It was a very, very busy convention, the We Agnostics and Free Thinkers (WAFT) International AA Convention (IAAC) held in Santa Monica at the beginning of November, 2014. And it was rich and diverse in the topics covered by speakers and at panels and workshops.
All of the workshops and panels were held on the last two days – Friday and Saturday – of the Convention. A rough count indicates that there were some fifteen panels and twenty-one workshops. More information about, and reports on, these panels and workshops – and speakers and marathon meetings – can be accessed at the end of this article.
Right now, however, we want to share brief reports on three of the panels which will give you at least a hint of how diverse – and inspiring – many of these were for those of us fortunate enough to have been present at what will surely go down as an historical event in the world of recovery and of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Mindfulness in Recovery
Workshop Leader: Stuart S.
By Erin J.
This was an exceptionally well-attended workshop with a good mix of participants familiar and unfamiliar with mindfulness practice.
Led by the skillful and gentle direction of Stuart S., the workshop began with a ten minute guided meditation, asking participants to be mindful of feelings in the body. This was a compelling body scan meditation and one of the questions asked of participants while scanning each body part was to reflect on the stories we tell ourselves about those particular parts. After the exercise a participant described how the practice allowed him to tap into an injury which was directly connected to his use of prescription medication. The meditation demonstrated that our awareness of body sensations is a conduit to self exploration and discovery.
The second practice was a group exercise. Workshop attendees were separated into groups of two and were challenged in turns to discuss the concept of a Higher Power with their listening partner. The “listener” was called upon to hear the story without providing physical or vocal cues or validation. This allowed participants to investigate unconscious to provide validation, or to use vocal and physical responses as a way to remain attentive to someone speaking. The “speaker” reflected on their own needs for validation and perhaps encouragement.
The third and final practice was a mindful eating practice, which I found to be an effective way of interacting with the addicts/alcholics/humans desire for more. Attendees were provided a cup containing three raisins and the first exercise involved delayed consumption with participants asked to let the raisin rest on their tongues, to experience awareness of taste, texture and our own desires to follow through with eating and resistance to the delaying of consumption of the raisin. The second practice was an exploration of interdependence. We were asked to consider, prior to placing the raisin in our mouths, where it came from and the amount of people and structures that were relied upon to bring that raisin to the moment we were experiencing. It was an effective practice that promoted consideration towards, or dependence and reliance on other human beings, which is effective in awakening connection and compassion for our fellows.
Are We Loving & Tolerant
Workshop leader Thomas B.
By Erin J.
This was a spirited and inspiring workshop and began as a bit of an opportunity for emotional decompression. It immediately became clear that the common thread that many of us WAFTS share is a feeling of isolation and of being shamed in AA meeting rooms. While it was difficult to listen to some of the stories people shared, it was strengthening to feel the unity in the tiny room at the Convention, overflowing with AA members asking ourselves, Are we loving and tolerant?
What are the obstacles we face in showing love and tolerance to more religious members of Alcoholics Anonymous? This was a good starting point and an opportunity to say out loud what many of us have been afraid to speak up about. It was an opportunity to put it all out on the table, and to examine and work through our experiences in a safe space. At this point many participants shared the oppressive, shaming experiences that had occurred in AA meeting rooms, leaving them feeling isolated and in many cases vilified by more devout members of AA. Some of the paraphrased comments included:
- “My knee-jerk reaction is to argue, or I am intimidated and remain silent.”
- “I have been called a cute little atheist token, which is not only sexist, it is discriminatory and condescending.”
- “I sometimes feel upset and disturbed by religious members of AA.”
- “I was asked by a sponsor why I came to AA when I didn’t want the solution.”
- “AA has driven me to atheism; I was somewhere in the middle when I came in.”
- “I’ve had bible verses read at me at a meeting and when I have attempted to speak up about my non-belief in the rooms, I wound up being screamed at outside of the meeting.”
A workshop participant shared a conversation he once had with his D.C.M. The D.C.M shared his confusion about how someone could get sober without god, but said that he also felt confused about how in all the years he was in AA, seventy percent of the people he met in the rooms were agnostic. He was therefore perplexed as to why the agnostics in his city (who delisted their groups) were so vehemently opposed to the existence of Agnostic AA meetings. The participant went on to share how he experienced feelings of resentment towards people who don’t actually give a damn about god, and who are apathetic about belief, yet still felt the need to impose the dogma of the Big Book onto non-believers in the rooms.
A member from California spoke of her experience coming back to the rooms after a relapse that kept her out for several years. Upon her return to AA, she found herself buried in humiliation. She shared how in meetings Big Book thumpers came out and aggressively slapped her with quotes and page numbers from the Big Book in response to her attempts to honestly share where she was at. She felt that she was vulnerable, new and scared to death and that she just didn’t have the agency at that time to speak up for herself or her beliefs in meetings. That has now changed for her, and she encouraged other non-believers in the rooms to “speak up and be out in meetings for the sake of other silent and suffering members”.
Thomas then asserted the importance of remembering that in light of all these experiences, the most valuable thing to consider is that so much of our integration into the meeting rooms of AA is not only about what we do to achieve inclusivity but also about how we go about it. That if we are mindful of the way in which we are conducting ourselves in Alcoholics Anonymous and are meeting opposition with love and tolerance we are gaining ground towards acceptance. The conflict and intolerance we face in the rooms is an A.F.G.O. (Another Fucking Growth Opportunity) for us to stand up for ourselves in loving and tolerant ways. A hard, aggressive, angry approach wasn’t the path forward.
Someone else used an Al-Anon saying about how “we teach people how to treat us” so if we are seeking love and tolerance in the rooms, we must continue to demonstrate those ideals ourselves.
To reinforce this ideal, a participant shared how as she moved along in her program she kept waiting for the feeling of being “grown up” as it appeared the only way for that to occur was to possess a belief in god. Many women told her “not to worry, that she would get it”. Though she didn’t “get it”, what she did come to understand was that these women and their deep spirituality helped love her back to health, further reaffirming Thomas’s point about the baby and the bathwater. We don’t want to come to a place where we only listen to likeminded people; there is value in the experiences of others even if their beliefs differ from our own.
The workshop came to a close with Thomas discussing sponsorship, and how the discussion of lineages of sponsorship in the rooms seemed to be a way for some members to trace the authenticity of their experience in Alcoholics Anonymous in relation to the way it was experienced in the 1930s. He touched on the Back to Basics movement which he believes only accepts the errant truth of the big book, yet disrespects the traditions, the concepts of service, and the preamble of Alcoholics Anonymous. He reminded participants that despite the presence of this kind of ideology in AA, we somehow had to acknowledge those members with compassion for the pain and terror many of them carry.
I found this workshop to be cathartic and inspiring particularly in the way it ended which was by Thomas repeating the question: “Can we WAFTS be loving and tolerant?” to which his answer was hilariously and honestly “sometimes”. This program is about progress not perfection, not black and white thinking. We must demonstrate love and tolerance or else we run the risk of being oppressive and close-minded ourselves, which will not help our cause.
Starting an Agnostic/Atheist Meeting
Workshp Leader: Deirdre S.
By Erin J.
This was a very informative, instructive workshop with some good direction as to how someone can get an agnostic meeting going in his or her own city.
I am just providing some of the suggestions as points, and not including the commentary which I understand will be made available as CDs at a later date.
- An excellent resource for starting a new AA group is the pamphlet, The AA Group… Where It All Begins.
- Online discussion groups were suggested as resources for information about starting new groups. Two forums that were mentioned were: AA Atheists and Agnostics and Start With A Coffee Pot.
- Finding other like-minded people – and a coffee pot, of course! – is all it takes to start a meeting.
- Suggestions for a location included: coffee shops, churches, community centres, Quaker and Unitarian Universalist halls and even hospitals, which often offer meeting space free of charge.
The meeting date, time and location can be published on the AgnosticAANYC website (for which Deirdre is the webservant) and if your group has a website a link to it can also be published on AA Agnostica. Advertisements can be taken out in a local newspaper and flyers can be created and passed around and the meeting can also be announced at other AA meetings.
- Have a GSR member to represent the group at local Intergroup meetings.
- Collect and efficiently manage a 7th Tradition, even if there is no rent to pay for a venue. Excellent records should be kept and contributions should be made to Alcoholics Anonymous World Services to ensure your group remains a contributing part of AA as a whole and to assist in legitimizing the group with Intergroup should challenges present themselves.
- Register your group with the GSO.
- Register your group with your local intergroup.
- It was also suggested that bypassing the reading of a changed version of the twelve-steps could, especially in the beginning, be helpful in assuring that meeting is listed with the local Intergroup and then the issue could be revisited after the group is more established.
- Provide fellowship before or after the meeting so that your group is actively reaching out to newcomers and helping set a tone for the intention behind Agnostic and Atheist AA.
A final area of interest that was discussed was the literature available at agnostic and atheist AA meetings. Having conference-approved literature available, such as “Living Sober”, was recommended. This literature is readily availabe at Integroups. It was also discussed that having non-conference approved literature available is also an option. A member shared how literature can be presented for sale with the distinction of “conference approved” and “non-conference approved” in order to circumvent any criticism.
Finally, more information from Deirdre about starting a new meeting is available here: Two Things that only Take Two: Tango and an AA Meeting.
And of course there is lots of information on that very topic right here on AA Agnostica: How to Start an AA Meeting.
In a wonderful act of sharing and service, a number of people agreed to write about the convention for AA Agnostica. They are Thom L., Christopher G., Erin J., Thomas B., Russ H., Adam N., Rob M., Joe C., David B., Ken L. and Michael B. Their work permitted AA Agnostica to report on each day of the convention, and those reports are available right here: We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention: Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.
And we expect and hope to have more articles on various topics from each one of these authors in the near future.