Bill W. Recounts His Spiritual Awakening
By Bill W.
When Ebby [Bill Wilson’s sponsor] had gone away, I fell into a very deep depression, the blackest that I had ever known. And in that desperation, I cried out, “If there is a God, will He show Himself?” Then came a sudden experience in which it seemed the room lit up. It felt as though I stood on the top of a mountain, that a great clean wind blew, that I was free. The sublime paradox of strength coming out of weakness.
So I called in the doctor and tried to tell him, as best I could, what had happened. And he said, “Yes, I have read of such experiences but I have never seen one.” I said, “Well doctor, examine me, have I gone crazy?” And he did examine me and said, “No boy, you’re not crazy. Whatever it is, you’d better hold onto it. It’s so much better than what had you just a few hours ago.” Well, along with thousands of other alcoholics, I have been holding on to it ever since.
But that was only the beginning. And at the time, I actually thought that it was the end, you might say, of all my troubles. I began there, out of this sudden illumination, not only to get benefits, but to draw some serious liabilities. One of those that came immediately was one that you might call Divine Appointment. I actually thought, I had the conceit really to believe, that God had selected me, by this sudden flash of Presence, to dry up all the drunks in the world. I really believed it. I also got another liability out of the experience, and that was that it had to happen in some particular way just like mine or else it would be of no use. In other words, I conceived myself as going out, getting hold of these drunks, and producing in them just the same kind of experience that I had had. Down in New York, where they knew me pretty well in the A.A., they facetiously call these sudden experiences that we sometimes have a “W.W. hot flash.” I really thought that I had been endowed with the power to go out and produce a “hot flash” just like mine in every drunk.
Well, I started off; I was inspired; I knew just how to do it, as I thought then. Well, I worked like thunder for 6 months and not one alcoholic got dried up. What were the natural reactions then? I suppose some of you here, who have worked with alcoholics, have a pretty good idea. The first reaction was one of great self-pity; the other was a kind of martyrdom. I began to say, “Well, I suppose that this is the kind of stuff that martyrs are made of but I will keep on at all costs.” I kept on, and I kept on, until I finally got so full of self-pity and intolerance (our two greatest enemies in the A.A.) that I nearly got drunk myself. So I began to reconsider. I began to say, “Yes, I found my relief in this particular way, and glorious it was and is, for it is still the central experience of my whole life. But who am I to suppose that every other human being ought to think, act and react just as I do? Maybe we’re all very much alike in a great many respects but, as individuals, we’re different too.”
Bill W., Spiritual Awakening and Enlightenment
April 21, 2011
The early 1960’s were an especially productive time in Bill Wilson’s life. Having divested himself of day-to-day responsibility for ‘running’ A.A., having completed his last major literary work (the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) and having cleared his side of the street in acknowledging the crucial role that Carl Jung played in kick-starting A.A., so to speak, Bill had time to reflect on the miracle that had happened not only to him, but to so many others.
In his personal life, Bill was searching widely to deepen his own spiritual experience, and in his public life was reaching out to those in A.A. who had perhaps not had the sudden enlightenment experience that he had experienced at the very beginning of his personal recovery, his so-called ‘wind-on-the-mountain’ moment.
Bill was undoubtedly aware of the significance of his own sudden spiritual awakening at Townes Hospital. In the library at Stepping Stones, Bill and Lois Wilson’s home just outside New York City, was a copy of Richard M. Bucke’s study of the enlightenment experience, “Cosmic Consciousness.” In his study of ‘enlightenment’ and exploration of higher states of consciousness, Bucke sets out a dozen or so common symptoms of the ‘enlightenment’ experience, most of which criteria would describe Bill’s experience at Townes Hospital.
Among the most immediate effects of such an experience, according to Bucke, are an overwhelming presence of light, a diminution of the ego into an expansive state of consciousness in which one feels at one with the world, as well as a moral imperative to share this experience with others. Although Bill does not mention this overwhelming light in the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous, he more often than not described it in recounting his experience in other forums.
Bill’s reluctance to mention the overwhelming light it in the ‘Big Book’ may have been a prescient knowledge, born of his early unsuccessful work with drunks prior to meeting Dr. Bob, that his sudden and profound spiritual awakening was more than most people could fathom or would experience. Indeed, the ‘Spiritual Experience’ appendix was added to the second edition of the ‘Big Book’ in order to assure others that sudden spiritual awakenings such as Bill’s were, perhaps, not the norm, and that true spritual insight and acuity could be gained just as readily by an awakening “of the educational variety.”
In the July 1962 Grapevine, Bill tackled this issue directly, writing:
“It is the intention of the Grapevine to carry occasional accounts of spiritual experiences. To this interesting project I would like to say a few introductory words. There is a very natural tendency to set apart those experiences or awakenings which happen to be sudden, spectacular or vision-producing. Therefore, any recital of such cases always produces mixed reactions. Some will say, “I wish I could have an experience like that!” Others, feeling that this whole business is too far out on a mystic limb for them, or maybe hallucinatory after all, will say, “I just can’t buy this business. I can’t understand what these people are talking about.”
“As most AA’s have heard, I was the recipient in 1934 of a tremendous mystic experience or “illumination.” It was accompanied by a sense of intense white light, by a sudden gift of faith in the goodness of God, and by a profound conviction of his presence. At first it was very natural for me to feel that this experience staked me out for somebody very special.”
“But as I now look back upon this tremendous event, I can only feel very specially grateful. It now seems clear that the only special feature of my experience was its electric suddenness and the overwhelming and immediate conviction that it carried to me.”
“In all other respects, however, I am sure that my own experience was not in the least different from that received by every AA member who has strenuously practiced our recovery program.”
Bill’s non-alcoholic friend, the great polymath writer, spiritual seeker and philosopher, Aldous Huxley, observed that “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to or even identical with divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being — the thing is immemorial and universal.”
Bill, of course, realized that this “Ground of all being” is, indeed, both immanent and universal. On page 55 of the ‘Big Book,’ when he explains exactly where we might find a God of our own understanding, he writes:
“We found this Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that it may be found.”
Because Bill came to know that his experience was not exceptional (other than perhaps with respect to its sudden intensity), but that it was in fact a universal potential or reality, he could observe, so many years after his initial enlightenment, that, “we should question no one’s transformation — whether it be sudden or gradual. Nor should we demand anyone’s special type for our ourselves, because our own experience suggests that we are apt to receive whatever may be the most useful for our needs.” Thus, in his essay on Step Two in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill writes that “A.A.’s tread innumerable paths in their quest for faith. If you don’t care for the one I’ve suggested, you’ll be sure to discover one that suits if only you look and listen.”
And just so long as we continue to probe the ‘deep within’ that lies within us all, we too will find “the Great Reality” of our own existence, of our own immanent and transcendental nature.