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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Higher Consciousness, the Perennial Philosophy, and the Divine Ground of Being

It was the writer and pioneering New Age philosopher, Aldous Huxley, who called Bill W. "the greatest social architect of the twentieth century," in recognition of the unique A.A. service structure that Bill worked so tirelessly to forge: ("Pass It On," pp. 368-369). Yet, Bill's affinity for, and friendship with, Huxley was based on their mutual dedication to exploring matters of spirituality, metaphysics, mysticism and higher consciousness. One wonders, in light of this, whether Huxley was not as much (or even moreso) impressed by the wholesale awakenings to a greater consciousness beyond the ego which were occurring among the early membership of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Like Gerald Heard, the polymath philosopher who brought Huxley and Bill together, Huxley viewed humankind's awakening to higher consciousness as an evolutionary imperative. In the same time frame in which he met Bill, Huxley wrote extensively on what he called the "perennial philosophy" underlying the world's sundry religions and wisdom traditions. In his introduction to a translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda (titled "Song of God"), Huxley wrote:
"At the core of the Perennial Philosophy we find four fundamental doctrines."

"First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness - the world of things and animals and men and even gods - is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent."

"Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower and the known."

"Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit."

"Fourth: man's life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground."
 Reading over these points, it is easy to see why there was such an affinity between Huxley and Wilson. By dint of his remarkable spiritual awakening at Townes Hospital - an awakening that left him initially questioning his very sanity - Bill had attained (albeit for a limited time) what Huxley would call "unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground" that lies within and yet surrounds each of us: that Divine Ground in which "we live, and move, and have our being."

Bill was obviously acutely aware of the very specific and non-dualistic "unitive knowledge" at the heart of true religious/mystic/spiritual experience, an awareness confirmed both by his personal experience and from his reading of William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, which is repeatedly cited in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. "When we became alcoholics," he wrote, "crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn't. What," he asked, "was our choice to be?" ('Big Book,' page 53.)

In retrospect, it seems eminently clear that Bill indeed experienced God as "everything" in his flash of spiritual insight, and it was this experience alone that arrested his slide into drunken oblivion and insanity. "The thing Bill had was a perfectly clear case of satori or somate," noted his friend Tom P. "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." ("Pass It On," page 302.)

The effectiveness of such a non-dualistic unitive experience in overcoming chronic alcoholism was confirmed by Carl Jung in his later correspondence with Bill. "(The) craving for alcohol," Jung observed, "(is) on a low level the thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: union with God."

"The only right and legitimate way to such an experience," Jung pointed out, "is that it happen to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You may be led to that goal," he observed, "by an act of grace, or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond mere rationalism."

It was Bill's good fortune (and ours) - although Jung might call it a series of synchronicities - that he was introduced to the Oxford Group's methodology and was shown by Ebby (who was remarkably sober at that time) its effectiveness in overcoming acute alcoholism. The Oxford Group's "program" (from which Bill would derive A.A.'s Twelve Steps) was clearly "a path that leads . . . to higher understanding" beyond the confines of the limited and self-conscious duality of the human ego, a path that led Bill, Dr. Bob, and now millions of other sufferers, to a "unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground."

That a path to "a higher understanding of the mind beyond mere rationality" had been established, a path that had already brought about wholesale spiritual awakenings for tens of thousands of individuals, was undoubtedly a matter of the greatest interest to non-alcoholic spiritual seekers such as Huxley and Heard. In the 1940's and 1950's, these men (and their associates) were busy exploring the various means by which individuals could move from shallow, self-conscious, ego-centricity to higher consciousness, an exploration that would lay the foundations for widespread explorations of higher consciousness that would occur in the 1960's. It was this spiritual  "discovery" more so than the development of A.A.'s traditional service structure, one suspects, that led Huxley to call Bill "the greatest social architect of the twentieth century."

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