Episode 121: SOAAR 2019 Panel “The Practical 12 Steps”

This episode features a panel discussion about the twelve steps that was conducted by Jeffrey Munn, author of Staying Sober Without God, and myself. It was nice to meet Jeffrey and an honor to participate on this panel with him. Jeffrey discussed the Steps as he wrote them for his book and then went into a little detail behind some of those steps. I shared my experience with the Steps since I was first introduced to them some 31 years ago, and how my understanding and appreciation of them has changed over time.


00:00 John S: This is Episode 121 of AA Beyond Belief.


00:23 John S: Today, I participated in the secular Ontario AA round up held in Hamilton, Ontario. It was a great success. There were well over 100 people at the conference. People came from all over Ontario and other provinces in Canada. People came from the United States. I had a blast. I left there just feeling so happy. It was great to see old friends, who I’d met at previous conferences, to meet people who listen to the podcast, letting me know how much it meant to them. It was just great. I’m still on a high from that. So I didn’t really have a podcast ready for today. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to post as a podcast, a recording of the panel discussion that I did with Jeffrey Munn. Jeffrey, being the author of ‘Staying Sober Without God.’ And the topic for the panel was the practical 12 steps. So now, the audio quality is not the best, and that’s okay. We’ll clean it up later on for this recording as well as all the other recordings which will be posted on our site and YouTube channel. So here it is, the practical 12 steps with me and Jeffrey Munn.

01:46 Roger C: This is the panel on the practical 12 steps and there are two people, as you can see, who are on this panel. I’m going to introduce one of them. His name is John S. And John is from Kansas City, Missouri, and he is the fellow who created the website AA Beyond Belief.


02:13 Roger C: That was back in 2015 and I love the site. It’s got, for example, new stuff of late, a lot of poetry, news, podcast articles, a little bit of everything. And so, that’s John S and now, Diane will introduce the other fellow. Here you go.


02:42 Dianne I: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you’re having a great day. My name is Diane. I am an alcoholic.

02:48 Audience: Hi, Diane.

02:48 Dianne I: Hi. Jeffrey Munn, yes. Jeffrey Munn is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Clarita, California, where he lives with his wife and three-and-half-year-old daughter and he has been involved professionally and personally in the field of addiction recovery for over 10 years. He is also the author of this fabulous book, ‘Staying Sober Without God.’ So I read the second chapter of ‘Staying Sober Without God’ on AA Agnostica. Right away, I thought, “I have to get that book.” I ordered it on Amazon. As soon as it came, I read it in two days. And after I read it, I phoned Roger and said, “Roger, we have to have Jeffrey Munn at SOAAR.” So wow, we didn’t have very much notice and Roger said, “Well yeah, I agree with you.” But I said, “Well, ask him. What can be the worst thing to happen if he says no?” But he said, yes. And we were very, very excited that on such short notice, and a long way, he came from California. I’m sure he’s jet lagged. It’s my great pleasure and honor to introduce Jeffrey Munn. And so, would you please help me welcome and give Jeffrey and John a warm Canadian AA welcome. Thank you.


04:30 Jeffrey Munn: I’m Jeff, I’m an alcoholic addict. Hi. I have been sober for 13 years. March 4th, 2006 is my sobriety date. And I struggled a lot at first with theism, deism, I guess is the word I’ll use, in the 12 steps. And at first, I was so desperate that I was willing to give it a shot. I was like, “Alright, let’s try this. People are saying I can make my own higher power. I can write a list of the qualities he/she/it has and I’ll give it a shot and I’ll pray and I’ll do all this stuff.” And I really did. I really gave it a shot. I really tried, I was praying morning and night, really trying to give myself the opportunity to seek God or a higher power, and I’d like to think that I had a healthy skepticism throughout. I was really looking to see if anything happened, and I just felt like I was trying to force something that wasn’t working for me.

05:51 Jeffrey Munn: Problem was, any time I came back to the sponsor or meeting or someone to talk about it, it was sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, I was nudged back in the direction of, “Oh well, you just have to open yourself up to it more, you just have to do this or you just have to pray harder, or you just have to pray more. Stop praying for this and instead, pray for this, you gotta pray the right way.”

06:13 Jeffrey Munn: And so, it was frustrating and I eventually stopped going to meetings and I had a relapse after about two and a half years. I first got sober when I was 20 years old. About two and a half years after that, I relapsed with alcohol and a couple other… I did a little more experimenting, a little more research. And then I decided I had to go back to meetings because meetings have always been helpful. The people have always been really helpful for me, just having other people that I’m on this path with is super, super helpful. And so, I went back, but I decided I would put more of my personal growth into my therapist’s hands. And I was very fortunate to have the resources to afford some really good therapy. My parents were supportive of that, which I’m eternally grateful for. I realize I was privileged in that way. But luckily, it opened me up to this whole new way of thinking about recovery.

07:19 Jeffrey Munn: And I got so much benefit from therapy that I decided to become a therapist myself. And so I had a unique experience of being able to do therapy and understand therapeutic principles, and principles of psychology and theories of psychology while also going through the 12 steps. And I found a lot of commonalities there and I found that there was no need to necessarily… There was no need to have the God part of AA be a deal-breaker. There was a way to navigate AA without having to subscribe to a belief in a supreme being. But it just requires a lot of translating on my part, in my head.

08:02 Jeffrey Munn: I was in meetings, it’s kind of like, “Okay, he’s saying he turned his life over to this higher power and then… Okay, what he means is da-da-da-da-da.” And so, I kind of just eventually got to a point where I felt like writing a book that I would have wanted at the time. And so, that’s essentially what my book is. It’s a translation of the 12 steps into a language that makes sense just from a psychological perspective and it adds a couple things in there that I feel like are missing, although there’s not a ton. I do feel like the 12 steps have a lot of wisdom and a lot of… There’s a lot there. So I kept a lot of the stuff that worked and I shifted around to make more sense for someone who’s looking at it secularly. So, I don’t know how much time… How much time is this whole thing, how much time do I have to talk? I don’t want to go over.

08:54 Audience: 4 o’clock.


08:57 Jeffrey Munn: What’s that?

08:58 Dianne I: When is your flight?

09:00 Jeffrey Munn: When is my flight?


09:03 Jeffrey Munn: Tomorrow morning at 4:30 AM, my local time. It’s going to be fun. So, I’m just going to briefly, if it’s alright, go through the 12 steps as I wrote them. Again, I have the book because I have not memorized them myself. And again, if you guys have any questions, I’m not going to go into too much detail, but if you have any questions, please let me know and I’ll be around afterwards to talk. So for me, step number one: Admitted we were caught in a self-destructive cycle, and currently lacked the tools to stop it. So, in that, it covers powerlessness, in my opinion, and it covers unmanageability. I wasn’t a huge fan of the “un-manageability” part because I’ve known some people who, especially around the time of the first step, they would look at that and go, “Unmanageable? No, I’ve got my job, I’ve got my this, I’ve got my da-da-da da-da.” So yes, there are aspects that are usually unmanageable. But I just wanted to focus on the fact that any amount of unhealthiness, any amount of destructive behavior, I think is enough to want to initiate the process of recovery.

10:18 Jeffrey Munn: Step two: Trusted that a healthy lifestyle was attainable through social support and consistent self-improvement. So, it speaks for itself. Three: Committed… Three was one of the hardest ones to translate because it’s super God-y. Committed to a lifestyle of recovery focusing only on what we could control. And I think that’s a huge part of the whole “turning your life over” is really, not necessarily that we’re turning our lives over to something outside of ourselves, we’re just stopping trying to control every single aspect of it because that drives us crazy. It drove me crazy. I don’t know if you guys had the same experience. Drove me crazy because I can’t control… There’s only so many things I can control. So that was the focus. So I’m going into this program with the focus of, “What can I do? What can I change? What can I control?”

11:10 Jeffrey Munn: Step four, we talked about earlier: Made a comprehensive list of our resentments, fears and harmful actions. Step five: Shared our list with a trustworthy person. Again, very similar to the original step. Step six: Made a list of our unhealthy character traits. Not a fan of the “character defects” word. We’re not broken. We have, due to a combination of nature and nurture, we have developed techniques to try and make it through life and not lose our minds and a lot of these techniques are not necessarily healthy, but they served us in some way, shape, or form. And so, I think we need to honor that and honor that they had a place in our lives and that they did serve a purpose for us, and we’re functional. But now, if we want to live sober and we want to have a healthy lifestyle, they need to be brought into balance and we need to learn how to live with those character traits in a more balanced way.

12:10 Jeffrey Munn: Seven: Begin cultivating healthy character traits through consistent positive behavior. So again, this one is also pretty heavy on the God, in the original one. You’re turning your character defects over to God or your higher power. I know through personal experience, and through what I’ve learned as a therapist that we have some power over that. If we want to be less selfish, we can do more selfless things and it will start to rewire our brains and change our behavior, and we will become less selfish people. And that goes for pretty much any character defect, unhealthy character trait that you can think of.

12:52 Jeffrey Munn: If we are… If we have a tendency to be lazy, every day, find one thing that you can do that is more productive than what you did the day before. Find something new that you can do that’s productive and takes some motivation. And by gradually and consistently doing that, we begin to change. It’s just the nature of human behavior. We’re creatures of habit and we can create new habits and then the new habits that we create change the way that we think and feel and relate to others. Step eight: Determine the best way to make amends to those we had harmed. I think that’s self-explanatory. Step nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would cause harm. That one did not need a lot of changing, it’s pretty straight forward.

13:43 Jeffrey Munn: Step 10: Practice daily self-reflection and continued making amends whenever necessary. This step, for me has just been the most crucial in terms of maintaining recovery over a period of time. It is so easy for me, if I’m not paying attention and taking the time to focus, it is so easy for me to not notice that I’m backsliding. To just kind of wake up a couple of months later and be like, “Wow, I really… My recovery has taken a hit. I’m doing a bunch of… I’m eating more cookies, I’m playing more video games and binge-watching more Net… Something’s going on,” and it kind of can sneak up on us. So, step 10 has been just crucial in that, just throughout the day, every day, doesn’t have to take very long, self-reflecting. “What am I doing today to take care of myself? Have I hurt anybody today? Have I been kind?”

14:44 Jeffrey Munn: And you can reflect back to step six and seven, what are the character traits that you’re looking to do? “Have I done this today? Have I practiced generosity? Have I practiced… ” You name it. Step 11: We started meditating. I shortened that one quite a bit. Meditation, for me, has by far been the most powerful tool in my recovery. It’s the longest part of my book because I just think it’s the most important. I think it plays into all of the other steps. I think we’re more able to do all of the other steps if we’re in a place of mindfulness. You’re more able to look at your unhealthy character traits, if you’re aware of them, if you’re in the moment and practicing presence.

15:32 Jeffrey Munn: And then 12: Start to retain our new-found recovery lifestyle by teaching it to those willing to learn, and by surrounding ourselves with healthy people. It’s just about maintaining what we got, by giving it away in some way, shape, or form. And in my book, I don’t focus so much on sponsorship because I truly think sponsoring somebody is… It takes skill. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s not something that I think everybody is cut out to do, necessarily, and that’s not a judgment. It’s a big responsibility. It requires some pretty significant self-monitoring, you have to know when to check yourself and not impose your… And let people go. We all, not all, many of us have caretaker streaks in us, and that can get kind of tapped into when we’re sponsoring. So, I like to focus on just service. What can you do to help somebody else, in or out of program? What can you do that will make somebody else’s day better? What can you do, just…

16:36 Jeffrey Munn: And that also can go into step six and seven, a little bit. It’s just practicing, thinking about other people throughout the day, even if it’s just like… I tell some people to set an alarm on their phone. Just every day at 1 o’clock, think about something you can do for someone else. And then eventually, it will become a little bit more automatic and then maybe it’ll start to happen naturally. And then, yay, we aren’t as selfish as we were before. But I think some form of helping and doing for others is crucial, just in terms of living life, not necessarily for addicts. It’s just, it’s something that is fulfilling, I think, for most people. So, thank you.


17:30 John S: Hi, I’m John, I’m an alcoholic.

17:32 Audience: Hi, John.

17:34 John S: Thank you for inviting me here. It’s an honor. I was a little bit nervous when Roger said, “Would you like to talk about the 12 Steps, secular 12 Steps?” And a little intimidated by it because for 25 years, I didn’t even know you could do anything different with the steps than the way they presented them to me. And what I learned about thinking about the steps differently, I learned from many of you who are sitting in this audience. So it’s like the student talking to the pupil here, really. But I thought about what I would do is just kind of give you my experience with the steps in these two perspectives, because what I’ve learned, fundamentally, is they’re pretty much the same, but we were explaining what we were doing maybe in different words.

18:25 John S: But maybe I should start with giving you a little bit of background about… First of all, what I knew about religion and God, and what I knew about AA before my first meeting. I didn’t know anything about religion and God. I didn’t grow up going in to any church at all, but I didn’t really think of myself as an atheist. I didn’t think of myself as a non-believer. I really didn’t give it too much thought. I thought that I was someone who just didn’t have the knowledge to believe in God, or I didn’t have whatever it is that allows some people to believe in God. I just figured there was something wrong with me, that I didn’t have the ability to have that faith. So that’s all I knew about God. I just said, “Okay, I’m just not capable.”

19:07 John S: What I knew about AA is only what I saw on television and in the movies. I remember watching ‘Hill Street Blues,’ and I will never forget this episode when Frank Furillo, the cop, he has a shot of whiskey or something and he goes to an AA meeting, and he says “My name is Frank, I’m an alcoholic.” I’m like, “Oh my God, the way you said that,” but that’s all I thought of that meeting. I didn’t see the holding hands, and praying. I didn’t see any steps. And in all the movies that I would watch, there was never anything about steps. I didn’t know anything about steps. Dear Abby, when she said, telling people, “Go to AA.” She never said, “Do steps.” So when I got there, it’s kind of complex because the steps gave me hope and disturbed me at the same time. The first step I thought was a really good description of where I was at in my life, I was okay with that, but I did notice God everywhere. And they had the traditions up there too, but I didn’t let that deter me from that initial hope that I felt. And at the end of the meeting, someone gave me one of those little cards that have the 12 Steps written on them. And I was so excited because I had a plan and I needed a plan.

20:26 John S: And I’ll never forget, it was a rainy night and I drove my car to a pay phone. We had pay phones then. And I called my brother in Florida, and I said, “Bill, I gotta read you this.” And I read him the 12 steps from that card because I was so excited about having this. I said, “This is what I’m going to do.” So I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew that you had a book and I was excited about getting this book, because I figured that that book would help me figure out how to do these things. And I was disappointed with the book. It was different than what I thought it might be.


21:07 John S: It was very mystical, but what I did, without really realizing it, I kind of conformed to what my group was doing. And what my group did is they studied that book and they worked the 12 steps through that book. And that meant we would read, we had talked and relate our experiences as it relates to the book. We’d get on our knees and pray, we did all that stuff. So that was my experience with the steps as a… I wasn’t a… I don’t know what I was. [chuckle] I was a regular AA guy, and that was my experience for 25 years, and that’s what I do with other people. “Let’s get down on our knees and pray.” That’s what we did, right? So after 25 years of this, I realized that I am an atheist. And it was there that I learned that there is another way of looking at the steps. And one of the first things I did is I went to that Big Book, and I started taking out all the God stuff, and underneath that was what the Big Book says it is: A practical program of action. These are practical steps. So I was very comfortable with that and I would go to my home group with this new outlook that, “Hey, you don’t really need God.”


22:28 John S: And it didn’t go over real well with a lot of people. So that’s why we have a secular meeting in Kansas City now.


22:41 John S: But basically, what I learned is that it’s not what I believe that keeps me sober, it’s what I do. And I did write the 12 steps in my own language, as I learned from you to do, and that has evolved over time. And I’ve got to the point where I’m a lot like Jeffrey, I don’t even know what my own steps are because I don’t… They could be different tomorrow. To me, all it is is an expression of an experience. “This is what happened to me, and this is what I did.” And a lot of those steps are nothing but that, it’s just something that happened in my life. There’s a lot of lessons I can draw from that and some benefit I could gain from it. But yeah, it’s very practical, the things that I did.

23:28 John S: I have detractors and they’ll tell me that, “Oh, you got sober in regular AA?” Yeah, but it wasn’t the praying or anything that was keeping me sober. It was the other people in the room and it was the things that I was doing for my own mental health. So anyway. I do have a little… Okay, I want to tell you about what I… Some of the things I’ve learned about the steps from Jeffrey’s book and some other books that I’ve read and some people I’ve talked to from the podcast. One person who I find really interesting is Jeb B from the Freethinkers Group in Denver, Colorado. Jeb wrote out 12-step for his group, and what he is really concerned about is the word “we,” he doesn’t like it. He hates that… He said, “Don’t you include me in your we.” His steps are all first person: “I did this.” And I like that because it is kind of empowering, “I did this.”

24:29 John S: And then there was Bill W, Bill, and I’ll say it… Well, it’s not the real Bill W, it’s not the old Bill W, it’s a new Bill W, and he wrote a book called “The Secular 12 Steps.” And he is just in the vein of Jeffrey, except for his book, is probably great for someone who’s just getting out of treatment, and he breaks the steps up like in three components. The first three steps being your early recovery, then you have the middle part of the steps where you do your midterm recovery, I guess, and then your long-term recovery is 10, 11 and 12, those famous steps. So very, very practical stuff. And he also, as a scientist, he goes into a lot of the biology of addiction to help you understand that, which is really nice.

25:11 John S: With Jeffrey’s steps, the one that I think… I read his book twice, and my group uses his book in our step meeting, so I really read it like two and a half times because we’re going on step seven now. And the second time I read it, what really struck me was his step two, because it was different than how I thought of it before. The original step two is: We come to believe that something is going to help us. And I even said that. Yeah, “I came to believe… ” I thought step two, to me, was, “I came to believe that I could find help in AA.” His is more optimistic. His is like, “I believe I can change and have a healthy lifestyle.” And that is kind of what we were doing. That’s what I was doing. I’m sorry, we, I was doing. [laughter] I was searching for, I guess, a different way of life and that’s what I’ve got.

26:13 John S: So I love the steps. I, sometimes though, am a little careful with them, because I had this experience for the 25 years that when I looked back on, it disturbs me in some ways. And I have memories of people who would beat themselves up because they were depressed because they weren’t doing some step right. And I had people saying, “No, you don’t need a therapist, you just need the steps.” Yeah, I know, so, there are things like that. Now, that doesn’t happen in our group, but I’ll give you an example of something that I am guilty of doing: I was so excited about Jeffrey’s book, we’re going to have the steps study and I started writing up a syllabus for it and it was going to be like a college course, basically. And we are going to also incorporate the Big Book so that these new people would have an understanding of the original steps so they could do these other steps. And I’d give them assignments and they would feel this pressure that they had to get this assignment done before the next meeting, and one of the assignments was to read “We Agnostics,” and they hated that. It was just… I just made it a miserable experience.


27:25 John S: And Jeffrey says in his book, “These are not things that have to be rushed into.” So I don’t know what more I can say than that. I will say that these steps were designed to be practical. The way that they were originally worded were just worded that way because it was those people from 80 years ago that wrote it. When we sit down together over coffee and talk about our experience, we’re talking about the same steps, but we’re just using everyday language. Anyway, thank you.



28:22 John S: Well, that concludes another episode of AA Beyond Belief. Thank you for listening. If you would like to support our site and podcast, there are a couple of ways you can help out. You can post a review on iTunes, hopefully, a favorable one. You can help us out financially with either a recurring or one-time contribution. You can do this by setting up a small recurring contribution at our Patreon page, which you can find at patreon.com/aabeyondbelief or through PayPal at paypal.me/aabeyondbelief. And you can always just visit our site, aabeyondbelief.org and click on the donate button. Thanks again for listening and we’ll be back again real soon with another episode of AA Beyond Belief.