Spiritual Awakening: The Seeing Eye

William James - The Seeing Eye

As the Big Book and the 12&12 make clear—and as we have discussed in the previous two posts—the goal of the 12 Steps is to take us through a process of spiritual awakening that will change the person we have been and enable us to live a useful, happy, and productive life. Not drinking is but the first step in that endeavor.

Expanding on the Big Book, the 12&12 describes what all experiences of such a spiritual awakening have in common as “a new state of consciousness and of being” that enables a person “to do feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone” (pp. 106-107).

Throughout both texts, this awakening is consistently associated with a fundamental change in our outlook, our perception, the way we view or look at things, our perspective or vision.

This is based on the understanding—which is implicit in the Big Book and the 12&12 and which we make explicit in PTP—that how we feel and what we do is essentially a function of the way we look at things and the value we attach to them.

The basic reasoning is simple: If X is important to us and we perceive it to be negatively affected by Y, we are going to feel and to act differently than if we perceive to be affected positively. If X is not important, Y’s effect on it will have no impact on how we feel or what we do.

That’s straightforward enough. The problem of course is that our vision is often warped and our heart is in the wrong place. For us alcoholics that means that we tend to view and value things through the distorted lens of our spiritual disease: selfishness and self-centeredness. This distorts our emotions and our actions and cause us to harm ourselves and others.

The goal of a spiritual awakening is to heal us of our spiritual illness and enable us to see and to care about things from “a spiritual angle,” to experience a change of heart and of vision which makes it possible for us to live in harmony with ourselves, other people, the world, God.

Consider the matter of outlook. The subject of its transformation comes up early on in the Big Book, in “Bill’s Story,” where it is unmistakably linked to a spiritual awakening. Ebby was sharing the experience that enabled him to stop drinking. Aware of Bill’s negative reaction to anything having to do with God, he made a very simple suggestion: “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”

Bill recounts how Ebby’s question hit him hard. His description of the change he experienced is rich in the language of perception: it “melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow” he had “lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.”

Bill awoke to the simple fact all that was needed was for him to be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself. He “saw that growth could start from that point,” that upon that simple foundation he could build what he now “saw” in his friend (whom he had earlier seen as a religious “crackpot”). “Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us when we want Him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view.”

Bill then recalls the fleeting spiritual experience he had felt at the old Winchester Cathedral in England as a young soldier, an experience of the presence of God which “had been blotted out by worldly clamors, mostly within myself. And so it had been ever since. How blind I had been” (pp. 12-13, our emphasis in all quotes).

Another direct connection between a spiritual awakening and a new way of seeing things can be found further on in the Big Book in connection with the promises of Step 9. Two promised changes in perception function as pivotal changes from which other changes follow regarding our attitudes, concerns, and emotions.

The first: “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” A spiritual awakening enables us to see our painful past in a different light. As a result of this change, “That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away.”

The second: “Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.” As a result of this even more encompassing change, “Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves” (p. 84, our emphasis in both cases).

Other direct associations between a spiritual awakening and a change in perception can be found elsewhere in the Big Book. Describing such an awakening among “we agnostics” in Step 2 for instance, we read that “We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up” (p. 55, our emphasis).

We’ll also find indirect associations. For example, in Step 4 of the Big Book, we read that, having written down our resentments, “We were prepared to look at it from an entirely different angle. We began to see that the world and its people really dominated us . . . we saw that these resentments must be mastered . . .” (p. 66, our emphasis). These changes are all part of a gradual process of awakening to a spiritual view of things.

The same connection is found throughout the 12&12. In Step 1, for instance, we’ll find the following description of our radically different perception of our powerlessness in the face of our alcoholism:

“But upon entering A.A., we soon take quite another view of this absolute humiliation. We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built” (p. 21, our emphasis).

In Step 11, the 12&12 explains that “Self-searching is the means by which we are able to bring new vision” to illuminate the “dark and negative” aspects of our nature (p. 98, our emphasis).

Further on in Step 11 a spiritual awakening is linked to a nascent perception of God’s will for us and of the things that really matter in life. The result is a sense of peace and serenity in the face of things about life and the world that used to disturb us in the past:

“The moment we catch even a glimpse of God’s will, the moment we begin to see truth, justice, and love as the real and eternal things in life, we are no longer disturbed by all the seeming evidence to the contrary that surrounds us in purely human affairs” (p. 105, our emphasis).

In Step 12 the entire process is summed up in the following words:

“So, practicing these Steps, we had a spiritual awakening about which finally there was no question. Looking at those who were only beginning and still doubted themselves, the rest of us were able to see the change setting in. From great numbers of such experiences, we could predict that the doubter who still claimed that he hadn’t got the ‘spiritual angle,’ and who still considered his well-loved A.A. group the higher power, would presently love God and call Him by name” (p.109, our emphasis).

Thus, as we grow in our spiritual awakening, how we see and what we care about gradually become grounded in the spiritual, not in the material, in God, not in self. This gives our emotions a new and spiritual foundation.

The way we react emotionally to situations is a function of the way we see those situations affect the things that we care about. Therefore, as our seeing and caring become spiritually anchored, so will our emotions.

This steady shift in outlook and motivation is fostered by all the Steps, and in particular by Steps 4 and 10. When taking inventory and examining ourselves, we need always inquire: How am I looking at this? What defects are distorting my vision? What principles can help me correct it? Am I seeing this from a spiritual perspective? Do I have my AA glasses on?

[Image: William James, whose book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, given to Bill W. by Ebby T., helped him understand the nature of the experience he'd had at Towns Hospital and helped shape AA's understanding of a spiritual awakening. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]

Big Book"No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. . . . Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change."
– Big Book

12&12"The moment we catch even a glimpse of God’s will, the moment we begin to see truth, justice, and love as the real and eternal things in life, we are no longer disturbed by all the seeming evidence to the contrary that surrounds us in purely human affairs." – 12&12  

Life Recovery Bible"Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him, and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.” – Luke 10: 31-33  

"It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own." – Cicero  

"Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.” – St. Augustine 

Thomas Aquinas
"Things are received according to the mode of the receiver." – Thomas Aquinas 

John Locke
"Nothing is in the understanding, which was not first perceived by some of the senses.” – John Locke

Abraham Lincoln
"We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or we can rejoice that thorn bushes have roses.” – Abraham Lincoln 

Thomas Henry Huxley
"For every man, the world is as fresh as it was the first day, and as full of untold novelties for him who has the eyes to see them." – Thomas Henry Huxley 

William Blake
To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

Marcel Proust
"The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." 
  Marcel Proust 

G.K. Chesterton
"It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem.” – G. K. Chesterton

Arthur Schopenhauer
"Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world." – Arthur Schopenhauer   

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow"The highest exercise of imagination is not to devise what has no existence, but rather to perceive what really exists, though unseen by the outward eye—not creation, but insight.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow   

Friedrich Nietzsche
"And those who were seen dancing were thought to be crazy, by those who could not hear the music.” – Friedrich Nietzsche 

Anaïs Nin
"We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are."  
  Anaïs Nin  

Virginia Wolf
"Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes." – Virginia Wolf 

Erwin Schrödinger
"The task is . . . not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees." – Erwin Schrödinger 

Betty Smith
"Look at everything as though you are seeing it either for the first or last time, then your time on earth will be filled with glory." – Betty Smith 

George Carlin
"Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that's twice as big as it needs to be." – George Carlin 

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years, how man would marvel and adore!” – Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Mark Twain"When I was a boy of 15, My father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have The old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had Learned in six years.” –Mark Twain 

Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
"People generally see what they look for." – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird  

George Eliot
"It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.” – George Eliot 

John Lubbock
"What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” – John Lubbock

Albert Schweitzer
"the hopes of reaching the moon men fail to see the flowers that blossom at their feet." – Albert Schweitzer 

Isaac Asimov"It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say 'It's as plain as the nose on your face.' But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?” – Isaac Asimov

Goethe"It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.” – Goethe

George Bernard Shaw
"Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world." 
 George Bernard Shaw

Alexander Pope
"All seems infected that the infected spy, / As all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye." – Alexander Pope 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
"It is with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  

Charles H. Parkhurst
"The heart has eyes which the brain knows nothing of.” – Charles H. Parkhurst 

John Newton
"Was blind, but now, I see."  
  John Newton 

Henry David Thoreau
"The question is not what you look at, but what you see." 
 Henry David Thoreau 

William James"My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is utter chaos. – William James

Oscar Wilde
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde 

George Sand
"The beauty that addresses itself to the eyes is only the spell of the moment; the eye of the body is not always that of the soul." – George Sand  

Fyodor Dostoyevsky"Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love." – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Camille Pissarro
"Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing." – Camille Pissarro  

T. S. Eliot
"We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." – T. S. Eliot

John Steinbeck
"I wonder how many people I've looked at all my life and never seen.” – John Steinbeck 

Ludwig Wittgenstein
"If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world." – Ludwig Wittgenstein 

C. S. Lewis
"What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are." – C. S. Lewis  

Albert Einstein"Concerning matter, we have been all wrong. What we have called matter is energy whose vibration has been so lowered as to be perceptible to the senses. There is no matter." – Albert Einstein

Hans Margolius
"Only in quiet waters things mirror themselves undistorted. Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world." 
– Hans Margolius  

Robert C. Roberts
"All emotional change is change in the terms in which a subject 'sees' the world, including changes in the subject’s desires and concerns.” – Robert C. Roberts

Stephen R. Covey"My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I  behaved differently." – Stephen R. Covey 

Wayne W. Dyer
"Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change." – Wayne W. Dyer

Tim Keller
"The people who think they see are blind, and the people who say ‘I’m blind,’ are finally beginning to see." – Tim Keller

William C. Mattison
"We cannot act rightly if we do not see rightly." – William C. Mattison

Thomas Carlyle
"Our main business is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but what lies clearly at hand." – Thomas Carlyle

Daniel Mendelsohn,
"In the end, we see what we want to see and the rest falls away.” – Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million 

"Two men looked out through prison bars, once saw mud, the other stars." – Anonymous 

William C. Spohn
"What we see is a function of the sorts of persons we are. – William C. Spohn

"You can’t see what you can’t see until you can see it." – Anonymous 

"Life is so much brighter when we focus on what truly matters.” – Anonymous 

Billy Joel
"I know I'm searching for something / Something so undefined / That it can only be seen / By the eyes of the blind.” – Billy Joel, “The River of Dreams”

"Gratitude helps us to see what is there, instead of what isn't." – Anonymous

Edmund Wilson
No two persons ever read the same book." – Edmund Wilson

"Be happy not because everything is good, but because you can see the good side of everything.” – Anonymous 

"It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light." – Anonymous 

Richelle E. Goodrich
"Gratitude doesn’t change the scenery. It merely washes clean the glass you look through so you can clearly see the colors." – Richelle E. Goodrich 

"Grateful eyes seek for the beauty in all things.” – Anonymous 

Robert Holden
"The miracle of gratitude is that it shifts your perception to such an extent that it changes the world you see.” – Robert Holden 

If you focus on the hurt, you will continue to suffer. If you focus on the lesson, you will continue to grow.” – Anonymous 

I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo            

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” – Anonymous   

Richard J. Foster
Simplicity sets possessions in proper perspective.” – Richard J. Foster   

Only when normal things are not normal anymore do we realize how special normal things are.” – Anonymous  

"Train your mind to see the good in every situation." – Anonymous 

Look for something positive in every day, even if some days you have to look a little harder.” – Anonymous

"Sometimes we just need to distance ourselves to see things more clearly.” – Anonymous   

Yung Pueblo
Ask yourself often: Am I observing the situation accurately, or am I projecting how I feel onto what is happening?" – Yung Pueblo 

John Lubbock
"What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” – John Lubbock 

The Spirituality of Imperfection
"Our destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things." – The Spirituality of Imperfection

Twenty-Four Hours a Day
"Each day try to see more good in people, more of the Unseen in the seen.” – Twenty-Four Hours a Day 

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts
"Our attitudes and our ideas are the eyeglasses through which we see our lives.” – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts  

Guiding Principles: The Spirit of Our Traditions"Changing our angle of vision changes what we see. Our perspective shapes our perception, and our perception helps determine our experience." – NA's Guiding Principles: The Spirit of Our Traditions 

ODAT"When something or somebody is giving me trouble, let me see the incident in relation to the rest of my life, especially the part that is good, and for which I should be grateful. A wider view of my circumstances will make me better able to deal with all difficulties, big and little.” – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon 

Courage to Change"I see now that my thinking has often been distorted, my behavior inconsistent. If my perceptions of myself have been so inaccurate, how reliable can my perceptions of others be?" – Al-Anon’s Courage to Change

PTP123"When I come to see this world as God's universe and surrender to that fact, that becomes the prism through which I begin to look at God, at myself, at my fellows, and at all of life."– PTP123  

PTP4"Our first change in outlook, therefore—the first shift in construal—is to see that our problem is internal, not external, inside of us, not outside in people, places, or things. The second change is just as radical. It is to see that the problem is essentially spiritual in nature.” –  PTP4, p. 66 

For more PTP123 passages on perception, see “New Outlook, Different Motivation,” pp. 47–52. For more PTP4,  see Chapter 5: The Seeing Eye, pp. 59–75. See also entries under construal in book’s index, p. 454. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on 164andmore.com and search for outlook, view, see, and perspective. See also The Caring Heart, and in Reflections, A New Pair of Glasses, One Pedal at a Time, and Billy's Death.  

Additional Resources

  1. Daily meditations for 09/07 and 09/22 in One Day at a Time in Al-Anon 
  2. "Eyeglasses and attitudes," meditation for October 11 in NA's Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts 
  3. Meditations for 08/01–08/05 in The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings from C.S. Lewis
  4. The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
  5. "Suspicions of Something More," by Thomas V. Morris, chapter in God and the Philosophers: The reconciliation of Faith and Reason, Edited bt Thomas V. Morris
  6. Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues, by Robert C. Roberts
  7. “Inside Out,” chapter in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey 
  8. Groundhog Day, 1993 movie with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. A man relives the same day over and over again until he learns to see it through self-giving rather than self-seeking eyes. Unusual mix of substance and wit 

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