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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Spiritual Awakening: Filling the "Vacuum of the Soul"

Re-reading the March 1971 "A.A. Grapevine" which commemorates the life and passing of Bill Wilson, the man who first formulated the Twelve Steps as we know them today, I am struck by the deep and moving language of the introduction to that volume. The language describes in scant lines the state of perpetual loneliness and suffering Bill and Dr.Bob survived and recovered from, as well as the "new state of consciousness and being" - to use Bill's description from his essay on Step 11 in the "Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions" - that they discovered within themselves and shared with the world.

Bill is described as having "found eternal peace" on January 24, 1971. I know, however, that he had witnessed such peace long before his passing. A man of the nineteenth-century whose life spanned the formative decades of the twentieth, Bill witnessed supposed scientific "miracles" from the Wright brothers' first flight to man's walking on the moon, events he famously wrote about and speculated upon in the most famous of his many writings.

"Full comprehension" of what Bill and Dr. Bob achieved, says the anonymous writer of this brief introduction, "is difficult to set down in black and white." "Both men," he writes, "filled the vacuums of their own souls with their 'language of the heart,'" which they then passed on to those of us who are willing to seek out the nuances of that most estranged of human dialects. (Emphasis added.) "Each of us," says the anonymous eulogist in this introduction, "in the lonely universe of individual consciousness" - emphasis added, once more - "must reckon what he or she has taken of the gift that the Higher Power gave to Bill and Bob, the gift they shared with us."

And that is the miracle of the Twelve Steps, the miracle of recovery from all addictions and suffering: that it is possible in this lifetime to forego one's egocentric consciousness and fill 'the vacuum of the soul' with the grace of unselfish love, thus emerging from that 'loneliness of individual consciousness' into a shared and unitive G_d-consciousness we each possess.

Bill was first and foremost a man of science before his conversion experience, and he remained a lifelong student of both physics and metaphysics, as well as the human psyche. He was once interviewed by Thomas Edison for a job at Edison's famous lab, and he writes of grappling with the intellectual problems of nuclear physics and "remote propositions" like Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Yet, he was a man of faith who had an experiential knowledge of G_d.

Einstein, who was always metaphysically enigmatic for a scientist (and a professed atheist who nonetheless sought only "the thoughts of God", dismissing all other thoughts as "mere details"), at one point noted that mankind's "greatest delusion" (delusions being concepts all of us in recovery should be eminently familiar with) is that there is "more than one of us". That is a delusion that Bill shattered over and over many times in his lifetime, always demonstrating and writing of the inherent unity of G_d and the "unsuspected inner resource" of G-d-consciousness he described as being "the Great Reality" existing deep down within every one of us.

The great Seiss psychologist, Carl Jung, in his letter to Bill in January of 1961 - a letter Lois Wilson described as her husband's "most treasured possession" - wrote that the alcoholic's "thirst for alcohol" was "on a low level", the thirst of mankind's being for "wholeness: in medieval terms - union with God." During their lives,Bill and Bob learned how to quench their own existential thirsts for wholeness with a unitive and unifying love that broke them out of the "vacuum of their own souls", demonstrating thereby to all of us that "the lonely universe of individual consciousness" is in fact delusionary, that Einstein was again correct, and that there exists a state of grace in which we all abide, irrespective if we are conscious or unconscious to that reality, in which God (and the universe) constitute a unitive, undivided and absolute Whole, devoid of all relativities.

"The measure of our debt," the anonymous eulogist concludes, "is, of course, drawn somewhere near the limits of gratitude itself, in the infinity of love."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tale of a "Double-Minded Man"

I've always been a reader. I got the habit hard when I was a kid, and its stayed with me. I pretty much always read for a little while, or a long while before going to sleep, even in the years I was drinking and drugging - at least on those nights when (a) I didn't pass out, or (b) I actually went to sleep that night.

I just reviewed Dr. Bob's last major talk from the pamphlet, "The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous", and was pleasantly surprised that he said he had decided to "cultivate the habit of reading", as he puts it, when he sobered up - usually for about an hour or so a day, which included what he called "the Good Book", but also "a good deal of standard literature, possibly of a scientific nature." Not that he pushed that on anyone. Quite the opposite. He said, quite specifically, "I'm not trying to sell you on the idea that you've got to read an hour a day. There are plenty of people, fine A.A.s. who don't read much." . . . I wouldn't try to sell anybody on the idea of it either, but I'll tell you - those minutes or hours are sometimes the very best part of my day, and spiritually liberating.

What I looked through the Co-Founders pamphlet for was a mention that Dr. Bob made in his last major talk about what it was like starting out, and what Bill, Bob and the other "early-timers" had read and studied in the very earliest days of the 12 Step Recovery movement, before there was the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous - or even a written-down formulation of the 12 Steps, for that matter.

I had in my mind's eye the picture of Bill, Bob and Bob's wife, Anne (who was really probably better read, and
perhaps more spiritually advanced, than either of those two newly-sober drunks), sitting at Bob and Anne's kitchen table, with only what they referred to as the "Good Book" to go on as a guide. I know I've read that description - probably in one of the two ' official' A.A. histories: "Pass It On" or "Dr. Bob and the Good Old-Timers." While the description, as I remembered it, wasn't there, the information I was looking for about the passages from the Bible that they had found "absolutely essential" was.

Speaking of the very earliest members of A.A. - Bill. Bob, Bill D. and the mere handful of (then) men who were the precursors to the millions of men and women who have been transformed by taking the 12 Steps today, Dr. Bob said:

". . . (W)e were convinced that the answer to our problems was in the Good Book. To some of us older ones, the parts that we found absolutely essential were the Sermon on the Mount, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and the Book of James." (Emphasis added.)
I had read the Book of James several times in the early years of my sobriety, before I became surrendered to life itself and not merely to 'the bottle and the bag'. And, frankly . . . it hadn't meant much to me because of my prejudice and contempt prior to investigating the spiritual basis and nature of the 12 Steps. When I picked it up again, four or so years ago, however, the following passage hit me like a ton of bricks:
"A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8)
That's me! I'm that guy! If you run into me when I'm spiritually centered and fit, you will probably get the same kind of experience when dealing with me. . . .I'm pretty predictable that way. Get me on a day when all that is 'inside' of me is "right with the world" - so to speak - and I'm pretty much "happy, joyous and free", as the Big Book says.

But watch out if I'm 'off-kilter' . . . if I'm having a "spiritually-bad hair day", as one speaker so aptly put it. Then, all bets are off, folks. . . . When I've got a really bad case of the "monkey-mind" - with my thoughts just a-racing, taking me from here to there, to there, to back here again . . . and all in my mind . . . like a monkey jumping from branch to branch in a tree - with the full 'committee in the head" all present and cacaphonously accounted for - I am prone to saying or doing almost anything! That's why, I believe, the Good Book describes a man so bedevilled as "legion" (Mark 5:9).

In those moments, I - or the guy in the 'gorilla suit' who is temporarily suited up as me - am unstable - in all of my ways. I've heard my sponsor say many times, that the only difference between him and some dude doing a life sentence in Attica State Prison, is that when he was in that state of mind, he didn't have a gun. . . . Now, that I get!

There's my problem - my whole problem! On those days, there is no G_d and I'm running the whole show, trying vainly to manage life itself. I'm bombarding all my "problems" with a futile, infuriating attempt at exercising my self-will by acting out on whatever solution comes to the monkey-mind of that full committee of idiots I've got running the show at full quorum inside of me. . . . How pathetic . . . How sickening . . . and . . . Oh!, how I suffer inside when that's me in the gorilla-suit. Stay clear of me on those days folks, if you can. No wonder I'd drink, drop or drug just about anything in days past to shut down the "monkey-mind".

I've read and re-read the Book of James, many times since the full import of James 1:8 hit me. Then on one of my last go-throughs, the solution to all that double-mindedness popped out at me. Its just like reading the Big Book or listening to my sponsor. The same thing is repeated again and again, and I can't absorb the truth when I hear it because who I am is obscured by the clamour of the calamity, pomp and worship of other things that can run unchecked and roughshod through my mind - even when I'm looking for the solution. Never underestimate the power of the human Ego to blind someone like me to reality! Worse yet, as Chuck C. put it, "It's Divinely impossible to satisfy the human Ego."

In, at least to me, very Biblical language, James at Chapter 4:8 writes:
"Draw nigh to God, and God will draw nigh to you. Wash clean your hands ye sinners! Purify your hearts ye double-minded."
I am sure it was my reaction to the very Biblical sounding words and imagery in James 4:8 - "Wash clean your hands", "sinners", "purify". . . even that word, "God" - which kept me skimming right past the solution without its having a chance to register in my consciousness. To me, this brief passage sums up what the 12 Step process is all about. It is just about as beautiful and as succinct a diagnosis and prescription for what ails me as I've seen anywhere outside the "three pertinent ideas" that pertain to a wreck like me: That (A) I am alcoholic and could not (cannot, nor should presume to) manage my own life; (B) that probably no human power could (can, or will) relieve my alcoholism and restore me to sanity; but, (C) that God could (can and will) if I seek him out and try to do as he would have me do, not what I might prefer to do. (Please excuse my paraphrase of these three beautiful, pertinent ideas from page 60 of the Alcoholics Anonymous basic text.)

What James 4:8 suggests that I do, is what A.A., N.A., E.A or even ?.A. suggests I do in adopting the 12 Steps as a way of life. That is, (a) to draw near or "nigh to God" by 'uncovering, discovering and discarding' the calamitous thinking, pomp and worship of other things that obscures the "Great Reality" within my being from 'me' and 'my' consciousness - Steps 1, 2, 3; (b) to "wash clean" my hands, by getting rid of "the wreckage of my past" - Steps 4, 5, and 8 through 10; and (c) to "purify my heart" by ridding my being of the false-self's - or Ego's - petty, selfish, self-centered desires and fears by instead focusing my will on the desire to obtain that, and only that, which God would and will provide to me, particularly by his allowing me to attempt to help 'others' - Steps 6,7,11 and 12.

A modern teacher from another of the world's beautiful and ancient wisdom traditions put it this way:
". . . (I)f we want to transform our life and be free of problems we must learn to transform our mind. Sufferings, problems, worries, unhappiness, and pain all exist within our mind; they are all unpleasant feelings, which are part of the mind. Through controlling and purifying our mind we can stop them once and for all. . . . This is not easy to understand at first, but we can gain some understanding by thinking about the following. When we are awake many different things exist, but when we fall asleep they cease. This is because the mind to which they appear ceases. When we dream, the only things that appear are dream objects. Later, when we wake up, these dream objects cease. This is because the dreaming mind to which they appear ceases. If we think deeply about this we shall understand how we can cause all the unpleasant things that we dislike to cease simply by abandoning impure, deluded states of mind; and that we can cause all the pleasant things that we desire to arise simply by developing a pure mind. Purifying our mind of delusions through spiritual practice fulfils our deepest longing for true happiness."
Geshe Kelsan Gyatso,"Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey", pp. 8-9.
Paul advises, as my greatest spiritual friend in A.A. often did: "Don't be conformed to the world; rather, be transformed by the renewal of your mind." (Romans 12:2) Interestingly, one of the definitions of "renewal" in The Shorter Oxford Dictionary is "recovery".

Enough, already . . . Time to quit writing and do a little more reading, with Dr.Bob's blessing, I assume . . . and with G_d's, I trust. . . .

God Bless . . .

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Four Absolutes - Using "Basic Recovery Tools": Part I

The History and Importance of the Four Absolutes in Recovery's "Pioneering Times"

The "Four Absolutes" were one of the principal tools that Bill W., Dr. Bob and the "Good Old-Timers" adopted from the Oxford Group and utilized in achieving and maintaining the entire psychic change, rearrangement or "spiritual awakening" that allowed them to stay sober, recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body and to help others secure the transcendence of the ideas, emotions and attitudes that had fueled their chronic, progressive and near-fatal addiction to alcohol.
I have found it crucial in my own recovery to learn, 'understand' and embrace the origins of the spiritual discipline which are the 12 Steps in order that I might live without suffering - free of "the bondage of self", for however short or long a period I am able to experience that state. Utilizing the Four Absolutes has been a crucial part of this journey.

I have been very fortunate in my struggle with the addictions of the mind that underlay my physical addictions. I had "old-timers" come into my life that rescue me when I was emerging from a teenage and adult lifetime of addiction to alcohol and other drugs of its ilk as a newcomer to the 12 Steps. Other old-timers "re-rescued" me when I was struggling so badly to re-embrace and renew this spiritual practice and achieve the clear state of being that is the "next frontier" of emotional sobriety in my 15th year of sobriety. All of them had a strong basis in their common understanding of the 12 Steps - and all, to a greater or lesser extent, embraced the Four Absolutes.

The Four Absolutes are mentioned only sparingly in the literature approved by the General Service Conference of A.A. - the "founding" organization of the 12-Step Recovery Movement, if you will - and not at all in its two basic texts: Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The reasons for this are clear. Rightly so, early A.A. group conscience felt that mention of the Four Absolutes would publicly identify A.A. with the Oxford Group at a time when the O.G. had become increasingly more controversial in the public eye. It was also evermore identified with its leader, Frank Buchan, whose controversial views on the emerging political storm that brewed into World War II would permanently fracture the OG. (In 1939, the year the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous was first published, the OG was reconstituted as "Moral Rearmament". It continues to exist today as the organization "Initiatives for Change".)

Mr. Buchan's very public leadership role in the OG was also one of the principal reasons for the anonymity principle within the 12 Step Recovery Movement. Self- aggrandizement in the public eye, it has been found, can quite quickly fuel the "big-shotism" that has scuppered many a person's recovery and led to many deaths that might have otherwise been avoided had the individual sufferer avoided the 'spotlight', so to speak. That's why Bill W. declined Time magazine's offer to put him on its cover, despite how many suffering alcoholics A.A.'s message may have reached had he accepted Time's kind offer.

The Four Absolutes are discussed briefly in A.A.'s two "personal histories": "Pass it On", the biography of Bill W. and the emergence of A.A. from his experiences in New York, Ohio and later the world; as well as, "Dr. Bob and the Good Old-Timers", which chronicles the birth of A.A. in its "heartland" of Akron, Cleveland and the American mid-west. The Absolutes are also mentioned briefly in the more "general history" of A.A.'s birth, "Alcoholics Anonymous Come of Age".
Most significantly, and as discussed in further detail below, A.A. co-founder, Dr. Bob, addressed the importance of the Four Absolutes to him - their importance to his spiritual recovery and precisely how he utilized them and incorporated them into his life to avoid the sufferings we are all prone to in our recovery from addiction. He did so in his last public talk before his death in 1950. Dr. Bob's last talk was given at A.A.'s 1950 World Convention held in St. Louis and is set out in full in the Conference-approved pamphlet, "A.A.'s Co-Founders."

Perhaps nothing I could write could attest more to the importance of the Four Absolutes in living my recovery, and perhaps for you in living yours, than was Bill's response to the question of why the Absolutes were not discussed in either of the basic texts of A.A. Bill affirmed that the Absolutes would have linked A.A. and the Oxford Group in the public mind, therefore he did not refer to them in drafting either the Big Book or the Twelve and Twelve. Bill did say, however, that the Four Absolutes - the principles of exercising absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love - are implicit in each of the 12 Steps. (For a fulsome understanding of the the historical and spiritual roots and development of A.A. and the 12 Step Recovery Movement, generally, I have found no better outside, non-Conference approved source than Ernest Kuntz's book, '"Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous", in which Mr. Kuntz critically examines the Four Absolutes and how Recovery "old-timers" and pioneers used the Absolutes in their recovery.)

How Recovery's Pioneers Utilized the Four Absolutes

Bill W. clearly states that our physical addictions are not the addict's (alcoholic or otherwise) problem. Rather the physical addictions we suffer are really the manifested symptoms of a deeper psychological and spiritual problem in the mind and being of the addicted alcoholic.

In A.A.'s "Big Book", Bill examines the addictive 'acting out' that anyone familiar with those in recovery has witnessed near countless times - the alcoholic who wants to but cannot refrain from drinking again, the recovering junkie that jams a needle into her arm one more time, the bizarre behaviour of the workaholic, sex addict or compulsive gambler that brings their 'world' crashing down around their ears as they descend back into their addictive thinking and behavioural patterns, seemingly helpless to restrain themselves from engaging in their old, destructive ways.

"The problem of the alcoholic centers in the mind," Bill writes, at page 23 of Alcoholics Anonymous. If addictions did not center in the mind and in the addict's habitual thoughts and habitual, conditioned ways of thinking about their 'world', refraining from the destructive actions that fuel an addiction - refraining from drinking oneself to death, gorging oneself or starving oneself to death, gambling away all the resources one needs to physically survive - would be a fairly straightforward proposition. But it is not that simple.

A friend of mine, whose former appetite for and addiction to anything that would get 'him out of him' was prodigious by any standards, aptly observed, "God knows. . . . If there is one thing an addict loves, it's a habit!" Our addiction and clinging to our habitually and fearfully conditioned way of perceiving our "selves" and "our world", our thoughts and perceptions, is the underlying addiction. Our thoughts and perceptions, if unchecked, will manifest in the"symptoms" of addiction - be it drinking, drugging, or whatever the addict's particular proclivity for compulsive gambling, eating patterns, sexual excess etc. are.)

Our thoughts dictate our actions and our state of being, or 'Be-ing'. Indeed, they dictate the very state of our consciousness. "As a man thinketh, so he is," wrote James Allen, one of the spiritual teachers Bill relied on in coming to understand and write about his former helplessness in the face of his addiction to alcohol, and how that helplessness had been removed by his reliance on the God of his own understanding - a God personal to him, and to each of us.

The actions we take, the decisions to say or do something  or to refrain from saying or doing something - in short, the exercise of our "will" - are solely based on the thoughts that we entertain in our mind, and the emotions within us which those thoughts produce. Over time, as an addict indulges his addiction, his or her very mind becomes warped and distorted by the recurring thoughts, or obsessions, that drive the sufferer back to the seeming comfort and ease of addictive behaviour. The state of mind and the thoughts of the sufferer, in turn, are dictated by the level of consciousness we sufferers of addiction entertain - by the perceptions and seeming awareness of our 'selves', others and the world that we "live and move and have our being" in.

The Third Step of the 12-Step Recovery Method describes how, "We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him." Bill clearly states in his essay on Step 3 that, "Our whole problem had been the misuse of our willpower. We had tried to bombard our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into alignment with God's intention for us."

How then do we determine "what God's intention for us" is? Further, how do we go about disciplining the "punishing inner dialogue" and raucous shrieking of our separate little 'selves' - our woefully precious, judgmental and defensive little egos - the seemingly endless stream of thoughts that so disquiet us, the state of our being through which we are driven  to smash life head-on with our actions and words, all in a vain attempt to manage and wrest personal satisfaction and happiness out of a life so bruisingly assaulted?

What methods can we use to determine whether we are once again self-deluded and the decisions we are about to undertake, or are contemplating taking, are in alignment not with the deeper God-consciousness within us - the small, quiet and intuitive voice that is so often drowned out by the addictive quality and soothingly 'rational' and 'logical' common-sense of the addict's ego - but rather such decisions are based in and on our narrow, but strident ego-centric, self-consciousness?

(Ego, as it is used here and was used by Bill in his writings, is not to be confused with 'ego' as meaning our sense or feelings of 'pride' as the word later came to be defined in the years after Bill had written Alcoholics Anonymous, but rather ego is used in its original sense and definition, that being our sense of 'self' or the seemingly real but false sense of separate individuality. I think of it merely as the voice of my reasoning and logic running overtime, the "voice in the head" that Bill credited with investing in him a sense of "anxious apartness".)

In facing critical decisions - in trying to understand whether the decisions they were about to act upon were the thoughts of the ego or their God-consciousness - Bill, Bob and other A.A. pioneers cut their spiritual teeth in the Oxford Group by utilizing the Four Absolutes.

First, take note that God's intention for us, it is fair to say, is that we be relieved of that which separates us from Wholeness, or from God, and that the separating factor is the 'bondage of self" we pray to be relieved of in the Third Step Prayer. It is by having this barrier to others (and to life or God Itself) removed, by breaking this mental barricade between our seemingly separate being and the entirety of God, that we become able to "bear witness" to the rest of humanity and to life itself by acting as examples of God's "power, love and way of life." (No mean or easy feat, and one I find myself making amends for on a regular basis when I fall short.)

Next, knowing that we need to determine at what level of consciousness we are responding to life's challenges with, and in order to help us determine whether the actions or inaction we are considering are self-inspired or God-inspired, we can apply the Four Absolutes. They enable us to determine whether our actions or proposed actions are examples of where we are driven by self-will or if, in fact, we are being guided by God's will.

In his last public talk, which is set out in the A.A. Co-Founders pamphlet, Dr. Bob said that anytime he was faced with making a decision (i.e., the necessity of exercising his will) and he was uncertain what course of action was the one that God would have him take, he would examine that decision by applying the Four Absolutes to it.

The process of utilizing the Four Absolutes to check whether we are about to bombard our seeming 'problems' with an exercise of our self-will, or are in actuality turning the exercise of our willpower over to the care and protection of God, is fairly simple. As set out in a pamphlet entitled "The Four Absolutes", made available through the A.A.'s Cleveland District Service Office, all that is necessary to determine whether we are making decisions and basing our actions on our 'self' will or on God's will, is to examine the proposed action or inaction in light of the four following questions:
Absolute Honesty - Ask your "self": Is this action/inaction true or false?

Absolute Purity - Ask your "self: Is this action/inaction good or bad?

Absolute Unselfishness - Removing "you" and "your" self-interest from the equation altogether, ask your "self": How will this action/inaction affect others?

Absolute Purity - Ask your "self": Is this action/inaction beautiful or ugly?
Doctor Bob said that when he went through this process in times of difficulties or when he was facing difficult decisions he needed to make, the answers and internal guidance he needed to move forward in assurance that he was exercising his will under the protection and care of God would stand out clearly in most instances when the Four Absolutes were applied. If his own application of the Four Absolutes did not yield clear guidance to him so that he could act or forego acting with certainty, he would then consult with two or three individuals he knew to be living the clear, simple, spiritual life he had embraced. When he needed to do so, Dr. Bob knew that the guidance, protection and care he required from God for his continued well-being would always come if the Absolutes were applied with a heart that was open, honest and willing to perceive the uncommonly common sense of the still, small voice within.

The Four Absolutes are thus powerful and too- often unmentioned tools in the spiritual toolkit we each put together in our Recovery. Oftentimes, they have proven to be my most valuable spiritual tool and I have reached to them instead of grabbing the hammer of anger or the duct tape of sloth that I would otherwise have grabbed to deal with my life 'problems'.

Applying the Absolutes brings me back the ability to respond to life instead of merely reacting to it. When used, they help me to "Keep it Simple" and "Easy Do It" without "Think, Think, Thinking" myself into the 'disasters' I have so often brought onto myself and others when exercising self-will in the past.

(See also, Basic Recovery Tools: Part II and Basic Recovery Tools: Part III)


The books and pamphlet's mentioned in this blogpost, with the exception of Mr. Kuntz's book, '"Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous" and the "Four Absolutes" pamphlet may be ordered through the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York, or picked up at most any meeting of A.A. world-wide. The General Service Office link, above, will also enable you to quickly and easily find an A.A. meeting in you local area.

The books Alcoholics Anonymous - Big Book 4th Edition, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A. A., Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers and 'Pass It On': The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A. A. Message Reached the World may also be purchased through and delivered worldwide.