Big Book Study Meetings and the Step Sheets

Many of the founding members of How It Works (HIW) had attended one or more 18-week group study meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A., the “Big Book”) sponsored in Palm Springs by a group of visiting AA members from Canada. The first of those Big Book Study meetings were held in January, 1988. As described elsewhere, the HIW group began with group conscience meetings held in Canada in December, 1990, and in Palm Springs on October 10, 1991.

Initially, the biggest attraction of the How It Works group was the promise made to the alcoholic, including both experienced A.A. members and newcomers alike, that if he attended a weekly HIW group study of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A., the “Big Book”) and attended HIW meetings on a daily basis, he would find a solution to his alcoholism. Members of the HIW group who took its message seriously would never have to go back to drinking.

The discussion topic at each regular twice-a-day meeting of the HIW group is taken directly from the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. For a time the group included twice-annual Big Book Study sessions, but through a group conscience vote in Palm Springs, the Big Book Study described below is now held only once a year from January through May on Sundays, replacing the regular 9:30 meeting. Because some chapters take longer to read than others, the group meeting may be extended beyond the normal one hour duration. As announced at the Big Book Study meeting, “this meeting will end when it ends” to insure that everyone in the room has an opportunity to share. The only other major format change is a brief “break” between the end of the “reading” and the beginning of the “sharing” portions of the meeting.

The Big Book Study Meeting consists of an audio rendition of each chapter, with each member reading along in the book. The audio component of the Big Book Study session is a particularly effective way to present the material to those who, for example, are afflicted by attention deficit disorder(s) (ADD) or dyslexia, those for whom English is not their native language, those who cannot read or simply cannot afford or otherwise do not have appropriate reading glasses. For all members, the combination of hearing, seeing, and then sharing their understanding and experience has proven a boon.

The power of the Big Book Study is the combined experience of the group. Repeating the Big Book Study on a regular or annual basis gives it even more power. Old-timers who, having attended meetings once or twice a-day for years, have read the book over and over in the form of snippets and pieces from the daily readings. But the Big Book Study offers them a chance, once again, to consolidate everything in a whole – to see the program of Alcoholics Anonymous in its broadest form rather than its more narrowly focused components. They are given the opportunity to see the big picture and, once again, to both learn and practice humility. For the newcomers, the practice of a group study of Alcoholics Anonymous gave them an opportunity to work on the solution to the disease of alcoholism within the context of a collective experience. Rather than struggling as an individual, the newcomer gains from the combined experience of the group and the stories and understanding shared by more experienced members. The first HIW group found this collective or group process more effective than linking each alcoholic with an individual sponsor.

Coming into the group as a newcomer was made particularly attractive because he immediately received direction about specific actions to be taken right away. These directions came from one or more experienced members of the group. No matter who (or how many) experienced members were involved, the newcomer would invariably be given the same suggestions.

For example, the newcomer to the HIW group heard a suggestion to immediately begin reading pages 86-88 of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, and to do so everyday. This practice of “doing the pages” was the beginning of what would become a “maintenance program.” Before long the newcomer comes to recognize that “doing the pages” is part of the “spiritual program of action” required to receive a “daily reprieve [from our alcoholism] contingent on the maintenance of our fit spiritual condition” (A.A., p. 85).

Early emphasis upon the daily reading also gave the newcomer some hints on finding a higher power, directions on when and how to pray and to meditate, and guidance on what are appropriate requests to be directed at the god of his own understanding. As expressed in Step 12 of the A.A. program of recovery, the group knew that a spiritual awakening would be the result of the completion of the twelve steps. Doing the pages, attending meetings, and quickly moving the newcomer into the Twelve-Step program would expedite the process.

The Twelve Steps are suggested in A.A. as a program of recovery. From the outset, newcomers were told that by following the HIW approach to completion of the steps they would later have something specific to pass on to other alcoholics. It was intended that each newcomer would go through the Twelve Steps in essentially an identical way. Again, no matter which or how many experienced members were involved, the newcomer would invariably be given the same suggestions regarding the HIW approach to the A.A. program of recovery.

It was suggested that the newcomer read the first 43 pages in A.A. to be ready to do Step 1. If a person was not convinced, he or she was told to read and re-read the Chapter that carries the main thrust on Step 1, namely “More About Alcoholism, pp. 30-43. In italics, for emphasis, they were told “Read it 100 times if necessary.” Having completed Step 1, it was suggested that each newcomer, even those who profess a belief in God, read and if necessary re-read Chapter 3, “We Agnostics” (pp. 44-57), in preparation for taking Step 2. Using the HIW Step 2 sheet as a guide, the newcomer is asked to explain precisely what he or she “is convinced of when he or she says “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” If they are convinced of each question, they will be feeling comfortable with Step 2, and should move to the next step, but not before reading pp. 58-64 in the Chapter “How It Works,” which carries the main thrust of Step 3.

Having completed Steps 1-3 with a member of the group, the newcomer was instructed to read pages 64-71 in the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) as preparation for the completion of Step 4. The HIW step sheets guide the newcomer through a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves in precisely the language contained in A.A. The HIW sheets enhance the Big Book by suggesting “jog my memory lists” and by providing additional examples of things that might well appear on the resentment (anger), fear, and sex problems lists.

As explained in further detail elsewhere, the How It Works group suggests that Step 5 be completed with a priest, minister, or “someone ordained by an established religion” (AA, p. 74). The HIW group finds such a person quick to see and understand our problem. This is the most effective way to facilitate the admission of “the exact nature of [one’s] wrongs” while simultaneously protecting the confidences of both the newcomer and other members of HIW.

Steps 6 and 7 were to be done as soon as possible following the alcoholic’s completion of Step 5. “Returning home we find a place where we can be quiet for an hour, carefully reviewing what we have done” (A.A., p. 75). Being convinced that they were not omitting anything and that the work had been solid so far, the newcomer was “ready to have God remove all [their] defects of character” and to ask Him “to remove [their] shortcomings.”

Following the directions from the Big Book, the alcoholic was to complete Step 8 by filling out the list of names from the Step 4 sheet and adding any other names or institution(s) to which the alcoholic owed money or other types of amends. Step 9 was to be taken in consultation with and under the guidance of an experienced member of the group.

Each member of the HIW group then practices the so-called “recovery-maintenance steps” (i.e., Steps 10-12) on a daily basis. The practice of “doing the pages” (i.e., completing the daily reading of pages 86-88) obviously becomes an important part of this recovery-maintenance process. Of course, none of this implies that the Twelve Steps of A.A. are one-time actions. To the contrary, they are to be completed as often as necessary to maintain one’s “fit spiritual condition.” That is the meaning of the life-giving and action-oriented Twelfth Step suggestion that we “practice these principles in all of our affairs.”