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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bill's Reflections on A.A. . . . Its History, Message and Solution

"Three Talks" Pamphlet
Of all the pamphlets published by Alcoholics Anonymous, perhaps the most helpful - at least for beginning members who have taken Step One and admitted their alcoholism and personal powerlessness - is the "Three Talks to Medical Societies by Bill W., co-founder of AA," pamphlet. Certainly, it is the only pamphlet that is referred to directly in the Big Book (in Appendix III, "The Medical View on A.A.") The "Three Talks" pamphlet provides beginners with a brief, yet concise, history of A.A., its message  and "solution."

Taken from Bill's 1958 presentation to the New York City Medical Society on Alcoholism, the first of the "Three Talks" is particularly helpful, giving a precise synopsis of how A.A. came to be formed, how the program works, and just what A.A.'s "solution" for the suffering alcoholic is.

After preliminary remarks, Bill dives right into the history and message of A.A., relating how Carl Jung told Oxford Grouper to-be, Rolland H. (that "certain American business man" described on page 26 of the Big Book) that once in a while a "vital spiritual experience" will remove an alcoholic's mania for drink. Bill describes this as the moment when "the first taproot of A.A. hit paydirt."

Importantly, Bill includes Dr. Jung's description of precisely how these "huge emotional displacements and rearrangements" affect the psyches of alcoholics:

"Ideas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them."
(This, of course, is what happened to Bill when he had his sudden and abrupt "spiritual awakening" in Townes Hospital, a number of years after Jung spoke to Rolland H.)

Next, Bill relates how Rolland carried this message to the man who would become Bill's "sponsor," Ebby Thattcher, thereby establishing "the second cardinal principle of A.A." - the "identification at depth" of one alcoholic with another. (Elsewhere, he would call this principle, the only original idea in A.A.'s 'program,' everything else being "borrowed" from other sources, ancient and modern.)

Bill then tells how Ebby visited him at his home (the night that Bill's "gin would last longer than his preaching"), and he then sets out the simple, "word-of-mouth" program of action that Ebby had been working and offered to Bill, in the following manner:
  1. Ebby admitted that he was powerless to manage his own life.
  2. He became honest with himself as never before; made an "examination of conscience."
  3. He made a rigorous confession of his personal defects and thus quit living alone with his problems.
  4. He surveyed his distorted relations with other people, visiting them to make what amends he could.
  5. He resolved to devote himself to helping others in need, without the usual demand for personal prestige or material gain.
  6. By meditation, he sought God's direction for his life and the help to practice these principles of conduct at all times.
 (Bill later explains that, "For the sake of greater clarity and thoroughness, the word-of-mouth program which my friend Ebby had given me was enlarged into what we now call A.A.'s 'Twelve Suggested Steps for recovery.'")

Note that the only reference to "a Higher Power" is in Ebby's last point, that "by meditation" direction and help was sought. Of course, A.A.'s Step 11 says that it is "through meditation and prayer" that we seek "to improve our conscious contact with God" as we understand that conception. Yet, how many times do we hear continually relapsing A.A. members - and even season veterans - relating how they pray, pray, pray. And how many times do they mention meditation? This is no small point. Oxford Groupers and early A.A. members had a sustained practice of meditation or "quiet time" in the morning, before they made their plans for the day, and a similar meditation time at night.

"By meditation, he sought
          God's direction for his life . . ."
If all we do is "talk" to God - affirming and invoking God's presence and power in our lives - but never "listen" in meditatioin, how are we to effect a conscious contact. It is through meditation that we gain the ability to change the level and focus of our consciousness (from self-consciousness, which is the problem, to God-consciousness, which is the solution).

At Step 11 in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill describes  how an interwoven and logically interrelated practice of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" will provide us with an "unshakeable foundation." Prayer, while beneficial in and of itself, is not sufficient. Meditation must be a part of our practice to gain the ultimate benefits that A.A. offers.

Finally, Bill relates his own sudden spiritual awakening, how William James' Varieties of Spiritual Experience confirmed the reality of his experience, and how the Varieties outlined that "ego deflation at depth," or "a complete defeat in a controlling area of life," is a necessary precondition for a true and effective spiritual experience.

The balance of the Three Talks pamphlet describes the contribution of Townes Hospital's Dr. Silkworth, his contribution that clarifies alcoholism is both an allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind, and the further growth of the A.A. movement.

Of course, alcoholism and addiction are no less a problem now than they were in 1958. Yet Bill's closing remarks to the medical professionals of New York is no less relevant. He concludes by making a pledge that "A.A. will always stand ready to cooperate" with the whole medical community. "When our combined understanding have been fully massed and applied," he presciently predicts, "we of A.A. know that we shall find our friends of medicine in the very front rank - just where so many of you are already standing today."

This last remark stands out when we consider that "detox" and "rehab" were not a part of the larger vocabulary in 1958. And yet, it clarifies the point that both A.A. and the medical/treatment center communities have a vital role to play in providing a "solution" to the still suffering alcoholic addict.

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