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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Despair, Hope and the Nature of a Spiritual Awakening

For permanent and contented sobriety, the alcoholic addict in recovery is dependent, first, in attaining a spiritual awakening and, secondly, on the daily maintenance of his or her spiritual condition.
"If, when you honestly want to," we read in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, "you find that you cannot quit entirely, of if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic. If that be the case, you may be suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer."
[Alcoholics Anonymous, page 44.]
Carl G. Jung
But what is the nature of such a "spiritual experience" and what might trigger such a process? In the 'Big Book', Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, is said to have described such "spiritual experiences" as being "phenomena . . . (which) appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements." Importantly, he notes that the existing "ideas, emotions and attitudes" of the alcoholic are replaced with "a completely new set of conceptions and motives."
[Alcoholics Anonymous, page 27.]

A.A. co-founder (and principal author of the 'Big Book'), Bill Wilson, famously experienced just such a sudden and unexpected spiritual awakening just prior to his receiving treatment for his chronic alcoholism at Townes Hospital in New York in December of 1934. At the time, his sudden and profound conversion experience initially scared the formerly agnostic Wilson. He sought assurance from his attending physician that he had not gone completely insane, and was somewhat reassured that he had not. Later, his sponsor, Ebby T., brought him a copy of William James' "The Varieties of Spiritual Experience." Reading this volume, Wilson was further reassured, not only of his sanity, but of the reality and efficacy of the spiritual awakening he had undergone.
"Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it," James observes, "is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different."

"We may go through life without suspecting their existence," he notes, "but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation."

"No account of the universe in its totality," he writes, "can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them," he notes, "is the question - for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness."

"Yet," he observes, "they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality."
[Wm. James, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," p. 388.]
William James
(1842 -1910)
It seems probable from Wilson's varied writings, including his account in the 'Big Book,' that there were two stimuli which sparked his sudden and unexpected "spiritual awakening." The first was his attending physician's diagnosis that he would soon die or have to be institutionalized as a result of his uncontrollable drinking. The second it seems, was the hope that his sponsor, Ebby inspired in him. Together with the assurance that he could rely on a God of his own conception, Bill describes how his intellectual reservations melted away when Ebby visited him, and how he "stood in the sunlight at last."

The presence of profound despair and the infusion of sudden hope, it seems, sparked Bill's awakening, and his reaction to these emotional stimuli - i.e, his sudden and profound spiritual awakening - it turns out, was not necessarily abnormal. In "The Varieties of Religious Experience," James describes precisely how such a violent swing of emotions can trigger the emotional rearrangement that he (like Jung) characterizes as the essence of a spiritual awakening or "conversion."
"Emotional occasions, especially violent ones," James observes, "are extremely potent in precipitating mental rearrangements. This sudden and explosive ways in which love, jealousy, guilt, fear, remorse or anger can seize upon one are known to everybody. Hope, happiness, security, resolve, emotions characteristic of conversion, can be equally explosive."

"And," he points out, "emotions that come in this explosive way seldom leave things as they found them."
[Wm. James, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," p. 198.]
Thus, experience shows how it is possible that an alcoholic addict in recovery, sharing at depth with another who is in emotional despair, may help precipitate a spiritual awakening that will relieve the sufferer from his or her addiction.

Of course, as was the case with Ebby and Bill, it is also necessary to show the sufferer exactly what steps he or she must take to assure the effectiveness of such an awakening. For, as William James notes, above, such experiences "open a region (of consciousness) though they fail to give a map."

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