and the first will be last.” Very often the supposed receivers are doing all the giving—and neither party even knows that this is what is happening! When you consciously hold a baby, for example, you are usually the receiver.

Adapted from: Rohr, Richard. A Lever and a Place to Stand: The Contemplative Stance, the Active Prayer. Mahwah, N.J: HiddenSpring, 2011. pp. 9-10.

(Page last updated 8/16/2014)

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