Theosophy, Alcoholics Anonymous, and God

Sally and James Colbert -- USA   

NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles intended to help Theosophical students or their families deal with some of the major traumas visiting so many of us.  Included will be alcoholism, marijuana addiction, Alzheimer’s, mental illness, suicide, abortion, physical disability, and effects of psychic practices. Some of the common treatment options are  seen as at odds with Theosophical ideas and teachings. It has been asked how Theosophy can offer direction for encountering these circumstances. The series of articles will give direct focus to these areas while drawing from the teachings and placing them in a modern context for practical use. The writers have been contacted by Theosophists over a number of years regarding these concerns related to their connection to the teachings and their background in clinical psychology.

Aside from the suspected psychic, emotional and astral effects with alcohol addiction, the assault on the body would seem enough to stay clear of the liquor store. “Long-term use of alcohol in excessive quantities is capable of damaging nearly every organ and system in the body”

Within this article, Theosophical references will be found along with comments on accepted treatment approaches. One of these is Alcoholics Anonymous which has been seen, by some, to be in direct conflict with Theosophical principles. The approach is being used world over as well as  for other “addictions”, e.g., NA or Narcotics Anonymous, Over Eaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, etc. all developed from the AA base.  “By some estimates, as many as one in ten Americans, including two-thirds of those ever treated for alcoholism, have attended at least one A.A. meeting.” (How Alcoholics Anonymous Works, Michael Craig Miller, M.D. – Harvard Medical School).

We are not presupposing that AA is the only treatment approach nor is it necessarily successful. But, often, it is the only resource available. An interesting statistic recorded in an article by Mary Ellen Barnes, Ph.D. (Freeing the Parents of Adult Alcoholics and Addicts “Virtually all forms of treatment in the U.S. have success rates of less than 10% over two years.  AA itself reports a 95% drop out rate in the first year, and most treatment is based on AA.” 

The AA program has twelve steps and they are listed here:

1.    We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2.    Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3.    Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4.    Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5.    Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6.    Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7.    Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8.    Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9.    Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10.    Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11.    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.
12.    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.

Do Theosophical ideas support or run counter to the traditional twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous? There are two underpinnings to the AA program some Theosophists may have trouble with:  (1) the idea of submission of the self to a Higher power (God, Him, or It) and (2) the submission to a personal God.

God and AA

Many will say God can be anything you want Him to be, e.g., the AA group meetings themselves, anything you respect, or even a Tree. There are now AA branches for atheists and also for another group who call themselves as Rationalists – both objecting to a personal God, as explained in an atheist piece:

People without a traditional belief in God can sometimes come to a personally acceptable alternative arrangement, and find a higher power that they feel comfortable working with, and that does help them to achieve sobriety. One example of a higher power that some atheists have used is a form of "mother nature" or science; something unexplained and bigger than themselves. -- “AA for atheists, can it work?”

The “Rational Recovery” program (rewritten to be only 11 steps) has a very interesting 5th step, “The idea that I need something greater than myself upon which to rely is only another dependency idea, and dependency is my original problem.”

The courts, however, have ruled AA does include a Supreme Being and it is religious. Stanton Peele in his article, “The Case Against Court-Imposed 12-Step Treatments” (Shown on his website) quotes the ruling from New York’s highest court, “a fair reading of the fundamental A.A. doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious…..While A.A. literature declares an openness and tolerance for each participant’s personal vision of God…, the writings demonstrably express an aspiration that each member of the movement will ultimately commit to a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being of independent higher reality than humankind.” The ruling(s) have prevented persons convicted of crimes to no longer have AA attendance be required as a part of sentencing.

We concur with the court, AA is religious and it does hold to a Supreme Being or Personal God – see AA Big Book. There can be the view that some who are caught in the web of addiction may need, at least temporarily, a God higher and outside of themselves who can help them through. H.P. Blavatsky makes a special stand for those who might be considered authentic in their Christian beliefs. She writes in Isis Unveiled

They [sincere Christians] are to be found at this day, in pulpit and pew, in palace and cottage; but the increasing materialism, worldliness and hypocrisy are fast diminishing their proportionate number. Their charity, and simple, child-like faith in the infallibility of their Bible, their dogmas, and their clergy, bring into full activity all the virtues that are implanted in our common nature. We have personally known such God-fearing priests and clergymen, and we have always avoided debate with them, lest we might be guilty of the cruelty of hurting their feelings; nor would we rob a single layman of his blind confidence, if it alone made possible for him holy living and serene dying.” Isis Unveiled, Vol. 2, p. iv

Blavatsky, however, seems less forgiving for those who hold to a Supreme Being yet ascribes the rationale of the belief:

Human nature is like universal nature in its abhorrence of a vacuum. It feels an intuitional yearning for a Supreme Power. Without a God, the cosmos would seem to it but like a soulless corpse. Being forbidden to search for Him where alone His traces would be found, man filled the aching void with the personal God whom his spiritual teachers built up for him from the crumbling ruins of heathen myths and hoary philosophies of old. How otherwise explain the mushroom growth of new sects, some of them absurd beyond degree?  -- Isis Unveiled, Vol 1, p. 36

Before Theosophists dismiss AA because of the personal God conundrum these ideas might be first reviewed. Despite claims to the contrary, e.g., “I do my best work after having a few drinks,” “I can only relax after a few drinks,” long term addiction might be thought of as the lower self fully in charge. The addiction itself is running the show. The addict may show concern for others but mostly as long as it does not interfere with access to what is driving the addiction.  The often heard statement, “That’s the alcohol talking, not the real person.”  It can be a closed loop cutting off higher states. The admission of being powerless over alcohol (AAs first Step) is real.


Note the first step of the AA program starts with what could be described as the lower self (“I,” “Me”} and recognizes the lower self powerlessness and lack of control.  Higher self-consciousness is not part of the picture. The perceived and now defined “insufficient” lower self is the only recognition of self.  From there the AA program gradually leads to stepping out of this definition and recognizing our effect on others. The final Step, Step 12 is to carry the message to other alcoholics.  This means, helping others. The 12 Steps might be thought of as transformation from the personal (addicted self) to others (transcendent self).  Each step is a growing awareness of a self-definition. It really has application to everyone.

We Theosophists often think the study of the teachings is the only way to towards truth. Yet, let’s hope this is not the case as our numbers are less than some decimal of 1%.  In fact, maybe if we view the personal God idea as sometimes transitional to a greater reality it could open us to more inclusiveness. This, if the writer understands, is the case with the Hindu’s Bhakti yoga.  “Bhakti is a yoga path, in that its aim is a form of divine, loving union with the Supreme Lord. The exact form of the Lord, or type of union varies between the different schools, but the essence of each process is very similar” (Wikipedia).  The Bhagavad-Gita is looked as a source of bhakti yoga:

" But for those who, thinking of me as identical with all, constantly worship me, I bear the burden of the responsibility of their happiness. And even those also who worship other gods with a firm faith in doing so, involuntarily worship me, too, O son of Kunti, albeit in ignorance. I am he who is the Lord of all sacrifices, and am also their enjoyer, but they do not understand me truly and therefore they fall from heaven. Those who devote themselves to the gods go to the gods; the worshippers of the pitris go to the pitris; those who worship the evil spirits go to them, and my worshippers come to me." -- Bhagavad-Gita Ch. 9

The two points are that there may be more than one way towards spiritual awakening and that the addicted person may be so caught off from higher states, some may need a separate higher power to bridge the gap. Whatever the case a spiritual awakening is pivotal to start the path out of addiction. In the correspondence between Bill Wilson (one of the AA founders) and Carl Jung, Jung states that, “the alcoholics thirst for alcohol is the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.” (“Dr. Carl Jung’s Letter to Bill Wilson, Jan. 30, 1961,

Submission of the Self to a Higher Power. 

Whatever Hindu yoga we see ourselves following we might recognize that the personal God idea can be transitional towards union with the divine. Perhaps this may be helpful in the struggle against alcoholism or other addictions. When one’s identity is narrowed by definition we perceived ourselves as insufficient over our addiction and need help to stop. At the addicted stage we truly may feel we require something “greater” than ourselves to help us past the addiction. It reminds one of Wilson in the movie “Cast Away” starring Tom Hanks.

In the film, Wilson the volleyball serves as Chuck Noland's personified friend and only companion during the four years that Noland spends alone on a deserted island. The character was created by screenwriter William Broyles Jr. While researching for the film Cast Away, he consulted with professional survival experts, and then chose to deliberately strand himself for one week on an isolated beach in the Sea of Cortes, to force himself to search for water and food, and obtain his own shelter. During this time, a volleyball washed up on shore. This was the inspiration for the film's inanimate companion. From a theatrical view, Wilson also serves to realistically imply dialogue in a one-person-only situation. (Wikipedia) 

Wilson, the volleyball, was very much needed to survive the ocean voyage. Going to the extremes might be necessary. It may be instructive to see H.P.B.’s comment on the habit of drinking (“Hypnotism, and Its Relations to other Modes of Fascination”). As strong as she is opposed to hypnotism she has the pupil asking, “Q. Is it wise to hypnotize a patient not only out of disease, but out of a habit, such as drinking or lying? Answer:  It is an act of charity and kindness, and this is next to wisdom.”   

The Sangha. Finally, there is the value in AA as a community, i.e., to share and receive support from others who are experiencing or have experienced similar circumstance. Although it may be a stretch it has a similar tone as one of the three Golden Jewels Buddhism – the Sangha or the sense of community. When one is gathered together with individuals with similar focus, it may help in one’s resolve.

Codependence and Enabling. There is the phrase from Blavatsky’s Voice of the Silence, “Let not the fierce Sun dry one tear of pain before thyself hast wiped it from the sufferer's eye. But let each burning human tear drop on thy heart and there remain, nor ever brush it off, until the pain that caused it is removed.” When the addicted individual cries out for help and needs money, food, and shelter – what are parents or the family members supposed to do?  This can be true when there are grand children involved and by giving support the addicted individual may use it to enable the addiction rather than providing for the family. This is a painful situation for family members when you see children deprived due to the addiction of the adult.

Recently one of the authors was with a couple where the wife was raised in a family with both parents drinking along with abusive acts she witnessed as a child. She learned her role well which was to draw as little attention to herself as possible, try as she could to make the family work, and pretend all was well. She married a man who had started on both alcohol and drugs at a very young age well modeled by his parents. This couple seemed meant for each other.  She worked at her job and came home each night to cook and take care of her husband as he spent most of the day drinking and playing computer games. This is the only life she had known which was a life of codependency.  Codependency is where you sacrifice your own needs and enable the other to stay addicted. Although this circumstance might be considered classic many scenarios could be described representing variations of this theme.  Dependency can take many forms with related pain when there are attempts to change the life script.

Relapse. Many of those addicted continue for a period of time and then may begin drinking again. This is referred to as “relapse.” There is a statement from the U.S. Institute of Drug Abuse which reads as follows: “Relapse rates (i.e. how often symptoms recur) for drug addiction are similar to those for other well characterized chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension asthma, which also have both physiological and behavioral components. Treatment of chronic diseases involves deeply imbedded behaviors and relapse does not mean treatment failures.” This reminds one of the statements from the Voice of the Silence, “Remember, thou that fightest for man’s liberation, each failure is success, and each sincere attempt wins its reward in time.”

Theosophical ideas that can help.

1.    Reincarnation

The perspective of reincarnation can lend an important dimension to the cycle of addition. Alcoholics or drug addicts are often cast as a “drunk” or “addict” as a designation of who they are. With the idea of reincarnation it might be more understood whatever the person is experiencing it is only small segment of a life that has thousands of other entries.

To most persons not already Theosophists, no doctrine appears more singular than that of Reincarnation, i.e., that each man is repeatedly born into earth-life; for the usual belief is that we are here but once, and once for all determine our future. And yet it is abundantly clear that one life, even if prolonged, is no more adequate to gain knowledge, acquire experience, solidify principle, and form character, than would one day in infancy be adequate to fit for the duties of mature manhood. Any man can make this even clearer by estimating, on the one hand, the probable future which Nature contemplates for humanity, and, on the other, his present preparation for it. –W. Q. Judge, The Necessity for Reincarnation .

2.    The Journey

The twelve step program can be seen as a program of transformation from a limited view of the self to one with greater dimension.  This is what the “obligatory pilgrimage” is all about. Theosophy stands for the idea that all life and all beings are on this journey of transformation.

The first proposition affirms that an ineffable wholeness underlies all the diversity we experi¬ence. The second states that the universe is or¬dered according to a cyclical principle of constant change. The third holds that every living being is engaged in a great pilgrimage through reincarnation and karma, whose purpose is to reunite each being with the ultimate Ground of Being. Their keywords are wholeness, order, and purpose. – Robert Bowen, The Secret Doctrine and its Study.

It is the continual journey, or odyssey—“…the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul...through the Cycle of Incarnation” for, “…no purely spiritual Buddhi (Divine Soul) can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark which issued from the pure Essence of the Universal Sixth principle (or “Over Soul”) has passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara and acquired individuality.”

3.    Self Responsibility

Theosophy stands for the principle that no one but ourselves can restore the harmony within us. Karma is a doctrine of self-responsibility. The twelve step program reflects this as well. The Third Fundamental Principle in The Secret Doctrine states that each individual’s journey is accomplished “…first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts.” The journey can only be done alone, by ourselves, for, “The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in many, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychosis and reincarnations.”

4.    Attachment Free

Ultimately addictions are the results of our attachment to either chemicals or other habits in our life. To be free of all attachments can only be found through a spiritual path where the goal is one of non-duality.

He who attended to the inclinations of the senses, in them hath a concern; from this concern is created passion, from passion anger, from anger is produced delusion, from delusion a loss of the memory, from the loss of memory loss of discrimination, and from loss of discrimination loss of all! But he who, free from attachment or repulsion for objects, experienceth them through the senses and organs, with his heart obedient to his will, attains to tranquility of thought…The uncontrolled heart, following the dictates of the moving passions, snatcheth away his spiritual knowledge, as the storm the bark upon the raging ocean. -- The Bhagavad-Gita, Ch. II

Finally, could we also admit that we, who are struggling to find genuine authenticity, are caught up in the intoxicating effects of our existence? There is a statement from Chögyam Trungpa which has application to our present condition:

You see, all human experience is high on something. Whether we regard ourselves as sober or not, we are constantly drunk, drunk on one thing or another, drunk on imagination or drunk on conflicts on the bodily level. Otherwise we could not survive. So we could say that this idea of feeling is different kinds of intoxication. You are intoxicated with good and bad: intoxicated with good, godliness, spirituality, pleasure; intoxicated with bad, evil, destruction, pain. You are intoxicated in imagination—all sorts of imaginations are going on. You are intoxicated in the body in that you are irritated by that and this and therefore you would like to get revenge by imposing yourself on something laying your trip on something. The whole thing, all of experience, is being intoxicated on something. That is a very important and revealing aspect of this question of feeling, of this second stage in the development of the skandhas. The first skandha is ignorance, bewilderment, confusion, and vague name and form. In the second one, already having some vague concept of where you stand, you would like to lay trips on something. This is what the feeling that happens—good and bad, body and mind—is about.” -- Glimpses of Abhidharma, “Feeling,” Chogyam Trungpa

Alcoholics Anonymous can be an important dimension on the road to recovery along with support from the family and other community resources. It can be helpful to let the person know of alternative views without pressing the individual towards our own. While we can be supportive, we cannot participate in any form that “enables” the continuance of the addiction. One’s spiritual awakening is up to the individual.


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