Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions

Drug Addicts, 20th century American Hindus, and William James!

Do you ever wonder what alcoholics and other drug addicts did before AA ever made it to town?

You don’t?

Well, it’s interesting. I promise. And, since we’re on the topic of perusing topics not normally considered, consider this: The Varieties of Religious Experience is positively abuzz with precisely these esoteric fetishes. It abounds with them, in fact, coming from a quasi-intellectual position I find intoxicating, despite it’s turn-of-the-century language (and I don’t mean the 21st).

Speaking of other-worldly language, the Big Book (AA’s Bible) abounds with certain outmoded phrases that make it seem quaint, in an awkward, pipe-smoking sort of way. It makes me think of slick-backed, oily hair and white T-shirts, sleeves rolled. Perhaps a pack of Reds tucked into the cuff. Bad asses, through and through, however reformed and stuck on “God”. “Holy Rollers”, for all those born after 1980, means people who are always preaching. Think Tim Tebow.

But the Big Book was published in the 1930s. Think about that for 2 seconds. Go!

This was before World War 2, would have been in the heart of the depression. Before the New Deal and the rise of garguntaun government. This is before television, for God’s sake. No internet or even Ipods. The world that gave birth to this book is as different to the one today as England is to America. And it’s more recent, even, than William James’ book, The Variety of Religious Experience.

Somewhat of a cult classic, the Harvard psychologist’s investigation of self-reported cognitive experiences of the “mystical” was published shortly after he gave the lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland, circa 1901-1902. This is before the first world war, folks. This was a long time ago. Don’t be fooled by the shared language—this guy comes from a foreign world.

It’s clear that a lot of people still get a lot out of the Big Book, however distant it is to our time. Hell, some people are still getting that much from the Bible. Think millenials now.

Here’s my point: just because people come from different worlds does not mean that they don’t have something valuable to say. Why, they often have something to teach us: giant gifts wrapped in awkward, fuzzy blankets of English used otherwise, sometimes needing a modern translator to reveal their beauty to all. Today (or tonight, depending on time zones) I’ll rise to that worthy challenge.

The great central fact of the universe is that spirit of infinte life and power that is back of all, that manifests itself in and through all. The spirit of infinite life and power that is back of all is what I call God. I care not what term you may use, be it Kindly Light, Providence, the Over-Soul, Omnipotence, or whatever term may be most convenient…God then fills the entire universe alone, so that all is from Him and in Him, and there is nothing that is outside. He is the life of our life, our very life itself. We are partakers of the life of God; and though we differ from Him in that we are individualized spirits, while He is the Infinite Spirit, including us, as well as all else beside, yet in essence the life of God and the life of man are identically the same, and so are one…

The great central fact in human life is the coming into a conscious vital realization of our oneness with this Infinite Life, and the opening of ourselves fully to this divine inflow. In just the degree that we come into a conscious realization of our oneness with the Infinite Life, and open ourselves to this divine inflow, do we actualize in ourselves the qualities and powers of the Infinte Life, do we make ourselves channels through which the Infinite Intelligence and Power can work. In just the degree in which you realize your oneness with the Infinite Spirit, you will exchange dis-ease for ease, inharmony for harmony, suffering and pain for abounding health and strength. To recognize our own divinity, and our intimate relation to the Universal, is to attach the belts of our machinery to the powerhouse of the Universe. One need remain in hell no longer than one chooses to; we can rise to any heaven we ourselves choose; and when we choose so to rise, all the higher powers of the Universe combine to help us heavenward.”

One of the many charming things about his book is how William James acts mainly as a gatherer, letting the words of various people speak (largely) for themselves. His role is one of sorter, arranging certain religious descriptions in categories. The one for the above person he called “the religion of healthy-mindedness”. When I first read it, I thought he was mocking it, almost attacking it from a puratanical perspective, until I realized his words didn’t have the conotations they now have. These are words from before 1900, remember? “The religion of healthy-mindedness” was not intended to make it sound ‘quacky’, but just a useful label to sort this particular brand of psychological description under. But enough about James’ method. I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a lot of ‘trippy’ stuff in that above quote.

It’s clear that the person is educated. James reveals that she’s a woman. What excites me is the fact that she probably doesn’t know much about Hinduism or Vedantic philosophy. This would have been before the 60s and the beginning of the hippies fascination with Eastern spirituality. Yet she’s describing a remarkably similar belief set and experience as those of the Vedantic faith.

For all those unfamliar with the Hindu or Vedantic conception, just see the above passage. Seriously, though: Atman is the name for the “deeper self”, or what someone else might deem “the soul”–the deepest part of oneself. In Vedantic philosophy, this Atman or individualized soul is deep enough within to brush parts with the souce of Creation itself, dubbed Bhraman. Through meditation and yoga, the Atman is able to fuse with Bhraman, realizing peace and higher purpose. And, yes, the Vedantic philosophy often talks about the God within, Namaste meaning, “I bow to you”. Beyond that, it means that I bow to the soul or divinity within you. Just like the lady above wrote! Without the access to the influx of information today, she intuited a similar philosophy or “divine awareness” as people had in India some 4000 years before her. Think in terms of millenials again. Just for 2 seconds. Go!

“Hmmm…,” some of you might be thinking. Interesting, but not what I started reading for. What does any of this have to do with people getting sober before AA was around?

Well, quite a lot as I would have it be revealed. Quite a lot.

James’ book puts a finger on it before the movement became shelled inside the hardback of a certain “AA Big Book”. Again, through his intellectual investigation–a bit more healthy from today’s standards because he’s actually willing to acknowledge the limitations of pure reason—he’s able to achieve a certain level of objectivity. Simply put, he realizes that different folks might have different strokes. Religiously speaking, some people have different “psychological” experiences of the sacred as well.

But staying true to his very method, I’ll let James’ words speak for themselves:

Now the history of Luthern salvation by faith, of methodisitic conversions, and of what I call the mind-cure movement seems to prove the existence of numerous persons in whom—at any rate at a certain stage of their development—a change of character for the better, so far from being facilitated by the rules laid down by official moralists, will take place all the more succesfully if those rules be exactly reversed.

Official moralists advise us never to relax our strenuousness. ‘Be vigilant, day and night,’ they adjure us; ‘hold your passive tendencies in check; shrink from no effort; keep your will like a bow always bent.’ But the persons I speak of find that all this conscious effort leads to nothing but failure and vexation in their hands, and only makes them two-fold more the children of hell they were before.

In case you glazed over the last two lines, try reading them again, and realizng how similar this is to the alcoholic and addicts condition. No amount of self-wil, however many solemn vows sworn, could keep the true alcoholic or addict away from his fix. The entire idea of quitting for good was simply impossible, one that might be pursued into the gates of insanity. But there is hope!

Under these circumstances the way to success, as vouched by innumerable authentic personal narrations is by an anti-moralistic method, by the ‘surrender’ of which I spoke in my second lecture. Passivity, not activiy; relaxation, not intentness, should be now the rule. Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resing the care of your destiny to higher powers.

That’s right folks: for any familiar with AA’s Bible, that last line sounds vaguely “Bill”esque. Remember, please, that this was pontificated a good three decades before AA’s hero and “holy roller” supreme. However, William James’ sophisticated spiritual interest translates directly into the time we find ourselves in, at least on a global/cultural, emergent level.

This is the salvation, through self-despair, the dying to by truly born, of Luthern theology…To get to it, a critical point must usually be passed, a corner turned within one. Something must give way, a native hardness must break down and liquefy; and this event is frequently sudeen and automatic, and leaves on the Subject an impression that he has been wrought on by an external power.

In short, he’s able to extract spiritual powers from the religious structure that often hold them, thereby giving the non-religious (but in no less need of some release) access to some of the “spiritual but not religious” ideas contained in some “holier-than-thou” contexts.

The mind-curers have given the widest scope to this sort of experience. They have demonstrated that a form of regeneration by relaxing, by letting go, psychologically indistinguishable from the Lutheran justification by faith and the Wesleyan acceptance of free grace, is within the reach of persons who have no conviction of sin and care nothing for the Lutheran theology.

Might as well close strong. I would recommend to close your eyes, but…well… Sit back and relax, though, chant an “om” if you feel inclined, and let William James’ channeled-through-writing-ghost take us all home. Maybe even to a better world…

It is but giving your little private convulsive self a rest, and finding that a greater Self is there. The results, slow or sudden, or great or small, of the combined optimism and expectancy, the regenerative phenomena which ensue on the abandonment of effort, remain firm facts of human nature, no matter whether we adopt a theistic, a pantheistic-idealistic, or a medical-materialistic view of their ultimate causal explanation.


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