Enlightened but Dead: Why Alcoholics Need God

Pema Chödrön’s teacher, the venerable Chögyam Trungpa, drank a lot.  Drinking was a staple of his sanga, where he threw big parties among his students, and he was known to carry vodka in a water bottle.  Trungpa explained in one of his spiritual books why his drinking differed from that of an ordinary alcoholic:

“Whether alcohol is to be a poison or a medicine depends on one’s awareness while drinking. Conscious drinking—remaining aware of one’s state of mind—transmutes the effect of alcohol. Here awareness involves a tightening up on one’s system as an intelligent defense mechanism…

“For the yogi, alcohol is fuel for relating with his students and with the world in general, as gasoline allows a motorcar to relate with the road. But naturally the ordinary drinker who tries to compete with or imitate this transcendental style of drinking will turn his alcohol into poison…”*

Sadly, it appears that Trungpa’s liver failed to read the book and appreciate his “transcendental style” of yogi drinking.  Despite diagnoses of cirrhosis and doctors’ warnings that more drinking would kill him, Trungpa continued to drink heavily until it did indeed kill him in April of 1986, when he was just 48 years old.


Philosopher Alan Watts was considered a sage throughout the ’60s after he rose to prominence with the 1951 publication of The Wisdom of Insecurity – a pivotal text  introducing Eastern concepts to Western society.  The book considers the ego’s dis-ease with the unstable nature of reality and its efforts to create security via constructs of memory and projection coalescing in a story of “I,” which Watts dismisses as unreal: only awareness divorced from self can access reality.  Watts, like Trungpa, was well aware of the futility of escapist drinking:

“One of the worst vicious circles is the problem of the alcoholic.  In very many cases he knows quite clearly that he is destroying himself, that, for him, liquor is poison, that he actually hates being drunk… And yet he drinks.  For, dislike it as he may, the experience of not drinking is worse… for he stands face to face with the unveiled, basic insecurity of the world.”

Unfortunately, identifying this vicious circle did not grant Watts the power to exit it.  Like Trungpa, he often gave lectures while sloppy drunk. He, too, developed end-stage alcoholism that deeply concerned his ex-wife and friends, and died of alcoholic cardiomyopathy – e.g. heart failure – at 58.


Both of these men were masters of self-knowledge and the meditative disciplines that yield inner peace.  Both could speak brilliantly on the ills of ego and treasures of honesty.  Yet neither could stop drinking.  And they’re just two examples out of jillions.  Why did they fail?  Why would people so insightful not quit what was clearly killing them?  The Big Book explains:

“If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.  But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how hard we tried.  We… could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, …failed utterly.” (p. 44)

In Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Trungpa makes very clear that no god enters into his vision.  “Over the past seven years, I have been a presenting series of ‘Shambala Teachings’ [on]… secular enlightenment, that is, the possibility of uplifting our personal existence and that of others without the help of any religious outlook.”

Good for him!  I agree wholeheartedly that self-knowledge is great stuff.  But it will not cure alcoholism.

In a 1968 talk, Bill Wilson, one of AA’s founders, described the initial amazement of the psychiatric community at the unprecedented breakthroughs of AA.  Many alcoholism specialists attended meetings and saw their own alcoholic patients, with whom years of psychiatric work had failed, achieve abstinence and mental health in a matter of weeks.  One suggested that Bill assemble a group of such psychiatrists to testify before the Academy of Medicine about AA’s success. So Bill asked them.

“And not a one would do it! …In effect, each said, ‘Look, Bill. You folks have added up in one column more of the resources which have been separately applied to alcoholics than anyone else… [But] the sum of them won’t add up to the speed of these transformations in these very grim cases… So for us, there is an unknown factor at work in AA.  [B]eing scientists, we… call it the X factor.  We believe you people call it the grace of God. And who shall go to the Academy and explain the grace of God?  No one can.'”

questionSorry, folks!  But the X factor, and that alone, is what saves an alcoholic: Connection with a higher power, to god as we understand it.  We ask god to help us, and we’re relieved of a compulsion that no amount of self-knowledge can touch.

Humility is the key ingredient to receiving grace.  We have to ask for it, accepting that we’ve been defeated.  By contrast, Trungpa, for all his wisdom, exhibited a strong tendency toward hubris.  The true warrior, he explains in Shambala, is both Outrageous and Inscrutable.  “…[H]aving overcome hope and fear, the warrior… fathoms the whole of space.  You go beyond any possibilities of holding back at all…. Your wakefulness and intelligence make you self-contained and confident with a confidence that needs no reaffirmation through feedback.” In other words, I got this!  Screw what anyone else thinks!

Watts, meanwhile, purported to embrace God, but his abstractions reduced it to a mere abandonment of I, which enabled connection with the eternal now and rendered us one with God.  For Watts, there could be no “Hey, god (you) please help (me)!” because the you / I division negated the fact that we are god: “[W]e cannot lay ourselves open to grace, for all such split-mindedness is the denial… of our freedom.”

Reluctance to seek god’s help almost killed AA co-founder Bill Wilson, too.  Relatively unknown in AA culture is the fact that Bill was so deeply repulsed by the God element in his friend Ebby’s solution that he went on drinking for three weeks after Ebby’s visit and landed yet again in a sanitarium.  There, after Ebby had visited him again to recap the spiritual solution, he had this experience:

“And again the despair deepened until the last of this prideful obstinacy was momentarily crushed out. And then, like a child crying out in the dark, I said, ‘If there is a God, will he show himself?’ And the place lit up in a great glare, a wondrous white light. Then I began to have images, in the mind’s eye, so to speak, and one came in which I seemed to see myself standing on a mountain and a great clean wind was blowing, and this blowing at first went around and then it seemed to go through me. And then the ecstasy redoubled and I found myself exclaiming, ‘I am a free man! So THIS is the God of the preachers!'”

In my Near-Death Experiences group, I’ve heard several people describe similar experiences, when the “white light” of love brilliantly illuminated the room around them; but, naturally, many of Bill’s contemporaries considered him daft for insisting it had happened.  In his talk, he attributes this phenomenon not to his own specialness, but to the role it enabled him to play in AA, explaining that the powerful faith most AAs develop over months or years was for him simply crammed into a few minutes: “It did give me an instant conviction of the presence of God which has never left me… And I feel that that extra dividend may have made the difference in whether I would have persisted with AA in the early years or not.”

In other words, Bill was given what he needed not only to overcome a lifetime of harrowing addiction, but to co-create AA and persist in carrying its message into the dark world of his fellow alcoholics.  Why?  Because he asked… and frickin’ meant it.




PS: I have tremendous respect for both these sages as well as for Buddhism.  By no means am I critical of their legacy or beliefs.  Reading both authors did contribute to my self-knowledge, for which I am grateful, because such insight aids in a lifetime quest for serenity.  My point is merely that self-knowledge, no matter how deep or how keen, cannot arrest this disease, as these two tragically premature deaths testify.  See comments below. 

– Louisa

  • (Heart of the Buddha, p. 153)


Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Drinking, Faith, God, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

27 responses to “Enlightened but Dead: Why Alcoholics Need God

  1. Anonymous

    great column, Louisa!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous

    I love the program, not only despite its’ irrationality, but partly because of it :-). Nice article. For my part, I’m convinced that amazing source of its power isn’t “Gawd” it’s Bill W.’s insight that sustained abstinence is the closest thing there is to a cure for alcoholism and that having drunks help other drunks to achieve that increases the chances of long term success for both. Being dead and all, Jebus no longer cares what anyone drinks… Having heard how your own courage, strength and creativity expressed itself in your own NDE, instead of thanking deities, I prefer to thank YOU for sharing your gift for living and writing with the rest of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, way to slam the Buddhists. I’ll stay in the program in spite of this article. Just because two people had the disease and were spiritual teachers (we come from all walks of life, from Yale to jail), doesn’t prove your point at all. There are several books out there on the Buddhist recovery movement that you might like. Also, remember, oh self-righteous one who should stay on their own side of the street, that we all walk our own path in this recovery. Yours is clearly “old school” and I avoid meetings filled with those of your ilk. I have found magical, accepting sobriety in my community. May you find it in your heart to offer that to others instead of this judgemental hooie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Darl – I apologize – I didn’t intend to slam Buddhism. I find it, of all religions, to be the most beautiful and resonant – despite my vast ignorance of its complexities. If I have a thesis, it’s simply that really no amount of wisdom can grant us a cure from alcoholism – short of an incomprehensible miracle (termed here as X factor). That miracle can be accessed in countless ways, however, and given countless names. What I call ‘god’ is loosely defined – perhaps as the power of love and collaboration, whether among aspects of Gaia, humanity, bees, or cells. I was saddened to learn of the demise of both those teachers after being deeply inspired by their writings. My post reflects only what that discovery meant *to me.*

      Could you link me to a Buddhist recovery book? I’d love to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Chögyam Trungpa and Alan Watts both died of alcoholism, but is this article correct that Buddhism was to blame? Bill W, after starting AA, cheated on his wife and chain smoked for decades, dying of emphysema. On his deathbed, he begged for whiskey. Furthermore, the “bright light” which Bill W claimed to experience on a hospital bed, which led to the birth of AA, may have been induced by the Belladonna he was given at the time, and he continued to experiment with psychedelic drugs after starting AA. In Pure Land Buddhism, there’s the concept of surrendering to Other-Power, yet it’s inseparable from your truest, deepest nature, rather than a monarchical being rewarding or punishing you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Matthew. My thesis was simply that no amount of self-knowledge can save an alcoholic. Buddhism is without question a beautiful and rich branch of religion, and, in addition to resonating most of all religions with my own spiritual sense, was by no means the “cause” of these figures’ (or anyone’s) lost battle with alcoholism. The cause was the “cunning, baffling, powerful” disease that is alcoholism. Those of us in whom it is arrested are a minority. Every individual carries his or her own frailties. Fame alone imposes a huge handicap on anyone trying to stay sober, because it can so easily seep into one’s ego. I read both these authors to help me maintain my own sobriety, so it came as a shock to me that their wisdom couldn’t save their lives.

      As your remarks on Bill W (although the rumor that he cried out for whiskey on his deathbed is unsubstantiated, often applied to Dr. Bob as well) highlight, he was a very imperfect human, a puppet of addiction when it came to sex and cigs. So how amazing is it that such a flawed human being could co-found a program that has saved millions of lives and brought relief to millions of codependents, food addicts, sex addicts, and others? His experience of the white light need not be explained away with drugs; the same Light been witnessed too often, for example, in my Near-Death-Experiences group, for me to doubt it. Go to an IANDS group in your area if you doubt that.

      I’ll look into Pure-Land Buddhism – that sounds beautiful indeed.


  5. Thank you for your response. I am not anti-AA, but what I am against is the idea that twelve step is the only way to recovery. On that topic, I’d recommend reading Lance Dodes. Bill W. himself referred to AA as “spiritual kindergarten.” Though AA has worked for many people, it’s also failed for many others, since recovery is not one size fits all. There’s actually now a Buddhist alternative to AA:

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: What’s the Point of “Bill’s Story”? | A Spiritual Evolution

  7. vjtk

    Co-founder of AA, Bill, used LSD to see God. Look it up.


    • Wrong. He used it 20 years after the experience described above and the creation of AA, during the 50s in an effort to treat his severe clinical depression. LSD is still used today as such a treatment. Look it up.


  8. Michael F.

    Thanks for this. It is fresh and clear and
    reminds me of the necessity of ceding my will to a higher power. In fact it was the topic at my meeting tonight, and then I listened to Alan Watts on the way home. I recognize why he was not able to cross to that other shore, and that I must.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Anonymous

    What about Buddhist recovery groups that apply the Buddha’s teachings rather than belief in a theistic god? AA is not the only way to recovery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think ANY recovery group that helps people overcome alcoholism and/or love life and each other more fully is fantastic. I myself find that many of the Buddha’s teaching imply a source of lovingkindness that saturates the living world, one that our basic nature connects with. But regardless, Buddhism is beautiful and, more than any other religion I know of, offers a meaningful path for living.

      Also, do you know this line from forward to the 1955 Big Book of AA?

      “Upon therapy for the alcoholic we surely have no monopoly. Yet it is our great hope that all those who have as yet found no answer may begin to find one in the pages of this book…” (p. xxi)


  10. Anonymous

    Thirty five years after attending rehab I am now at a place where I cannot picture life with or without alcohol.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Tim

    This is wonderful! I resonate with Bill’s experience!


  12. Mav Minnis

    Not an alcoholic but my birth family is littered with them …and I married one . I have, however , been on a conscious spiritual path for many years .
    The breakthrough came for me when I did what you said in your final sentence;
    I asked ( for guidance) …and fricken’ meant it.
    It is the most important thing I have ever done.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Mary Lopez

    Hi I heard that Bill W. was begging for alcohol on his death bed but not sure if it’s true. If it is I’d like to hear your theory about it.


    • Hi Mary! It’s partially but not LITERALLY true. According to Susan Cheever’s research*, as Bill lay dying from emphysema in 1970, he asked his nurses 3 times for a drink — Christmas day, Jan 4, and Jan 14. The nurses noted his requests in a log book, but of course he was given none. Bill didn’t die until Jan 24, and he didn’t ask again for whiskey in those remaining 10 days. His final moments were peaceful.

      But why should it bother us if he asked, even if he’d cried out? Have you ever sat with the dying? They float halfway between a dying brain and an eternal spirit, and they say all kinds of wild things. Beyond this, Bill W. was initially and always remained a deeply flawed man. He couldn’t stop smoking, for one thing. He suffered from acute depression. But does whatever ailments the messenger may have suffered cancel the message?

      However you slice it, Bill, Bob, and the first 100 gave me the gift of 26 – less than 2 months now from 27 — years of freedom from alcohol. At the most terrifying or tragic moments of MY life, the last thing I have wanted was a drink. I want to be awake to whatever life entails, in part because I’ve been to the other side, and I know it’s HOME.



  14. John

    So who “created” Bill to have such compulsions? I assume you’ll say, God. Is this the same God that simply healed him for asking aloud? Was not his daily anguish and despair, coping with alcohol not the loudest cry for help one could make? Your words are simple sophistry.


    • Hi John –
      There’s not anything I can say to change your views, but I will tell you what I believe.
      1) God is the energy of the universe, so, yes, it did create everything — in the sense that we’re all sparks of that power (as are beings on other planets). From the many interviews I’ve conducted with NDErs, the consensus seems that we enter life as a mission, taking on certain handicaps we intend to overcome. During their life reviews, many NDErs are shown the progress they’ve made or not made toward these goals, but the main goal is to bring about more goodness, kindness, and service to others, human and non-human. One such handicap can be being born into a family in which the conditions of alcoholism and family dysfunction have been passed down. To break through that cycle via spiritual growth is a huge deal.
      2) There is asking with the ego, with much wringing of hands and torture, and then there’s emptying of self, letting the ego drop and opening one’s heart. Bill explains that he had lost all hope, all sense that he could beat alcoholism himself, at the moment he cried out for god to show itself. He had, essentially, hit bottom.
      I was an atheist while drinking, so I certainly never prayed for help. I did stop drinking once for a month on self-will, but I knew I would “reward” that stint with booze at the end, and as soon as I did so I found myself as brakeless as ever. The ego can’t connect to god or keep us joyfully sober; ego’s all about self alone. I do remember the first sincere prayer I whispered on a hillock at a watershed park outside Olympia, and I remember a few hours later when I was shown the role my ego played in prolonging my addiction(s).
      AA’s Step 1 appears an oxymoron to many normies and active alcoholics — that we are POWERLESS over our addiction. But to people for whom it serves as a bedrock for sobriety, it’s the shedding of ego armor, at least long enough to let god enter. I’ll have 27 years sober a week from yesterday, and my life is filled with a sense of goodness, purpose, and joy. But if I take credit for that myself, I will lose it all. That I know.

      You’re free to believe whatever works for you.


  15. St Augustine , Monarch

    Excellent article. The people butt hurt in the comments made it funny at the end! Especially The angry Buddhist, very zen!

    Liked by 1 person

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