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The Twelve Steps as Initiation

At the time of writing, several friends of mine are engaged in formal initiation proceedings, leading me to consider my own experiences with initiations.  It was easy to pinpoint those formal initiations such as being initiated into the National Honor Society, or being initiated into a co-ed social group at my college that I can only explain as being modeled on the Merry Pranksters.  But the experience that first came to mind when thinking of initiatory experiences was working the Twelve Steps.

Anyone who has a desire to stop using can become a member of a Twelve Step group.  You do not have to work the Twelve Steps.  However, the process of working the Twelve Steps is the manner in which one draws closer to the program or becomes truly initiated.  It is how we begin to view fellowship as family.  Since we work the Twelve Steps with a sponsor, we are forced to reach our hand out and ask for help.  No longer are we able to sit in the back of the room, not talking to anyone.  We must make connections in order to move forward.  As we reveal ourselves to our sponsor, we learn how to become open and more vulnerable.  We become open to taking suggestions, and learn about humility.  These are essential elements for being part of a society instead of being a party of one.  Not only does the process of the Twelve Steps change us into better people, but we also learn how to be with people as we work the steps.

The many tales of underworld descents provide a poetic structure through which to understand a program of recovery. Much of what we do is painful, and involves spelunking around in some of the darker neighborhoods of our psyche.  If we persist, at the end of the experience we are reborn.  As in the Sumerian tale of Inanna’s descent, there are seven gates (steps) we must pass through in the Recovery version of the Underworld, and at each of them we must turn over some part of ourselves just as Inanna was required to turn over a symbol of her power and wealth.  In Step One, we hand over our attachment to the idea that we shall ever be able to exercise any power over our drinking or drugging.  In Step Two, we give up the specter of self-sufficiency.  In step Three, we turn over our will and our lives.  We hand over denial and self-delusion in Step Four, and in Step Five we part ways with our pride.  In Step six we relinquish our attachment to our character defects, and then in Step Seven we actually ask for them to be removed. As Inanna became stripped of the symbols of her holy priestesshood, so too do we become more naked and vulnerable as we go along.  When we question, as Inanna did, why we have to do this or that, our sponsors or old-timer’s might snap at us as the Chief Gatekeeper, Neti, snapped at Inanna, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect.  They may not be questioned.” We’ve all met the Big Book thumpers who talk like this!

Those familiar with the tale of Inanna might think I am about to say that Steps 8 and 9 (where we make a list of all persons we have harmed, become willing to make amends to them, and then do so wherever possible) are like the part in the story where Inanna turns into a corpse and hangs from a meat hook for several days.  Luckily, we get to skip the whole meat hook experience. Having done the difficult work of Steps 1-7, we are at a point where the worst of our addictive selves have been stripped away and a new being has emerged.  We have done significant healing, and we are ready to leave the underworld and ascend. We are safe to mix with humans and do the work of repairing the relationships we damaged during our active addiction. While making amends can be quite painful sometimes, it can also be a gorgeous experience where we have the wonderful opportunity to see new life come into relationships that we once thought dead. Steps 10-12 are the maintenance steps, designed to make sure that with careful attention we won’t have to revisit this particular underworld ever again.

Many people say after doing their 5th step that they finally feel like they are truly a member of the Twelve Step fellowship.  The process of exposing yourself in front of your Gods and a trusted person opens a gate.  When you walk through it, you change significantly. The 5th step, which almost always involves another member of the fellowship who has done the step before, is a significant moment in every recovering person’s story.  I look forward to writing more about that in a future blog post, but for now I will just note its importance as a gate in the initiatory experience.

I believe that looking at the Twelve Steps as an initiatory process, and understanding the ways in which it can be framed partially as an Underworld descent, can help us to poeticize and ritualize the experience in ways that are helpful for Pagans. There is so much room for exciting magic and ritual here.  I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

I’ve started a group on Facebook for Clean & Sober Pagans.  It is a “closed” group, which means that people can see who the members are but cannot see anything that is posted in the group.  If you want to join, just click this here

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Hope M. celebrated her seventh anniversary of being clean & sober in January. She has a sponsor and has the privilege of sponsoring other women, and has worked the Twelve Steps. She also has a homegroup and holds a job there. She has been a practicing witch since she was 12 years old.  After many years as a solitary witch, she recently began learning in the Reclaiming tradition. She writes this blog anonymously out of respect for the anonymity tradition of Twelve Step recovery groups.


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