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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reflections on A.A.'s Early History: The Cental Role of Meditation

In a 1958 lecture delivered to the New York City Medical Society on Alcoholism (contained in the "Three Talks to Medical Societies" pamphlet) Bill W. described the fateful evening when Ebby T. came to visit him in his home. Surprisingly, Ebby was sober. And, as if that wasn't bad enough from Bill's point of view, Ebby had "got religion." Nevertheless, Bill heard Ebby out, and afterwards, as Bill describes it, "(t)he spark that was to become Alcoholics Anonymous had been struck."

Here, in Bill's words, is a summary of what ensued that evening:
". . . (H)e told me of his conversations with (Rowland H.), and how hopeless alcoholism really was, according to Dr. Carl Jung. Added to Dr. Silkworth's verdict, this was the worst possible news. I was hard hit. Next Ebby enumerated the principles he had learned from the Oxford Group. Though he thought these good people were sometimes too aggressive, he certainly couldn't find any fault with most of their basic teachings. After all, these teachings had sobered him up."

"In substance, here they are, as my friend applied them to himself in 1934:

      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.

"This sounded pretty naive to me," Bill recalls, "(n)evertheless, my friend stuck to the plain tale of what had happened. He related how, practicing these simple precepts, his drinking had unaccountably stopped. Fear and isolation had left, and he had received a considerable peace of mind. With no hard disciplines nor any great resolves, these changes began to appear the moment he conformed. His release from alcohol seemed to be a byproduct. Though sober but months, he felt sure he had a basic answer. Wisely avoiding arguments, he then left."

"The spark that was to become Alcoholics Anonymous had been struck," Bill points out. "One alcoholic had been talking to another, making a deep identification with me and bringing the principles of recovery within my reach."
Carl Jung: Click here to read
Jung's letter to Bill W.
Reading this account, I am struck by two seemingly separate but interrelated points: (1) the emphasis that is put upon Carl Jung's conclusions about alcoholism, and (2) the emphasis that is put on meditation for seeking God's direction for life. Indeed, prayer is not mentioned at all.

Jung's conclusions on alcoholism are set out on pages 26-27 of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, and indicate (a) that sometimes alcoholics have had"vital spiritual experiences" sufficient to relieve their alcoholism, (b) that such experiences seem to be "in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements, and (c) that "(i)deas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motivations begin to dominate them."

These conclusions are related to Ebby's sixth point, that he and the original Oxford Groupers utilized meditation to ascertain how they should implement their spiritual principles into their conduct at all time. Meditation, it seems, is the process by which we raise our minds to a higher level which is devoid of our old thoughts and ways of thinking. Thus, old ideas, emotions and attitudes are, indeed, "cast to one side."

Ebby T. with Bill W.
In a subsequent biography ("Ebby: The Man Who Sponsored Bill W."), Ebby describes how he and Rowland H. practiced the Oxford Group principles, including daily meditation.
"Rowland gave me a great many things that were of a great value to me later on," Ebby recalls. "He had a thorough indoctrination and he passed as much of this on to me as he could. When we took trips together we would get up early in the morning, and before we even had any coffee, we would sit down and try to rid ourselves of any thoughts of the material world and see if we couldn't find out the best plans for our lives for that day and to follow whatever guidance came to us."
Ebby's observations about the centrality and importance of meditation are reflected in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous (at pages 86-87), where we read:
"On awakening let us think about the twenty-four hours ahead. We consider our plans for the day. Before we begin (however), we ask God to direct our thinking,  especially asking that it be divorced from self-pity, dishonest or self-seeking motives. . . . In thinking about our day ahead we may face indecision. We may not be able to determine which course to take. Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision. We relax and take it easy. We don't struggle. We are often surprised how the right answers come after we have tried this for a while."
 And the result of such a meditative practice?  "What used to be the hunch or the occasional inspiration," we read, "gradually becomes a working part of the mind." Thus, if we are to experience the wholesale change in our "ideas, emotions and attitudes" that marks a spiritual awakening and thus relieves us from our alcoholism, the practice of effecting a conscious contact with God through daily meditation is absolutely crucial.

Supplicatory prayer which affirms and invokes God's help, while important, is a lesser form of a direct and conscious contact with a Higher Power. Meditation is the process by which we effect and improve such conscious contact, while contemplation - the highest form of prayer - is going out from meditation into the world, while maintaining our conscious contact with God so that we may truly practice A.A.'s principles in all our affairs.

All three types of prayer, but particularly meditation, were emphasized in early A.A., and  all three continue to be applicable and essential today if we are to effect, attain and maintain a vital spiritual experience of God in this world.

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