ANONYMOUS started with a flash of lightning and a drop
of Brahmanic splendor. Co-founder Bill W. writes of
his 1934 spiritual experience, which led to the establishment
"These were revolutionary and drastic proposals, but
the moment I fully accepted them, the effect was electric. There was a sense
of victory, followed by such a peace and serenity as I had never known.
There was utter confidence. I felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind
of a mountaintop blew through and through. God comes to most men gradually,
but His impact on me was sudden and profound." (Alcoholics Anonymous,
The event Bill describes--often called his "hot
flash"--is unusual in a number of ways. For one thing, it has apparently not
happened to most other AA members. For another, it was so brief that it
could easily be interpreted as a temporary hallucination, particularly since
it happened to a man under treatment for alcoholism. It was not preceded by
a period of saintly devotion or other religious exercise; actually, it came
to a person who was rather agnostic. But the experience had a purpose; AA
would probably not have been launched without it.
Bill's "flash" has come to other people in various
times and places and even has a technical name. It is called "cosmic
The term has an occult sound, but there is nothing
mysterious or otherworldly about it. It has been the subject of serious
study. The man who made the term rather widely known was a Canadian
physician, Richard Maurice Bucke, whose theories were later discussed by
William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (a book vital
to AA's early development). Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness was first
published in 1901 and has gone through more than twenty editions. Though
ridiculed by some, the book has an attraction for those interested in the
mind and in the human, capacity for spiritual development.
Bucke, significantly, was a medical doctor, not a
religious mystic. If anything, he may have been hostile to organized
religion and was most likely regarded as an atheist or agnostic. By
conventional standards, he seemed unlikely to be interested in spiritual
subjects and certainly unqualified for a "spiritual experience." He had,
however, some unusual interests. For one thing, as medical superintendent of
a mental institution, Bucke had seen the destructive effects of
hallucination and delusion, and was therefore skeptical of the unusual, yet
fascinated by it. He also had wide-ranging literary and artistic interests.
In any case, Bucke had an open mind on many subjects.
And this helped make him a candidate for the startling experience that
became the germ of his book. Here's how Bucke describes it (as quoted in
The Varieties of Religious Experience):
"I had spent the evening. . .with two friends, reading
and discussing poetry and philosophy. We parted at midnight. I had a long
drive in a hansom to my lodging. My mind, deeply under the influence of the
ideas, images, and emotions called up by the reading and talk, was calm and
peaceful. I was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment, not actually
thinking, but letting ideas, images, and emotions flow of themselves, as it
were, through my mind. All at once. . .I found myself wrapped in a
flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense
conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that
the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of
exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an
intellectual illumination impossible to describe. . .I did not merely come
to believe. . .I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but
is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of
eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a
consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are
immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all
things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation
principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love. . .The
vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense
of the reality of what it taught has remained."
One could be skeptical of an experience thus
described. It sounds a great deal like an hallucination, perhaps even
temporary insanity. Bucke admitted that the "subjective feelings" of
insanity and cosmic consciousness might appear similar. But the effects were
completely different. A person suffering from insanity tends to lose
self-restraint, self-control, and perhaps all morality. In cosmic
consciousness, these faculties are enormously increased. Some examples he
gave as proof were Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Isaiah, Paul, Plotinus, and Dante.
Bucke also believed that the cosmic sense (as he
sometimes called it) is not limited to a favored few, but is a natural
sequence in the evolution of the human mind. As the human race progresses,
an increasing number of individuals will receive the cosmic experience,
until finally it will be as natural to everyone as our present state is now.
It will also bring an era of universal happiness and peace, since persons in
the cosmic state would no longer harm others (or even be capable of thinking
harmful thoughts), Bucke concludes.
William James tended to agree with Bucke, although
many of the cases cited in The Varieties of Religious Experience lack
the factor of intense "illumination." Many are individuals who found a vast
store of spiritual grace without having an abrupt spiritual experience or
"hot flash." Nonetheless, most found new hope and a new life, and James
argues strongly that religious experience can be a powerful agent in
resurrecting sick and defeated individuals.
Where does AA fit into this framework? For one thing,
Bill W.'s experience seems to be an authentic case of cosmic consciousness.
Bill always believed that it was, and his writings sometimes use the term
"illumination" to describe it. The experience was very real to him, and he
never felt that it was an hallucination or a delusion.
But it did frighten him at first, and seemed too good
to be true. He explains his first thoughts:
"For a moment I was alarmed, and called my friend, the
doctor, to ask if I were still sane. He listened in wonder as I talked.
"Finally he shook his head saying, 'Something has
happened to you I don't understand. But you had better hang on to it.
Anything is better than the way you were.' The good doctor now sees many men
who have such experiences. He knows that they are real." (Alcoholics
Anonymous, page 14)
Dr. William D. Silkworth, Bill's physician, was an
unusual person; it is hard to imagine many doctors responding as he did to
Bill's account. Alcoholics are often people of excess, and it's not uncommon
to hear of a. person who "used to get drunk on alcohol and is now drunk on
Bill's new beliefs, however, were not an alternate
means of escape. He used them to develop a new life for himself and
thousands of others. But he was to learn that cosmic consciousness could be
elusive and temporary. He explains in other writings his first belief that
alcoholics needed a "hot flash" similar to his in order to recover. Later,
he saw that such a subjective experience wasn't necessary for recovery, that
a gradual spiritual "awakening" often led to far more spiritual growth in
the long run.
Bill also recognized that an experience of
illumination would not solve all problems from that point onward. Later in
his own life, he was afflicted with depression and personal troubles that
often drove him to the brink of self-destruction. But he never lost his
sense of the presence of God. His doubts were about himself as a going human
concern, not about the reality and the love of God.
Since Bill, by his own frequent admission, lacked the
saintly qualities usually deemed necessary for great spiritual elevation, we
might wonder why he was "chosen" for this remarkable experience. The answer
seems to be that he was the right person at the right time with the right
idea. If the Higher Power intended to find and develop an individual with
the necessary qualities for the founding of AA, it's hard to think of a
better choice. Bill had drive, organizing ability, creativity, and above all
the capacity to learn from his mistakes. When the cosmic sense came, it was
not necessarily because Bill W. was an unusually worthy person; God is no
respecter of persons. It was more a case of highly intelligent personnel
Bucke theorized that all people have several
states of consciousness. The most basic is simple consciousness, which human
beings share with the animals. At a higher level is self-consciousness,
which only human beings seem to possess. At the highest level is the cosmic
sense. Individuals may have such a sense with varying degrees of intensity.
Bill's experience, for example, lasted only a few seconds. Others have had
similar states of mind lasting for days. The time may come, however, when
all people--even children--will share the cosmic sense at all times.
It is this, Bucke believed, that will bring about a
true paradise on earth. As he saw it, cosmic-conscious persons would in
reality be a new race, making all things new. The isolated individuals who
have touched the cosmic sense in the past have been the spiritual leaders of
the present race, he believed. They are also "the first faint beginnings of
another race, walking the earth and breathing the air with us, but at the
same time walking another earth and breathing another air of which we know
little or nothing, but which is, all the same, our spiritual life."
It is not the business of AA to promote such a
development in the world at large, and few of us could serve as living
examples of great spiritual growth. Our responsibility is simply to
demonstrate that spiritual principles are an effective answer to alcoholism
for many individuals.
At the same time, it is
good to know that we are not working in a spiritual
vacuum. Our work may be on a modest scale, but it could
be part of a larger movement now building a better and
brighter world. The time may come when a new Bucke writes
another book to show how the cosmic sense healed a sick
and warring world. One chapter should be reserved for
Bill W.'s hot flash. Its brief burst of dazzling light
has shone in thousands of hearts and minds, and the
world is a far better place because of it.