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The author of Gresham’s Law and Alcoholics Anonymous discusses the importance of avoiding political, religious, medical, and sectarian pitfalls on the road to recovery, without falling into the worst trap of all – “weak cup of tea” AA.
We find early on, as the AA Big Book states in chapter 2, that getting sober – booze sober or drug sober or whatever form sobriety takes for you from your particular addiction – depends on learning how to say “No” to the “first drink.” This is something that is beyond our own finest thoughts and our strongest resolves through will-power.
No matter how smart you are, how well-educated you are, how experienced you are (world traveler – been there and done that), it doesn’t matter: as a hooked addict, you’re a loser, and this whole Program is about taking losers and turning them into winners.
The little group of original AA members, between 1935 and 1939, discovered a very odd thing: By doing a few relatively simple things along spiritual lines, without sectarianism and without anything that was beyond the elementary level in the spiritual department, these once-promising, but now-wrecked, human beings could attain sobriety and were attaining it at a previously unthinkable rate. The AA Program never guaranteed restoration of health, wealth, or relationships, but it did promise sobriety and a return to sanity – and it delivered on that promise over 75% of the time.
To cash in on that promise, what we have to do is to back up to this notion that a Power greater than ourselves can do what we can’t do for ourselves, and that our recovery hinges on getting and maintaining a living relationship with that Power. That was true in 1935, and it is true today. And yet, today, the majority of the recoveries being pursued throughout the Anonymous Fellowships are not based on this kind of real spiritual experience, but on something that is a crude imitation, with a lot of running around to meetings, a lot of self-counseling, and not very much serious pursuit of improved conscious contact with God. The driving principle is: Saturate yourself in the society by going to meetings virtually daily, do a lot of interacting, and thus you’ll get clean and stay clean. Unfortunately, that approach works in way less than 75% of the cases – maybe more like 20% or even fewer.
Program slogans like “Keep it simple” and “Easy does it” have been altered from their early sense to justify a minimalist approach to living the Twelve Steps and Four Absolutes. The requirement, stated in chapter 5 of the Big Book – “We are not saints. The point is we are willing to grow along spiritual lines.” – is largely abandoned in the actual practice of a majority of groups throughout the Fellowships. Believe me, I tried as hard as anyone to get by with the minimum possible dose for my first six years in AA, and I kept falling on my ass.
If you’re trying the Program this way and failing, here is our suggestion: Instead of looking for a new type of group therapy, drug therapy, vocational therapy, geographical therapy, or whatever, instead just try taking a stronger dose of the old, tried-and-true AA Program medicine. Practice the full Program – the Steps and Absolutes – and our experience over many years is that you will certainly succeed.
No less an authority than AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith took it back to this basic wisdom in his last public speech before he died. In effect, what he said was, “Take it back to the Absolutes, folks. If you don’t use the Absolutes as yardsticks, all of your nice Twelve Steps are going to turn into relative pop psychology.” And indeed they have.
In the final analysis, the only thing that will sustain your recovery – long term – is spiritual experience, and you’d better be willing to work for it. These original AA members – Bill, Dr. Bob, and the rest – were endlessly on the lookout for anything that would provide real spiritual experience, and they were shockingly daring in how far they were willing to go to get it.
I used to sit in the front room at Stepping Stones (Bill Wilson’s home in Bedford Hills, NY) as a kid and listen to these unforgettable discussions. Bill, Dr. Bob, and their friends – including my dad – had heart. They were willing to tip tables, work ouija boards, go to seances and all this incredible far-out stuff. And into the 1950s, when that didn’t seem to be producing enough, some of them started running out to the West Coast and taking LSD – not as a kick, but under carefully controlled settings with spiritual directors and psychiatrists guiding them through the sessions in an attempt to improve conscious contact with a Higher Power. They were desperately serious and they were getting some real results.
But what they came back to after a lot of experiments, again and again, is that attempts to produce spiritual experience with most of these means were unreliable, if not downright dangerous – and that the Program as spelled out in the Big Book was all you needed for a foundation. However, today, sixty-nine years down the road, we have to remind ourselves that you can’t ever think that you can do without what they were shooting for: Real spiritual experience – God experience – conscious contact with the living God.
After you’ve had three or four months of good sobriety (which most people can get if they are willing to go to meetings regularly and take a little good sponsor advice about Steps 2, 3, and 11) you will move into the effective beginning of a spiritual awakening – a Big Book level of spiritual experience.
One of the Bible passages that the early AAs referred to in putting together their recovery Program was First Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 13, that says, “And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” In this business of moving toward growth in spiritual experience, we begin with hope, which means that you just don’t assign yourself in advance to the class of losers mentioned in the opening paragraph of chapter 5 of the Big Book where it says basically, “Some people don’t get this program, they seem to have been born that way.” Don’t go there – that is a cop-out. Faith just means keep believing in the Program. Love means you’ve got to realize that once you start getting a spiritual experience, that if you want to hang on to it, you’ve got to start giving it away and keep giving it away. Most of us in the early going don’t match Bill Wilson’s burning desire to spend a whole lifetime passing on the AA message. Most of us remain sufficiently self-absorbed that it’s a long time before we do enough Twelfth Step work. Either communicating the Program message to those newer than us, or listening to advice about the Program message from those senior to us. (Ah, there is the rub: Taking good advice when it goes against the grain.)
Until AA burst on the scene, recoveries from alcoholism were at the rate of around 2 to 3 percent, mostly spontaneous remission. With the advent of the Program as spelled out in the Big Book, that rate went from 2% to 75%. It held there from 1935 to 1965. Today, due almost entirely to the watering down of the spiritual part of the Program throughout all the Fellowships, the recovery rate has dropped radically. To ramp it up for yourself to the much higher original rate, all you have to do is keep it simple – adhere strictly to the basic principles of this Program – but at the same time, don’t keep it so simple, so spare, that you effectively fall short of full Program practice, and fail to “grow along spiritual lines.”
So it’s a very positive situation. If you get a group where the practice is strong enough, and you just hang in and don’t quit, after a while it stops being hard, and that’s when life gets really, really good. And that’s what the first 100 AAs were lit up with. That is why the tone of the Big Book is so astonishingly positive, without having a nickel’s worth of phony optimism in it – none.
The above article is condensed from a transcript of a Training meeting of the Upstate Group of All Addicts Anonymous. These meetings are held on a variety of topics, covering all aspects of ongoing spiritual development in the Program.
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