Meditation and 12 Steps to Innovate for Recovering Humans

12 Step Meditation History – Big Book

Twelve-Step Meditation in the A.A. Big Book and the 12 & 12 Partn 2

By Glenn F. Chesnut

Glenn F. Chesnut, November 2006,
From the Hindsfoot Foundation website at This material may be copied and reproduced by others subject to the restrictions given at

PART TWO – The Big Book

In the Big Book, meditation involves (1) reading and thinking about passages from a meditational book or a written prayer, and (2) seeking guidance for our day in the way the Oxford Group had taught.

1. Reading meditational books
and written prayers

For this first part, reading and thinking about written material from meditational books and prayer books, we can see what the Big Book says on p. 87:

If we belong to a religious denomination which requires a definite morning devotion, we attend to that ….  If not members of religious bodies, we sometimes select and memorize a few set prayers which emphasize the principles we have been discussing.  There are many helpful books also.  Suggestions about these may be obtained from one’s priest, minister, or rabbi.  Be quick to see where religious people are right.  Make use of what they offer.

Sister Ignatia recommended two meditational books for alcoholics who went through her program at St. Thomas Hospital.  One of them, a selection of excerpts from St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, has already been mentioned.  This little booklet has unfortunately long been out of print, and I would not recommend that A.A. people try going through the full set of Ignatian spiritual exercises — this takes the help of a trained spiritual director, because some of these exercises can be psychologically dangerous if attempted by untrained people.  The other book she gave to alcoholics was Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, which is widely available in a number of modern English translations.  It has been for centuries one of the most widely used Christian meditational books.

During the latter 1930’s and most of the 1940’s  however, most A.A. people (including Dr. Bob and his wife Anne) used a booklet called The Upper Room, which was published in Nashville by the Southern Methodists.  This was an evangelical group which, although Protestant, had a strongly Catholic orientation (they had bishops who ruled with an iron hand, sang the mass to medieval chants, preached salvation by faith but also made it clear that “faith without works is dead,” stressed the importance of the kind of spirituality of the heart taught by the great Catholic spiritual writers, and so on), so this little meditational book was used by a large number of Roman Catholics at that time, as well as Protestants from a wide variety of different denominations.  Each day’s meditation had Bible verses, several sentences talking about some aspect of the spiritual life for us to meditate on, and one-sentence prayers.
Studying The Upper Room and the Southern Methodists of the 1930’s (including the writings of John Wesley, the great evangelical theologian who had founded the Methodist movement in the 1730’s, which still lay at the center of Southern Methodist thought) is as important as studying the Oxford Group, for understanding any number of words and phrases and spiritual concepts used in the Big Book.  It will make the Big Book come alive in passage after passage.

A.A. people nevertheless wanted a morning meditational book written just for them, which talked explicitly about program principles.  So an A.A. member named Richmond Walker wrote a meditational book just for A.A. people in 1948, called Twenty-Four Hours a Day, and it quickly became the standard meditational book for early A.A.  The author had gotten sober in Boston in May 1942, only a year after the first A.A. group had been started in that city.  By 1948, Rich was living in Daytona Beach, Florida, and had prepared a set of daily meditations for himself written on little cards which he carried in his coat pocket.  The A.A. group in Daytona Beach persuaded him to turn it into book form, which they published under their sponsorship.  Rich phrased the fundamental meditative ideas in terms of “universal spiritual principles” instead of making them heavily Christian, talking about basic principles that make sense to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and anybody who believes in a heavenly higher power.  “Love” means “love,” “unselfishness” means “unselfishness,” and “gaining our strength from a higher power” means “gaining our strength from a higher power,” in all religious traditions.

Some A.A. members complain that when they read a page from a meditational book in the morning, “within five minutes, I’ve forgotten what I just read.”  This is irrelevant.  When we first get up in the morning, the route to our subconscious minds is extremely open, and what we read will in fact have gotten down to our subconscious minds, which is where we want to get it.  As a result of that, during the course of day, whenever we are troubled or have to make a decision, that good spiritual advice which is lodged down in our subconscious minds will be prompting us subconsciously, and will help lead us to calm ourselves and making the right decision.  Proof of this is easy to obtain.  If we read a good meditational book every morning for a number of weeks, and then get “too busy” to do it one morning, we will find ourselves becoming increasingly more frazzled and unable to cope smoothly with life as the day goes on.  The good news is that, when we finally realize it, we can make ourselves take time to do five minutes or so of quiet meditation and get ourselves back on track again.

2. Seeking guidance as part of
our morning quiet time

       On pp. 86-87 of the Big Book, Bill Wilson talked about this part of the A.A. morning meditation, which was based on Oxford Group practice.

In thinking about our day we may face indecision.  We may not be able to determine which course to take.  Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision.  We relax and take it easy.  We don’t struggle.  We are often surprised how the right answers come after we have tried this for a while.  What used to be the hunch or the occasional inspiration gradually becomes a working part of the mind.

Bill Wilson was referring here to the second part of the eleventh step, where we are instructed to pray “for knowledge of His will for us.”  This was from the beginning one of the three major parts of the A.A. morning meditation.

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Twelve-Step Meditation History Part 3