Referencing the above passage taken from the "Spiritual Experience" appendix to the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, the acronym "H.O.W." (as in "H.O.W. It Works") is often cited as representing the three qualities of mind that are necessary prerequisites for effectively working the AA program and, thus, attaining the spiritual awakening that allows the alcoholic addict to recover from "a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body."
"We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty and open-mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable."
Alcoholics Anonymous (4th ed.), page 568
Spirituality, with its ever-deepening understandings, is by its nature a nuanced phenomenon. There are then, of necessity, both plain and more subtle aspects to all of its dimensions. There are both conventional and extraordinary, mundane and subtle, layers to all spiritual teachings. To this end, it seems to me that there are both surface and deeper meaning to the requisite qualities of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. And, of course, even beyond these meanings there are undoubtedly evermore deeper meanings to all three qualities, for in working the Twelve Steps, as in all spiritual practices, "more will be revealed."
Honesty: At the conventional level, becoming honest means that we do no further harm to others by lying, covering up, taking what does not belong to us and being untruthful etc.. Often referred to as "cash register honesty," this level of truthfulness is necessary in order that we can make an admission of powerlessness over alcohol (and/or drugs) and move forward in working the Twelve Steps. It is particularly important as we undertake our moral inventory which is both a 'fact-finding' and 'fact-facing' exercise that is wholly dependent on the alcoholic addict's being honest about the facts of his or her life.
- Matthew 7:13-14
At a deeper level, however, the requisite honesty requires our facing the illusions and delusions that are at the core of our self-centeredness, or ego-centricity. (The ego, in the sense that it is used here and throughout A.A. literature does not mean 'pride, per se, but rather the false sense of 'self'' that is a construction of our ordinary, worldly consciousness.)
Derived from the Latin honestas, which originally designated a plant with semi-transparent seed pods, honesty means to be "free of deceit and untruthfulness" - in this instance, self-deceit. At page 55 in the 'Big Book,' we are assured that "the fundamental idea of God" is deep down within everyone - man, woman and child - but that it is "obscured" by the "calamity, pomp and worship of other things" that are characteristic of most people's ordinary thoughts - i.e., the thought patterns that are characteristic of the human ego, the thought patterns Bill W. called a "painful inner dialogue.". Thus, in this instance, to be honest is to be free from the self-deceit and inherent untruthfulness of our egoic and addictive thought patterns, the fearful thoughts and emotions which block us off from our true inner nature.
In becoming honest and recognizing the "ideas, emotions and attitudes" that habitually veil the divine or spiritual nature of our being, the curtains of "calamity, pomp and worship of other things" are at least temporarily or partially lifted and we can then see and sense the truth of what and who we are. In this sense, we can then truly become "a channel of His peace."
Indeed, in describing the nature of the "spiritual awakenings" that were known to relieve alcoholic addiction, Carl Jung (at page 27 of the 'Big Book') observed that:
"Ideas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them."In this sense, one becomes honest with one's "self."
Open-Mindedness: There are, I have come to realize, at least two facets of being truly open-minded. In the simplest terms, to be open-minded is to be free from the prejudice and contempt we may feel for spiritual and/or religious matters. Most often arising from our skepticism towards religious doctrines or the resentments we hold towards religious institutions, such prejudices (i.e., pre-judgments) must be set aside. Indeed at page 87 in the 'Big Book' we are enjoined to "(be) quick to see where religious people are right."
(In this regard, I note that the very word 'religion' comes from the Latin phrase 're ligare,' which means "to rejoin" or "reunite." In this sense a "religious experience" - as discussed in the second paragraph of the Spiritual Experience appendix - is what reunites the suffering alcoholic addict with the totality of the world and all things, that is God.)
At a deeper level, to be open-minded is to have a clear mind that is free of compulsive thinking and old ideas. In the 'How It Works' reading (from page 55 in the 'Big Book') we are told that many of the early members of A.A. had "tried to hold onto (their) old ideas," but that "the result was nil until they let go absolutely." My experience is that "old ideas" are not only those that I held for years in respect of spiritual, religious and other matters, but they also consist of new ideas that I cannot easily get rid of - thoughts about people, circumstances, ideas and institutions - that occupy my mind unduly.
Like chewing gum, it does not take long for such 'new ideas' to grow old and lose their appeal once I have chewed and ruminated on them for any length of time. Thoughts that frighten me, anger me or provoke envy in me etc., can quickly overwhelm my consciousness, bolstering my ego and separating me from everyone and everything, thereby obscuring that "Great Reality" that exists deep down within (all of) us." Indeed, it is only through the practice of meditation and prayer that we are effectively enabled to rid ourselves of such thoughts, and so improve "our conscious contact" with the God of our own understanding, however we may understand that Being.
Willingness: The conventional meaning of 'willingness,' I believe, is merely the determination to take the steps that others have taken to attain and maintain their sobriety. To this end, the 'How It Works' reading specifically notes that "(i)f you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps." That includes admitting to one's self that you are alcoholic, to believe (or, at least, be willing to believe) that there is a Power greater than one's self which can restore you to sanity, making the decision to turn one's will and one's life over to the Power of the God of your understanding, and then proceeding with the moral inventory and amends making process laid out in the Twelve Steps. Those who are unwilling, are those who do not want what we have, and thus "are not ready" to work the Twelve Steps . . . at least yet. Their sobriety, if any, is typically tenuous, precarious and desperately uncomfortable. They are in real danger.
At a more fundamental level, an act of one's will is a decision to do something, in this instance to live life one's life on a spiritual basis. (At page 83 of the 'Big Book, we read: "The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it." Why? Because life is inherently spiritual. It was the late great spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, who observed: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.") And living one's life on a spiritual basis requires practice - a practice that starts with Step Three.
"Practicing Step Three," we read in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, "is like the opening of a door which to all appearances is still locked and closed. All we need is a key, and the decision to swing the door open. There is only one key, and it is called willingness." This, as above, signifies our decision to take the Twelve Steps in order to walk through that locked door and live a spiritual life.
The serenity, courage and wisdom we ask for are only truly available to us when we effect (or re-effect) a conscious contact with the God of our understanding; that is, when we are released from our ordinary ego-consciousnesss, and thus attain our higher God-consciousness. (The human ego is, by its nature, troubled, frightened and lost, the very antithesis to the serenity, courage and wisdom of higher consciousness.) Dissecting the power of this Serenity Prayer, we can observe that:
- 'Serenity' is the nature of our Being when we shed ordinary, self-consciousness/ego-consciousness and effect a conscious contact with our higher nature - i.e., with God.
- 'Courage' (from the Latin 'cour,' meaning heart) is to change the only thing we can in any instance - that is, to deepen the level of our consciousness. Symbolically it is to shift the center of our consciousness and thinking from the head/ego and its "painful inner dialogue," to the heart/soul (or deeper seat of consciousness) wherein there is a total acceptance of people, circumstances and the world exactly as they are in this instant of time.
- 'Wisdom' is to know, from experience, that there are two wholly different realities within us. One is the ego - i.e., the 'self' or 'self-consciousness - which lies at the root cause of our alcoholic addiction, the reality which we sought to escape from through the use of alcohol and/or drugs. The other is our authentic Being, wherein we are wholly at one (i.e., in communion) with God.
In his last public talk, Dr. Bob pointed to the "absolute necessity" of the teachings that he and Bill W. derived from the Beatitudes, First Corinthians 13, and the Book of James. A close reading of the latter identifies the problem of not just alcoholic addicts, but of all men and women:
"A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8)
- So long as we respond to life and act on the basis of our egoic, rather than God-conscious, thinking. We are apt to think, say and do almost anything. Our old ego-centric thinking and ideas will always be prone to lead us back into active addiction. Thus, we must be willing to work the Twelve Steps in order to deflate the ego "at depth." Nothing changes - "the result is nil" - unless we let go of our old ideas and our habitual ego-consciousness.
- "We found that Great Reality deep down within us," we read at Page 55 of the 'Big Book.' Indeed, we are told, "(i)n the last analysis it is only there it may be found." When we shift from the self-consciousness and egoic thinking of our separated "self" to the essence of our Being, we effect a conscious contact with our Higher Power; that is, God "draws near" to us.
- In Steps Four through Step Nine, and again in Step Ten, we face and face down our narrow "self" and, where possible, we right the wrongs which occurred (or occur) as a result of what is really a soul sickness. Figuratively, we 'wash our hands' and 'clean house.'
- Through prayer and, importantly, through meditation we "purify (our) hearts," letting go of our fear-based egoic consciousness in order to effect God-consciousness. In doing so, we increasingly live a single-minded spiritual life, rather than the unpredictable and injurious life of "the double-minded."
What is our choice to be?
It works by trusting God, cleaning house, and helping others . . . . Namaste!