Meditation opens us to an awareness of something ever new
IN MY EIGHT YEARS In AA, I have slowly become aware that the losses and harm due to drinking were, though more obvious, not equal to those from alcoholic thinking. Slowly, against vicious, insidious resistance within me, I began about five years ago to find my way through Eleventh Step meditation. My early attempts, particularly when working alone, forced me to realize how “cunning, baffling, powerful” are the many disguises of Ego and its components: fear, anger, craving. Every kind of justification and demand rose up to clamor relentlessly for “an easier, softer way.” I might have thought myself willing to go to any lengths for sobriety, but I was forced to admit that I would not sit still for even a half-hour.
Thanks greatly to AA and its members, I have begun to experience some of the endless treasures the Eleventh Step can bring. I have also had to realize the penalty and loss caused by past evasion. Still, my experience has been generally of growing hope and strength. Much more than that, I have learned that the Eleventh Step does for alcoholic thinking what the First Step does for alcohol.
An earlier article (April 1969 Grapevine) described a three-part method of meditation for groups starting the practice of Step Eleven. Group work is less difficult, particularly in the beginning; but after some progress we realize, as Bill reminds us in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (page 104), that “Meditation is something which can always be further developed. It has no boundaries, either of width or height. Aided by such instruction and example as we can find, it is essentially an individual adventure, something which each one of us works out in his own way.”
Sharing in the great adventure through this article, I hope we may deepen our understanding of meditation. It is from understanding that our method evolves, more simple and more profound with each day’s development. Indeed, it is daily practice of the Eleventh Step that teaches us to go beyond reliance on a group and to face the self alone.
With recovery begins the long process of overcoming the habits of mind ruled by Ego–fear and anger and craving–what we call alcoholic thinking. Here is the source of the teeming thoughts and impulses, so much like diluted dt’s and so dangerous to the alcoholic. A mind enslaved by alcoholic thinking is enslaved by ceaseless pleasure-seeking, by denial of reality, by evasion of truth and discomfort and effort, and, most tragically, by grasping after sovereignty, power, dependence, and domination and the empty symbolic victories of self-justification and “being right.”
When conscious awareness weakens under this onslaught, racing thoughts take control as impulses. The acting-out of these impulses can be, as we all know, disastrous. It first brings remorse and fear, then more anger, then a further cyclic increase of the whole disturbance, which must end in insanity or death.
Awareness dies in another way when the mind is deadened in a battle to deny and repress this raging turmoil. Such a tense, fragile sobriety can be destroyed at any moment in a dry drunk, which is nothing but the painful reappearance, in an acute attack, of the very thoughts and impulses so hypocritically hidden.
The Eleventh Step moves directly into this morass of alcoholic thinking. No doubt much can be accomplished without meditation–we can he dry or sober without it–but once having experienced what meditation can do, we can understand better what Bill says in the June 1958 Grapevine: “If we expend even five percent of the time on Step Eleven that we habitually (and rightly) lavish on Step Twelve, the results can he wonderfully far-reaching. That is an almost uniform experience of those who constantly practice Step Eleven.”
To be useful to all AA members, a method of meditation must conform to the AA texts; it must be understandable and practicable for all; it must be entirely free from any “sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution”; and it must “improve our conscious contact with God” as we understand Him or–for those who prefer a different concept–with our Higher Power, with AA or its individual groups and members, with life, with the unknown, with the unconscious mind, with our true nature, or perhaps simply with health and sanity.
To see how these specifications may be met, we can review the basic meditation process known in endless variations the world around. Developing mental and spiritual health through meditation, we learn, is not only a matter of technique, of simply being calm while sitting, although this is a beginning. We must know that there is no “good” or “bad” meditation in the sense of “results.” One teacher helped me immeasurably with the simple reminder “Be prepared to make innumerable mistakes.”
The purpose and the method are to give up clinging and grasping; our watchword is “Nothing special” or “Let go, let go.” Without a thorough understanding of this process of release from attachments, we will never be able to go beyond the first phases and will remain enslaved and numbed by our thoughts, never really free, never truly on the road to growth and joy.
Let us look at the Ego at work. One can think of the Ego feeding, perhaps during a daydream, as a monkey grabs at bits of food while he roams his cage. The mind endlessly produces scraps of fantasy and thoughts, and the Ego–insatiable and restless as the monkey–seeks more and more of these bits of psychic food every minute. The fat, rotten sweets of thought and fantasy inevitably bring guilt and resentment, immobilization and frustration. And still the Ego clamors for more. There is no lasting peace, only fleeting satiety. And the more the Ego feeds, the greater and the less selective the craving. In the end, everything is used: Love and hate, every appetite, function, satisfaction, and emotion are all used as food for the Ego. Finally, the self is destroyed to preserve what we should have known was an illusion from the beginning.
As alcoholics, we must all choose eventually between suicide and Egocide. We must find a way to deal with Ego, with its fear and anger and craving. To meet this need, we have all of AA–and most especially the Eleventh Step. Once again: The Eleventh Step docs for alcoholic thinking what the First Step docs for alcohol.
Let us develop our understanding of the method in practice by further clarifying what, for our purpose, meditation is and is not. It is not daydreaming; it is not reading; it is not concentrated problem-solving; it is not a devotional or sectarian exercise. Most of all, it is not the working-up of the racing thoughts. This last error, an exact opposite of the truth, is so widely used as evasion that we must be more explicit.
To avoid meditation because it confronts us with the discomfort of the racing thoughts is precisely like avoiding mountain-climbing because it requires us to go up–or, worse and even more precisely, it is like avoiding AA because it gets us sober. The whole point of meditation is to deal with these racing thoughts in a healthy way and so to develop clearness of mind–sanity. Then, in just the proportion that Ego leaves the mind, our Higher Power enters. We must learn that the primary function of mind is not thinking but attention. As sanity increases, so also docs our awareness of something ever new: the “conscious contact” which is as unknown and misunderstood without meditation as is sobriety before AA.
As we proceed, it should become clear that understanding and method grow together, becoming one way of life as well as of thought. We begin by sitting still, freely aware of all perceptions–feelings and sensations and thoughts. The next phase is concentration on a prayer, a Step, or even a single word, mentally repeated and intently followed into mental silence. Then we may simply sit in meditation, the mind wholly quiet and alert. These three phases may be done in separate sittings or in sequence. We may begin with five to fifteen minutes once a day, building slowly to longer periods–a varying individual matter. An hour a day or more is a good and richly rewarding routine; this should be doubled when possible or needed.
As we progress, our technique becomes ever simpler, yet ever more demanding. The essentials are stillness of mind and body, ever more watchful and attentive. It is a grave error to think that we are seeking to still thoughts; as long as the mind is alive, it will produce thoughts. We are practicing nonattachment to thoughts as a pattern for a life of nonattachment–not the lack of relationships (a wholly different matter), but nonattachment. The alcoholic Ego seeks to cling to everything, in dominance or dependence; it grows monstrous when these attachments are threatened or satisfied. (We must remember that aversion or hatred is an attachment.)
In our early attempts to meditate, thoughts and problems spring up and clutch us, trying to blackmail us into working them up even more. If we bear the discomfort of the racing thoughts, we will eventually find ourselves face to face with the adversary–Ego, in all the fury of its fear, anger, craving, and myriad, deceptive attachments. An indescribable restlessness drives us to stop our meditation. But if we stay, gather all our strength and courage, and go on, then sooner or later the enemy weakens.
As health returns, as Ego and its attachments diminish, the true self can now become one with all that happens–every event, every relationship, every feeling. This does not mean passivity–but realistic acceptance, without inner division, reproach, and manipulations. Preferences and demands are dropped; the Third Step has much to tell us here.
One way to describe it is this: We become wholly one when we can sit and observe the contents of the mind without attachment; we treat thoughts and impulses like so many drinks on a tray or bottles in a liquor store–they no longer concern us, and yet our freedom depends on that awareness which will not permit a thought or an impulse to deceive, cling, and enslave. Each time we start to wander after an image or thought, we cut the connection, drop it, and return to our Step or prayer or word.
With growing experience, we draw closer and closer to the crystalline clarity of unattached awareness, the highest form of practice. The divided mind heals; spontaneity replaces self-conscious slavery; our Higher Power (in any of its hundred thousand forms and names) pours in like sunlight.