3 Degrees of Awakening in AA

posted Jul 6, 2014, 8:34 AM by Archie AATOWG   [ updated Jul 6, 2014, 9:07 AM ]

AA's Spiritual Program of Action Results in Spiritual Awakenings. This page offers a way to look at this from 3 Basic Degrees.

3 Degrees of Awakening in AA

1. No True 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! Maybe these little bread crumbs will help lead someone down the path. A most powerful and amazing Program of Action. So I find myself taking this action. This author is no authority and has little skill to offer. 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 a certain "Action" that causes Sudden 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 accentuate this hopelessness. Thinking ourselves out of self is like trying to swim our way ou t of wetness. The Spiritual Program of Action is a tool to get 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.

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.

A Few Definitions of Awakening from the Founders for Context.

Big Book - Spiritual Experience, 2nd Edition, pg 570

What often takes place in a few
months could seldom have been accomplished by
years of self discipline. With few exceptions our
members find that they have tapped an unsuspected
inner resource which they presently identify with their
own conception of a Power greater than themselves.
Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than
ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more
religious members call it “God-consciousness.”

Dr. Bob took Clarence S through the steps in 3-4 hours. Clarence S. was a pivotal sculptor of early AA Sponsorship.

“A spiritual awakening is THE RESULT of working, DOING, and LIVING, ALL of the 12 Steps! Then you have this message to carry to others. There is no message unless you have done the first 9 Steps and are living the last three. You can't give what you don't have. You must practice these principles in ALL your affairs.
Now it is your responsibility to give this message to others as you have received it. Not changed, watered down, or how others may want it in their lives. If they want what you have, they must do what you did. It is now your legacy to hand down, AS IT WAS GIVEN TO YOU -- NO OTHER WAY!!!! It is recommended that two people work with the newcomer through the steps whenever possible, so that both may learn as well as give.” – Clarence S.

Bill Wilson wrote in the 12 & 12 a fine definition of a Spiritual Awakening:

When a man or a woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. Pg 106

William James' was considered a "Founder" of AA by Bill Wilson. His book Varieties of Religious Experience is the most recommended book in our basic text. It was critical to AA's development. Below we have William James' view of a "Religious" or Spiritual Experience.

Psychologist and Philosopher William James described four characteristics of religious / mystical experience in The Varieties of Religious Experience. According to James, such an experience is:
Transient — the experience is temporary; the individual soon returns to a "normal" frame of mind. It is outside our normal perception of space and time.
Ineffable — the experience cannot be adequately put into words.
Noetic — the individual feels that he or she has learned something valuable from the experience. Gives us knowledge that is normally hidden from human understanding.
Passive — the experience happens to the individual, largely without conscious control. Although there are activities, such as meditation (see below), that can make religious experience more likely, it is not something that can be turned on and off at will. wikipidia

1. No True Awakening

Entry Level Sobriety - Social Intercourse

Social intercourse is not the awakening promised in AA. Social Intercourse is great in the beginning. It's where we start in AA. It feels good. It leads newcomers to fellowship but lets reserve the term "fellowship" for those taking the actions. Social intercourse is different than fellowship. AA is open to anyone with a desire to stop drinking. It doesn't require you take any action. You don't really have to do anything to socialize. Just show up. We are not saints and not everyone wants a spiritual awakening. The door of AA is open to everyone. Unfortunately, social intercourse is often confused as Awakening. Camaraderie and laughter feel better than alcoholic isolation and this can produce a substitute for addiction but not necessarily "an entire psychic change".

AA offers this entry level of "take what you like and leave the rest" basic "don't drink and go to meetings" sobriety. Social intercourse sometimes helps a person not drink but true awakening is seldom achieved this way. There is great value in not drinking but certainly this is not the depth that AA was founded upon. Alcoholics Anonymous grew fast and strong because of the depth of it's message, which is that you can overcome Alcohol addiction through a spiritual experience. A strong group can keep some people sober for a time, and that is miraculous, desirable, but we shouldn't sell AA short. There is more. Much more.

The problem with social intercourse sobriety is that it's got a horrendous success rate. Eventually, if one is stuck in this entry level, the joy of getting out of self is not realized. Self will remains in control. Thinking still centers on self causing selfish actions like seeking to get rather than give. Lacking insight, actions and speech are often misdirected by thoughts of self; self absorbed, anxiety, depression, isolation, controversy and intolerance are some of the telltale signs of this still suffering alcoholic. The most important thought on this persons mind is themselves. This can last decades or a lifetime if not addressed. We can cycle back into this stage even after awakening. Old timers stuck in this phase may offer their longtime abstinence up as proof they know what they are talking about. Yet, if they are stuck in their own heads, they only mislead.

Some groups tend to encourage social intercourse over the Program of Action, "go to meetings and talk about your feelings, your opinions and your problems" kind of "group therapy" approach. This can give the impression that we go to meetings to "get not give", and God knows the last thing the ego wants to do is stop talking about ourselves much less go out of our way for another! This is not the awakening promised by the founders.

At the same time we all need to learn to experience and share about our feelings honestly, especially newcomers. Social intercourse is often helpful in this early phase. The hopeless pain of addiction needs to break through, followed by waves of other latent impulses and feelings. This only becomes harmful when the self centered habit of the mind makes this process endless. Constantly revisiting thoughts of self; generating more and more negative feelings unconsciously. If we feel the feelings at the same time that we get out of self, things tend to open up faster, more naturally. We do this not with intellect but through the direct experience of the feeling and with the actions outlined in the 12 steps. This helps stop us from perpetuating more painful feelings. Painful feelings we often generate by habitual thoughts of self. A year long 4th step is a good example of a newcomer thinking about themselves TOO much, too long. (It's also a leading cause of relapse within the first year.)

After True Awakening, Fellowship replaces social intercourse and becomes about giving not getting. The difference is stark. Nobody does this perfectly and thoughts of self always resurface but the difference between a person at a meeting who is looking to give and one who is looking to take is stark. One speaks from the heart. The other speaks from intellect, mostly about themselves and their problems. One is getting stuck. The other is getting free. We can all fall back into this place at times. Even though we may experience "The Great Reality" directly and realize it's inherent perfection, Awakening isn't a permanent state of mind. Like William James noted, thoughts soon return and those thoughts are mostly about Self. Us. Our problems. Our little plans and designs.

When thoughts of self consume us, it clouds conscious contact with God as we understand Him. Because of this we can fluctuate quite frequently in our spiritual program. This is where the program of action becomes so very practical. Someone who has a gradual or sudden awakening can usually be found 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. Deepening their insight through action and resolved to grow in understanding and effectiveness. Their lives change. Those who stay in the social intercourse level of sobriety usually do not demonstrate significant progress, no matter how long they are sober. So, it's a great place to start but you wouldn't want to live there. 

2. Gradual Awakenings 

A Program of Action

Social intercourse leads to the 12 Steps which results in a Spiritual Awakening. This is where social intercourse gives way to actual "Fellowship"; when we join in "brotherly and harmonious action" stemming from 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. 

As time passes, the 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 experienced. Simple. Get out of self. Feel divine joy. Pass it on. Get out of self. Feel divine joy. Pass it on...repeat...

A person who has had a gradual awakening usually is the last person to know it. You see their once dull eyes light up with life. Isolation and fear of others give 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 spring board to a Sudden Awakening. These are not mutually exclusive. It's not one or the other. Sometimes a sudden awakening occurs first, such as Bill Wilson's. Even in his case there was still the program of action that he had to follow to "Gradually" deepen his awakening.

3. Sudden Awakenings

Ego Collapse at Depth

Bill Wilson recounts his Sudden Awakening below. This happened shortly after Ebby clobbered him with the "Hammer of Hopelessness!". Ebby went to work on Bills big fat 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 comes to the jumping off 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
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

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 the "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 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.

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 and 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. 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.

The Program of Action is about 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 the mud by comparison. In a short time it would be gone. Whereas, a spiritual awakening taps into the infinite. When we give this gift selflessly, without seeking reward, we tap into something truly amazing and unifying, that goes beyond material things. This is what it means to "give it away to keep it".

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 4 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 read hundreds 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 and 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. 

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!