The Spiritual Life is not a Theory

Living the Organizational Principles of the Recovery Movement

By Alexander Lynn, for Social Justice Education

The organizational principles of the Recovery Movement — the Twelve Traditions originated by Alcoholics Anonymous — have stood the test of time. By operating without governing bodies, hierarchy, and any kind of power-over in structure and function, by establishing strict boundaries of non-affiliation to any cause but that of bringing relief to the addict who still suffers, by establishing precise non-affiliation with any groups outside of the discrete fellowships which address distinct aspects of the disease of addiction, the associations which adhere to these principles have been able to survive and thrive.

As a part of the culture or habits of recovery associations, newcomers are often advised to focus on the Twelve Steps for personal recovery, and let the Twelve Traditions for organizational unity take care of themselves while the newcomer clears up from active addiction. It is in this connection that a significant section of the people who have reaped the benefits of recovery are less informed about how the organizations stay alive and prosper, organizations without which there is no recovery. It is in concert with this reality that the first organizational principle of all “12 and 12” associations has it that: “Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends on WA [Workaholics Anonymous] unity” (Workaholics Anonymous, 1990, p18).

As it is explained by Overeaters Anonymous, those in early recovery tend to focus on the Twelve Steps: “Most of us took for granted the OA group we attended and the OA fellowship as a whole. Soon, however… we felt [the fellowship] was our lifeboat in a stormy sea,” and they began to see the need to understand what keeps this lifeboat afloat. “Developed through long and sometimes painful experience, these traditions embody the same principles for living as do the twelve steps. Those who have studied them carefully have found that the twelve traditions can be applied effectively to all human relationships, both inside and outside OA…” (Overeaters Anonymous, 1990)

Birth of the Traditions: Trial and Error Method

While the founders of AA collaborated with medical specialists in the discovery of the disease concept of addiction, the scientific method in social science is to be credited in the creation of the organizational principles. When describing the seeds planted for personal recovery by the Twelve Steps, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous points out that the nutrients in the soil, the water, and the sunlight of recovery which causes the seed to sprout is personal need (Augustine Fellowship, p75). For each individual entering recovery, “The possibility of finding some form of faith, based not on any specific conception of ‘God’ but rather on a need to find such faith, was the beginning of spiritual healing” (Augustine Fellowship, p75, emphasis in original). In much the same way, the recovery group learns to practice the organizational principles on the basis of social need. Referring to how the Traditions were settled upon, Bill W. insists that trial and error led to their creation, and that “We prefer recovery to death.” “For us of AA, to drink is to die” (Language of the Heart, p109). In past times the social science method might have been called “ethnography.” Today, Participatory Action Research or People’s Research are the names given to the type of method that the founders of AA used to arrive at their organizational principles. The founders of AA used themselves as the subject of study, and found the organizational means by which formerly anti-social and ego-centric individuals could get along with each other just long enough to make it possible for them to hold their addiction at bay. Indeed, in the testimony of Bill W, “Trial and error produces group experience, and out of corrected experience comes custom. When a customary way of doing things is definitely proved to be best, then that custom forms into AA Tradition. The Greater Power is then working through a clear group conscience” (p78). Indeed, a group of alcoholics, alike in no way except that they each suffered from the same debilitating disorder, found, through trial and error, guiding suggestions on how to structure their relationships with each other, and with the outside world.

The Yardstick for Measuring Truth

Mao Tse-tung was one of the spokespersons of the Chinese national liberation movement (1920’s through 1949), up until that time the largest mass movement in the history of humanity. In abstracting the method by which they disclosed the laws governing the development of the revolutionary war, Mao relied on the same scientific method as the AA founders. Summing up the experience of successes and failures in the war he pointed out that, “There is but one truth, and the question of whether or not one has arrived at it depends not on subjective boasting but on objective practice” (On New Democracy). The Recovery Movement is a People’s Health Care Liberation Movement. It qualifies as such because of its practice of self-determination for millions of people in the areas of physical, mental and spiritual health, for over 75 years. According to Mao, “Social practice alone is the criterion of the truth” (On Practice). The organizational principles of the Recovery Movement meet this criterion because they were born of the social practice of hundreds and then thousands of recovering addicts. These experiences were then codified in the first publication of Alcoholics Anonymous — The Big Book. As Bill W explains, “As the book took form we inscribed in it the essence of our experience. It was the product of thousands of hours of discussion. It truly represented the collective voice, heart, and conscience of those of us who had pioneered the first four years” (Language of the Heart, p13). As the common saying in Alcoholics Anonymous has it, the spiritual life is not a theory (Big Book, p83). And the common slogan of Narcotics Anonymous confirms: If it’s not practical, it’s not spiritual (Narcotics Anonymous Way of Life, 2012).

When Narcotics Anonymous says that “Many of our [organizational] problems are like those that our predecessors had to face” (Basic Text, p58) who are they talking about? They are talking about those who formulated the organizational principles of the Recovery Movement — Alcoholics Anonymous. “Their hard won experience gave birth to the Traditions” (Basic Text, p58). Narcotics Anonymous founders did not give birth to the Traditions — they were there for them to use when NA was formed. “…[O]ur own experience [in NA] has shown that these principles are just as valid today as they were when these Traditions were formulated.” “The Twelve Traditions of NA are not negotiable” (Basic Text, p58). The publication of our literature, including making available the twelve organizational principles, let’s the public in on our secret: the keys to unlocking the door of the disease of addiction.

One recovering addict was recently contemplating her sense that by freely disseminating the writings of NA, the association would be endangered, and personal anonymity would be threatened. Bill W spoke about diehards among the earliest founders who “proceeded, with terrific impact, to make the point that the man of Galilee had no press agent, no newspapers, no pamphlets, no books — nothing but word of mouth to carry the spirit from person to person, from group to group” (Language of the Heart, p11).

After investigating NA’s publication policy, this same recovering addict spoken of earlier, who thought that it was dangerous to freely disseminate copyrighted NA materials, discovered that NA copyright policy “served to support the position” of NA members who share NA published literature online with the public; that it was allowed [since 1939] to disseminate Recovery Movement literature. In this connection, it must be repeated that the experience of millions of recovering addicts has proven that lack of clarity regarding the Traditions must be addressed with love and care. Bashing people who express confused ideas regarding the principles will not help. Further, there is no need to have a “position” on the Traditions. They do not need interpretation. They are fine as they are. They do not need editing. They are not “nuanced.” We can practice the Traditions together, and we do not have to worry about people’s opinions. “Allah is Allah, and the people are the people” (Sufi dictum). We need only follow the traditions in our daily lives. We need only “act according to the principles laid down” (Mao). “It is only through understanding and application that they work” (Basic Text, p58). “The only yardstick of truth is the revolutionary practice of millions of people” (Mao, On New Democracy). The Twelve Traditions meet this criterion of truth in that millions of people worldwide have confirmed their efficacy in their practice of creating a healthier world for three-quarters of a century.

When representing the organizational principles to new members, to confused old members, and to people outside of the Recovery Movement, a couple of watchwords are useful: first, we must remember that in the culture surrounding recovery, competition, hierarchy, the thirst for money and power-over — these are the standards of a sick society. This is what most people who live here are used to. When you suggest that there are no bosses, no big “I’s” and little “you’s” some people have never experienced such a sensible way to treat each other. Some people cannot imagine that we can get along without bosses. Another thing to keep in mind is that lack of power and lack of control are habitual. The Recovery Movement is the practice of self-determination in health care. Many people have no experience in self-determining their lives, particularly on a group or community level. Many people are used to not having power and control in these very important areas of their lives.

In the above regard, the Twelfth Tradition, that of anonymity, “the spiritual foundation of all our traditions,” protects against any member claiming responsibility for the form or content of any of the principles, pronouncements, or any official literature of the recovery associations. Anonymity at once protects the individual members from public scrutiny (from being labeled as somehow deviant or criminal for contracting the disease of addiction), and at the same time protects the members from themselves — from the ego-driven desire (germane to the addictive personality) to gain public fame and fortune by claiming a recovery association as one’s own private accomplishment. The principle of anonymity maintains the horizontal circle which allows for no big “I’s” and little “you’s.”


If I were asked which of our blessings I felt was most responsible for our growth as a fellowship and most vital to our continuity, I would say, the ‘concept of anonymity’.”

Bill W, Language of the Heart


Three Applications of Organizational Principles

Alcoholics Anonymous (and following it, all other 12 and 12 associations) identifies two overarching applications of the Traditions: (1) to maintain the internal unity of the recovery association, of its Groups, between each of the Groups, and between the autonomous Groups and the international (in the case of the association having grown to the level of an international body) association; and (2) to protect the association from outside influences which may threaten the unity of the association, and to otherwise maintain harmonious relations with society at large. The article you are now reading is written by and for a community organization outside of any of the 12 and 12 associations, and in that capacity another application of these Traditions is experienced by society at large — (3) the people who are experiencing the dysfunction of the social order in which we live are greatly benefitting from the ways of the Recovery Movement, and specifically from the organizational principles which are “unique” (Bill W, p79*) to a society which is based on competition, greed, oppression, and exploitation. Indeed, numerous community institutions and social movements have adopted in part or in whole aspects of the organizational principles of the Recovery Movement.

(1) The “Group” is a power that is Loving and Caring

When entering recovery, it is strongly suggested that newcomers begin to develop a personal relationship with a Power Greater than themselves. While some members call this power “God,” others call it “Allah,” and still others call it “the DA [Debtors Anonymous] Group” they belong _________________________________________________________________

  • “Because our active leadership of service can be truly rotating, we enjoy a kind of democracy rarely possible elsewhere. In this respect we may be, to a large degree, unique” (p.78). Here Bill W uses a laymen’s definition of the concept “democracy.” While the Recovery Movement organizational form is unique in Western culture, which is what makes it so powerful, it is common to indigenous cultures, and it is commonly called communalism. Democracy is a form of government, and AA has no government.


to, the strongest aspects of the suggestion are that this power is (1) chosen by you; (2) is not you; (3) is greater than you, and the addiction; and (4) that this power is loving and caring.

The organizational principles emerged from very close study, by the early members of AA, of the conditions which make it possible for people formerly in the grip of, for one thing, an anti-social dysfunction, to get along with each other long enough to gain the ability to live without their active addiction. In similar fashion to the way new members are gently brought to these organizational principles, the twelve of them can be summed up as a Power Greater than the recovering addict; a power that is loving and caring, and is greater than the addiction. The litmus test of a Recovery Association working well is whether or not it follows the twelve guidelines for groups — those that do not follow these guidelines routinely fall into dysfunction, and then die either a sudden or gradual death.

In the above connection, while many people come into recovery focused on the Twelve Steps, there is that minority of people who are attracted first to the Traditions, and owe their continued life on planet Earth to their continuous relationship with one or another group inside the Recovery Movement.

(2) Government Institutions, Medical Institutions, Religious Institutions

Beginning with the organizational culture institutionalized by Alcoholics Anonymous in the early years of its growth, the Recovery Movement has adroitly maintained harmonious and very beneficial ties to the field of medicine, with governments, both local and federal, and with religious institutions. These “ties” consist of total non-affiliation, complete non-endorsement, and total denial of endorsement from these outside bodies. Yet by having a measure of cooperation, the 12 and 12 associations have been able to find places to hold meetings, have been able to serve members inside medical and government institutions, and have been able to receive new members from both of the latter and from other spiritual associations and religious bodies who have recognized the efficacy of recovery as practiced by the 12 and 12 associations.

Of the elements of relationship that are fixed between these three types of institutions — religious, governmental and medical — and the groups of the Recovery Movement, some are regulated by Traditions Six and Seven. Tradition six states that: “An AA group ought never endorse, finance or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise …” (1985, p155). One practical application of this Tradition has it that rent is the only requirement for the relationships with institutions in which the anonymous associations hold meetings. Tradition Seven states that “Every AA [NA, OA, GA, etc…] group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions” (Big Book, p562). Anonymous associations are not allowed to accept gifts of space from these outside institutions “lest problems of money, property or prestige divert us from our primary purpose” (Alcoholics Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p155).

It is becoming clear that with the passage of certain policies on both the state and federal level, government is now relying more heavily than ever on the Recovery Movement. Indeed, federal policy now has it that any federally funded health care institution treating patients with addiction must provide meetings and literature from either Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, and counseling which respects, is expert with, and utilizes the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of the Recovery Movement (Gorski, 2010). Witness, for an example of government’s reliance on the Recovery Movement: Many people come to our meetings court-ordered. While this may not be the best condition for success in getting recovery, it is a measure (which the founders of the Recovery Movement may never have imagined) of how much the society at large has come to understand the centrality of the way of recovery to the health of the society.

For its part, the field of medicine is working hand-in-hand with government to avail itself of the benefits of being in harmonious relationship with the Recovery Movement. Indeed, first the American Medical Association (1956) and following it the American Psychological Association (1973) have both acknowledged the scientific validity of the disease concept of addiction (Morse, 1992).

(3) Impact of the Recovery Movement

In addition to the influence of the Recovery Movement on the practice of medicine with regard to the disease of addiction, on government policy, and on cooperation from religious institutions, each mentioned above, the organizational principles of the Recovery Movement have manifestly impacted other areas of social life. For example, in Boston’s African America numerous organizations have adopted these organizational principles to address the need for unity and sustainability in the course of engaging community issues beyond health care and the disease of addiction. Social justice campaigns and fields of youth development have generously borrowed from the Recovery Movement and particularly from the organizational principles to prosecute their campaigns and programs. The Recovery Movement “has no opinion on outside issues, hence the NA [Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Incest Survivors Anonymous, or any of the other over one-hundred of the 12 and 12 association’s] name ought never be brought into public controversy” (Tradition Ten). This has not stopped numerous community movements, such as Treatment on Demand, or Free My People, and Metro-Boston Alive from developing programs and social change campaigns using Recovery Movement organizational principles to help them (Principles of Unity, 1991). Those community organizations which closely adhere to the organizational guidelines of the recovery movement do so for the same reason that Recovery Movement groups do: Because they see their cause as life and death; they see their unity as not optional; they see the principles guiding their unity as not negotiable.

Government cooperation with and use of Recovery Movement principles has resulted in the establishment of recovery-based community centers serving the addict population and others with programming and community services. Massachusetts has seven of these federally funded Recovery Centers, and Vermont has eleven. There is a dialectical relationship between the Recovery Movement and the outside society: Now that government has adopted in many manifestations the recovery way, each of these federally-funded Recovery Centers hosts recovery meetings from the various 12 and 12 associations, particularly from Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Other examples of the impact of the Recovery Movement are: The Restorative Justice movement inside public schools today, which borrows so heavily from the Recovery Movement in its effort to affirmatively address emotional/psychological/social distress and discontent rather than treat it with punishment (Social Justice Education, 2010). The Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery is an example of an organization outside of the recovery movement whose mission is to educate government, among others, regarding the value of the way of the 12 and 12 movement (MOAR, 2014).

Addiction as the Spiritual Core of Present-day Western Society

When we take a clean look at the society in which we live today, we see it rife with addiction from top to bottom — especially “from top.” The United States of America is addicted to war — it has a permanent war economy (Targ, 2009). The most wealthy .1% of the richest country in the world owns by itself 34% of the country’s material assets (Wolf, 2010). This country is addicted to consuming: 30% of the world’s natural resources are consumed by the 5% of the world’s people who live in the United States (Robin, All-Consuming Passion: Waking Up From the American Dream, 2014). This country is addicted to violence: “Going postal,” “road rage,” “going Columbine,” and “the bystander syndrome,” are each unique to this culture, and at the same time are each endemic instances of an epidemic of violence.

This country is addicted to punishment (and to profit from punishing others): the United States of America holds the world record for locking up its own citizens. While “communist” China has a population which is 15 times the size of the United States, the United States imprisons more people than this so-called totalitarian government of the PRC. This has become such an epidemic of punishment that the criminal “justice” system has been given a new name by those most adversely affected — it is now commonly known as the mass incarceration system (Michelle Alexander, 2013). Understood as a collective body, the group of corporations and government officials who profit from this mass incarceration system collectively is now commonly known as the prison industrial complex.

Sexual abuse and sexual molestation of children are both at record levels, to the point that while these are bizarre behaviors they are, at the same time, common for a dysfunctional culture. The transporting of the disorder to a world-wide arena of sexual abuse has garnered a moniker — the international sex trafficking industry (Lynn and Reyes, 2000, pp29–34); and this industry serves rich men who travel to poor countries around the world where little girls are routinely made available to satisfy their sick desires (Lynn and Reyes).

Addiction is rampant in this culture, and it is system-wide. It is evidenced in the logic of the political and economic workings of the society as a whole. In this connection, it is evident why the Recovery Movement has begun to make such an important mark on the outside society. The Twelve Traditions not only protect the Groups from destructive outside influences; they are being adopted, in part or in whole, by people outside of the Groups to try to solve some of the basic social illnesses which are making the lives of whole communities miserable.

The Traditions are our Engineer

The only basis on which it is legitimate to change the Traditions of the Recovery Movement is if millions of recovering addicts world-wide come to a collective understanding that some aspect of these principles has outgrown its usefulness. As one recovering addict recently put it, “When you are on the train and it begins to enter a tunnel, it suddenly becomes dark. You don’t jump up and try to leave the train. You trust the engineer to get us through.” The Twelve Traditions are our engineer. Mao uses the following words to further this investigation: “The universal resides in the genuineness of the particular” (Mao, On Contradiction). The Basic Text of NA is one of the most collectively written books in the history of humanity. The particular experience of each of thousands of recovering addicts was congealed into a common — universal — presentation (NA, Basic Text History: 1981–1993). NA’s Basic Text “is the concentrated expression of the experiences of thousands of people, the chronicle of their living victory over drug addiction” (Lynn, People’s Research, p20). It is the engineer of Narcotics Anonymous. It was written for the public so that the people could learn from the collective experience, and the principles derived from such, so that together we can get through the tunnel of the disease of addiction. Writing two years before the publication of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Mao Tse-tung adjured us that we should “Discover the truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth…. Practice, knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge. This form repeats itself in endless cycles, and with each cycle the content of practice and knowledge rises to a higher level” (On Practice, 1937).

The organizational principles of the Recovery Movement are the fruit of the experience of millions of people working in concert to improve the level of health of the society at large. The implementation of these principles has led to greater understanding of the disease of addiction and how we overcome it. The daily application of the principles leads to increased understanding, and increased understanding raises the level of the Recovery Movement and the health of the people. The future of this movement is as bright as is the solidity of its organizational principles. “The universe is in great order” (Mao).


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