Krista's Journal: Harnessing Mystery for Human Healing

May 15, 2008

In 1961, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote a now-famous letter to Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), describing his own futile attempts to treat addiction by psychotherapy alone. He compared an alcoholic's cravings to "the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God." This memory is lost to us — that until the creation of AA in the 1930s, addiction was a nearly always fatal affliction, frighteningly immune to the best methods of psychology or medicine. Twelve-step recovery has saved or repaired the lives of millions. It has done so, in part, by analyzing addiction as a spiritual malady, and by translating astonishingly across the world's cultures and traditions. It has been fascinating to explore, with this program, why that is true. What is the existential nature of addiction's power to ravage and recovery's capacity to redeem? How do the twelve steps not merely echo but magnify core teachings that seem to span the world's spiritual traditions? We've pulled out a lively, lovely interview I had with Susan Cheever a few years ago after her biography of Bill Wilson was published. I love hearing this again and sharing parts of the interview that have never before been on the air. Her own struggle with addiction — in her own life, and in that of her father, the late fiction writer John Cheever — infuses and shapes her examination of the great founding character who helped catalyze the twelve steps. You'll hear Bill Wilson's voice, from archival audio, interspersed throughout this program. He reads from a chapter called "How it Works" at the beginning of the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was compiled by him and early members of the movement. He says, for example:

"If you have decided you want what we have, and are willing to go to any length to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps. At some of these we've balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas, and the result was nil until we let go absolutely. Remember that we deal with alcohol — cunning, baffling, powerful. Without help, it is too much for us. But there is one who has all power. That one is God."

Language like this and the Twelve Steps' insistence on relationship with a "Higher Power" ("God as we understood him") have led some to see this as a quasi-religious movement. And there was a significant Christian influence in the formative years of AA. Susan Cheever also shines a light on the constellation of ideas and religious revival in the world from which AA emerged — and that helped make its accessible spirituality possible. Bill Wilson himself was never a conventionally religious person. His addiction to alcohol developed even as churches were a driving force in the temperance movement behind Prohibition. Early in his recovery, he reported what he described as a direct encounter with "the God of the preachers." But he was also formed by the writings of American icons like Thoreau and Emerson, which subtly affected traditional ideas about God and faith in the New England of his childhood. Susan Cheever is also not a traditionally religious person. But as she illuminates the raw and intimate understanding of God she has drawn from life with addiction and through twelve-step recovery, she adds gorgeous and intriguing nuance to my store of words about the meaning and essence of faith. Buddhist teacher and author Kevin Griffin illuminates this from an entirely different and similarly original angle. An itinerant musician until the age of 35, Griffin struggled with addictions to alcohol, drugs, and sex. He was also a health-conscious vegetarian during many of those years, and a vigorous spiritual seeker and practitioner. One of the first things he had to lose was his sense that spirituality alone could keep him safe. He's written, "I need the wisdom of the Buddha to absorb the realities and mysteries of life; and I need the voices of a thousand alcoholics and addicts to keep me on track today." Kevin Griffin draws on the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous and the teachings of the Buddha as complementary sacred texts, and in doing so he uncovers new layers of wisdom in both. He's come to understand addiction as an extreme form of the clinging, craving desire that the Buddha long ago diagnosed as the root of human suffering in the First Noble Truth. Like Susan Cheever, Kevin Griffin has chosen to be publicly identified as a person in recovery, breaking the AA tradition of personal anonymity by writing and speaking in the media about his experience of recovery. At Speaking of Faith, we choose to honor that choice, while respecting the tradition itself, and granting Griffin the ability to draw certain boundaries. He never, for example, uses the name of AA or Alcoholics Anonymous in his interview — a fine and even, as he points out, "superstitious point, perhaps, but one we accept with integrity. In my own circle of family and friends, I have seen recovery transform people from the inside out. I am not unusual in that. And so the interviews in this hour evoke a spiritual journey we all share to some degree, though perhaps less dramatically. They speak of lived wisdom that might be a source of self-knowledge and redemption for us all.

Recommended Reading

Image of My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson--His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous
Author: Susan Cheever
Publisher: Washington Square Press (2005)
Binding: Paperback, 320 pages

For those who want to know more about Bill Wilson's life, Susan Cheever's smartly written biography, My Name is Bill, offers an intimate portrait of the man who co-founded AA, including intriguing background on the American cultural and religious impulses that shaped him.

Image of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps
Author: Kevin Griffin
Publisher: Rodale Books (2004)
Binding: Paperback, 256 pages

Griffin's book interlaces the teaching of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous with the ancient wisdom of Buddhist practice, told through the experience, strength, and hope of a practitioner of both traditions — one ancient and one modern. The reader will find Griffin's description of the deep resonance between the two practices both insightful and practically helpful. It is a text on meditation through the eyes of a recovering person for everyone, regardless of whether they struggle with addiction.

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is the author of several books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of the co-founder of AA.

is a Buddhist dharma leader and writer. He's the author of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps.