An examination of the profound spiritual experience that illuminates and changes many lives
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS started with a flash of lightning and a drop of Brahmanic splendor. Co-founder Bill W. writes of his 1934 spiritual experience, which led to the establishment of AA:
“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 mountaintop blew through and through. God comes to most men gradually, but His impact on me was sudden and profound.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 14)
The event Bill describes–often called his “hot flash”–is unusual in a number of ways. For one thing, it has apparently not happened to most other AA members. For another, it was so brief that it could easily be interpreted as a temporary hallucination, particularly since it happened to a man under treatment for alcoholism. It was not preceded by a period of saintly devotion or other religious exercise; actually, it came to a person who was rather agnostic. But the experience had a purpose; AA would probably not have been launched without it.
Bill’s “flash” has come to other people in various times and places and even has a technical name. It is called “cosmic consciousness.”
The term has an occult sound, but there is nothing mysterious or otherworldly about it. It has been the subject of serious study. The man who made the term rather widely known was a Canadian physician, Richard Maurice Bucke, whose theories were later discussed by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (a book vital to AA’s early development). Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness was first published in 1901 and has gone through more than twenty editions. Though ridiculed by some, the book has an attraction for those interested in the mind and in the human capacity for spiritual development.
Bucke, significantly, was a medical doctor, not a religious mystic. If anything, he may have been hostile to organized religion and was most likely regarded as an atheist or agnostic. By conventional standards, he seemed unlikely to be interested in spiritual subjects and certainly unqualified for a “spiritual experience.” He had, however, some unusual interests. For one thing, as medical superintendent of a mental institution, Bucke had seen the destructive effects of hallucination and delusion, and was therefore skeptical of the unusual, yet fascinated by it. He also had wide-ranging literary and artistic interests.
In any case, Bucke had an open mind on many subjects. And this helped make him a candidate for the startling experience that became the germ of his book. Here’s how Bucke describes it (as quoted in The Varieties of Religious Experience):
“I had spent the evening. . .with two friends, reading and discussing poetry and philosophy. We parted at midnight. I had a long drive to my lodging. My mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images, and emotions called up by the reading and talk, was calm and peaceful. I was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment, not actually thinking, but letting ideas, images, and emotions flow of themselves, as it were, through my mind. All at once. . .I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. . .I did not merely come to believe. . .I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love. . .The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained.”
One could be skeptical of an experience thus described. It sounds a great deal like an hallucination, perhaps even temporary insanity. Bucke admitted that the “subjective feelings” of insanity and cosmic consciousness might appear similar. But the effects were completely different. A person suffering from insanity tends to lose self-restraint, self-control, and perhaps all morality. In cosmic consciousness, these faculties are enormously increased. Some examples he gave as proof were Buddha, Jesus, Isaiah, Paul, Plotinus, and Dante.
Bucke also believed that the cosmic sense (as he sometimes called it) is not limited to a favored few, but is a natural sequence in the evolution of the human mind. As the human race progresses, an increasing number of individuals will receive the cosmic experience, until finally it will be as natural to everyone as our present state is now. It will also bring an era of universal happiness and peace, since persons in the cosmic state would no longer harm others (or even be capable of thinking harmful thoughts), Bucke concludes.
William James tended to agree with Bucke, although many of the cases cited in The Varieties of Religious Experience lack the factor of intense “illumination.” Many are individuals who found a vast store of spiritual grace without having an abrupt spiritual experience or “hot flash.” Nonetheless, most found new hope and a new life, and James argues strongly that religious experience can be a powerful agent in resurrecting sick and defeated individuals.
Where does AA fit into this framework? For one thing, Bill W.’s experience seems to be an authentic case of cosmic consciousness. Bill always believed that it was, and his writings sometimes use the term “illumination” to describe it. The experience was very real to him, and he never felt that it was an hallucination or a delusion.
But it did frighten him at first, and seemed too good to be true. He explains his first thoughts:
“For a moment I was alarmed, and called my friend, the doctor, to ask if I were still sane. He listened in wonder as I talked.
“Finally he shook his head saying, ‘Something has happened to you I don’t understand. But you had better hang on to it. Anything is better than the way you were.’ The good doctor now sees many men who have such experiences. He knows that they are real.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 14)
Dr. William D. Silkworth, Bill’s physician, was an unusual person; it is hard to imagine many doctors responding as he did to Bill’s account. Alcoholics are often people of excess, and it’s not uncommon to hear of a. person who “used to get drunk on alcohol and is now drunk on religion.”
Bill’s new beliefs, however, were not an alternate means of escape. He used them to develop a new life for himself and thousands of others. But he was to learn that cosmic consciousness could be elusive and temporary. He explains in other writings his first belief that alcoholics needed a “hot flash” similar to his in order to recover. Later, he saw that such a subjective experience wasn’t necessary for recovery, that a gradual spiritual “awakening” often led to far more spiritual growth in the long run.
Bill also recognized that an experience of illumination would not solve all problems from that point onward. Later in his own life, he was afflicted with depression and personal troubles that often drove him to the brink of self-destruction. But he never lost his sense of the presence of God. His doubts were about himself as a going human concern, not about the reality and the love of God.
Since Bill, by his own frequent admission, lacked the saintly qualities usually deemed necessary for great spiritual elevation, we might wonder why he was “chosen” for this remarkable experience. The answer seems to be that he was the right person at the right time with the right idea. If the Higher Power intended to find and develop an individual with the necessary qualities for the founding of AA, it’s hard to think of a better choice. Bill had drive, organizing ability, creativity, and above all the capacity to learn from his mistakes. When the cosmic sense came, it was not necessarily because Bill W. was an unusually worthy person; God is no respecter of persons. It was more a case of highly intelligent personnel selection.
Bucke theorized that all people have several states of consciousness. The most basic is simple consciousness, which human beings share with the animals. At a higher level is self-consciousness, which only human beings seem to possess. At the highest level is the cosmic sense. Individuals may have such a sense with varying degrees of intensity. Bill’s experience, for example, lasted only a few seconds. Others have had similar states of mind lasting for days. The time may come, however, when all people–even children–will share the cosmic sense at all times.
It is this, Bucke believed, that will bring about a true paradise on earth. As he saw it, cosmic-conscious persons would in reality be a new race, making all things new. The isolated individuals who have touched the cosmic sense in the past have been the spiritual leaders of the present race, he believed. They are also “the first faint beginnings of another race, walking the earth and breathing the air with us, but at the same time walking another earth and breathing another air of which we know little or nothing, but which is, all the same, our spiritual life.”
It is not the business of AA to promote such a development in the world at large, and few of us could serve as living examples of great spiritual growth. Our responsibility is simply to demonstrate that spiritual principles are an effective answer to alcoholism for many individuals.
At the same time, it is good to know that we are not working in a spiritual vacuum. Our work may be on a modest scale, but it could be part of a larger movement now building a better and brighter world. The time may come when a new Bucke writes another book to show how the cosmic sense healed a sick and warring world. One chapter should be reserved for Bill W.’s hot flash. Its brief burst of dazzling light has shone in thousands of hearts and minds, and the world is a far better place because of it.