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
Meditation in traditional spirituality
“Meditation” in traditional western Christianity had always meant reading a text, commonly from a meditational book or pamphlet (like The Upper Room or Twenty-Four Hours a Day in A.A.), and then musing thoughtfully upon how the text helps me to understand my own life and problems, and my relationship to God.
See The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church for the traditional Catholic understanding. Meditation is:
Mental prayer in discursive form. It is the type of mental prayer appropriate to beginners and as such accounted its lowest stage; and it is commonly contrasted with Contemplation. Its method is the devout reflection on a chosen (often Biblical) theme, with a view to deepening spiritual insight and stimulating the will and affections. Among the many methods of meditation advocated by modern schools of spirituality, that expounded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the Spiritual Exercises ... is widely used.
Sister Ignatia used St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises during her early spiritual formation, and would often give little books composed of excerpts from that work to A.A. people who went through her program at St. Thomas Hospital. In the American Catholic Church of that period, the basic principles of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises were taught to most seminary students as part of their spiritual formation. So Ralph Pfau — Father John Doe, the first Roman Catholic priest to get sober in A.A. — assumed that same traditional Ignatian concept of meditation when he talked about it in his Golden Books. Father Ralph was one of the four most-read early A.A. authors, so his ideas are extremely important for the understanding of what early A.A. people meant by meditation. Meditation means taking a written text from a meditational book or prayer book and reading through it and thinking carefully about how it applies to me. Does is point out particular character defects which I have, that I need to do more work on? Does it help me to understand my own spiritual goals better? Does it tell me specific things about the nature of God’s love and help which I need to do a better job of remembering and applying to my own relationship to God?
It is important to note that “meditation” is a thoughtful process, not the blanking out of all conscious thought. (Trying to shut off all our conscious thoughts was called “contemplation” instead in traditional western terminology — see St. Bonaventura’s The Mind’s Path to God, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross for more on the subject of western techniques for contemplation).
In A.A. circles however, “meditation” also took on some of the characteristics of what the Oxford Group called “having a morning quiet time.” So A.A. members might in fact, not only read and think about what the reading for the day said in their meditational book, but also spend a short time blanking out all their conscious thoughts and just remaining still and quiet in God’s presence, while waiting for God’s guidance to give them instructions for the day.
Richmond Walker’s Twenty-Four Hours a Day gives the best introduction to what the concept of meditation meant in early A.A. He refers to the period of quiet time as “entering the divine silence” and recommends it as a way to restore our spirit of peace and calm, and as a way to obtain the power of the divine grace for changing our lives.
In the Big Book, Bill W.’s short section on meditation (at the place where he is talking about the eleventh step) gives instructions for quiet time and seeking guidance. By the time he wrote the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. had become convinced that too many A.A. members were getting into trouble by assuming that their own craziest thoughts were in fact “God’s guidance,” so we can see him giving additional warnings there, and trying to steer A.A. members away from misusing the idea of divine guidance. Every thought that pops into an alcoholic’s head during morning meditation is not God’s voice telling me what God himself wants me to do.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
and Transcendental Meditation
Modern A.A. confusion about the meaning of the term “meditation” arose during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and we’ve never totally recovered from this. In the 1950’s a guru in India named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began teaching what he called Transcendental Meditation, based on a technique going back to Shankara. We recite a mantra (a simple word like “Om”) over and over in our minds as we attempt to remove all conscious thoughts from our minds, and attempt to merge ourselves into the impersonal divine reality which is all that truly exists (this material world is an illusion in that kind of Hindu philosophy, and even our feeling of being individuals is an illusion).
In the 1960’s and 1970’s this kind of Transcendental Meditation was popularized in the United States by a number of prominent entertainers and other public figures, above all the rock music group called the Beatles. In addition, during that period, the famous professional football player Joe Namath also preached Transcendental Meditation, along with the music group called the Beach Boys, comedian Andy Kaufman, and stage magician Doug Henning. Clint Eastwood, famous for shooting people without qualms in so many of his movies, also started preaching the virtues of transcendental meditation! ("Go on punk, make my day," as Eastwood famously said in the role of Dirty Harry in the 1983 film Sudden Impact.)
As a result, to this day newcomers to A.A. read the eleventh step, and immediately come to the false conclusion that they are expected to sit crosslegged and start chanting “Om.” In traditional western terminology, this is “contemplation,” not meditation. Hindu and Buddhist techniques are perfectly O.K. for A.A. people who want to use them. Many A.A. members today come from one of those Asian traditions. And attempting to practice Transcendental Meditation while listening to Beatles’ records does not do anyone any real harm.
The Eleventh Step
But if we ask the historical question of what the earliest A.A. people did, and we look at what the eleventh step actually says, it is not telling us to try to shut off all conscious thought while we try to become “one with All,” but to do something very different. Let us look at the wording of the eleventh step:
Sought through prayer and meditation [a] to improve our CONSCIOUS contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for [b] knowledge of His will for us and [c] the power to carry that out.
Summed up, this means:
[a] Thinking about spiritual texts to help us develop our God consciousness.
[b] Seeking guidance (in the Oxford Group sense).
[c] Having a brief quiet time, because when we finish our prayer and meditation, we will find that during this quiet time, God’s grace has quietly entered our souls, so that we will have new power and strength (God’s power and strength dwelling in our souls) enabling us to do that which we could never do before.
Twenty-Four Hours a Day
The fine print sections at the bottom of each page in Richmond Walker’s Twenty-Four Hours a Day tell us how to do all three of those things, and do them very effectively. That is the reason why Rich was the second most-read early A.A. author, second only to Bill Wilson himself. To my own mind, this is one of the ten best books on spirituality (East or West, from any century) which has ever been written. People who read that book every morning make more spiritual progress, far more quickly, than with any other meditational work I have ever run across. If you go though the fine print sections of Twenty-Four Hours a Day carefully, you can see the whole theory and practice of meditation laid out in great detail.
Beyond that (and reading what Bill W. had to say, of course) the best way of understanding what meditation meant to early A.A. people is to go back to the Oxford Group literature and see what they had to say about quiet time and guidance. Roman Catholic priests and nuns who were supporters of the early A.A. movement, like Father Ed Dowling and Sister Ignatia, would recommend that one also look at St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises for further guidance on the subject of meditation.
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