As a food addict working the Twelve Steps, I slipped into the habit of using the term “higher power.” I was surprised to discover that while the term occurs twice in the so-called Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, it doesn’t appear at all in the Twelve Steps themselves. The notion of a greater power, however, is found in Step 2: [We] Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
What’s the difference between a higher power and a greater power? Plenty.
Higher power implies a dualistic worldview with the higher power above you and separate from you. A greater power implies a nondual worldview with the greater power embracing you even as it extends beyond you. As something separate from you, a higher power has to be implored to restore you to sanity. As something embracing you in a greater whole, a greater power has to be realized; sanity happens when you awaken to the greater power of which you are always and already a part.
Another way to look at this is through the Japanese Buddhist lenses of other-power and self-power. Other-power (tariki in Japanese) is associated with Pure Land Buddhism and the teaching that enlightenment (“sanity” in the context of Twelve-Step spirituality) can be attained only with the aid of a power outside yourself. Self-power (jiriki in Japanese) is associated with Zen Buddhism and the teaching that you can attain enlightenment through your own effort. As a teenager I was drawn to jiriki. Sometime in my 30s, I shifted to tariki. Today I see them as complimentary.
Today I understand jiriki not as self-power but as Self-power: sanity isn’t grasped by my ego-self but rather received by my greater Self (Buddha nature, Atman/Brahman, Christ Consciousness, and so on), which is an expression of the greater power happening as all reality. Similarly, I now understand tariki not as a higher power other than myself, but as greater power happening as myself: the one who is the many the way an ocean is all of its waves. The Self of jiriki is in fact the greater power of tariki.
Our words about reality pretend to map it and are often so confused with reality that we are willing to kill and die for those words.
In mainstream twelve-step practice one prays to one’s higher power, but can you pray to the greater power? I think you can, but with a deeper understanding of what prayer is. If your prayer is asking your higher power to alter the very nature of reality to bring about whatever you are seeking, then I suspect your prayer is in vain. If your prayer is asking the greater power of which you are a part for the capacity to awaken as the Self, then I suspect that prayer is worthy of your effort (jiriki) even as the gifting of that awakening is a function of the greater power itself (tariki).
Why do these words matter? Because we are creatures of language. Our words about reality pretend to map it and are often so confused with reality that we are willing to kill and die for those words. Yet, as Lao Tzu taught us millennia ago, no name is identical with the eternal Tao/Reality it claims to name, and no map is identical with the territory it claims to map.
That said, some maps are more accurate than others and some words more insightful than others. This is why I prefer greater power to higher power.