Workshops at the WAFT Convention

Workshops

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.

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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.
  • Agnostic Groups

    Click on the image to complete a form to find others in your area interested in an agnostic AA meeting

    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.

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Erin J. is a recovering alcoholic, drug addict and practicing Buddhist and is also one of the founders of the first Agnostic/Atheist meeting in her hometown. She recently had the opportunity to attend the first We Agnostics and Freethinkers convention in Santa Monica, California, where she contributed her time as a volunteer with WAFT and participated and recorded her experiences in several workshops.

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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.


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Comments

Workshops at the WAFT Convention — 16 Comments

  1. Erin;

    You did a wonderful job not only reporting about the convention but helping manage the kitchen! Everyone was soooo very impressed with your hard work and dedication to the WAAFT movenment.

    I look forward to seeing everyone in Austin, TX in 2016 and meeting new friends.

    For those who are interested in getting all the 48 recordings of the convention you can contact

    Dave Stephens
    encoreaudio@aol.com

    • Thanks Dorothy. I sure enjoyed hanging out with you and Pam. I felt so connected to everyone, it was an amazing experience to feel like I belonged somewhere, finally. I can’t wait to see you both again and to help out in Austin 2016!

  2. Thanks Erin,

    The hardest thing about the We Agnostics & Freethinkers Conference was choosing what to go see, what to leave out and then half the time I committed to a course of action, I got captivated in conversation with fascinating people. This is a big help. It’s the next best thing to being there. I really appreciate having these reviews to reflect on.

    Wasn’t it awesome meeting everyone!

  3. I think it is a dangerously defensive position to take to start telling people in our meetings which literature is aa conference approved and which is not. Personally I would say here is a book “published by” AA that is really good (the one and only), and all other books are obviously published by whoever they are published by, usually it is of no great consequence, unless they are published by an organization, then it should be mentioned, such as if it is a spiritual community.
    At all times, I shy away from the conference approved label. We, the agnostic etc. section, are not, or at any rate we would not be conference approved. So no need to adopt their language if it is detrimental to us. Unless to say: Anything called conference approved you can pretty much count on is going to be fundamentalist, religious, etc, with a few exceptions, Living Sober and a few of the pamphlets.

    • Thanks for your feedback, it’s really helpful to me in deciding what to do in our group. I appreciate it!

    • Agree completely. “Conference approved” is a loaded term, which necessarily implies a judgment of quality. Actually, much “conference approved” literature is untrue and harmful, in whole or in part. Even the best of the “conference approved” pamphlets have pockets of religious dreck, which stand out like a sore thumb.

      By “really good (the one and only) [book]” you obviously mean Living Sober, the only AA book I can recommend (with only a few reservations). Even here, the “conference approved” changes made in the new and revised edition are for the worse. Better to go with the original (yellow cover) edition.

      • So, an Atheist/Agnostic themed AA Mtg is not free to place altered steps or traditions on the wall without risking ‘de-listing’ from local central offices, right? However we are free to use for discussion topics or place on our literature tables such items as Arlys & Martha’s “Secular Guide”; or Joe C’s “Beyond Belief”; or Roger C’s “Little Book”; without any such fear of excommunication. Am I reading the current state of the rules correctly?

    • There is nothing “dangerously defensive” or even “loaded” in acknowledging the simple truth that AA has a review process for literature published in its name. It doesn’t stop me from reading whatever I want to read.

      This is not an “us” and “them” thing. I’m not a partisan in a struggle over the ideological direction of AA. This is not a contest between rival “creeds.” The Fellowship majority can cling to whatever creed it wants. I can recognize the orthodoxy without sharing it.

      I’m willing to respect what the Fourth Tradition says about “other groups and AA as a whole.” After all, I have Tradition Three, which makes it perfectly clear that, as a member of AA, I have the freedom to pursue sobriety by my own lights.

      For me, it’s the freedom that counts.

      • I know I am free to read what I want, Tim. And so do you. Good for me. Good for you.
        But the discussion, seems to me, centered on the fact that many don’t understand that. They understand “Conference-approved” to mean that all other literature is not acceptable in AA. In fact, there are groups within AA that insist that that is exactly the case. That’s the problem. I laud those who are seeking a solution, so that others in AA – newcomers especially – are not bound by this unfortunate form of censorship.
        So that they, like you and me, understand that they are free to read whatever is helpful to them.

  4. Thanks for the reports. All were interesting and useful.

    The Mindfulness workshop echoes some of my own experience. In 1974, when I had been sober a year, I took the “training” for Transcendental Meditation, along with a number of other people I had met in AA. I was skeptical of the claims that I’d achieve “Cosmic Consciousness” in five years, but I did find that meditating twice a day for 15 or 20 minutes was a wonderful way to relieve stress. And in later years when I slacked off, I discovered that my tendency towards “dry drunk” irritability, depression, and irrational thinking came back. Meditation, Systematic Progressive Relaxation Training (Edmund Jacobson), and regular aerobic exercise have been immensely important parts of my “sobriety practice”.

    I chuckled at the “sometimes” answer to the question about being “loving and tolerant”. As one of the old-timers in my AA community used to say, “You’ve been reading my mail, partner.” When I first started attending meetings here in 1973, it seemed that there were many friendly, practical-minded, helpful folks who never brought up religious thinking. The meetings and conversations were humorous, inviting, and sometimes salty. I never heard the Lord’s Prayer recited at meetings until I was sober for several years. But as the years went by, the country changed towards confrontive evangelicalism, and the tone of AA changed also. And I drifted away from meetings for long periods of time.

    Having discovered AA Agnostica, I’ve been glad to learn that there are many, many other AA’s like me. I’m contemplating starting a freethinkers’ AA group here, so the report on starting a group is very useful. Who knows, there may be a few others right here at home!

    Thanks again,

    Oren

    • And don’t forget to fill out the form below, Oren, and we can try to connect you with other in your area who want to start a freethinkers’ AA group.

      An agnostic group in my community

  5. Thanks for these reports, Erin. It was so nice to meet you at the convention and, if I can share this with everyone, Erin embodies that AA custom of never saying “no” when asked to do something — she was quite simply everywhere imaginable in a volunteer capacity in Santa Monica.

    Heck, I met her for the first time at the convention in a meeting that was supposed to be chaired by one of the California groups, but the Chair didn’t show up so Erin said, okay, let’s pretend this is a Calgary meeting, and she proceeded to get us going — turned out to be a really heartfelt meeting, by the way.

    Thanks again, Erin, for this report and for your always helpful presence at the convention.

    • Thanks John, meeting you was a highlight – I really appreciate your kind words. It was a pleasure being of service!

  6. There were too many good things to do, and no way to do it all, and being an alcoholic, I wanted it all. Darn! Many thanks for organizing these summaries, which are a way to attend the whole conference.

    One note, which bears repeating often: There is NO official AA meeting format-each group is autonomous. This includes the reading of whatever literature the individual or group wishes. AA has no thought-control policy. This is widely misunderstood, and even freethinkers often think only “Conference Approved” material is allowed. NOT SO!

    “Any literature that pertains to the principles of AA, or is approved by a group conscience, is perfectly acceptable to be read by any AA member or in an AA meetng.” Box 4-5-9 from GSO, Vol. 23:4, 2006

    Of course, a group has to use its own discretion about using altered Steps, not because AA itself opposes them, but because of local reactions. Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good.

  7. I am only sorry I missed the convention but hopefully I will be able to attend the next one. Thanks to all who have written about the exciting workshops and keeping us in the loop, its much appreciated.