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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bill W., Spiritual Awakening and Enlightenment

Bill and Lois Wilson
The early 1960's were an especially productive time in Bill Wilson's life. Having divested himself of day-to-day responsibility for 'running' A.A., having completed his last major literary work (the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) and having cleared his side of the street in acknowledging the crucial role that Carl Jung played in kick-starting A.A., so to speak, Bill had time to reflect on the miracle that had happened not only to him, but to so many others.

In his personal life, Bill was searching widely to deepen his own spiritual experience, and in his public life was reaching out to those in A.A. who had perhaps not had the sudden enlightenment experience that he had experienced at the very beginning of his personal recovery, his so-called 'wind-on-the-mountain' moment.

Richard M. Bucke
Bill was undoubtedly aware of the significance of his own sudden spiritual awakening at Townes Hospital. In the library at Stepping Stones, Bill and Lois Wilson's home just outside New York City, was a copy of Richard M. Bucke's study of the enlightenment experience, "Cosmic Consciousness." In his study of  'enlightenment' and exploration of higher states of consciousness, Bucke sets out a dozen or so common symptoms of the 'enlightenment' experience, most of which criteria would describe Bill's experience at Townes Hospital.

Among the most immediate effects of such an experience, according to Bucke, are an overwhelming presence of light, a diminution of the ego into an expansive state of consciousness in which one feels at one with the world, as well as a moral imperative to share this experience with others. Although Bill does not mention this overwhelming light in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, he more often than not described it in recounting his experience in other forums.

Bill's reluctance to mention the overwhelming light it in the 'Big Book' may have been a prescient knowledge, born of his early unsuccessful work with drunks prior to meeting Dr. Bob, that his sudden and profound spiritual awakening was more than most people could fathom or would experience. Indeed, the 'Spiritual Experience' appendix was added to the second edition of the 'Big Book' in order to assure others that sudden spiritual awakenings such as Bill's were, perhaps, not the norm, and that true spritual insight and acuity could be gained just as readily by an awakening "of the educational variety."

In the July 1962 Grapevine, Bill tackled this issue directly, writing:
"It is the intention of the Grapevine to carry occasional accounts of spiritual experiences. To this interesting project I would like to say a few introductory words. There is a very natural tendency to set apart those experiences or awakenings which happen to be sudden, spectacular or vision-producing. Therefore, any recital of such cases always produces mixed reactions. Some will say, "I wish I could have an experience like that!" Others, feeling that this whole business is too far out on a mystic limb for them, or maybe hallucinatory after all, will say, "I just can't buy this business. I can't understand what these people are talking about."

"As most AA's have heard, I was the recipient in 1934 of a tremendous mystic experience or "illumination." It was accompanied by a sense of intense white light, by a sudden gift of faith in the goodness of God, and by a profound conviction of his presence. At first it was very natural for me to feel that this experience staked me out for somebody very special."

"But as I now look back upon this tremendous event, I can only feel very specially grateful. It now seems clear that the only special feature of my experience was its electric suddenness and the overwhelming and immediate conviction that it carried to me."

"In all other respects, however, I am sure that my own experience was not in the least different from that received by every AA member who has strenuously practiced our recovery program."
Aldous Huxley
Bill's non-alcoholic friend, the great polymath writer, spiritual seeker and philosopher, Aldous Huxley, observed that, "the metaphysic that recognizes a divine substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to or even identical with divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being - the thing is immemorial and universal."

Bill, of course, realized that this "Ground of all being" is, indeed, both immanent and universal. On page 55 of the 'Big Book,' when he explains exactly where we might find a God of our own understanding, he writes: "We found this Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that it may be found." (Emphasis added.)

Because Bill came to know that his experience was not exceptional (other than perhaps with respect to its sudden intensity), but that it was in fact a universal potential or reality, he could observe, so many years after his initial enlightenment, that, "we should question no one's transformation - whether it be sudden or gradual. Nor should we demand anyone's special type for our ourselves, because our own experience suggests that we are apt to receive whatever may be the most useful for our needs."

Thus, in his essay on Step Two in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill writes that "A.A.'s tread innumerable paths in their quest for faith. If you don't care for the one I've suggested, you'll be sure to discover one that suits if only you look and listen."

And just so long as we continue to probe the 'deep within' that lies within us all, we too will find "the Great Reality" of our own existence, of our own immanent and transcendental nature.

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