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In my previous post, we looked at three basic neurobiological states, noting that we are most stable and connected in the Ventral Vagal state, and that a great way for addicts and non-addicts to move themselves into this calm, rational frame of mind is to practice step 11. In this post, we discuss techniques to do that, and why those techniques are effective.

Step 11 reads as follows:

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand God, praying only for knowledge of our God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

There’s no denying that prayer, mindfulness, and connection are core tenets of the 12-step model. And for many people, those behaviors feel familiar and comforting. For others, however, words like “prayer” and “God” may cause a shutdown. So contemplating step 11 can trigger everything from relief and peace to disdain and cynicism – depending on one’s history and experience with religion and spirituality.

Never is that dichotomy more evident than when I encourage people to incorporate 12-step concepts as part of their healing process. Those who resist the 12 steps often cite the emphasis on prayer and God (or Higher Power) as the reason. “It’s too much like a religion,” they say. “I don’t believe in a god, so the steps aren’t for me.”

While I understand these objections, I have learned through observation, personal practice, and professional research that prayer, meditation, and connection are basic human needs that transcend religious establishments and theological constructs. As a result, I believe monotheists, spiritualists, agnostics, and even atheists can benefit from step 11.

So, despite any preconceived notions you may have about religion, God, Higher Power, or spirituality, I’m asking you to remain open to step 11’s suggestions.

What the Experts Say

Dr. Stephen Porges, Dr. Brené Brown, and Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk all provide evidence-based practices for calming our threat/shame states and returning to executive functioning and stability. Their lists include (and please pay special attention to the first two items on the list):

  • Prayer
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Breathwork
  • Mind-body connection exercises like yoga and dance
  • Sharing one’s story with others
  • Staying curious about thoughts, feelings, and experiences

Another way to move into a Ventral Vagal state is to seek the comfort of others who can help you co-regulate your emotions and behaviors in times of stress and struggle. Conscious. Connected. Comforted. This is how step 11 is part of an evidence-based practice, not just some sort of crazy spirituality, superstition, or a cultish religion.

Why Step 11 Works

We are emotional creatures who are often driven by unconscious/subconscious thoughts and feelings. The individuals who developed the 12 steps knew we had to incorporate a regular practice of moving out of our unconscious, shame-filled, superficial choices and reactions and into more purposeful choices.

Incongruent people hurt people. Unconscious people hurt people. Prayer, meditation, mindfulness, breathwork, and other mind-body consciousness techniques can counteract this.

When you pray, you check in with yourself and your Higher Power, you seek guidance, you check in with your heart and your intentions. This practice helps you remain (or become) congruent, conscious, and rational – in a Ventral Vagal state.

There are countless ways to practice step 11, and you may need to experiment to find what works best for you. One of my most common prayers is that my heart will soften so I can be flexible, moving with the ebbs and flows of life. Before I worked step 11, I would pray (if and when I prayed) for my Higher Power to be flexible, to bend to my hopes and wishes. So this is a big change for me, and this prayer helps me stay grounded, which is better not only for me but for those with whom I’m in relationship.

I still struggle with uncertainty and vulnerability, of course. Everyone does. I just know now that it’s useless to try to engineer those human experiences out of my life. I also understand that without those elements, I would miss out on what makes life real, engaging, complex, beautiful, and, yes, difficult.

Still Struggling?

Clients often tell me they want recovery but they just don’t think the 12 steps are for them. “Fine,” I say. “Just find another couple of people that you can regularly connect with who think like you so they can call you on your shit. But also make sure you create a space with them where you can speak freely without fear of judgment or exploitation.”

To me, that is the essence of step 11 – a safe, intimate, empathetic yet honest environment that keeps us on track, connected to, and congruent with our values and goals. As long as we feel a loving connection and presence that helps us release our shame and stay as congruent and connected as possible, we are effectively working step 11. That space may involve a traditional god and religion, or not. How we go about working this step is not important; what’s important is that we do it.