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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Was Bill's Spiritual Experience? Did He Experience Satori?

What was the nature of the sudden spiritual awakening that Bill W. underwent in Towns hospital? What propelled this particular low-bottom alcoholic not only into a lifetime of continuous sobriety but to single-handedly envision a network of recovering alcoholics; and then, after six months futile effort, to build Alcoholics Anonymous into what it is today with the help of Doctor Bob?

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous Bill describes it as if he were on a mountain and the with the wind seemingly blow through him, he remarked, "So this is the God of my forefathers." In his autobiography, My Name is Bill W. (Hazelden Press) he also describes the presence of an all encompassing lights. All these symptoms fall into what Richard M. Bucke calls "cosmic consciousness." Bucke's book, Cosmic Consciousness, is among the collection of spiritual books in Bills library at Stepping Stones, Bill's residence in his later sobriety. (He undoubtedly referred to Cosmic Consciousness in coming to understand what happened to him, and to write the Big Book, as it is a reference in Wm. James' Varieties of Religious Experience with respect to alcoholism.)

In Pass It On: The story of Bil Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world (at page 302), one of Bill's close friends, Bill P. discusses what happened to Bill in the moment of his "hot flash" at Townes Hospital. "The thing Bill had was a perfectly clear case of satori or somate," he says. "You know by the fruits. The guy goes out and starts to act like an enlightened man. No one ever went further to prove it than that man did - he led a life of total service."
[Note: "satori" is the term for the moment of achieving enlightenment in Buddhism, particularly Zen Vuddhism, while "somate" - or, more commonly, "samadhi" - is the state of enlightenment on Hinduism, most particularly in the Shankya and Advaita Vedanta schools of Hinduism.]
So what about it? Did Bill Wilson achieve enlightenment, or cosmic consciousness as Bucke termed it,
in that moment at Townes Hospital when Bill first felt the presence of God? Did he experience satori?

Certainly, in Appendix II of the Big Book (the Spiritual Experience Appendix) the point is made that not all of the spiritual awakenings experienced by AA's early members were of the same sudden and momentous type of awakening that Bill experienced, and that many such experiences were of "the educational variety" described in Varieties of Religious Experience; nonetheless, many early AA's, including Bill, did experience an abrupt awakening. Many experienced an abrupt and "entire psychic change" brought about by the sudden deflation of the ego structure - the spontaneous collapse of what James termed the "stream of consciousness, what Bill called the "painful inner dialogue." Such spontaneous collapse and silencing of egoic thinking are the primary hallmark of satori.

D.T. Suzuki, the Japanes Zen Master who was the principle teacher who introduced Zen Buddhism to the United States, had the following to say about the nature and experience of satori:
D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)
"As for satori itself, it will turn into an act or a form of intuition. Zen does not propose this kind of miracle. In satori the continuum [of consciousness and time] is not subjected to the process of intellection and differentiation; it is not a concept here, though we have to speak of it as if it were. Satori is the continuum [of consciousness and time] becoming aware of itself. When it perceives itself as it is in itself there is a satori. There is in satori no differentiation of subject and object What is perceived is the percipient itself, and percipient is no other body that the perceived; the two are in a perfect state of identification; even to speak of identification is apt to mislead us to the assumption of two objects which are identified by an act of intuition." (Suzuki, Living by Zen, p. 50.)

When Ebby Thatcher visited Bill at Townes Hospital and suggested that he surrender and rely on a 'God of his own conception, Bill describes how this "melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow [he] had lived and shivered many years." [Emphasis added.] It was at this point that he "stood in the sunlight at last."

Bill's satori moment is perfectly congruent with how Carl Jung described such an awakening or "vital spiritual experience" to that "certain American businessman," Roland Hazzard, who relayed that infomation to Ebby, and an thus, to Bill. At page 27 of the Big Book, Bill narrates how Jung described the "huge emotional displacements and rearrangements," or mental "phenomena," that had periodically acted as an antidote to alcoholism, in the following terms:
"Ideas, emotions and attitudes that were once the guiding force of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them."

While, as the Spiritual Experience Appendix notes, the thoughts, feelings and intellectual processes ("ideas, emotions and attitudes") that dominate the alcoholic mind are not always "suddenly cast to one side" or overcome in the spontaneous manner that Bill describes, often they are. This was my experience, as well as the experience of many AAs who have shared their experiences of spiritual awakening with me.

Sometimes such spontaneous awakenings come at the outset of an AA's sobriety, sometimes after years of practicing the Steps, particularly Step 11. Very often there are multiple distinct spiritual awakenings of the satori variety, and almost universally the beneficiary falls back from the spiritual heights of the experience of God-consciousness nd back to the ordinary and widespread ego-consciousness.

Bill, like St. John of the Cross and so many other individuals who have experienced satori and samadhi (what Christians call "mystic union"), suffered after it from "the dark night of the soul." In Bill's instance this period of depression lasted for almost a full decade after he fell from the spiritual heights he had achieved. And, yet, even then his actions, life, purposes and intent remained radically different  from what they were before his last admittance to Townes Hospital. It is because of this radical change in thinking and actions that what is important is the state of consciousness achieved; for it is in that state of "God-consciousness" (as the "more religious members" of A.A. call such a higher state of consciousness) that the alcoholic finds what will restore him or her to sanity, what will restore him or her to life. As D.T. Suzuki expresses it (at page 68 in Living By Zen):
The mind or consciousness, serially divided and developed in time, always escapes our prehension, is never 'attainable' as to its reality. It is only when our unconscious consciousness, or what might to called super-consciousness, comes to itself [and] is awakened to itself, that our eyes open to the timelessness of the present in which and from which divisible time unfolds itself and reveals its true nature. [Emphasis added.]
It is only in this "timelessness" and in reliance upon "intuition" and this "super-consciousness," "cosmic consciousness or "God-consciousness," that we can truly surrender and turn our will and lives over to a Higher Power, in which we can truly "Let Go and Let God," in which we can truly accept life moment-to-moment, and in which we can truly be "restored to sanity."

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