Twelve-Step Meditation in the A.A. Big Book and the 12 & 12
By Glenn F. Chesnut
© Glenn F. Chesnut, November 2006,
From the Hindsfoot Foundation website at http://hindsfoot.org/ This material may be copied and reproduced by others subject to the restrictions given at http://hindsfoot.org/copyright.html
Summing up everything we have learned from the Big Book, the 12 & 12, and the other early A.A. literature, we can say that a period of morning meditation (in the way that it is talked about in the eleventh step) involves the following things:
1. Meditation means most of all reading from a meditational book or written prayer in a careful and thoughtful manner, and thinking about how these words can help us to live better lives, in very specific and concrete ways.
2. The eleventh step says that we do this in part “to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him,” that is, so that we can learn how to go through every day of our lives being continually aware of God’s presence with us and around us in everything that we do. So we need to be aware of God’s presence while we are meditating, and practice at this, so that we can carry this awareness with us throughout the rest of the day.
3. We need to include a period of quiet time* in our morning prayer and meditation. We may choose to calm our minds by visualizing ourselves in a quiet and restful scene inside our own imaginations (as Bill Wilson suggests), or we could make use of other methods for achieving the same goal. Some people in the twelve step program take their morning cup of coffee and go out and sit in their gardens, or go down to a nearby stream or lake, and sit and quietly absorb the beauty and rest in that scene.
The psychologist Edmund Jacobson wrote a book in 1929 called Progressive Relaxation which described a method of calming the mind by working through the various muscles of the body and tensing and relaxing each one — as we all know, when the mind is under stress, the body tends to tense up, and Jacobson found that we could reverse this process by untensing the body in order to calm the mind.**
Reciting a mantra*** (as is done in Transcendental Meditation) will also work, along with concentrating on my breathe going in and out, and other methods (both eastern and western) for removing the normal flow of upsetting conscious thoughts from my mind — but these kinds of eastern spiritual techniques are one and only one kind of way to do this. The object of the quiet time is just to spend a few minutes being quiet and peaceful and relaxed, instead of thinking nonstop about everything under the sun, where any method at all that works for us is the right method for us.
4. Remembering all the precautions which Bill W. listed, we nevertheless also need to seek guidance from God about the things we need to do during the day ahead. We need to ask ourselves, not what we want to do, but what we know God wants us to do, and plan our day accordingly. Our object is to walk on the sunny side of the street throughout the day, instead of walking on the dark side of the street (the side of the street where we used to walk, where everyone is lying, stealing, cheating, manipulating, feeling sorry for themselves, trying to control other people, drinking, drugging, and fighting with everyone around them).
5. We will find that during our period of quiet time, God’s grace has quietly entered our souls, so that we will have new power and strength (God’s power and strength coming to dwell in our souls) which we enable us to do that which we could never do before. We will not be conscious of this happening while we are engaged in this quiet time, but we will notice its powerful effect on us throughout the rest of the day. This does not mean that we will never be troubled during the day, but we will find ourselves winning the struggle against pride, resentment, fear, and anxiety, over and over again, in situations where those temptations always defeated us before. We will find the proof, in our own lives, that this kind of meditation works. As we continue doing this every morning for weeks and months and years, we will find ourselves growing incredibly at the spiritual level. Our entire lives will be transformed.
Meditating the way the early A.A. people taught us is a much richer and more powerful way of making spiritual progress and gaining true happiness and freedom than anything we find in Transcendental Meditation (and other similar Asian contemplative techniques) when these eastern techniques are practiced alone. Transcendental Meditation and other similar eastern techniques for contemplation can be embodied within our morning A.A. meditations if we wish, but any method of calming the mind and temporarily quieting the endless stream of thoughts coursing through our minds will have the same effect, including Bill W.’s suggestion of using guided imagery, or Jacobson’s method of progressive relaxation.
And the important thing to remember, is that quieting and calming the mind is only one small part of the morning meditation, and that it is not being done just for itself, but because it enables me to make better use of God’s guidance and grace. As long as my mind is too disturbed, I will be blocking God’s spirit from entering my soul and granting me his almighty power. I am not trying to engage in self-hypnosis, but trying to open myself up to the Living God, and trying to allow God to educate me (through his servants who have written the prayers and meditations) about how I may serve him best. Above all, meditation is part of the process of learning how to put aside my old character defects and shortcomings, so that I can learn how to think properly about the world and God and my life once again.
*The purpose of the quiet time God is always there with me, and God’s grace and power are always available to me, through every hour of every day. The divine grace and power come to me sometimes at the conscious level, but perhaps even more often at the unconscious level. When God’s grace is coming to me in a way which I cannot consciously feel at the time, I can nevertheless know that I am in fact receiving his grace by the way in which I am coping with things which I could never handle before, and by the way that I am making intuitive decisions with a wisdom which I never had before (Big Book p. 84, “We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us”).
When my mind is in too much turmoil, however, it acts like static on a radio, and this “mental noise” blocks me both from praying as effectively as I otherwise could, and from receiving God’s grace as powerfully as I otherwise could. This mental static may be coming from angry or resentful or self-pitying or fearful or guilty thoughts churning around in my head nonstop, or it may be coming simply from my mind being filled with planning and analyzing and scheming. Yes, I need to plan in advance and analyze issues and pay attention to the possible consequences of my actions, but not all the time. I also need to leave time for God every once in a while. And this is particularly so when my mind begins racing too much.
The purpose of the morning quiet time (and brief quiet times at other points through the day) is to shut off all these racing thoughts for long enough to open my eyes and ears — both at the conscious level and at the unconscious level — to what God is saying and doing. The purpose of these quiet times is to rest my mind for a while, and fall into a quiet mental state where I can immerse myself in a heartfelt gratitude and appreciation for all that God has done and is doing for me.
This means that I can use any method I choose to quiet my mind and turn off my continually churning and racing thoughts for a few minutes The only thing that matters is that I use some method which works for me. It does not matter whether I use techniques taken from Asian religions like Transcendental Meditation, or imaging techniques like Bill W. suggested in the Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions, or sitting outside in my garden while I have my morning cup of coffee and listen to the birds sing, or Jacobson’s method of progressive relaxation, or anything else that works for me.
But also remember that although the twelve step program recommends that a few minutes of quiet time be included in our morning period of prayer and meditation, the quiet time itself is not “meditation” in the traditional sense. The quiet time is a form of prayer which is called “contemplation” in western spirituality and mysticism. Meditation in the proper sense refers only to the part where we are reading and thinking about a written prayer or what is written on the page for the day in a meditational book.
**Jacobson’s method of progressive relaxation
The psychologist Edmund Jacobson developed this relaxation method in 1929. It is extremely effective, and ought to be more widely known. When our minds become tense, the muscles of our bodies tend to become tense as a reaction. Jacobson’s method is based on the principle that the reverse is also true. If we can get all the muscles of our bodies to relax, our minds will start to become quiet and relaxed and peaceful, no matter how upset we have been.
We have to work on each major set of muscles in the body one by one, and we have to teach our minds how to single out individual muscles so we can turn the relaxation process into manageable portions. Part of Jacobson’s technique was based on his observation that if I can train my mind to tense one muscle in my body, and only that one muscle, my mind will then have learned the specific mind-nerve linkage necessary to concentrate completely on that one particular muscle and relax it instead.
Jacobson’s original set of relaxation exercises was very long and complicated. In fact a much simpler version of his method will produce amazingly effective results. If we wish, we can have someone read the instructions for this progressive set of relaxation exercises into a type recorder, with some quiet and relaxing music playing softly as a background, or we can simply memorize the sequence. We sit in a comfortable chair or lie down on something comfortable, and then begin the relaxation process.
In terms of timing, we need to breathe slowly, perhaps at around six times or so per minute — our object is to take our tense and anxious minds and slow them down — and we need to time the tensing and relaxing of each muscle group to our slow and gentle breathing in and out. Beginning with our right ankles, we breathe in slowly and then tense our right ankles upwards. As we breathe out, we let that muscle relax totally. When we are first learning, it may be necessary to lift our ankles up an inch or two. After we have become more proficient, we will be able to use just a slight and outwardly imperceptible tensing of that muscle. We go through a number of the major muscles in our body in the following order:
1. My right ankle.
2. My right calf muscle.
3. My right thigh.
4. My left ankle.
5. My left calf muscle.
6. My left thigh.
7. I constrict the muscles of my abdomen.
8. I constrict the muscles in my buttocks and crotch.
9. My right wrist.
10. My right forearm.
11. My right upper arm.
12. My left wrist.
13. My left forearm.
14. My left upper arm.
15. The muscles running from my right shoulder and up the right side of my neck.
16. The muscles running from my left shoulder and up the left side of my neck.
17. I clench my jaw muscles.
18. I open my jaws and tense my muscles the other way.
19. I clench my eyes closed tightly.
20. I open my eyes and tense my muscles the other way.
If I notice any pains or tenseness elsewhere in my body, I can then do the same thing on these areas. If I have a headache, for example, it is always worthwhile seeing if I can figure out some muscle to tense in my scalp or neck which will make the pain sharper and more intense. Often, when we have what we regard as a “headache,” the ache is being produced by a tense muscle somewhere in our scalps or in our necks (not all headaches are produced in this way, but many are). Once having identified the muscle whose tenseness is causing the discomfort, I can then work at relaxing that particular muscle, which will in turn make the headache go away.
If I cannot tie a particular pain in my body to a particular muscle, I can sometimes relieve the pain if I visualize myself in my mind as though I were making a tight fist (focusing on the pain and using the mental image of the clenched fist to represent the source of the pain), and then (in my imagination) I can relax the fist and let go.
After I have relaxed my entire body in this way, I can then recite a mantra if necessary to stay relaxed and quiet my mind, so that my mind will not be filled with busy thoughts. If thoughts of something enter my mind, I simply keep on reciting the mantra, and let the intrusive thoughts drift out of my mind, like little insects or twittering birds being blown out of view by a gentle wind.
***Reciting a mantra The mind abhors a vacuum, so the best way to keep it empty of disruptive thoughts is frequently that of giving the mind something simple and repetitive to fill it instead. One of the simplest mantras is to say (inside my head) “one” as I exhale, and then the next time “two,” and then the next time “three.” The next time I exhale, I go back to “one” and begin the series all over again: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 ….
I can also use a single word or phrase as a mantra, repeating that word or phrase inside my head each time I exhale, and feeling the stress and tension leaving my mind and body as I repeat it. It can be a single word like “quiet” or “peace.” It can be a phrase like “easy does it” or “let it all go” (short for Let Go and Let God).
Emmet Fox, in his technique for calming our minds which he refers to as the Golden Key, gives us some other phrases which we could use as mantras:
God is wisdom There is no power but God
God is truth I am the child of God
God is inconceivable love The perfect peace of God
God is present everywhere God is love
God has infinite power God is guiding me now
God knows everything God is with me
Emmet Fox, The Golden Key
Scientific prayer will enable you to get yourself or anyone else, out of any difficulty. It is the golden key to harmony and happiness.
To those who have no acquaintance with the mightiest power in existence, this may appear to be a rash claim, but it needs only a fair trial to prove that, without a shadow of doubt, it is a just one. You need take no one’s word for it, and you should not. Simply try it for yourself.
God is omnipotent, and we are God’s image and likeness and have dominion over all things. This is the inspired teaching, and it is intended to be taken literally, at its face value. The ability to draw on this power is not the special prerogative of the mystic or the saint, as is so often supposed, or even of the highly trained practitioner. Everyone has this ability. Whoever you are, wherever you may be, the golden key to harmony is in your hand now. This is because in scientific prayer it is God who works, and not you, and so your particular limitations or weaknesses are of no account in the process. You are only the channel through which the divine action takes place, and your treatment will be just the getting of yourself out of the way.
Beginners often get startling results the first time, for all that is essential is to have an open mind and sufficient faith to try the experiment. Apart from that, you may hold any views on religion, or none.
As for the actual method of working, like all fundamental things, it is simplicity itself. All you have to do is this: Stop thinking about the difficulty, whatever it is, and think about God instead. This is the complete rule, and if only you will do this, the trouble, whatever it is, will disappear. It makes no difference what kind of trouble it is. It may be a big thing or a little thing: it may concern health, finance, a lawsuit, a quarrel, an accident, or anything else conceivable: but whatever it is, stop thinking about it and think of God instead — that is all you have to do.
It could not be simpler, could it? God could scarcely have made it simpler, and yet it never fails to work when given a fair trial.
Do not try to form a picture of God, which is impossible. Work by rehearsing anything or everything that you know about God. God is wisdom, truth, inconceivable love. God is present everywhere, has infinite power, knows everything, and so on. It matters not how well you may think you understand these things: go over them repeatedly.
But you must stop thinking of the trouble, whatever it is. The rule is, to think about God. If you are thinking about your difficulty, you are not thinking about God. To be continually glancing over your shoulder in order to see how matters are progressing is fatal, because it is thinking of the trouble, and you must think of God and nothing else. Your object is to drive the thought of the difficulty out of your consciousness, for a few moments at least, substituting for it the thought of God. This is the crux of the whole thing. If you can become so absorbed in this consideration of the spiritual world that you forget for a while about the difficulty, you will find that you are safely and comfortably out of your difficulty — that your demonstration is made.
In order to “golden key” a troublesome person or a difficult situation, think. “Now I am going to ‘golden key’ John, or Mary, or that threatened danger”: then proceed to drive all thought of John, or Mary, or the danger out of your mind, replacing it with the thought of God.
By working in this way about a person, you are not seeking to influence his conduct in any way, except that you prevent him from injuring or annoying you, and you do him nothing but good. Thereafter, he is certain to be in some degree a better, wiser, and more spiritual person, just because you have “golden keyed” him. A pending lawsuit or other difficulty would probably fade out harmlessly without coming to a crisis, justice being done to all parties concerned.
If you find that you can do this very quickly, you may repeat the operation several times a day with intervals between. Be sure, however, each time you have done it, that you drop all thought of the matter until the next time. This is important.
We have said that the golden key is simple, and so it is, but of course it is not always easy to turn. If you are very frightened or worried, at first it may be difficult to get your thoughts away from material things. But by constantly repeating a statement of absolute Truth, such as: There is no power but God; I am the child of God, filled and surrounded by the perfect peace of God; God is love; God is guiding me now; or, perhaps best and simplest of all, God is with me — however mechanical or trite it may seem — you will soon find that the treatment has begun to “take,” and that your mind is clearing. Do not struggle violently; be quiet, but insistent. Each time you find your attention wandering, switch it back to God.
Do not try to think in advance what the solution to your difficulty will be. This is called “outlining” and will only delay the demonstration. Leave the question of ways and means to God. You want to get out of your difficulty; that is sufficient. You do your half, and God will never fail to do God’s.
“Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).