3 Degrees Of Awakening in AA

Written by a Member of  Alcoholics Anonymous. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Original Way Group or AA as a whole. 

Note:  See problems other than alcohol for bio-physical, medical, psychological and other issues. AA suggests a Spiritual Experience can conquer alcohol addiction. Other issues may occur that are not conquered by Awakening and may require outside help.






Intro


AA's program of action promises a Spiritual Awakening:

The Twelfth Step PromiseHaving had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

It's a great promise but what is a Spiritual Awakening? This article will present 3 Degrees by which we can look at a Spiritual Awakening. 

1. No Awakening
2. Gradual Awakening
3. Sudden Awakening

Writing about Awakening is about the most impossible thing I can think of to do. To express through words something that is inexpressible is clearly beyond me. At the same time, without the helpful words of those who came before me, I would still be laying in my own drunken shit! Though I falter, maybe these little bread crumbs will help someone on the path. A most powerful and amazing Program of Action. So I find myself taking this action. Please, check the facts. Surely, I've made some errors. This author is no expert, no authority and has little skill to offer. I need this program. If I were more adept at self surrender this article would be less opinionated, far briefer and much clearer! I apologize in advance for the boulders of self I leave tumbling down this page!

Here goes!

First, this page talks about action and awakening. There is a paradox to awakening. We can't do one certain "Action" that causes Awakening. We can't "will" it to happen. We can't "think" it into reality. Yet, all are based on a spiritual sort of Action. Do less get less. Do more get more. Awakening comes, "Like a thief in the night." unexpectedly, divinely. Wholehearted effort results in deeper awakenings. Half measures avail nothing. Awakening and Action are interrelated just as spirit and matter are one.

Every variety of spiritual experience is welcome and available in Alcoholics Anonymous. Ultimately, they are all proportionate to Action. Occasionally, a sudden awakening occurs divinely, seemingly without effort, but as William James profoundly noted, even this happens after self surrender at the deepest level, which is really the main Action AA is suggesting. The ultimate action of selfless action, of letting go of self completely, with complete abandon. THE jumping off point. Not just a spiritual intoxication, but awakening and then selfless action that makes a difference to others. With the main block (self) out of the way, God as we understand Him, comes to light. If it's a true awakening then it causes "an entire psychic change". This changes a persons life, spurring action.

The Founders and Architects of AA (Bill Wilson, Sam Shoemaker, Carl Jung, William James, Dr. Bob, Dr. Silkworth...) all discussed the vital sequence. The horse of "hopelessness" goes before the cart of awakening. They discovered that from "hopelessness" the "ego" is crushed. In this crushing of "self" any variety of Awakenings can occur. Thus AA suggests a Program of Action for ego deflation at depth, or getting out of self, to replicate and / or accentuate this hopelessness. Thinking ourselves out of self is like trying to swim our way out of wetness. The Spiritual Program of Action is a tool to act our way out of self and thus deepen our spiritual experience. "I can't think my way into right action but I can act my way into right thinking." is an apt phrase one might hear at a meeting from someone who has experienced this. "Be a verb." is another good one.

Definitions of Awakening from the Founders for Context.

The link above lists some key definitions in the words of the founders as what exactly they meant by a "spiritual awakening" or a "spiritual experience".  While "Awakening" is the goal in AA, "the result" of the 12 Steps, there can be a great deal of confusion about what an "Awakening" is. Some people think they have had one when they haven't. Others think they'll never find it when they are standing in it. Fortunately, there are some clear definitions that the Founders and Architects of AA left for us to go by. Thus, some historical context is called for before we look at the 3 degrees.

Defined according to the Big Book, an awareness of a power greater than ourselves is the "essence" of awakening. Bill felt that being able to do, feel and believe things we couldn't previously do on self will, is evidence of a spiritual awakening. For instance, not drinking, not lying, not being resentful or in self pity but instead helping others would be good evidence of a spiritual awakening. For Clarence Snyder, it was practicing the program of action and surrender to Jesus Christ. For William James, it was a life changing self surrender experience beyond space and time. In all of these there is a single thread of selflessness. The absence of thought about ourselves. 


No True Awakening

Self Based Thinking - Entry Level Sobriety - Social Intercourse - Isolation

No true awakening essentially means self centered thought and actions dominate. Simple. It's important to make the distinction between what an awakening is and isn't. If self is the main block to awakening then selflessness is the main entry. We could see this as a broad spectrum with infinite possibilities. The program of AA is essentially based on the concept set forth in the following chart called "Spectrum of Awakening". 


Spectrum of Awakening



Explanation of the "Spectrum of Awakening" above: 

Self centered thoughts lead to self centered actions. The more we think this way the more trouble we have. On a scale of 1-10 if thoughts of Self are at a 10 you can bet that person is isolated and miserable. Conversely, 0 thoughts of self is total self surrender. This results in a sudden awakening experience, joy, freedom and life changing actions. The more we are able to surrender our self will and rely on God's Will, as we understand Him, the happier we are. But the mind wanders.The brain is built to think. Distractions and thoughts of self creep up all the time. For everyone. Some people have enough insight to see through the veil of thought; self and other. The inherent perfection of all beings may even be experienced and accepted. Be that as it may, if going by the scale above, then nobody is perfectly enlightened all the time. It just depends on if we are caught up in ourselves, our lives, our bodies, our feelings, our plans, desires, wants, needs. Or are we able to forget ourselves and look around at what needs to be done for the welfare of others? Ultimately, it comes down to Action. 

Fellowship is not the same as Social Intercourse


The Program of Action, with Fellowship, is the path to self forgetting outlined above and Awakening in AA. The 12th Step promises us this. But the ego creates obstacles; the disease of self wants us isolated. The ego uses
Isolation and it's cloak, Social Intercourse as primary obstacles to awakening. We should make a distinction between Social Intercourse and Fellowship, since they are often confused. Fellowship and Social Intercourse are not the same thing. Lot's of people hang out in AA without getting involved in the fellowship. To get an idea of what fellowship in AA means lets have a few words from Rev. Sam Shoemaker who Bill Wilson credits as a Founder of AA and to whom we owe this "benefaction". At this point, Dr Bob had been dead for 5 years. The 12&12 was published. The Second Edition Big Book had just been published and the tremendous St. Louis Conference had recently ended. This is where Bill declared AA had "Come of Age". 

Rev. Sam Shoemaker Describes The Fellowship of AA to his Church in 1955:

The second thing the Church needs to learn from AA is that men are redeemed in a life-changing fellowship. AA does not expect to let anybody who comes in stay as he is. They know he is in need and must have help. They live for nothing else but to extend and keep extending that help. Like the Church, they did not begin in glorious Gothic structures, but in houses or caves in the earth,--wherever they could get a foot-hold, meet people, and gather. It never occurs to an AA that it is enough for him to sit down and polish his spiritual nails all by himself, or dust off his soul all by himself, or spend a couple of minutes praying each day all by himself. His soul gets kept in order by trying to help other people get their souls in order, with the help of God. At once a new person takes his place in this redeeming, life-changing fellowship. He may be changed today, and out working tomorrow--no long, senseless delays about giving away what he has got. He's ready to give the little he has the moment it comes to him. The fellowship that redeemed him will wither and die unless he and others like him get in and keep that fellowship moving and growing by reaching others. Recently I heard an AA say that he could stay away from his Veteran's meeting, his Legion, or his Church, and nobody would notice it. But if he stayed away from his AA meeting, his telephone would begin to ring the next day! - Rev. Sam Shoemaker

AA in Action! This is an impressive description of AA Fellowship in 1955. He is describing what he saw happen from 1935 to 1955. Bill's first drunken surrender happened at Calvary Church in NYC (Rev. Sam Shoemaker was the Rector there). In that twenty year span AA blew Sams mind! They did this with the Program of Action stemming from and leading to "true conversion" or Awakening. He couldn't say enough about the good of AA and his description above of Fellowship is a defining historical statement. Contrast this with Social Intercourse and you get a very different picture. This sort of fellowship Shoemaker is outlining above is not social intercourse - entry level stuff. These descriptions of selfless giving are part of the Program of Action. Members doing what their Higher Power would have them do. God's will. Not self will. Action. This type of fellowship grows out of Awakening and is exemplified by the selfless, enthusiastic actions described above. It's not just a social club, there is a passion, a drive to help behind it. But there is a more basic yet necessary entry level for us in AA. It is a balm applied to the open ego sore of isolation. It is Social Intercourse.

Social Intercourse

We can be around AA but not fully in AA. Similar to hanging out and socializing in a bar except we don't drink. We leave the bar stool and put the cloak of social intercourse over our deeper feelings of isolation. Kind of like putting a warm blanket on someone who just came in out of a cold rain. At first, we come to AA to get help. We show up, someone greets us, we shake hands, we get numbers. We start to socialize. Come to regular meetings. Make friends. Go out and have coffee. We might even take the obligatory coffee commitment or other service activity. We go do things with other people who aren't drinking. Life starts to gather some purpose and direction BUT the lasting change promised in the 12th step has not occurred yet because the Program of Action has not been fully implemented. We aren't really involved in AA in a committed way and relapse risk is high at this stage

So at this entry level stage we are still not necessarily awakened even though we are not drinking and our life is improving. We are involved in Social Intercourse. This does not usually result in a spiritual awakening. Social Intercourse is not known to fix the deep self centered isolation that an alcohol addict knows so well. Henry B Wright, makes a good point in The Will of God and a Mans Lifework, that simply doing "God's Will" is good purpose and socializing and service could be considered doing "God's Will".  He concludes that without self surrender it's possible to do God's Will but that it becomes...

"....merely an artificial and laborious human manufacture and not a healthy, spontaneous and continuous natural growth." pg 50, The Will of God and a Mans Lifework, Henry B Wright

Wright points out that lots of people do service and other nice things without any "decision" of doing "God's Will". Lacking the impetus provided from self surrender, these kind actions are often guided by selfishness, self will and self seeking more than the welfare of others. If the social intercourse or service becomes inconvenient or out of line with selfish motives then it is usually abandoned hastily.

"In trying to make these arrangements our
actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may be kind,
considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self-sac-
rificing..." 
"...What is his basic trouble? Is he not really a self-
seeker even when trying to be kind?" -pg. 61 AA

The 3rd Step is where we first make a decision to surrender self will, to do "God's Will". We "turn our lives and our will over the care of God as we understand Him." Implying we "at once", (immediately) take the Actions suggested in steps 4 thru 12. Without action the "decision to do "God's Will" is meaningless and social intercourse in AA loses direction, momentum and purpose. Of course, this is fine if all a person wants is basic sobriety. However, the underlying pain of isolation is not usually vanquished without awakening. Most people report that they don't really feel happy, joyous and free in sobriety, until they put an honest, wholehearted effort into the Program of Action. 

Isolation

One thing we all share in common is that self centered thinking isolates us. The closer to 10 we get on the scale of centered thinking, the more isolated we become. "I am here. The World is out there." Often, isolation manifests as self will, anxiety, pain, depression and loneliness but it can generate any number of painful states when based on thoughts of self. 

"The less people tolerated us, the more we withdrew from society, from life itself. As we became subjects of King Alcohol, shivering denizens of his mad realm, the chilling vapor that is loneliness settled down. It thickened, ever becoming blacker... then The Four Horsemen - TERROR, BEWILDERMENT, FRUSTRATION and DESPAIR. Unhappy drinkers who read this page will understand!" pg 151 Chapter 11, A Vision For You, AA
 
This describes the isolation that the active alcohol addict faces, but we isolate when sober too. Isolation doesn't stop with entry level sobriety either and it can't be banished with Social Intercourse. It may get masked for a time, but underneath the same socially anxious square-peg-in-a-round-hole kind of feeling persists. A self centered fear that we are not ok just as we are. A fish out of water. As will be shown throughout this article, Awakening fixes this. We awaken to our wholeness with God as we understand Him, through direct experience. We can then have this experience to share with others in the Program of Action. This is the miraculous Fellowship that got Rev. Sam Shoemaker so excited that he had to speak...no...basically yell about it to his Church. Social Intercourse type sobriety is nothing like the Fellowship he witnessed, united in "brotherly and harmonious" self less action!

"Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body." pg 23 AA

Like all people, the alcoholic mind is self centered. Isolation stems from self centered thinking. Isolation is not the "Great Reality". It is separation not unity. We can all experience being unified directly. When the mind is full of thoughts of self it consumes us, it clouds conscious contact with God as we understand Him. Because of this we can cycle quite frequently on the Spectrum of Awakening. This is where the program of action becomes so very practical. It gives us a solution to the main problem; a mind that is self centered. 

Someone following this Program of Action is actively working on a gradual or sudden awakening. They can usually be seen in action at beginner, step study, big book or speaker meetings offering to give not get. If they are at an open discussion meeting they are seeking others to work with. They practice this at home, at work, at play. In all our affairs. Deepening their insight through action and resolved to grow in understanding and effectiveness. Their lives change. They find happiness and joy and share this in "fellowship" with others. Isolation cannot survive the fire of a Sudden Awakening and it is constantly robbed of power with sustained effort at these actions, leading to Gradual Awakening. 

Sometimes we get stuck, sometimes we return for a brief visit, regardless of how we get here, when we linger in the social intercourse / isolation level of sobriety usually we do not demonstrate a sustained interest in helping others, no matter how long we are sober. True happiness and joy are seldom realized from this place. Certainly, not to the extent promised in AA.

There is a solution! When people work for and finally have an awakening, one of the things often reported is tears of joy. Joy arises at finally realizing we are not alone. We never were. We are not isolated. God is everything, which includes us. Isolation vanishes.

Gradual Awakenings 

A Program of Action

Social intercourse leads to the 12 Steps which becomes the Program of Action. This Program of Action results in a Gradual Awakening. This is where social intercourse gives way to actual "Fellowship"; when we join in "brotherly and harmonious action" stemming from and leading to awakening. Gradual Awakenings are guaranteed to change anyone's life who makes an honest effort at the steps. If worked with zeal, as Dr. Bob, Bill W and Clarence S suggest, then spiritual action is constantly wearing away at the self centered mind, or ego. "-sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materializes if we work for them!"

Mrs. Delaney, a great AA Pioneer, was not afraid to confront someones ego if she thought it would help save an addicts life. She had a sign that read, "I didn't say it would be easy. I said it would be worth it!" Bill Wilson wrote, "Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness." This is not easy work but as time passes, we find ourselves in a place of "neutrality" in regards to addiction. We don't struggle. The problem is removed. God as we understand Him, becomes a working part of the mind; an unsuspected inner resource. Giving rather than getting becomes a daily activity. Placing the welfare of others ahead of our own we begin to experience the "joy of living". This deep wellspring of joy comes as "freedom from the bondage of self" is directly experienced. Simple. Get out of self. Feel happy. Pass it on. Get out of self. Feel divine joy. Pass it on...repeat... Simple. Not easy but worth it.  It requires a sustained effort at the Program of Action.

A person who has worked on a Gradual Awakening usually is the last person to know when it begins to open up. You see their once dull eyes light up with life. The old defense of disguising isolation with social intercourse gives way to a person reaching out their hand to help others. It's a beautiful thing to see. The Gradual Awakening is without end and often is a springboard to a Sudden Awakening. These are not mutually exclusive. It's not one or the other, Sudden or Gradual. It can be both. Sometimes a Sudden Awakening occurs first, such as Bill Wilson's. Even in his case Bill said God struck him sober but "helping others kept" him sober. There was still the program of action that he had to follow to "Gradually" deepen his awakening and stay sober.

The Roots of the Gradual Awakening or "Educational Variety"

William James differentiates two kinds of awakenings 1.) Volitional. 2.) Self Surrender. 
1.) Volitional is also known as a Gradual Awakening. 2.) The Self Surrender type is also known as a Sudden Awakening. Both types of spiritual experience (aka conversion experience) require self surrender. Initially, 1 only requires partial self surrender whereas 2 requires total self surrender. Both produce a similar effect on a persons life. 

This excerpt below is about Gradual Awakening. It was probably where Bill Wilson read about the "Educational" variety of spiritual experience even though William James never called it "Educational Variety" as it quotes in the (Appendix II, Spiritual Experience, p 567) James did mention "education". The meaning is the same here. This is a "Gradual" awakening process similar to learning. The more we practice the better we get. If we lose ourselves in the actions deeper awakening may naturally occur. William James actually relied on the works of Dr. Edwin Starbuck to support this concept below. 

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience:

In the volitional type the regenerative change is usually gradual, and consists in the building up, piece by piece, of a new set of moral and spiritual habits. But there are always critical points here at which the movement forward seems much more rapid. This psychological fact is abundantly illustrated by Dr. Starbuck. Our education in any practical accomplishment proceeds apparently by jerks and starts, just as the growth of our physical bodies does.

"An athlete... sometimes awakens suddenly to an understanding of the fine points of the game and to a real enjoyment of it, just as the convert awakens to an appreciation of religion. If he keeps on engaging in the sport, there may come a day when all at once the game plays itself through him- when he loses himself in some great contest. In the same way, a musician may suddenly reach a point at which pleasure in the technique of the art entirely falls away, and in some moment of inspiration he becomes the instrument through which music flows. The writer has chanced to hear two different married persons, both of whose wedded lives had been beautiful from the beginning, relate that not until a year or more after marriage did they awake to the full blessedness of married life. So it is with the religious experience of these persons we are studying." 

-----------------------------------------------
"The game plays itself through him- when he loses himself..." 

Therefore, it's not just "education" or practice but when we lose ourselves that awakening is attained. This is the fountain from where our spiritual foundation of Anonymity springs. James and Starbuck are not proposing that simply beginning something we are going to lose ourselves. They are proposing that by a strong, sustained effort a time may come when self falls away. And in that falling away of self something extraordinary can occur. Something life changing, awe inspiring and amazing, yet utterly simple. 

This is the promise of the 12th step. That as a result of the Program of Action, we WILL have a spiritual awakening. That it works IF we work it. And when they say it works they are not promising a lousy time. They are promising the ultimate prize. The gift that is already given. We simply have to get out of self to see it. The gradual awakening is the process of getting out of self. Of self surrender. This doesn't happen through social intercourse alone but by wholeheartedly losing ourselves in this Program of Action, where spirit and matter are one. Where self will and God's Will unify. Where we "become the instrument through which music flows".

Sudden Awakenings

Ego Collapse at Depth

Bill Wilson recounts his Sudden Awakening below. Bill overheard Dr. Silkworth, who was out in the hallway telling Lois that Bill Wilson was a "hopeless" case. This happened shortly after Ebby clobbered him with the "Hammer of Hopelessness!". Ebby and Silkworth went to work on Bills ego and left it crushed in the hospital, they just vigorously worked what would become steps 1 thru 5. Bill was left alone in a state of ego collapse at depth, reflecting on what had just taken place he becomes "entirely ready"; he stands at the turning point, and suddenly!!! Like a man who realizes "This ship is sinking!" BILL LEAPS... taking step 6 and 7 below.

From AA Comes of Age, 1957, p.63:

“My depression deepened unbearably and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit. I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed.

All at once I found myself crying out, ‘If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!’

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in my mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man."

Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this is the God of the preachers!’ A great peace stole over me and I thought, ‘No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right. Things are all right with God and His world.’”

Bills Sudden Awakening Experience from Pg 14 Alcoholics Anonymous

"These were revolutionary and drastic proposals, but the moment I fully accepted them, the effect was electric. There was a sense of victory, followed by such a peace and serenity as I had never known. There was utter confidence. I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a mountain top blew through and through. God comes to most men gradually, but His impact on me was sudden and profound."

Sudden Awakening of the "Ministers Son" from Pg 56 Alcoholics Anonymous

"Our friend was a minister’s son...

One night, when confined in a hospital, he was ap
proached by an alcoholic who had known a spiritual ex-
perience. Our friend’s gorge rose as he bitterly cried out:
“If there is a God, He certainly hasn’t done anything for
me!”
But later, alone in his room, he asked himself this
question: “Is it possible that all the religious people I
have known are wrong?”


While pondering the answer he felt as though he lived in hell.
Then, like a thunderbolt, a
great thought came. It crowded out all else:
“Who are you to say there is no God?”
This man recounts that he tumbled out of bed to his
knees. In a few seconds he was overwhelmed by a con-
viction of the Presence of God. It poured over and through
him with the certainty and majesty of a great tide at
flood. The barriers he had built through the years were
swept away. He stood in the Presence of Infinite Power
and Love. He had stepped from bridge to shore. For the
first time, he lived in conscious companionship with his
Creator.

Thus was our friend’s cornerstone fixed in place. No
later vicissitude has shaken it. His alcoholic problem
was taken away. That very night, years ago, it disappeared..."

And so... AA also offers the highest level of sudden awakening for those who are willing to "thoroughly follow our path." with "complete abandon". Notice in both these accounts the ego was utterly crushed just before they completely surrendered. Self was not a necessary thought and when it was abandoned, even for the briefest of moments, God's grace opened up. In both these cases there were life changing results. Both men went forth in Action. To experience such divine grace and not act would be selfish and contrary to the experience. It propels us forward, without thought of reward, to help others find the God of their understanding, which ironically, is the most rewarding thing we could possibly do.

For those seeking the highest order of Spiritual Experience, (a sudden awakening, deepened over time, in understanding and effectiveness,) it may be that the most powerful action we have (in AA) is taking people through the steps in the original manner discovered by the founders. The AA The Original Way 12 Step Guide on this website is one way to do just that. It lists the pages in the Big Book to follow, within historical context. A program of action. This guide attempts to hold specifically to the original way, with the sole intention of a Sudden or Gradual Spiritual Experience that can conquer alcoholism. It is quite amazing to experience the effects of the work that the Founders laid out. To be clear, it helps both parties deepen their Spiritual Experience. Not just the newcomer. 

Sudden Awakenings are as old as time itself. Often they happen divinely, without effort, like a gift freely given. They are available to any person who strives for one. No matter how long we are sober. The 12 Steps were designed to produce just such an awakening and can be worked over and over more and more intensely until the result is achieved. In complete and utter surrender the most unexpected can happen....

And as life changing an event as that can be there is still Action and more action! Having a tequila sunrise spiritual experience can become an ego inflating event if not followed at once by selfless action. In a sudden awakening we learn that we are not who we "thought" we were. In fact, that "thought" about who we are caused immense amounts of damage. This can be very difficult to fully accept, even with multiple Awakening experiences. Awakening is about waking up to the fact that there is great good we can do outside of ourselves, for others, under the care of God as we understand Him. And so, after a Sudden Awakening, we can cycle back to the Program of Action and continued work on our Gradual Awakening which deepens our acceptance, insight, understanding and effectiveness. 


Cyclical Based on Self-Surrender

We are not cured of alcoholism. 
What we really have is a daily reprieve contin-
gent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Ev-
ery day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s
will into all of our activities. “How can I best serve
Thee—Thy will (not mine) be done.” These are thoughts
which must go with us constantly. We can exercise our
will power along this line all we wish. It is the proper use
of the will." Pg 85. AA

With Awakening we are given a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. But we take our will back. We can fluctuate from No Awakening one moment to Gradual Awakening the next. It depends on where our minds are at. Even after a Sudden Awakening our minds habitually return to thoughts of self. The Founders knew that awakening isn't a permanent state. Thoughts of self resurface. That is why our Program of Action emphasizes "more action" and putting others first. The more we surrender the more happiness we have. The more we let go of self will and do God's Will the more fulfilling our lives are. It always comes back down to action.

"Selfishness--Self Centeredness! That we think is the root of our troubles." "Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us!" pg. 62

We must or it kills us! Strong words from the Founders. Self-Will-Run-Riot damages things we love. When we get selfish things get ugly. "And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid." We are referred to William James twice in the Big Book regarding this aid, which is a spiritual experience. To understand why self surrender is emphasized so strongly in the Big Book we need to take this suggestion and look into the context, as the authors propose.  

Self Surrender Snippets from William James, Varieties of Religious Experience: (below are a few excerpts on Self Surrender from James' masterpiece, which shaped the context of the Big Book and AA.)

To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms, whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about.
---------------------------------------
[Bradley relates his post awakening state of mind]

Previous to this time I was very selfish and self-righteous; but now I desired the welfare of all mankind, and could with a feeling heart forgive my worst enemies,
----------------------------------------
Of the volitional type of conversion it would be easy to give examples, but they are as a rule less interesting than those of the self-surrender type, in which the subconscious effects are more abundant and often startling. I will therefore hurry to the latter, the more so because the difference between the two types is after all not radical. Even in the most voluntarily built-up sort of regeneration there are passages of partial self-surrender interposed; and in the great majority of all cases, when the will has done its uttermost towards bringing one close to the complete unification aspired after, it seems that the very last step must be left to other forces and performed without the help of its activity. In other words, self-surrender becomes then indispensable. "The personal will," says Dr. Starbuck, "must be given up. In many cases relief persistently refuses to come until the person ceases to resist, or to make an effort in the direction he desires to go."

"I had said I would not give up; but when my will was broken, it was all over," writes one of Starbuck's correspondents.- Another says: "I simply said: 'Lord, I have done all I can; I leave the whole matter with Thee;' and immediately there came to me a great peace."- Another: "All at once it occurred to me that I might be saved, too, if I would stop trying to do it all myself, and follow Jesus: somehow I lost my load."- Another: "I finally ceased to resist, and gave myself up, though it was a hard struggle. Gradually the feeling came over me that I had done my part, and God was willing to do his."- "Lord, Thy will be done; damn or save!" cries John Nelson, exhausted with the anxious struggle to escape damnation; and at that moment his soul was filled with peace.

Dr. Starbuck gives an interesting, and it seems to me a true, account- so far as conceptions so schematic can claim truth at all- of the reasons why self-surrender at the last moment should be so indispensable.


So the context James and Starbuck are proposing is that total self surrender (ego collapse at depth) results in Sudden Awakenings. Their observations lead them to determine that in a Gradual (aka volitional or educational) Awakening, at least "partial self-surrender" is required. Self will (personal will) is identified as the final impediment to awakening and "must be given up" to at last breakthrough! These Gradual Awakenings can be worked for but in the end it still comes down to surrender. Let Go and Let God. 

When we cycle back into self centered thinking we can easily drop back into a Social Intercourse / Isolation level of sobriety and that's ok. Sometimes we just don't want to work with others, or we just need to be alone, or any number of reasons. That is no reason to start self bashing again with more self centered thinking. Maybe, it runs its course or we catch ourselves, or someone confronts us compassionately and we begin to work again on our gradual awakening through the program of action. Conscious contact can be deepened when we are ready. Continue at this wholeheartedly and another sudden awakening may occur, you never know! It's cyclical based on self surrender not permanent based on our desire to escape. The program of action is always there to be picked up when we are willing.

Perfectly Enlightened - The Tequila Sunrise Spiritual Experience Myth

There are many people living in direct experience of the God of their understanding. They are blessed indeed. But to be clear, it's progress not perfection! There has probably not been an awakened being on the planet earth who has not had some self centered thinking creep back in. Despite what some may pretend! Asking for help, after awakening, is one of the highest forms of humility and service. This is why we "give it away to keep it" because we need the help to keep self centered thinking at bay and conscious contact front and center. Sometimes people get sober for some years and feel they "shouldn't be struggling". Spiritual pride can develop saying, "You need to appear spiritual so you can be a good example to others." Bullshit! This is a dangerous place. Asking for help, after awakening, is a realistic, honest place to come from. It shows others the truth. That self centered thinking is persistent and that it's ok to ask for help. 

Progress not perfection is the key here. Keep our head in the clouds and feet on the ground is another saying that goes well. Self centered thinking doesn't evaporate overnight. Just because we have a deep awakening experience doesn't mean self centered thinking is gone. There is always deeper to go. Just because someone has multiple awakening experiences over many, many years doesn't mean self centered thinking is gone! There is always deeper to go...

Giving it Away To Keep It - The Single Most Powerful Spiritual Action

Ironically, if we help others without seeking reward, we go deeper! The Program of Action is about waking up ourselves, accepting that in our lives and then helping others to awaken to the God of their understanding. The value of this action is beyond compare. The rewards of helping another out of hell and into the infinite grace of their HP are beyond compare. Giving an addict a trillion dollars would be spit in fire by comparison. In a short time it would be gone. Giving a million addicts a free education, housing a job and food for life would be a great and rewarding deed. But to help them out of addiction, into the care of something that is infinite and all powerful is a trillion times more beneficial. It helps us to give this way. It helps us beyond what we could possibly measure. Of all the spiritual principles, this action is the greatest. There is great power when we "give it away to keep it". This is the action stemming from Spiritual Awakening as outlined in the 12th step. 

Swinging the Hammer of Hopelessness


Part of helping others to Awaken with the 12 Steps is knowing how to compassionately swing the "Hammer of Hopelessness". Meaning, to point out where self will is useless against addiction and self centered thinking results in harm to us and others. William James outlines many revealing accounts of how important a role "hopelessness" can play in an awakening experience. Alcoholism is a progressive fatal illness of mind and body. There is no cure. It is hopeless. Silkworth suggested to Bill that he "til the black soil of hopelessness" when first working with new drunks. From this nutrient rich soil sprouts awakening but as James notes "it must burst forth unaided". It can't be forced by self will or ego, when an alcoholic hits bottom his ego is crushed. Out of the way. Allowing an opening.

The hammer of hopelessness was used just before Bills initial Awakening, Dr. Silkworth gave Bill the bad medical news. Carl Jung had already dropped the "hopelessness" bomb that no human power could cure Alcoholism. Now, here comes Ebby, with The Hammer! He used the 4th & 5th steps on Bill to reveal the hopelessness of his self will. "Look at all these resentments and harms we wrote down here Bill. Self will run riot! Your way doesn't work! Why not try God's Way and Surrender!" With the ego compassionately crushed, Bill finally surrendered and had an initial Awakening Experience shortly thereafter, his isolation vanished and he experienced "ecstasy". So in the exhaustion of the ego, the black pit of despair becomes the rocket to the 4th dimension!

The following two points are essential to learning to swing the hammer of hopelessness compassionately:

1.) Hopelessness Fuels Self Surrender 
2.) Sudden Awakening is a Life Changing Direct Experience that Vanquishes Isolation

William James documents a Sudden Awakening account of David Brainerd below. Hopelessness fuels his surrender when he realizes self centered thought isolates him and blocks his awakening. When Brainerd realizes how selfish and unhappy he is all seems hopeless or "lost"  and self surrender naturally begins to mount until finally awakening breaks through. Sudden Awakening then becomes a Life Changing Direct Experience that Vanquishes his Isolation.  Brainerd reveals how "self" disappears during Awakening and "the freedom from the bondage of self" is directly experienced. His hopelessness? Isolation? Gone!!! In an instant! Replaced (at least temporarily) with great joy, gratitude and insight! ...and thus guides his actions forward.  

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience:

There are only two ways in which it is possible to get rid of anger, worry, fear, despair, or other undesirable affections. One is that an opposite affection should overpoweringly break over us, and the other is by getting so exhausted with the struggle that we have to stop,- so we drop down, give up, and don't care any longer. Our emotional brain-centres strike work, and we lapse into a temporary apathy. Now there is documentary proof that this state of temporary exhaustion not infrequently forms part of the conversion crisis. So long as the egoistic worry of the sick soul guards the door, the expansive confidence of the soul of faith gains no presence. But let the former faint away, even but for a moment, and the latter can profit by the opportunity, and, having once acquired possession, may retain it. Carlyle's Teufelsdrockh passes from the everlasting No to the everlasting Yes through a 'Centre of Indifference.'

Let me give you a good illustration of this feature in the conversion process. That genuine saint, David Brainerd, describes his own crisis in the following words:

"One morning, while I was walking in a solitary place as usual, I at once saw that all my contrivances and projects to effect or procure deliverance and salvation for myself were utterly in vain; I was brought quite to a stand, as finding myself totally lost. I saw that it was forever impossible for me to do anything towards helping or delivering myself, that I had made all the pleas I ever could have made to all eternity; and that all my pleas were vain, for I saw that self-interest had led me to pray, and that I had never once prayed from any respect to the glory of God. I saw that there was no necessary connection between my prayers and the bestowment of divine mercy; that they laid not the least obligation upon God to bestow his grace upon me; and that there was no more virtue or goodness in them than there would be in my paddling with my hand in the water. I saw that I had been heaping up my devotions before God, fasting, praying, etc., pretending, and indeed really thinking sometimes that I was aiming at the glory of God; whereas I never once truly intended it, but only my own happiness. I saw that as I had never done anything for God, I had no claim on anything from him but perdition, on account of my hypocrisy and mockery. When I saw evidently that I had regard to nothing but self-interest, then my duties appeared a vile mockery and a continual course of lies, for the whole was nothing but self-worship, and an horrid abuse of God.

"I continued, as I remember, in this state of mind, from Friday morning till the Sabbath evening following (July 12, 1739), when I was walking again in the same solitary place. Here, in a mournful melancholy state [I was attempting to pray; but found no heart to engage in that or any other duty; my former concern, exercise, and religious affections were now gone. I thought that the Spirit of God had quite left me; but still was not distressed; yet disconsolate, as if there was nothing in heaven or earth could make me happy. Having been thus endeavoring to pray- though, as I thought, very stupid and senseless]- for near half an hour; then, as I was walking in a thick grove, unspeakable glory seemed to open to the apprehension of my soul. I do not mean any external brightness, nor any imagination of a body of light, but it was a new inward apprehension or view that I had of God, such as I never had before, nor anything which had the least resemblance to it. I had no particular apprehension of any one person in the Trinity, either the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost; but it appeared to be Divine glory. My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable. to see such a God, such a glorious Divine Being; and I was inwardly pleased and satisfied that he should be God over all for ever and ever. My soul was so captivated and delighted with the excellency of God that I was even swallowed up in him; at least to that degree that I had no thought about my own salvation, and scarce reflected that there was such a creature as myself. I continued in this state of inward joy, peace, and astonishing, till near dark without any sensible abatement; and then began to think and examine what I had seen; and felt sweetly composed in my mind all the evening following. I felt myself in a new world, and everything about me appeared with a different aspect from what it was wont to do. At this time, the way of salvation opened to me with such infinite wisdom, suitableness, and excellency, that I wondered I should ever think of any other way of salvation; was amazed that I had not dropped my own contrivances, and complied with this lovely, blessed, and excellent way before. If I could have been saved by my own duties or any other way that I had formerly contrived, my whole soul would now have refused it. I wondered that all the world did not see and comply with this way of salvation, entirely by the righteousness of Christ."

This account shows the value of hopelessness and surrender. Self will didn't work. So he surrendered and awakened. Brainerd could have used someone to Swing The Hammer of Hopelessness; to point out where self reliance failed him. When he finally got hopeless he surrendered (1). When he surrendered he directly experienced the freedom from the bondage of self (2). Brainerd wasted years oblivious to his own self centered thinking. Many alcoholics would be dead in that time span. Using the 12 Steps to help someone see the "hopelessness" of their selfish thinking is a compassionate way to swing the "Hammer of Hopelessness". It could save someones life! Brainerd needed to realize he was being selfish in his spiritual activity in order to give up and when he did he directly experienced something beyond himself; his whole world changed. Too bad he didn't have an AA sponsor like Ebby or Dr. Bob to kick his ass when he needed it! Might have saved himself years of trouble. 

Taking Someone Through the Steps


An Original Way of taking someone through the steps this way might go something like:

Take a newcomer for a walk. Bring the Big Book and a copy of AA The Original Way 12 Step Guide. Find a nice private spot in nature. Sit down for a day and work 1-8 "vigorously". Explain the bad medical and psychological news about alcohol addiction. Take 1, 2 and 3. Surrender with the newcomer. List their resentments, fears and harms. Then help them see where "decisions based on self later placed us in a position to be hurt." Show where self will leads us to selfishness, dishonesty, fear, self seeking... and how this harmed people. Work through the list like the Founders did, pointing out character defects, hold them to the task, even when they wiggle. At first you may encounter resistance but if you hold to the course, eventually you will notice that their ego and defenses will get exhausted as, one after the other, they must concede that their own selfish thinking was the main source of their trouble. Point self will out compassionately but relentlessly. Use your experience to share, connect with them and relate. Swing the Hammer of Hopelessness. This can be just the deadly blow the ego needs to finally surrender. 

And as great fortune would have it, the 6th and 7th step is right there when we need it, right when the timing is perfect for a total self surrender. Just when the ego is crushed and there is the slightest opening, The Program of Actions asks us to surrender self, "all of me, good and bad." We then humbly, get on our knees (optional) and reaffirm our surrender from the 2nd and 3rd step. This is what it means to swing the "Hammer of Hopelessness". It is to point out where running the show ourselves, in our way has ruined our lives! And then to offer a solution. A Spiritual Awakening may occur at that moment or it may come Gradually. Either way this is Ego crushing at it's finest. Don't feel bad about doing this. You may be able to help save an addicts life! Do this compassionately, without selfishness or self seeking motives and it is not "self will", it is the gateway to freedom! 

This is not to say that a person must be hopeless in order to have a Spiritual Awakening. It can make things easier in some ways but it's not essential. It's more about self surrender than hopelessness. In the proper state of mind an awakening could occur at any moment. Hopelessness is just a means of ego deflation, of letting go of self will and surrender ourselves up to "The Great Reality". Hopelessness leads to Self Surrender. When the mind is ripe with self surrender awakening has been known to occur at the sound of a snow flake falling or rain drops hitting the earth. It could come at any time in any place. When the mind is ready...The Program of Action helps prepare us for this.      


After reading back through this article I see many words and opinions. I hope the reader can throw all of this away and rely on their direct experience; on the God of their understanding. This article is a paltry offering and dim reflection of the meaning I wish I could convey. Sustained effort at these actions is the most powerful thing I have ever experienced and witnessed.  If I gathered enough resources and historical context together for someone else to expand upon and run with, then perhaps some value will come from this effort. There are many great authors and spiritual traditions offering thousands of years of experience on this topic. I will try and list a few. 

Further readings on Spiritual Awakening:

A Spiritual Awakening, as defined here, is based on the definitions established by those early members who directly experienced them. There are many theories and religions but a direct experience is not an intellectual event. There are some very distinct criteria to distinguish between types and depth of spiritual experience. A wide, introductory view could be started with the following 5 books. 

1.) William James

Varieties of Religious Experience.

This book had a profound effect on AA. It is one of the most pivotal books on awakening experiences to date and was given to Bill in the hospital a day following his Sudden Awakening experience. This book is a good place to cull through hordes of examples of sudden and gradual awakening experiences of many "varieties".

2.) Dr. Emmet Fox

Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life.

This book was popular among Bill and Bob early on. Dr. Fox ministered in NYC and was a prominent figure during AA's early years. He suggested prayer directs our actions and character development. This aligned well with the practice of AA's program of action. His writings are an excellent look at how the program of action results in Gradual Awakenings.

3.) Bernadette Roberts

The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey, Revised Edition

This book offers an intimate christian perspective of "self" and "no self" and it's relationship to sudden and gradual awakening. Her early monastic training is mostly about gradual awakening until she discovers something deeper for which she felt unprepared for. This propels her deeper into Sudden and Gradual Awakening and it's relationship to self. 

4.) Roshi Philip Kapleau

The Three Pillars of Zen

This book offers numerous accounts of Sudden Awakening Experiences achieved through Zen meditation. An excellent look at the kind of doubt, determination, and faith utilized by those seeking to put the highest way into action! 

5.) Henry Burt Wright

The Will of God and a Mans Lifework (full book, pdf)

The context of "God's Will" in AA was partly derived from this book. Influential on Rev. Sam Shoemaker and the Oxford Group, from which AA was given it's original formula for Spiritual Experience. Self Surrender is discussed in terms of doing "God's Will". The Fourfold Touchstone of Jesus and The Apostles is listed (section XV, pg 173) in this book and is probably the birthplace of The Four Absolutes and of AA's moral inventory. 


Written by a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

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