Reading Guide for ‘How It Works’

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In many ways, “How It Works” is about searching through the inner workings of our own mind and spirit. (Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock)

In many ways, “How It Works” is about searching through the inner workings of our own mind and spirit. (Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock)

There are few chapters as important to Alcoholics Anonymous as the fifth chapter. Many of the chapters before it may lead to mixed interpretations, which have the potential to divide those who feel differently about them. But “How It Works” is often used in the context of recovery itself, and is even read in numerous recovery meetings for the sake of those who might otherwise miss its vital message. Those who underestimate the importance of “How It Works” must learn how to see its necessity.

In many AA meetings, the groups will read sections of “How It Works” without considering how they may be perceived by those who do not take stock of the chapter’s message. It never occurs to many groups that some newcomers may not listen to “How It Works” or the message behind it. If we wish to ensure recovery for those who think differently, we must account for “How It Works” in such fashion. We must demonstrate that we care about this chapter’s message, no matter who it might affect.

The “How It Works” reading often utilized in AA meetings represents only a small part of the overall chapter itself. If we truly care about the chapter in question, we must consider everything for which it stands. This can be broken down into three sections. First, we will consider the section that is often read before recovery meetings. We will then consider the part of “How It Works” that focuses upon Step Three before moving on to the section that focuses upon Step Four. We hope that this will be of use to those who care about recovery literature and are in need of guidance when it comes to the first few steps.

The Daily Meeting Reading

Many of us will hear an excerpt from this chapter read at the podium prior to every meeting we attend. (TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock)

Many of us will hear an excerpt from this chapter read at the podium prior to every meeting we attend. (TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock)

The section of “How It Works” that is often read in meetings does not pertain to the average alcoholic or addict. From its very onset, this section talks about those addicts and alcoholics who will have the most trouble accepting their condition. This section begins:

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recovery if they have the capacity to be honest.”

In short, those who recover are those who are willing to make a vital admission as to their powerlessness. Without this ability, they cannot complete Step One. This section of “How It Works” goes on to say that we often recover through the power of the Twelve Steps. But for those who cannot embrace these steps, the road to recovery will be long and difficult indeed. We must embrace the fact that we can only achieve progress, not perfection. We must embrace the fact that we need help, that we cannot achieve everything on our own. Once we accept our need for a sober support network, we can begin relying on others. Once we can begin relying on others, we can accept that we are not in complete control. These admissions will assist our recovery—but only if we are willing to make them.

Everyone needs to be reminded of these facts from time to time. This is why every meeting begins with a recitation of “How It Works” before moving on to the primary topic. We must be reminded that every addict and alcoholic is at risk. We must be reminded that, if we are not honest with ourselves, we may damage our own recovery. Realizing this will ultimately enable us to embrace honesty and, in so doing, benefit our sobriety. We can accomplish great things when we look inward and accept that we have much work to do.

Step Three

We must be willing to accept that there are greater forces in this world than our own self-will. (Billion Photos/Shutterstock)

We must be willing to accept that there are greater forces in this world than our own self-will. (Billion Photos/Shutterstock)

The first two of the Twelve Steps are inherent in the above section, which can be found in full online. When we embrace Step One, we must become honest with ourselves. When we accept that we cannot do everything alone, we free ourselves in ways previously thought unimaginable. We can then embrace Step Two by accepting something more powerful into our lives. It does not matter what we choose to call this power. All that matters is that we are willing to give up our self-will and embrace something bigger.

These steps are so integral to the beginning of “How It Works” that the chapter does not need to break them down individually. Instead, the individual breakdowns begin with Step Three. Once we have admitted that we are unmanageable and have accepted that we are powerless to cure our own disease, we must become convinced that the only solution is to turn our back on the illusion that our willpower has gotten us anywhere. To quote from the chapter:

“The first requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. On that basis we are almost always in collision with something or somebody, even though our motives are good. Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased.”

No matter how we go about this type of control, “How It Works” notes that the show is usually a flop and the players do not often appreciate our efforts. So we blame others, even though it was our own illusions of control that led to the mess in which we now find ourselves. Eventually, however, we will learn that to give up our self-will is to experience true relief. The more religious among us may then recite the Third Step Prayer:

“God, I offer myself to Thee—to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!”

The less religious among us may not use a prayer, but we will still come to realize that we cannot exert our will onto every situation. Having made this realization, we will be ready to embark on a journey of reflection and self-improvement. And this is when recovery will begin truly elevating us to new heights.

Step Four

The Fourth Step involves making a list, and being as thorough as possible. (Lolostock/Shutterstock)

The Fourth Step involves making a list, and being as thorough as possible. (Lolostock/Shutterstock)

Once we have begun to let go of selfishness and ego-centrism, we are ready to begin Step Four. We cannot do this without Step Three, for we must learn to see how many of our troubles were of our own making. We have to learn to see how our downfall has been caused by self-will run riot. An analogy is made in the text of “How It Works” to the manner in which a business takes inventory. They look for damaged or missing goods to determine whether or not their store has any issues that need solving. When taking a moral inventory, we do much the same thing with our own character. Primarily, we are looking for resentments, which can be much like poison to us if left unchecked.

“How It Works” explains how this moral inventory may be written:

“On our grudge list we set opposite each name our injuries. Was it our self-esteem, our security, our ambitions, our personal, or sex relations, which had been interfered with?”

It should be noted that their sample list also includes pride and fear. Living our lives in fear is no better than holding onto resentments. Furthermore, hurt pride can drive us to abuse drugs and alcohol, or to commit vengeful acts against people who might have meant no wrong. We have to see how our emotions have gotten the better of us if we wish to grow and remain sober. It is noted in “How It Works” that we will only be successful in this endeavor if we leave no stone unturned. We must be thorough, or else we may as well have not bothered with the list at all.

We must also realize when doing our moral inventory that those who have wronged us were not perfect. If we can attribute our own wrongdoings to spiritual sickness, we must be willing to do the same for others. It is important to focus on our side of the street. Our resentments. Our fears. And lastly, any sexual conduct that could be called selfish, dishonest, or otherwise harmful to the other parties involved. The conduct of others is not our concern—not if we wish to remain sober, anyway.

Upon completing this step, we will learn much about ourselves. Some of this knowledge will not sit well with us. Nonetheless, “How It Works” states that we will have made a good beginning. And as long as we continue striving for progress, with a willingness to return to Step Four in the future if need be, we will have done well. For the more we learn about our condition, the more we can do to change it. Knowledge of ourselves is the key to recovery. If we can embrace this key, we will unlock the joyous path that leads us to the wonders of sober living.

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