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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.”

Daily Reading Book

In the early years, the How It Works group read from a wide variety of A.A. approved literature. Topics for daily discussion were taken from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Daily Reflections, or As Bill Sees It. These had been approved for use at the initial group conscience meeting held in December, 1990. Later, the list was expanded to include the Twelve and Twelve, and, apparently, the non-AA, non-conference approved Twenty Four Hours a Day. An attempt on February 25, 1993, to expand the list even further to include the AA approved book “Language of the Heart” was voted down, 16 no’es to 0 yea’s. This decision reflected the fact that rather than serving as an invariable aide to recovery, even the approved readings occasionally tended to generate controversy.

One day a visiting member from Canada, asked: “If you are so proud of your supposed connection to the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the twelve steps as the solution to alcoholism, why don’t you just read from the Big Book?” That simple question proved revolutionary. It led the group to move away from non-AA approved literature and, ultimately to the How It Works’ Daily Readings book. On October 26, 1995, the group conscience approved using the “Big Big Book”. Initially the daily readings were contained in a very large 3-ring binder containing the specific readings from the pages of A.A. in plastic covers – hence the name the “Big Big Book.” Later the readings were published in the now familiar bound edition. The bound books are replenished on an as needed basis. They are purchased from a vendor in the same manner as other literature purchases approved by the group conscience.

The How It Works group really began to grow in membership after adoption of the Daily Reading Book. In many respects the adoption led to the unification of the How It Works groups and members all over the world. By having each group on the same page (and date!), those people who are traveling find a special bond.

Although there was no “conspiracy” to avoid picking topics for discussion from chapters of the Big Book such as “To the Wives” and “The Family Afterward,” the actual outcome of day-to-day selections, prior to the adoption of the Daily Readings, was as if it were so. Adoption of the Daily Reading Book allowed all of Alcoholics Anonymous to be read by all members. Further, the Daily Reading Book also placed special attention on the Step Three and Step Seven Prayers and the “Spiritual Experience” Appendix.

Minutes of the group conscience meeting held 10/31/1996 indicate that the evolution of the Big Big Book continued. It was decided at that time not to include the reading on Acceptance that appeared on page 449 of the Third Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous because it’s not in the first 164 pages. Later on, of course, the Daily Readings Book would be expanded to include the pages on “Spiritual Experience” added as an appendix in the back of Alcoholics Anonymous and to include Dr. Bob’s Nightmare (pp. 171-181, 4th Edition). Over time, only slight changes have been made from the original Daily Readings Book, primarily to include some slight pagination changes resulting from the Fourth Edition’s new Foreword, and inclusion of the Step Three and Step Seven Prayers, etc.

Group Support Rather than Individual Sponsorship

The Big Book promises that when a newcomer becomes an active supporter of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, he taps into a source of power much greater than himself (A.A., p. 163). The newcomer’s recovery is all but guaranteed if he becomes a responsible member of the group. Initially, of course, the group provides a substitute for liquor. But, more importantly, through active support of the group, the newcomer is released from care, boredom, and worry and he becomes happy, respected, and useful (A.A., pp. 152-153). Notice that emphasis is on active support of the group and the fellowship of A.A. As expressed by Tradition #1: “Our A.A. experience has taught us that each member of Alcoholics Anonymous is but a small part of a great whole. A.A. must continue to live or most of us will surely die. Hence our common welfare comes first. But individual welfare follows close afterward” (A.A., p. 563). The How It Works’ group conscience confirms the wisdom of this focus on the fellowship. Focusing the attention of the newcomer on how they can become an active supporter of the group hastens the transition from a self-centered person “getting help” to a recovered person “giving help.” Through group sponsorship, the alcoholic is given the opportunity to become a responsible member of the group.

Group sponsorship insures every newcomer that the program of recovery comes directly from the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. The program is presented in a straightforward, consistent manner that is not dependent upon individual interpretation. Printed step sheets have been prepared for use by members of the group. They consist primarily of questions that are taken directly from and/or summarize the treatment of each step in the Big Book. The step sheets, approved by the group conscience, offer a unified approach to how each of the twelve steps is to be taken. Indeed, once a member has taken a step, he can at once show another member how to do so. All members are, in that sense, equal when it comes to guiding newcomers through the steps. Every member is to participate in the group support process, without regard to seniority or years of sobriety. There are no privates, sergeants, generals – we are all equals. In this way, the newcomer quickly becomes a responsible member of the fellowship and part of the group solution.

Approaching the twelve-step recovery process in a unified manner removes the potentially destructive power of individual personalities and cliques. As one member put it, “The idea that there should be individual sponsorship – that one member had a special relationship with another – often created problems. Different members had different ideas about the correct way to take a specific step. These differences, by themselves, created divisions within the group. Newcomers asked around to find out who the “Big Book thumpers” were. Alternatively, some sought out “easier, softer” sponsors. In many cases, newcomers had multiple sponsors and played them off against each other.” A unified, group approach gets rid of the influence of personalities. With group support rather than individual sponsorship, if someone who is taking a newcomer through the steps becomes unavailable for whatever reason, any other member of the group can (and should) pick up the ball and run with it.

The HIW group found that placing responsibility on an individual sponsor had the unintended outcome of de-emphasizing the newcomer’s dependence on a higher power. The group process, in contrast, removed the emphasis on “human power” and placed it directly on the willingness of the newcomer to seek a spiritual solution.

The move from individual sponsorship to group sponsorship was not without its own challenges. For example, in the early years, our clubroom may have unintentionally put undue pressure on members to support the alcoholics’ personal lives. Members felt pressured to help newcomers by paying for babysitting costs, running businesses, fixing relationships, taking on responsibility for transportation to and from work, etc. All of these things and more became distractions and moved us away from our primary purpose – “to carry [the] message to the alcoholic who still suffers” (Tradition Five, A.A., p. 562). In spite of our best intentions, we were taking care of their personal needs instead of dealing with their alcoholism. Almost inevitably, the members of the group, particularly those with many years of sobriety, were left discontent. Now, having learned the lessons of the past and operating under the guidance of group sponsorship, members pay attention to the personal needs of the individual alcoholic, but they do so fully aware of the warning contained in the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous: “The minute we put our work on a service plane, the alcoholic commences to rely upon our assistance rather than upon God….Some of us have taken very hard knocks to learn this truth:…We simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on God” (A.A., p. 98)

The solution to these early challenges was to allow individual personalities to take a back seat. As stated in the long form of the Twelfth Tradition of AA, “we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility” (A.A., p. 566). By replacing individual sponsorship with group support, the new person was allowed to make mistakes without it reflecting on a specific “sponsor.” The new person could better hear from all of those with many years of experience and, in the process, gain from the collective wisdom of the entire group. Supporting the clubroom by helping others, attending meetings, and putting money in the basket became as much a part of the newcomer’s sobriety as “doing the reading” and “taking the steps.”

As part of the process of encouraging group support rather than individual sponsorship, the HIW group invites newcomers to “take” (i.e., chair) as many meetings as possible. This helps them to become active and supportive members of the group. It also reminds others to share their experience, strength, and hope in a manner to which the newcomer can relate and to use language that the newcomer can understand.

No Dues or Fees, but We Do Pass the Basket – We are Self-supporting through Our Own Contributions

The How It Works group takes seriously A.A.’s Seventh Tradition. As expressed in the long form, “The A.A. groups themselves ought to be fully supported by the voluntary contributions of their own members.” We agree “that acceptance of large gifts from any source, or of contributions carrying any obligation whatever, is unwise. Then, too, we view with much concern [any tendency for the group’s treasury] which continues, beyond prudent reserves, to accumulate funds for no stated A.A. purpose.” Why we take this tradition so seriously is, perhaps, best explained in the words of one of our founding members.

“The How It Works group in Palm Springs was started on October 10, 1991, with a Group Conscience meeting where everyone including myself had a chance to vote on everything. I couldn’t believe how smooth the process went that night. Would we have smoking or non-smoking meetings, what time would we hold the meetings, etc? Then the big question was asked, ‘But now we need someone to put up the money so we can get this whole thing going.’ My mother had just passed away and had left me a little money. So with no premeditated thought I earnestly raised my hand and offered to finance the group’s initial expenses. The group was desperately in need of the funds, and my offer was accepted. The group conscience voted that the amount borrowed would be re-paid on a monthly payment system.” The funds were, indeed, repaid, but that was not to be the last of the experiences that would form the group conscience in this matter. Our friend continues her story:

“Years later we were renting a club room. Two of our new members robbed an office which was two rooms down from our clubroom. It didn’t take the landlord long to place the blame. He immediately accused us and we were evicted. With no prudent reserve, certain members scrambled to put it all together so we could move to a member’s private home until the group could rent another location. We were obviously handicapped by this arrangement. In particular, a new person would not know where to find us on their own.”

Out of these experiences the How It Works group learned that it wanted the group as a whole to be more responsible. It was clear that A.A.’s central office was not going to pay the group’s light bill if it was a little short in any given month. It also learned that it didn’t want to share its meeting room with any other business, entity, church group, or even another A.A. group. Too often such arrangements meant that the group didn’t have control over meeting times, how the room was set up and furnished, whether the building would be available on holiday weekends, etc. We do not want anyone to be able to arbitrarily dictate when we can have meetings. Moreover, it had become obvious that it would not suffice to merely collect enough money to meet daily and monthly expenses. Building a prudent reserve was necessary. Only in that way could the group take the pressure off any one individual and avoid, finally, the need to turn to such individuals for short term loans or “donations.”

To be truly self-supporting is to have a prudent reserve. A savings account of at least two to three times the group’s monthly expenses “just in case” is called for. A prudent reserve allows the group security, independence, and freedom. The treasurer reports the balance in the prudent reserve account each month at the group conscience meeting. The prudent reserve balance is kept in a separate account, separate from the checking account used to meet normal monthly expenses.

Many of the practices and principles of the How It Works group are indirectly guided by the desire to be self-governing and self-supporting through our own contributions. As one of our members expressed it, “learning to take responsibility to support the clubroom through attendance, participation, and financially supporting it by putting money in the basket is important for spiritual growth.”

Meeting Discussion and Sharing is Done by Going Once Around the Room

Each day someone, preferably a newcomer, is invited to “take the meeting.” This temporary chairperson hands out the designated readings to others who will participate in the meeting formalities. The chairperson begins the meeting by calling the group to order with a moment of silence and initiating the Third Step prayer. The HIW Preamble and a selection from Alcoholics Anonymous, Chapter 5, How It Works is read by the members who were selected prior to the start of the meeting. The day’s leader then reads the group announcements. It is suggested that the leader makes no side comments and adds nothing more to the announcements other than what is on the format sheet. More specifically, the chairperson does not put a spotlight on people who may be returning from a relapse nor are such people expected to identify themselves beyond picking up a 24-hour sobriety chip if they choose to do so. The only exceptions to the “add nothing to the written format” suggestion are reminding the members of special holiday or candlelight meetings or similar schedule changes and acknowledging individual completions of Fifth Steps or A.A. six-month and yearly birthdays. At regular meetings, the leader then reads the excerpt from the HIW Daily Reading Book appropriate for the date and time of the meeting. The excerpt is then re-read a second time. At weekly traditions meetings (held once a week on Thursday evening), members read along as an audio rendition of a traditions chapter from the Twelve and Twelve is played. At both the regular and traditions meetings, the person “taking the meeting” begins the sharing portion of the meeting by introducing himself (e.g., “I’m John; I’m an Alcoholic) and commences his sharing.

The meeting leader then “passes” to another person. The sharing then continues to move in an orderly direction from person to person around the room. Each member introduces himself and then is free to “share” or to “pass” as their turn arrives. This means that every member has a reasonably equal opportunity to share. By moving around the room in an orderly fashion, the process prevents any one individual from sharing more than once. The ability of any one individual to dominate the meeting is substantially reduced. The tendency of some members to want to react to or comment upon the sharing of others is also minimized.

Experience has shown that most members are respectful of each other’s time. Even though there are no explicit restrictions on the maximum allotted time for individual sharing, most members are careful not monopolize the period of sharing.

When individual members of the HIW group share, it is important for other members to listen to the message. Emphasis should be upon the message and the experience, strength, and hope being delivered, not upon the person bearing the message. For this reason, and in light of Tradition Twelve’s reminder to place “principles before personalities,” we do not clap or applaud after each speaker shares. This keeps one member from getting more applause than another member, thereby avoiding the impression that any one member or what they say is any more important than another. Moreover, clapping takes time away from the meeting and restricts the ability of every member to share. It is, however, commonplace at the beginning of the meeting for members of the group to join in clapping and applause to acknowledge the completion of an individual’s Fifth Step, a member’s A.A. 6-month or yearly “birthday,” and the picking up of chips in recognition of 24-hours, 30-, 60-, or 90-days of continuous sobriety. Clapping is also heard at Cake Night.

The regular twice-daily meetings start promptly at the designated time and the regular meetings end in precisely one hour. Occasionally the allotted time for sharing elapses before everyone has had a chance to speak. In that instance, the leader announces that time has expired and invites all those who have not had a chance to share to “identify” themselves. This keeps members from imposing on other member’s time by talking beyond the allotted hour. Sometimes everyone has had an opportunity to share in his or her turn before a full hour has elapsed. Even if the allotted hour has not expired, the regular meeting is ended. The fact that time remains does not get turned into an opportunity for second-dipping and/or cross-talking, clarification, or amending earlier remarks. The fact that the regular meetings are closed at the end of the hour or after each person has had the opportunity to share is another example of the Twelfth Tradition of placing “principles before personalities.” An exception to meeting duration applies to Big Book Study Meetings. Because the time required to read along with the audio rendition of each chapter varies considerably, the Big Book Study Meeting ends when all have had a chance to share. Thus, unlike regular meetings, the Big Book Study Meetings may last longer than one hour.

At the end of the meeting the leader passes the contribution basket in accordance with A.A.’s Seventh Tradition. The meeting is officially closed when the leader invites the members to join him or her in the Seventh Step prayer.

Children, Animals, Cell Phones, And Other Distractions/Disruptions Are Inappropriate At Meetings

The How It Works group wants common sense, common decency, and respect for others to guide the conduct of its meetings. We neither lay down laws nor set any rules, recognizing that we are all here for the purpose of seeking an answer to our common problem. We can count on most members to pay attention, or at least remain respectfully quiet, as the meeting progresses because they want to hear and learn from the experiences and insights being shared by others.

It is in the spirit of mutual respect that members are asked to turn off their cell phones and are encouraged not to bring non-alcoholic children or pets to the meeting. The rationale for the suggestion that pets be left at home and that cell phones be turned off or set to silent mode is obvious. This avoids the distraction inevitably caused to them and other members in attendance. The rationale as it applies to children requires additional explanation.

Many of our members are parents of young children. We all recognize the demands on one’s time that comes with parental responsibilities. These demands and responsibilities, however, shouldn’t prevent the parents from seeking help to recover from alcoholism. Thus, at one time, mothers and fathers brought their children to the How It Works meetings. Inevitably, however, both the parent(s) and the group as a whole suffered because of disruptions and distractions. Some disruptions were to be expected – the result of the ill-conceived notion that children would always be on their best behavior and/or that they could sit quietly for an hour at a time. Setting aside a separate room for the children provided little or no relief from such problems. Either the children or the parents were moving back and forth between the meeting room and the children’s room.

Other problems were more subtle, including the fact that some members and newcomers were reluctant to speak freely about their alcoholism and experiences in front of the children. One member, for example, had been sent to A.A. by a judge. After a short time he refused to go to How It Works meetings because of the children. As he put it, “I may have been sentenced to A.A., but I wasn’t sentenced to nursery school.” Another member involved in a child abuse situation, had been ordered by the court to stay away from children and, through no fault of his own, found himself in an untenable situation.

Initially, members with long-term sobriety recognized the problem and spoke to the parents privately. Although some of the parents were responsive and found ways to attend the meetings without bringing their children, others were not able or willing to find alternatives. As a consequence, the problem continued and ultimately became the subject of open discussion in the meetings. The controversy blossomed into a full-scale debate. The group was divided on the issue and unity faded away. The net result was that rather than presenting newcomers with a unified message and solution to their alcoholism, the “answer” was being lost in contentious controversy.

There was also evidence that the group was suffering financially as many members became discouraged. They felt they could no longer support a clubroom that was characterized by in-fighting among its members rather than presenting a unified answer to the newcomer.

A group conscience meeting was held, with the primary discussion focused on the issue of children attending meetings. After several hours of long discussion, it became apparent that the group wanted to restrict or limit attendance by children. However, the group conscience was equally clear than no rule could be made that would strictly prevent attendance or would bar anyone from attending the meetings. The group conscience that emerged suggested that individual members either had to sacrifice their ideas of right and wrong for the benefit of the group, or both the individual and the group would suffer spiritually.

One member who was at the center of the controversy became unusually agitated and for that reason, perhaps, had the obsession to drink return. Having struggled with the obsession for several months, this individual came to see the selfishness in continuing a personal crusade. She came to recognize that anyone who sought help for their drinking problem, even those who, for whatever reason, are not allowed around children, should be welcome to attend the How It Works group meetings. In a spirit of reconciliation, the member returned and became reconciled to the suggestion that children not be brought to meetings.

Once children were no longer attending meetings, some interesting things began to occur. Members, who had remained “above the fray” and considered the issue of little importance, began to express gratitude for the absence of the minor disruptions. Virtually everyone acknowledged how much freer members seemed to be in discussing their problems. As a result, the general consensus was that with fewer distractions, newcomers walking through the front door would have a better chance of “hearing the message” and, therefore, have a better chance of remaining sober.

Two Meetings a Day

In order to make the HIW group approach to sobriety available in the most effective manner possible, it is suggested, especially for the newcomer, meetings are held twice a day. Early morning meetings on scheduled Monday through Friday (e.g., at 7:00 a.m. in Palm Springs, CA). Evening meetings are scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Morning meetings on Saturday, Sunday, and major holidays are scheduled at 9:30 a.m.

Twice a day meetings were voted in at the first Palm Springs HIW group meeting – a group conscience meeting – held on October 10, 1991. Although there have been abortive attempts to include noon and late evening meetings and recurrent suggestions to make other minor time changes over the years, experience has shown that more members are accommodated with the original schedule.

The twice-a-day schedule also reflects the experience of the group conscience with respect to the need for discipline and sacrifice to improve the effectiveness of the AA program. As discussed on pages 85 and 88 and of Alcoholics Anonymous, “we alcoholics are undisciplined.” The HIW group found that making the commitment to attend twice-a-day meetings whenever possible allows “God [to] discipline us in the simple way” required to obtain “a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” It is not unusual to hear HIW group members say to a newcomer that “if you are willing to sacrifice other demands on your time and to make attendance at two meetings a day your top priority, we [all but] guarantee that the HIW program will help you recover from alcoholism.”

Of course, not everyone attends two meetings a day. A substantial majority of the members of HIW attempt to do so whenever possible. Others find that due to work, family, or other commitments, regular twice-a-day attendance is impossible (or, at a minimum, is not conducive to a meaningful recovery). Those that can’t or simply choose not to attend two meetings a day are still very much welcomed into the group and its activities. Indeed, because some members felt they were being pressured to attend two meetings a day, the group brought up the topic in an early group conscience meeting. The group voted to insert a specific reference to attendance into the last paragraph of the How It Works’ Preamble (in use prior to September, 2004). “None of us makes a sole vocation of this work, nor do we think its effectiveness would be increased if we did.… All of us spend much of our spare time in the sort of effort, which we are going to describe. A few are fortunate enough to be so situated that they can give nearly all of their time to the work.” Although that specific reference was not included in the new Preamble adopted on September 30, 2004, it retains its importance to the group and may be found in Alcoholics Anonymous on p. 19, Chapter 2 – There is a Solution. The new HIW Preamble continued the emphasis on sacrifice and discipline as indispensable, albeit voluntary elements of the recovery process. Using words taken from p. 25 of Alcoholics Anonymous, the new Preamble states: “If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution…. [We had to] accept spiritual help. This we did because we honestly wanted to, and were willing to make the effort.”

Group Conscience Meetings

The How It Works groups began in December, 1990, in Vancouver as a result of a group conscience meeting. Using the same format, the Palm Springs group was started on October 10, 1991. At the initial meeting of each of these HIW groups, a vote was taken to determine the name of the group, how many meetings would be held each day, the meeting times, the meeting format, the rotating committee members, and voluntary service positions. Those internal processes, principles, and practices of the HIW group have evolved over time, but all changes have been voted upon at formal group conscience meetings.

Prior to its formal creation, most of the founding members of the HIW group had been attending a series of Big Book study meetings, which included the use of audio tapes and “step sheets.” The study meetings had been initiated in 1988 by a member from Canada. His story is critical to understanding the importance placed on group conscience meetings by the How It Works group.

Like many alcoholics, his rather casual initial choice of which A.A. meetings to attend was made upon a recommendation from a friend. In this case, a friend of his mother suggested the St. Vital Group in Winnipeg, Canada. There, our friend met a man who had gone blind two weeks after he sobered up. From this humble man he learned much about the A.A. program. But he also learned that his blind friend was only capable of teaching what he knew. And what he knew was based on his own limited experience. Our friend also found that even though hopeless alcoholics seeking help were streaming in the front door of the St. Vital group, just as many were pouring out the back door. For a variety of reasons, the group didn’t offer a program of action that held their attention long enough to help them find the A.A. solution to their problem of alcoholism. His experience led him to seek alternatives to the approach taken by the St. Vital Group.

In 1979, he was involved in a group conscience process that resulted in the creation of The First Step Group of Winnipeg, Canada. His experience there helped lead the Palm Springs members to create the How It Works group by holding their own group conscience meeting. As explained above, those early members took a vote on everything that went into the formation of the group. They also voted in a process that required that any changes, no matter how simple, needed to be voted upon in subsequent and regularly scheduled group conscience meetings. The intent of the group conscience process, then and now, was to emphasize the unity of the group. The group conscience process allows all of the members working together to accomplish what they could not do alone. It also expands the usefulness of the group and its members to newcomers.

A group conscience meeting is held once a month in the group clubroom or regular meeting place. For example, since its inception the Palm Springs How It Works group has scheduled the meeting on the last Thursday evening of the month. It is held in place of the “traditions” meeting that would otherwise take place. The meeting is held during regularly scheduled hours to avoid the possibility that a small group of people could “call a meeting” to be held during unusual hours or at a secret meeting place. The objective, obviously, is to insure that everyone is given the opportunity to become an equal member of the larger group.

Items to be discussed at the group conscience meeting are written on a board in the clubroom. Virtually anything can, and has, become the topic of discussion. Examples include extremely critical issues such as which, if any, prayers are to be used to open and close regular meetings, whether to allow children and pets to attend meetings, changes in meeting times, changes in step sheets, and annual and semi-annual elections of rotating committee members. Other examples involve such matters as window coverings in the clubroom and the placement of furniture at meetings. A review of early group conscience minutes reveals such seemingly trivial items as payment of $0.25 for a “donated” can opener, whether to encourage members to bring their own mugs to reduce the use of purchased Styrofoam cups, and whether or not to hang “donated” mirrors in the bathroom or a clock in the clubroom. As these examples illustrate, not every issue taken up at the group conscience meeting is earthshaking. But as many members will attest, the decision taken on August 27, 1992 to provide real (liquid) cream for coffee drinkers, proved to be immensely important with respect to making the clubroom attractive to both long-time members and newcomers. Thus we see that every suggested change is important enough to be given group consideration. This assures us the ability to hear the voice of the group conscience and enhances the unity of the group.

To repeat, the whole point of the group conscience process is to allow everyone to be an equal member of the group and not to have designated or self-appointed “decision-makers” run the show. The group conscience process also protects individual members from falling into the trap of living by “self-propulsion.” As explained on pp. 60-62 of Alcoholics Anonymous, the self-appointed “director” tends only to produce “confusion rather than harmony.” And the other “actors” are all likely to “retaliate.” The group conscience process, to the contrary, emphasizes the unity of the group as a whole. The following stories about the selection of the Cake Night song and the opening and closing prayers at the daily meetings illustrate both the power and unity implicit in the group conscience process.

The song, I Want to Fly, has been part of cake night since the beginning of the How It Works group, but how it came to be selected offers important insight into the strength of the emphasis on the group conscience. The history is paraphrased from the story told by a founding member. In the early 1980s, he had been a member of two different groups which used the song Why Me, Lord? for Cake Night. The song had Christian overtones to it but most members seemed to like it. Overtime, however, the membership of one of the groups, the First Step Group, became more diverse, including some of the Jewish faith. The references to Jesus Christ in the song began to raise some controversy but there was no consensus to jettison it for another. Indeed, in 1982-83 the rotating committee of the First Step Group decided to substitute the song Amazing Grace at a specific cake night without benefit of a group conscience meeting or even letting the group know in advance. That didn’t go over very well with most members and one person specifically complained that she “had waited a year to hear the song ‘Why Me, Lord?’, only to be disappointed when they played something else.”

At the next group conscience meeting the issue was brought to a head and the song “Why Me, Lord?” was reselected by the group over the clear preference of the rotating committee. The entire membership of the rotating committee, acting like the bleeding deacons described on pp. 132-135 of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, quit and started their own group. It is not clear what happened to that group, but the First Step Group continued without missing a beat.

In 1988, the controversy came up again. It was at the point where the membership of the group was so large and diverse that a lot of people were being affected by it. A member of the group had written the song, “I Want to Fly.” A group conscience meeting of the First Step group decided to try it out along with some others by well known artists. After the smoke cleared “I Want to Fly” was selected by the group conscience as the new Cake Night song of the First Step Group. It was subsequently selected and affirmed as the Cake Night song at the first group conscience meeting of the How It Works group on October 10, 1991.

Another example of the unity of the group and its desire to present a unified message taken from the Big Book,Alcoholics Anonymous, is the selection of the opening and closing prayers for each meeting. The following example also illustrates a group conscience procedure involving the temporary adoption of new ideas, with a typical time for experimentation of three months.

For over ten years, the HIW group used the Serenity Prayer to open up the meeting and the Lord’s Prayer to close the meeting. This practice seemed to work for most members. However, one day one of our fellow members asked where these prayers could be found in the Big Book. Of course, they weren’t there. Not surprisingly, a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion ensued. But, as usual, the matter became the topic of a group conscience meeting. Following a lively debate, and upon approval at a regularly scheduled group conscience meeting, the practice was altered. The group voted to experiment with a three month trial, using the Step Three prayer (A.A., p. 63) to open meetings and the Step Seven prayer (A.A., p. 76) to close them. Three months later, at the group conscience meeting which came at the end of the trial period, the experience with the prayers was discussed and once again put to a vote. The vote was unanimous and they were adopted for permanent use.

Third Step Prayer: “God, I offer myself to Thee–to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life. May I do Thy will always!”

Seventh Step Prayer: “My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen”

In actual practice, the group conscience process is straight forward. New issues or suggestions for change may be posted to the board by any member of the group prior to the rotating committee member business meeting. (Nothing can be added to the board after the business meeting – any additions after the business meeting will be left on the board for the next month’s group conscience meeting.) Individuals raising an issue or making a suggestion must identify themselves. Self-identification makes it possible for others to know who to contact if they want more information about the question or proposal. A suggestion may be removed from the board only by the person posting the message. For example, he or she may have received clarification or elaboration from another group member that leads to a retraction or reconsideration. Self-identification is also important because it is expected that he or she will make a formal motion at the group conscience meeting and be available to answer any questions that may arise during the group’s discussion. The individual may, however, designate a stand-in representative in the event of necessary absence from the scheduled group conscience meeting.

Some, but not necessarily all of the new suggestions and ideas posted on the board will be topics of discussion at the monthly rotating committee members’ business meeting. This meeting is attended by people who have been voted upon and are currently holding voluntary positions on various committees (e.g., Chairperson, Literature Rep., Treasurer, Supply Person; see Appendix III for a complete listing of committee assignments and duty list). In order to allow committee members to seek clarification or elaboration prior to the group conscience meeting, the rotating committee members’ business meeting is generally held two nights before the scheduled group conscience meeting. However, no binding action or vote takes place at the rotating committee members’ business meeting. Quite the contrary! The whole point is that every issue or suggestion for change will be voted on at the group conscience level. This practice emphasizes the HIW adherence to AA Tradition #2: “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” (AA, p. 562)

Although no specific rules are applied, general practice calls for each topic to be presented to the group in the form of a motion, followed by a second. The logic or intent of the proposal is explained by the person making the motion. Thereafter, an open discussion takes place and, following the discussion, each motion is voted on by the group. Each motion is voted upon by a show of hands – all for – all against. Although our experience is that most motions are decided by unanimous or near-unanimous approval or disapproval, the democratic principle of “majority rules” governs when necessary. The group conscience meeting continues until all suggested topics have been discussed and voted upon (or otherwise appropriately handled). The meeting is ended by a member’s motion to close followed by a second, and a vote on the motion. If time allows, the group then proceeds into a regular open discussion meeting guided by the appropriate daily reading, following the regular meeting format. Minutes of the group conscience meeting are posted on the bulletin board and remain posted until the next meeting.

Fifth Step – Seeing the Priest

In its discussion of the Fifth Step, the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, presents a blunt and forceful analysis of the typical alcoholic’s tendency to “present a stage character” to his fellows (p. 73). This tendency is often accompanied by a reluctance to tell “someone else all their life story” – that is, a reluctance to “admit to … another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” and a tendency to postpone getting on with the Fifth Step immediately after completion of our Fourth Step’s moral inventory.

The Big Book suggests that “we think well before we choose the person or persons with whom to take this intimate and confidential step” (p. 74). The suggestion is made to search “for a close-mouthed, understanding friend…. It is important that he be able to keep a confidence; that he fully understand and approve what we are driving at; that he will not try to change our plan. But we are admonished not to use this difficulty of finding the right person as a mere excuse to postpone. “When we decide who is to hear our story, we waste no time” (p. 75).

Some AA groups suggest individuals conduct their Fifth Step with a “sponsor” or some other member of AA. The members of the How It Works group, however, had many negative experiences with that approach. Consequently, the group conscience suggests newcomers complete the Fifth Step with an ordained priest or minister. The group found this to be the most effective way (1) to encourage the individual to be completely honest, (2) to waste no time after completion of the Fourth Step inventory, and (3) to ensure the confidentiality of the process. The clergyman is morally and, in most cases, legally bound to treat any information or “confessions” as private and privileged. Further, and as a practical matter, there is no fee or charge for the use of the priest or minister. It is up to the individual group to locate a clergy to receive the Fifth Step.

Here we relate just a few of the experiences that led to the group conscience decision.

One of the founding members completed the Fifth Step with a sponsor as was commonplace before the How It Works group conscience suggested using a clergyman. But this member simply could not bring herself to share three extremely sensitive things with her AA sponsor. She knew that unless the Fifth Step omitted nothing she would be unable to “build an arch through which to walk a free man.” Thus, she felt she was forced to “confess” the three omitted items to a non-AA member. The Fifth Step experience (described on page 75 of Alcoholics Anonymous) was compromised for this member. Only later when she was able to share a complete Fifth Step- “illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past” – with the group’s selected priest, did she fully experience the freedom promised to those whose step work to this point is solid.

Another member reflects on the often-heard suggestion that we be “hard on ourselves but easy on others.” As an alcoholic working in a treatment center, this person heard the Fifth Step confessions of many in-patients. She relates that over time the information shared with her made her “spiritually sick” and rendered her useless when it came to providing the understanding help the patients so much needed. As illustrated by the following story of another of our female members, many have shared this debilitating experience.

“A woman my age wanted to do her Fifth Step with me. I was advised by some of the more experienced members of the group that it might be best not to do so. Feeling I could handle whatever she would tell me, I nevertheless consented. During the lengthy two hours, she told me how she enjoyed having sex with young girls. Figuring we have all let the booze take us to strange sorts of places, I listened and, I thought, let it go.”

“Several weeks later she phoned me to set up a time where we could get together. She needed desperately to talk to someone. She mentioned that she had some business to take care of at the local high school and that might be a convenient place to meet. It was nearby, so I jumped in my car and headed over there. Upon reaching the driveway to the school I noticed my newcomer friend was standing there surrounded by three young high school girls. Immediately a wall of fury and resentment overwhelmed me. ‘How could she?’”

She relates the devastating lesson she learned from that experience. “From that moment on I became totally useless to this newcomer/acquaintance. I had lost the chance of being helpful. I understand today why we go to a priest. Perhaps if we don’t tell any other members our deep dark secrets, we will always feel free to enter the clubroom without someone knowing what harms we have done. To this day when I run into my lost friend I feel I spoiled her chance to obtain the same freedom that I have been freely given in the program. My head remembers something that it didn’t need to hear.”

Thus, the collective experience of the group teaches them that using a responsible person outside the group to “receive” newcomer’s Fifth Step admissions about the exact nature of their wrongs, frees all members in the group. No member can hold personal information over another, no one has to be uncomfortable knowing a fellow member knows information about them, and no member is incapacitated by information shared in confidence by another.

Cake Night

At each daily meeting, HIW offers “twenty-four hour chips” to newcomers. The group also offers 30, 60, and 90 day chips in recognition of those initial periods of continuous sobriety. This is a common practice among A.A. groups. The HIW group, however, designates a separate night, usually the last Friday or Saturday of the month, to give special recognition to those achieving extended periods of sobriety. By holding a separate “Cake Night” each month, special attention can be directed at the “sobriety celebrants” without detracting from the regular meeting and its focus upon the topic of the daily reading. As part of the announcements at each meeting, individuals with upcoming birthdays are encouraged to place their name in the birthday box.

One of our members explains her experience in this regard. “Early in my sobriety, I was attending a group where A.A. birthdays were celebrated during regular meeting times. On the occasion of their birthday, some people received a lot of attention, including praise, gifts, and cakes. I noticed that other people, also reaching important A.A. thresholds of sobriety, received little or no attention. Who was “favored” and who was not appeared to be strictly the result of choosing a particular sponsor or being a “popular” member of the group. It was distracting, particularly to a newcomer like me who wanted to avoid calling attention to myself. I like the fact that the How It Works group has decided to have a separate birthday night set aside. That way, it has become a time to celebrate “sobriety” within the group rather than putting the emphasis on individual personalities.”

One of the HIW committee members is the cake night representative. The cake night rep is allotted group funds to purchase sobriety chips, 1-year medallions, and the six-month cupcakes and yearly cakes. The reason for using group funds to purchase the chips, medallions, and cakes is (1) to allow each member of the group to feel that they are a part of the member’s sobriety and (2) to avoid having personalities and competition among members become involved in selecting bigger, better, different cakes based on artificial criteria.

On Cake Night, a member of the group with more than a year of sobriety is asked to “take” a speaker meeting. The speaker talks for about thirty minutes on his or her experience, strength, and hope in A.A. The context for the talk is what it was like, what happened and what it is like now. Those with 6-months, 1 year, or multiple years are presented with cakes on behalf of the group. Of particular note is the presentation of a “1-year medallion” inscribed with “HIW” and the individual’s sobriety date. The recipients choose whom they would like to present their cake. That person says a few words of congratulation upon presentation of the recipient who, in turn, shares a few, brief words, usually thanking specific individuals for special support or help and expressing gratitude for the solution found in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The meeting closes with the Cake Night Song, I Wanna Fly. The entire group, accompanied by an audio rendition over the loudspeaker, sings this song while joined in a circle. The words to the song are reprinted in the Appendix section on the Cake Night Format.