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The Twelve Steps and the Transformation of the Deep Psyche

by Dr. Richard D. Grant, Jr. Ph.D.
Introduction for the book Symbols of Recovery

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are bringing about a spiritual revolution in the United States. As a path of conversion (nowadays called “recovery”), they are undoubtedly the lasting contribution of America to the spirituality of the West. Their approach is typically American: pragmatic, action oriented, nondogmatic, democratic. At the end of each Twelve-Step meeting, the participants say together: “Keep coming back; it works!”

But why does it work? There are many books describing the effectiveness of the Twelve Steps. This book focuses on only one aspect of this effectiveness; it relates the Steps to the change process in the deep psyche, called the unconscious, which depth psychologists have studied extensively. For persons in recovery, the Steps are usually presented as a work of pragmatic consciousness, but they also have deep reverberations in the unconscious, because they really do transform not only external behavior, but also the deeper, older, reflex-like parts of ourselves which are usually touched only by a spiritual conversion.

Depth psychology offers some tools or “maps” for observing the action and changes in the deep psyche. These “maps” are symbols, which connect the conscious and unconscious minds, and provide a picture-language for a reality that is best described poetically, rather than logically. One of the most thoroughly studied symbol systems that has mapped the deep psyche has been mandala imagery, a dynamic representation of the ordering (recovering) process of the deep unconscious, depicted in symbols that are circular and divided into four quadrants. The old theory of the four temperaments in human beings, considered as a balance of four potentials, is an example of this mandala imagery that is quite popular today.

The SJ Temperament

Conservative, Judicious, Practical, Dependable, Sensible, Parental, Dutiful, Serious, Responsible.
Known for Structure, Stability, Work, Service, Authority, Organization, Predictability, Belonging, Usefulness.

The SP Temperament

Performers, Competitive, Wandering, Playful, Impulsive, Spontaneous, Physical, Bold, Lighthearted.
Known for Adventure, Excitement, Endurance, Freedom, Action, Variety, Risks, Motion, Fun, Enjoyment

The NF Temperament
(iNtuitive Feelers)

Communicative, Empathetic, Sensitive, Imaginative, Idealistic, Romantic, Spiritual, Creative, Searching.
Known for Harmony, Significance, Possibilities, Relations, Authenticity, Uniqueness, Integrity, Potential, Honesty.

The NT Temperament
(iNtuitive Thinkers)

Innovative, Futuristic, Critical, Controlling, Conceptual, Abstract, Systematic, Independent, Skeptical, Distant.
Known for Vision, Power, Intelligence, Capabilities, Skills, Precision, Logic, Knowledge, Perfection, Competence, Wisdom.

David Keirsey in his book, Please Understand Me and Don Lowry in his pictures, The Game of Games have both presented symbol systems of human totality using the four temperaments. Keirsey has developed a method for assessing a person’s temperament by using the dimensions of psychological type preference, a theory first developed by Carl Jung and later operationalized by Isabel Myers in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator The 12 Steps and the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Briefly, Keirsey describes the four quadrants of human totality represented by the sensing-judging preference (SJ), intuitive-feeling preference (NF), sensing-perceptive preference (SP), and intuitive-thinking preference (NT). Lowry amplifies Keirsey’s type preference descriptions by use of pictures and adjectives.

This technology of mapping the mandala imagery or totality of the deep psyche is very useful in examining the effectiveness of the Twelve Steps. It is possible to use the shorthand letter codes of the temperaments as a way of “mapping” the effect of each of the Twelve Steps on the deep unconscious, as presented in the table below, in which the Twelve Steps themselves are represented as a mandala figure, divided into quadrants, and broken down according to the letter codes of the temperaments.

The first quadrant of the Twelve Steps (1-3) deals with the human yearning for perfect caretaking, which is an expression of the human potential represented by the SJ temperament. The frustration of this potential results in the experience of neglect. The second quadrant of the Steps (4-6) deals with the human yearning for perfect relationship and emotional growth, which is expressed in the NF temperament potential. A frustration of this potential results in the experience of enmeshment. The third quadrant of the Steps (7 -9) deals with the yearning for perfect action and efficacy, a potential that is expressed in the SP temperament. When this potential is frustrated, a person experiences the abuse (“ab-use”) of power. Finally, the fourth quadrant of the Steps (10-12) deals with the yearning for ultimate transcendence and objective perspective, which is expressed in the potential of the NT temperament. If this fourth potential is frustrated, a person experiences a sense of abandon.

Within each quadrant of the Twelve Steps is a threefold repetition, a variety of actions whose nature is symbolized by the specific natures of the SJ, NF, and SP potentials: that which is given (SJ), that which is transforming and relating (NF), and that which is acting (SP).

Why is this temperament terminology useful to know? By applying the temperament symbolism to the Twelve Steps, we can get something of a “mapping” of how the Twelve Step program transforms human beings at their deepest levels. Such depth transformation is so removed from conscious experience that it is called “spiritual”; thus a language that describes “spiritual” reality is a very practical tool, somewhat like a microscope, allowing us to view what cannot ordinarily be seen.

Spiritual reality often connects recovering individuals with religious reality, offering them an affirmation of the spiritual wisdom of the religious traditions in which they were raised. This “mapping” of the deep psyche can put individuals in touch with realities that have been described in different religious traditions as the experience of something Ultimate at work within human beings, which is mysterious and independent of conscious intention.

Fortunately, there exist a number of symbol systems, some developed long ago, which have also attempted to map the spiritual changes deep in the psyche of mankind. These systems are frequently alluded to by depth psychologists as the distilled wisdom of centuries in understanding deep change, which can only be described in a symbolic language. The present book will investigate three of these old symbol systems as an exploration of the Twelve Steps at work in the deep psyche: the symbols of the zodiac, of alchemy, and of the Tarot cards. Each of these symbol systems offers a remarkable parallel and amplification of the practical program of the Twelve Steps; The spiritual and religious reality suggested by each of these symbol systems will also be examined. But first, the Twelve Step process will be compared to a universal myth, another expression of the deep unconscious,called by Joseph Campbell “The Journey of the Hero,” which is lived out today in recovery group s of all kinds.

The symbolic language of the zodiac, alchemy, and the Tarot provide a system of signposts for the heroes that follow this Twelve Step Journey. It is to these courageous people that the present book is dedicated.


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