Meditation and 12 Steps to Innovate for Recovering Humans

Twelve-Step Meditation History – Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions

Twelve-Step Meditation in the A.A. Big Book and the 12 & 12 Part 3

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 THREE – Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions

1. Reading meditational books and written prayers

In the chapter on the eleventh step in the 12 & 12, Bill starts out the same way he did in the Big Book, by talking about using meditational books and written prayers to meditate on (p. 98):

How … shall we meditate?  The actual experience of meditation and prayer across the centuries is, of course, immense.  The world’s libraries and places of worship are a treasure trove for all seekers.  It is to be hoped that every A.A. who has a religious connection which emphasizes meditation will return to the practice of that devotion as never before.

Bill Wilson begins by pointing out that there are all sorts of good books which can be read for meditational purposes.  Anglicans for example (we call them Episcopalians in the United States) have the Book of Common Prayer, which has morning and evening meditations where, among other things, we end up reading the whole book of Psalms from the Old Testament over the course of every month, reading about three psalms in the morning and three in the evening, on the average (some psalms are longer than others).  There are Jewish prayer books, all sorts of devotional books in Christian book stores which have been written by Protestant pastors, and every Roman Catholic Church will have prayer cards giving different kinds of useful prayers to recite, in addition to the prayers of the rosary and the Stations of the Cross.  Father Ralph Pfau (the A.A. member who wrote the Golden Books) had a great admiration for the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux (the Little Flower), which are filled with a simple piety which is especially useful to A.A. people.  Some of the people in California A.A. have found that the writings of the medieval Christian author Meister Eckhart are very helpful to them in concentrating their minds on God’s presence all around us.  There are many A.A. people who still read every morning from God Calling by Two Listeners, the book which lies behind the small print sections in Twenty-Four Hours a Day.  This book is still one of the six or eight best sellers in Christian bookstores.

Bill Wilson gives what is called the St. Francis Prayer, which we can read on page 99 of the 12 & 12, as one good example of the way that a written text can be used to provide topics for meditation.  He explains how to use this kind of written meditational material on pages 99-100:

As beginners in meditation, we … reread this prayer several times very slowly, savoring every word and trying to take in the deep meaning of each phrase and idea.  It will help if we can drop all resistance to what [the prayer] says.  For in meditation, debate has no place.  We rest quietly with the thoughts of someone who knows, so that we may experience and learn.

We think about specific phrases.  When we read the part of the prayer which speaks of bringing love to situations where there is hatred, we need to think about any hatred which we have stored up in our hearts about something specific which is going on in our lives at that point, or about other people who are treating us hatefully at that particular point, and then pray that God will replace any hatred in our hearts with love instead.  When we come to the part of the prayer which speaks of “discord” in our lives (people quarreling and attacking one another), we read how the prayer instructs us to act in such a way as to bring harmony to this situation instead.  So we need to ask ourselves at this point, how could we change our own behavior in this situation to restore peace?  How can we stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution?  And so on, through the entire prayer.

Bill Wilson says that we need to take “a good look at where we stand now, and a further look at what might happen in our lives were we able to move closer to the ideal we have been trying to glimpse” (12 & 12 p. 101).  Modern psychologists are only just now beginning to recognize how effective this technique can be for changing our lives in positive directions.  Visualizing ourselves as already possessing our goals, and savoring how good it will feel when we arrive there, is an important part of this method of meditation.

The most important thing to remember, however, is that meditation of this sort needs to be very practical and tailored to what is actually going on in our everyday lives.  We meditate, not by just reading the written words, but by thinking carefully about what these words say about the way I ought to be dealing with the problems of my own everyday life, getting as specific as possible.

2. Using guided imagery

Bill W. then introduces a new technique in the 12 & 12, on page 100, where he suggests using guided imagery and visualization to help calm ourselves down when we are upset, angry, and anxious.  This was not part of traditional western spirituality, but modern psychologists have now come to realize how effective this is, and frequently recommend this as a good way to re-center ourselves.

As though lying upon a sunlit beach, let us relax and breathe deeply of the spiritual atmosphere with which the grace of this prayer surrounds us.  Let us become willing to partake and be strengthened and lifted up by the sheer spiritual power, beauty, and love of which these magnificent words are the carriers.  Let us look now upon the sea and ponder what its mystery is; and let us lift up our eyes to the far horizon, beyond which we shall seek all those wonders still unseen.

Bill W. suggests here that we visualize ourselves lying on a peaceful sunny beach.  To make this technique work best, we need to employ as many of our five senses as we can while we imagine ourselves in this restful scene.  So we need to think not only about what we can see in this imaginary scene, but also things like the sound of the waves peacefully lapping on the shore and the sound of the birds in the distance.  We need to imagine how the sun feels on our skin, and how the breeze feels as it blows against our faces.  And anything else we can bring in that will touch on one of our senses — like the smell of the sunbaked sand and the scent of the orange blossoms from the little orange trees planted by the beach (or however we ourselves wish to imagine this scene) — will help us to relax and be drawn into the peace of this scene.

If we wish to use this technique, there are a variety of different kinds of scenes which we could experiment with, to see which ones calm us down the most quickly.  One person may imagine standing in a sunlit clearing in a deep forest and breathing in the smell of the evergreen trees, another may visualize standing on a high mountain peak and looking out on the vast panorama stretching down below, another may think about floating down a peaceful stream on a little boat and smelling the fragrance of the wildflowers growing in profusion along the bank, while another may find peace in the image of a little cabin, sitting on a comfortable overstuffed chair in front of a flickering fireplace.  The more details we can add to the scene, the better it will work.  One person in the A.A. program imagines herself sitting on the couch in her sponsor’s living room, which is the one place where she feels safe and loved.

3. The dangers of trying to obtain guidance from God in the wrong kind of way

By the time Bill Wilson wrote Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions in 1952, thirteen years had passed since the writing of the Big Book.  The new A.A. movement had been totally separated from the Oxford Group for a long time, and Bill had come to the conclusion that the Oxford Group concept of guidance could get some alcoholics into trouble.  The ideas that pop up into an alcoholic’s head are not necessarily messages from God.  On the contrary, the first idea to appear in an alcoholic mind is all too apt to be an expression of the alcoholic’s egotism, resentment, fear, and desire to play the stage director and over-control other people.

Henrietta Seiberling, the Oxford Group member in Akron who had arranged the first meeting between Bill W. and Dr. Bob, regularly heard words being spoken inside her head which she believed were the voice of God speaking directly to her, just like the two Oxford Group women who wrote God Calling by Two Listeners.  God can in fact cause us to hear his words being spoken inside our heads, but simply hearing words being spoken inside our heads does not in any way guarantee that these are the words of God.  Christian spiritual teachers from all periods of history have regularly warned about the way that dark forces can enter our minds, disguised as an angel of light.  In Henrietta’s case, she became convinced at one point that Bill Wilson was “the devil incarnate,” and was going around writing letters and contacting A.A. people, and trying to get them to drive Bill out of the movement.  I cannot help but think that this unpleasant period may have especially helped push Bill Wilson in the direction of downplaying the idea of guidance in the Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions.  Having a prominent person going around telling people that God told her that you are the devil can quickly make you chary about the whole idea of people listening to inner voices!

So when he wrote the 12 & 12, Bill W. took pains to point out the hazards that could arise from seeking God’s guidance, and not being careful enough to distinguish between God and the delusions of our own minds (12 & 12 p. 103-104):

We have seen A.A.’s ask with much earnestness and faith for God’s guidance on matters ranging all the way from a shattering domestic or financial crisis to correcting a minor personal fault, like tardiness.  Quite often, however, the thoughts that seem to come from God are not answers at all.  They proved to be well-intentioned unconscious rationalizations …. To any questioning or criticism of his actions he instantly proffers his reliance upon prayer for guidance in all matters great or small.  He may have forgotten the possibility that his own wishful thinking and the human tendency to rationalize have distorted his so-called guidance.

Under the illusion that the ideas arising out of his own worst character defects are infallible commands coming straight from God’s lips, he will “create great havoc without in the least intending it.”  And we can do even greater harm and create even greater chaos when we start forming “ideas as to what we think God’s will is for other people” (12 & 12 p. 104).

When I, in my own arrogance and conceit, begin believing that God is telling me in great detail how YOU ought to be running your life, I am falling back into the greatest temptation for all alcoholics:  I am once more setting myself up as the stage director, and believing that it is my job to tell all the other actors and actresses how to perform their parts (Big Book pp. 60-61).  St. Augustine in his City of God called this the libido dominandi, the lust to dominate and manipulate and control other people, and saw it as a character defect extending to human society in all its forms, from the circle of power-mad people surrounding the throne of a crazed Roman emperor to the members of a barbarian German warband coming across the border and sacking and looting Roman cities.

Shakespeare was certainly right in saying that “all the world’s a stage,” but when I fall into the grips of the libido dominandi, I have once more fallen into the delusion that God has personally assigned me the role of being “chief drama critic” (Big Book 3rd ed. page 449, 4th ed. page 417).

4. How to seek guidance from God in the right way

       Through all of his writings, Bill W. pointed out to us again and again that the most important part of every prayer to God are the words “Thy will be done.”  And the greatest threat to my own spiritual life will come from my own pride and arrogance, and the temptation to take over and start trying to play God myself.  So in the 12 & 12 (page 104) Bill W. concludes his discussion of the idea of divine guidance by saying:

We discover that we … receive guidance for our lives to just about the extent that we stop making demands upon God to give it to us on order and on our terms.

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Twelve-Step Meditation History Part 4 Conclusion continued

Back to Twelve-Step Meditation History Part 2