Bill Wilson and Carl Jung on Addiction and Spirituality

This post is about alcohol, addiction, and God.

We start with a question:

How do you define spirituality?

I used the word for years with no clear definition.

I talked about being “spiritual and not religious.” Thankfully, no one asked me to explain the difference.

This dilemma resurfaced recently while I was browsing my back issues of Parabola magazine. There — in a moment of grace — my fingers landed on the Summer 1987 issue and led me to an answer.

It was an article titled “Spiritus contra Spiritum: The Bill Wilson / C. G. Jung Letters.”

Wilson on the necessity of hopelessness

Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, began the exchange in 1961. His purpose was to acknowledge Jung’s role in the birth of AA.

It all started, Wilson wrote, with Roland H.

Roland was an alcoholic who came to Jung in 1931 for treatment. Fearing a relapse, Roland saw Jung as his “court of last resort.”

Jung, however, described Roland’s situation as hopeless — beyond the reach of any further medical or psychiatric treatment.

There was one possibility, however. Jung said that Roland could “place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best.” There he might be able to experience “a genuine conversion” — a spiritual experience stronger than the craving for alcohol.

It worked. Roland returned to New York and found sobriety in the Oxford Group, a Christian evangelical movement.

Wilson’s “white light”

Wilson, too, was an alcoholic under the care of a physician, Dr. William Silkworth. And Silkworth believed that Wilson’s only option was permanent “commitment to an institution.”

What turned Wilson’s life around was a visit from Edwin T. (“Ebby”) — recovering alcoholic, Oxford Group member, and friend of Roland’s. Ebby’s serenity and sobriety impressed Wilson, who later wrote: “I knew at once I must find an experience like his, or die.”

“In utter despair, I cried out, ‘If there be a God, will he show himself,’” Wilson recalled. And what followed is known in AA as “Bill’s white light experience”:

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in my mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.

Wilson never drank again.

He spent the rest of his life trying to understand what happened.

Conversion as “ego collapse”

Wilson eventually turned to Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, a popular book among Oxford Group members.

James devotes an entire chapter to the conversion experience. He describes it as an emotional shock that leads to a new “center of gravity” — a permanent change in thinking, feeling, and behaving.

In his letter to Jung, Wilson described this as “ego collapse at depth.” He must have had it in mind while he wrote Step One of AA: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Jung on alcoholism as ‘low level’ spirituality

One week later, Jung replied to Wilson. Jung recalled his work with Roland:

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

Jung admitted that such language is doomed to be misunderstood in the modern world.

He also noted that the craving for alcohol must be met with “real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community.” Without those counteracting forces, the “unrecognized spiritual need” will lead alcoholics straight into “perdition.”

Near the end of his letter, Jung makes this distinction:

You see, alcohol in Latin is “spiritus,” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

Defining spirituality

In short, Jung described alcohol craving as a proto-spiritual quest. But beyond mentioning a thirst for “wholeness,” he offered few details.

For more insight, I turn again to Varieties of Religious Experience. James treats mysticism at length, describing mystical experiences as:

  • Ineffabile — impossible to capture in words
  • Noetic — bearing revelations and authoritative knowledge
  • Transient — lasting at most for an hour or two
  • Passive — received from “superior power” rather than produced by an act of will

Surely Wilson’s “white light” experience met these criteria.

And here is a working definition of spirituality — an answer to my opening question: practices that foster ineffable and noetic experiences in a context of ethical behavior.

Looking beyond ersatz enlightenment

I can easily picture an alcoholic at a bar reaching for a fourth or fifth and cocktail. He or she feels expansive, invincible, illuminated. The drinks have delivered the goods — revelations from above that seem both ineffable and noetic.

The literature of addiction and recovery is filled with people sharing their stories of ersatz enlightenment. There’s the narrator of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, for example. High on speed and hashish, he declares: “I knew every raindrop by its name, I sensed everything before it happened.”

James reveals the means to such revelations:

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes.

For the active addict, it easily ends in ruin — obsession with a drug and compulsive use despite life-threatening consequences. Revelations are long forgotten by the time that getting and using a chemical becomes an end in itself, the addict’s lonely calling.

But like Jung, we can see addiction as a pointer beyond itself — a reminder of our sacred impulse to expand, unite, and say yes.

And, we can obey this impulse through practices that complete us rather than defeat us.