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The critical quality of a great turning point in your life is apt to be missed at the time and only recognized later. One Wednesday evening in October, 1941, there were some thirty men and women assembled in a small room in the East tower of the County Center Building in White Plains, New York. As I entered the room — it was my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous — I had no idea of the magnitude of the change I was exposing myself to.
It is true, I was looking for help and half expecting to find it here. But even so, I had no way of knowing or guessing that I was crossing a watershed, a great divide, on the other side of which my life would be utterly changed — altered in certain ways which I found agreeable and profitable, but transformed also in other ways which at first I could not have imagined and did not have the vision or the largeness of heart to desire.
At that first meeting I was both receptive and unreceptive. It is certainly possible to be both simultaneously, and most newcomers are both. I was receptive because I needed and wanted help. I was a bad drinker, just out of my second trip to the mental institution in 14 months, with the smell of metrazol [a chemical once used to induce convulsion in shock treatment] still fresh in my nose, and with the realization clear in my mind that compulsive alcoholic drinking was the cause of my troubles. I wanted to stop drinking, and I had been told that the people in this room knew how to do that. And as the meeting progressed, I found myself believing readily enough that indeed they did know how to do what I had repeatedly tried and repeatedly failed to do: say No to that first drink. So I listened to what they said and took it seriously.
I was unreceptive because certain of the things that were talked about seemed to me simply unreal. To my mind God was unreal, and therefore prayer and meditation were unreal. I didn’t argue about these things openly. I just ignored them and kept coming back to meetings, because I wanted the kind of help these people were able to give me.
There are two great, living realities in Alcoholics Anonymous: the Fellowship and the Program. Comparing these two is like comparing your right and left legs; both are necessary if you are to climb steadily and maintain your balance on the road to recovery.
It was the Fellowship that loomed largest for me at first, so large that I let the Program take a dangerously neglected second place. I liked the meetings from the start. I liked the people and the talking and the helping of others; from the earliest days, 12th Step work was big for me. And from this activity the strength and truth of the movement flowed into me. I got sober and stayed sober, and my life began to change in striking ways. My job began to go well. My home life greatly and beautifully improved. I began to experience joy in ordinary things which I had not known since childhood.
Meanwhile of course I heard of the Twelve Steps, and I gained some understanding of them. I practiced what seemed to apply to me and ignored the rest, and since my atheism remained unchanged, a large part of the Program was ignored. As a result, Alcoholics Anonymous for me meant a big dose of the Fellowship accompanied by a very limited practice of a truncated Program. For this imbalance I paid a high price.
After some months of sobriety I began to drink again, and in spite of strenuous work in the Fellowship — frequent attendance at meetings and a lot of activity in trying to help others — I was unable to regain my sobriety. Over a period of years the drinking continued, and although I believed in the Fellowship and worked hard in it all that time, it was ineffective for me. Ineffective at the level of maintaining sobriety. It was effective in giving me enough hope and enough sanity to keep trying, to keep coming to meetings, and to keep in touch with my AA friends.
And then one day I saw what my trouble was. Lying in a hospital bed in a drying-out place the week after Easter 1946, I saw something to which I had been blind before. I saw the importance of the Program. I saw that I had been trying to substitute the Fellowship for the Program, and that you simply can’t do that and get away with it. Again, it is like trying to substitute one of your legs for the other; you can’t walk that way.
This process of clear seeing went on for some days. I saw that the Program means exactly what it says, and that you can’t change it or twist it around to suit your prejudices or your old ideas and still have it work for you. It is what it is, and its power comes from that — from what it is. It is a God-given distillation of hard experience that cannot be changed because it is true as stated, and because the kind of changes that a fool like me wants to make in it falsify it. It works because it is true, and of course it doesn’t work when falsified.
For the first time in all my years in AA, I took the card in my hand and read the Twelve Steps carefully, slowly, trying to understand what they are saying. I began to do this every day. I also read the Big Book, studying it as what it is: a textbook on the application of the Steps.
This approach to the Program greatly intensified my first love, my love of the brethren — my joy in the Fellowship. Now the two legs worked together, and I walked at last in blessed sobriety, one day at a time, day after day after day, greatly thanking God.
I don’t know just when my intellectual pretensions and prejudices against the Deity began to melt. Even when you are failing in the Fellowship, it does you good. I heard a lot of people — many of them very intelligent people — say that God had helped them. And after a while — I don’t quite know how — I got down off my high horse. And this was the secret. This was what opened my mind and my heart to the power of the Program.
And now, many sober years later, one day at a time my valuation of the Program has increased beyond measure, along with my ever-deepening love of the Fellowship.
The Program is no accident and no mere incident in the growth of a society. It is a landmark in one of the great dispensations of grace of this age. Without the Program the Fellowship would never have got started, and without the Program the Fellowship surely could not have survived. The Program is the treasure in the field.
This singular compendium of spiritual principles — this lean, compact, rigorously stripped-down epitome of the knowledge it takes for an addict to recover — this beautifully disciplined, radically simple, yet fully satisfactory and adequate statement of what an alcoholic must do in order to regain his sanity — did not appear, and could not have appeared, in the ordinary course of human events. It can only be understood in terms of inspiration, the infusion of wisdom from a higher level, the gift to men of paranormal, supernatural know-how and power in response to a desperate spiritual need.
The simplicity of the Twelve Steps is deceptive to the uninitiated. It both conceals and reveals an extraordinary road-map of the way to God — and thus to sanity, responsibility and the meaning of human life. There are greater maps than the Twelve Steps. The Bible, for example, is immeasurably greater. But there are none so reduced to essentials — so devoid of controversial or confusing elements — and so well within the understanding and practical grasp of weak men, sick men, bad men, insane men.
The Twelve Steps are a life jacket for men drowning in the sea of addiction. And this jacket will also float other kinds of flounderers in the sea of modern imbecility and corruption — the drug addicts, the food addicts, the sex addicts, the anxious, the depressed.
Simple as it is, the AA Program presents real difficulties of access, and these cannot be safely ignored. Any bright 12-year-old child can understand what the Program is saying. But many a bright fully mature man and woman has failed to comprehend its message.
Chief among the obstacles to a practical understanding of the Twelve Steps seems to be an attitude of intellectual arrogance and superiority. The Steps do not speak to the man who knows it all already. They leave such a person stewing in his own pride and contempt. The commandment found in the New Testament to become as a little child applies critically here. And no amount of exteriorly imposed humiliation by itself will bring your head low enough to go through this gate. Along with whatever aid environmental disaster may be to you — and of course it may be great — you still must humble yourself under the mighty hand of God in order to see the greatness and to receive the great power of the principles embodied in this brief statement of the beginning of the road to freedom.
Second only to arrogance — and maybe not even second but rather the ground of arrogance — is infantile personal self-will as a barrier to an effective relationship with the Program. Many adults and nearly all addicts carry the infant’s totally self-centered demands over and incorporate them basically into the adult life-style. If you must have your own way in everything, why then the Program remains beyond your comprehension and beyond your reach, because it is precisely the giving up of your own personal self-will to the care of the Higher Power and to the requirements of the truth that the Program prescribes.
A real regenerative Program, one that is capable of producing fundamental and decisive life-change, is always the result of inspiration, coupled with the type of human genius which is able to receive, elaborate, and communicate inspiration.
Perhaps you think that any reasonably intelligent man or woman, with some spiritual training and understanding to help him, could sit down and work out a program that would be somewhere near as effective as the Twelve Steps. Believe me, it is not so. I have seen the attempt made, and I have seen it fail, many times.
One last word: You may have the very great privilege of coming into contact with a true regenerative Program — and still find yourself unable to profit from it, unable to connect with it, unable to work effectively in it. That, as you have seen, was my own situation for many years.
There is a way to break this kind of deadlock, an again it involves humbling yourself. A life jacket is no good to you unless you put it on. And to put on the Program means to obey it. That is the one-word key to the whole problem. The Program is not there to be argued about or fought over or picked apart or objected to, and certainly not to be modified or changed. It is there to be obeyed. Obedience to the Program must come first before any and all other considerations in life, no matter how dear or how demanding. Then and only then — does the saving power come to you.
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As of today (Friday, April 3rd 2009) the results of this poll stand at roughly 60% in agreement (157 votes) and 40% in disagreement (105 votes), which is to say that a strong majority of stepstudy readers believe that it is better to be any kind of sober than not to be sober at all.
Interesting comments follow. Feel free to weigh in.
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We experience an obsession when we are trying to stay abstinent and are overpowered by thoughts of using. People who love addicts experience obsession in their relationships when they feel the desire to control other people’s moods or behavior. Obsession can take a variety of forms.
An intrusive obsession is a thought of using that seems to enter our minds from out of nowhere. When we are hit by an intrusive obsession, we find ourselves suddenly dropping our plans and responsibilities, and pursuing the substance, behavior or person that we crave.
A reoccurring obsession is a thought of using that enters our minds over and over again throughout the day. Fighting with this thought consumes all of our energy. We try to remind ourselves of the importance of not using, of all the things we will lose if we use again, and of what always happens to us when we are on a spree, but the thought keeps coming back and seems to grow stronger over time. If we are able to hold out against the reoccurring obsession, we become exhausted and depressed. We are easily irritated and find that normal daily tasks require an enormous amount of effort. Even if we don’t use, the reoccurring obsession wins by beating us down.
A third kind of obsession is called circumstantial obsession. We experience a circumstantial obsession when we are presented with the opportunity to use and cannot think of any good reason not to, even though we have everything to lose. We may give ourselves some silly excuse for using, or we may not think at all. Before we know it, we are deep into active addiction again, wondering what happened to our common sense.
A fourth and final kind of obsession is called the fundamental obsession. The fundamental obsession may not be experienced as a thought of using at all. Instead, we experience this obsession as a basic preoccupation with ourselves and how we feel. It is usually hard for us to identify the fundamental obsession at first, because it is so much a part of how we experience the world. It is like water to fish—we are so familiar with it that it is hard to see. Those of us who have been abstinent for long periods of time without a spiritual solution know the pains of fundamental obsession all too well. Life is unsatisfying. We are constantly agitated and restless, even though we may be quite depressed. We are unable to form meaningful or lasting relationships. We have a deep sense that life is treating us unfairly. People seem cruel and selfish to us; they ignore us and our needs. No matter what we try, we do not seem to be able to get any peace of mind. We are constantly trying to adjust the circumstances of our lives in an attempt to find some comfort. We may have a vague sense that something is wrong with us, but we do not know what it is.
Reoccurring and circumstantial obsession may actually get easier to cope with over time, but the fundamental obsession only gets worse. The pain of daily living builds up inside us and we have to vent it somehow. Some of us become violent; others tax the patience of our friends with complaints. Many of us find some substance or behavior that provides us with temporary relief. In other words, we switch addictions in order to cope with the pain of fundamental obsession.
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If you’re a regular over at AAhistorylovers, you may have already read this one. If not, it’s well worth your time to head over to the AAA website and read “Three ways to be Anonymous” by Tom P. Jr., who also wrote Gresham’s Law and Alcoholics Anonymous.
In “Three Ways,” Tom offers an extensive quote from an Akron oldtimer who talks about how they used to do meetings with Dr. Bob.
Nobody led our meetings in the very early days. We all just sat around in a circle. After the opening prayer and a short text from the Bible, we had quiet time, silently praying for guidance about what to say. Then each person in turn said something, asking for any help he wanted, bringing up anything that was troubling him or just whatever was on his mind. After everyone was through, there were announcements and we held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer. There was no clapping. At that kind of a meeting, clapping would have seen out of place.
The quote goes on for several more paragraphs. Definitely worth a read: (link)
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An excerpt from the latest issue of the 24 Newsletter.
Many people who start out with a full dose of the strong-program approach for their primary addiction quickly find that they are unwilling to give up other things that are incompatible with their new life on the Program. This failure at the level of rigorous honesty has clear consequences resulting in a life that drifts off the Program, whether you ever drink again or not.
And it is at this point in a recovery that the Four Absolutes become indispensable as “yardsticks” (Dr. Bob’s term) in conducting our daily affairs. And if you want to just back up to the utter baseline, it’s the First and Second Absolutes: honesty — beginning with self-honesty — and then purity.
It’s gagging on the Second Absolute that drives many people out of the Program. Maybe not violently by running out to get drunk, but more subtly, where you just want to relax and enjoy yourself — find the famous “easier, softer way.” Whether it’s a forty-five year old alcoholic in a mid-life crisis or an eighteen year old with a desire to sow some wild oats, or a guy or gal who’s been around in recovery anywhere from three to thirty years and is finding the Program increasingly boring, the problem is a difficulty with the first two Absolutes, especially the Second.
From early on, my Dad had a message for those of us in this bind that was as big as anything I have ever run across in AA. He saw from the beginning that the Twelve Steps are too good to be just for alcoholics only, or to apply to the single symptom of addictive drinking only. He was powerfully moved in passing on the good news of the Program to “carry the message” to anyone he knew who was suffering from spiritual starvation, regardless of whether they qualified for full citizenship in AA as a for-drunks-only club. And he spent his whole life trying to practice the Steps across the board in all areas of his life. The very first thing that he did after he recovered from alcoholism and drug addiction was to take the Twelve Steps and start practicing them for his food addiction and for his nicotine addiction.
He joked in his AA lead about his food addiction. It is a stage in recovery for many alcoholics. You get your appetite back and you get your mind back, and you get what they called the chuck wagon horrors — an appetite that is literally insatiable. He went from 128 to 178 lbs. and mother was referring to him as “moon.” He also had a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and he started to drop the chain of addictions successively — first the alcohol and drugs, then the nicotine, then the addictive eating. Surprisingly, this approach of dropping the whole chain of addictions does not turn out to be the joyless trip of self-denial that you might think. Quite the contrary. This, in many cases is in fact the easiest, softest way.
Believe me, as a person who tried very hard for his first seven years in the Program to do it the other way, this proved for me to be the only way. And over the years I have seen many, many similar histories. Whatever your remaining problem areas are, you can’t fail if you just don’t quit and run away from the challenge that the phrase in Step Twelve “in all our affairs” presents. Rate of progress isn’t even that important in itself. Just don’t give up, don’t cop out, and don’t run away from the Steps. That’s all it takes. All the difficulty and arguing and self justifying is over when we give our selves entirely to this simple Program. Find out what you need for an honest practice and get it. Get that or you’ll never maintain a long-term recovery. You will never recover from the low-level depression, or anxiety, or the resentment that’s driving you while “abstinent” to a life of quiet desperation. It’s not about being a saint and not about being a star performer it is about becoming, “entirely ready” and “willing”— just as it says in Step Six.
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Philip Leon finished writing The Philosophy of Courage in December 1938, with a publication date in 1939.1 So it was not a direct influence on the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was completed (basically anyway) slightly before that point, a bit earlier in 1938. But Leon puts down in print some of the most important of the Oxford Group ideas which had so greatly influenced the early A.A. people, and he also gives an illuminating philosophical discussion of a number of the basic ideas and principles which A.A. learned from the Oxford Group. As a consequence, people in the twelve step movement will find a good deal of interesting and very useful material in Leon’s book.
Leon was associated with one of the new British universities—University College, Leicester—which had been founded right after the First World War. The city of Leicester is located right in the center of England, only sixty miles or so from Oxford. Three years earlier, he had written a very successful philosophical work called The Ethics of Power or The Problem of Evil (London : George Allen & Unwin, 1935).2
NOTES ON THE INTRODUCTION
The title of the work we are looking at here—The Philosophy of Courage—is significant in itself. It places Philip Leon, in his own way, in the context of the famous existentialist philosophers and theologians of that period. Most of those figures were, like Leon, reacting to the ideas of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and his nineteenth century followers. Kantianism proclaimed that our human minds were imprisoned in a box of space and time, where we had no access to the eternal, absolute, unlimited, and unconditional divine realm which lay outside the box.
The atheistic existentialists said that all that lay outside that box of space and time was an infinite abyss of Nothingness, and that even within the world which our human minds could grasp, human existence was absurd, and the only certainty we could state was that our lives were inexorably lived towards death. The closest human beings could come to living with dignity was to face the absurdity and death with resolution and courage. Philosophers and writers like Nietzsche (1844-1900), Sartre (1905-1980), and Camus (1913-1960), along with existentialist psychiatrists like Fritz Perls (1893-1970), all saw our basic human problem as one of fear: the fear of emptiness and death, but also the fear of change and novelty, and above all the fear of being creative and being ourselves instead of trying to be what other people wanted us to be. In Fritz Perls’ metaphor, we needed to develop the courage either to spit out what we detested about our lives, or to chew it up and swallow it and digest it and make it our own.
Among the Christian existentialists of that same period, one of the most important figures was Paul Tillich, who taught with Reinhold Niebuhr (the author of the Serenity Prayer) at Union Theological Seminary in New York City from 1933 to 1955, that is, during the formative period when A.A. was born. One of Tillich’s most important books had the simple title the Courage to Be (1952). Existential anxiety (what Philip Leon called “the great Terror”) was what destroyed our souls, and courage was the remedy which would heal our disease.
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What follows is a sermon by an Oxford Group member named Ebenezer Macmillan. Macmillan served as Minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Pretoria, South Africa, and was Head of Department of the Philosophy of religion at the university there. This sermon, from his book Seeking and Finding, outlines the hidden dangers of powerful spiritual experiences. Not that these are experiences are bad, but we have, says Ebenezer, a habit of trying to hang on to moments of high spirituality, and our hanging on can cause us problems.“It is good for us to be here; let us make . . . tents.”—St. Luke ix. 33.
Of course, it was good for them to be there. It was a great experience, an experience which none of them would have missed for the World; although at the moment they did not realise how great and wonderful it was. We never do enter into the full meaning of an experience as we pass through it. It is only afterwards, in reflection, that we realise all that has happened to us, and can see it in all its bearings; not as something isolated, but as something that has relation to our former experience of life and of God. “When the Lord turned the captivity of Zion we were like them that dream.” It was only as they reflected on the experience that the full meaning of it broke upon them. “Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with singing.” It was then they realised the great things the Lord had done for them.
So here, when the disciples were passing through this great experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, they were like them that dream. We read that they were heavy with sleep. They were dull and insensitive to spiritual reality. They were not seeing things clearly. And it was only when they were fully awake that they saw the glory that was Jesus. It was a supernatural experience, an extraordinary manifestation of the presence and power of God, an experience of the highest spiritual exaltation. Even Jesus had never had such an experience. The disciples were only on the fringe of it, and saw at most only reflections of the glory that shone round about them, yet even they knew that something tremendously great and real was happening, something thrillingly and unforgettably wonderful. The heavens were opened; they had a glimpse into the unseen glory of the spirit world.
There was no doubt at all about the greatness of the experience. It was more than human flesh could stand for long. The intense nature of it may be gathered from the fact that they could not speak about it afterwards to anyone. It was so absorbing in its reality that while they were passing through it nothing else seemed real but it. The outside world, with its troubles and tragedies, was so remote that for the time being it was forgotten. This is the first element of danger that attaches to a great mystical experience. We are apt to lose touch with the world of actual fact, the world of human relationships, domestic and social responsibilities. “It is good for us to be here: let us make tents.” It was as if he said, “Let us camp out on this experience and settle down here. There is a fine prospect; it is a Delectable Mountain, peaceful and quiet, far from the madding crowd. We can do some quiet thinking here, undisturbed by this lunatic or that leper or those blind and maimed folk bursting in upon us.” “Let us make tents.” Of course, Peter did not know what he was saying. “He wist not what he said.” But it is often in those unguarded moments, when we do not know what we are saying, that we say the very things that are most characteristic of us. Peter thought he wanted to settle down on the mountaintop, though I suppose he would have been the first to complain of the dull isolation of the place if his wish had been realised.