In our practice of recovery counseling, we acknowledge that we are all connected, connected not only to each other, but to a deep connection of the universal energy. We come from that energy from whence we come and to where we go. For us, this is the relationship we have with our spiritual self and our “Higher Power.”
Our understanding of our Higher Power is like an ant on the ass of an elephant. Each of us has our own view and interpretation. One sees it as a forest, another sees a desert, and, yet a third, a wheat field.
Yet understanding of our Higher Power, our connection to spirit, can be a powerful tool for personal growth and change. My conception of spirituality is pragmatic. Whatever works, use it.
Some speak of soul, spirit, the human spirit, a personality, a God, nature, love, the persistence of human hope in the face of pain and tragedy, the power of the group, the mystery of life, the miracle of recovery itself—all of these represent personal spiritual values and experiences of the “transcendent” that are powerful enough to bring about the “the personality changes sufficient to bring about recovery.”
Recovery spirituality is about sobriety, not piety, moral correctness, holiness, nor mysticism. It is firmly planted in reality and includes confrontation, tough love, work, rigorous honesty, and hearing the painful truth. Perhaps one of the hardest spiritual practices you will perform is sharing your whole truth to others, and thus to yourself, about your addiction. In the end, our sense of connection begets a sense of trust in yourself and an ability to face the challenges of letting go of your defenses, like denial, rationalization and selfishness, to become a better person and have a better life.
Progress doesn’t always feel like progress, and that can lead to discouragement. Attending Twelve Step meetings, finding a sponsor, reading addiction literature and getting phone numbers of others in the program can give you the encouragement and the lift you need to keep going. Also, be open to change, even if it sometimes means listening to people who irritate you. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you learn from them.
What I hope to do is share some insights that may help you arrive at your own understanding of spirituality, what it means to you, and how it can benefit your Twelve-Step recovery program.
Most emphatically, I wish to say that the alcoholic who is capable of honestly facing his problems in the light of others’ experience can recover, provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual concepts. He can only be defeated by an attitude of intolerance or belligerent denial. He finds that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty, and open-mindedness are the essentials for recovery. These are indispensable.
“There is a principle which is bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
~ Herbert Spencer
In the beginning of its inception, AA formed a close connection with a Protestant Christian movement called the Oxford Group. Therefore, AA has underpinnings that are predominately Judeo-Christian. But what if you don’t fit this mold? For example, what if you are a black lesbian or Jewish man or a Philippine Catholic? Well, before you hit the AA fundamentalist over the head with the Big Book, suspend your judgments long enough to make a rational decision about what works.
Making the Twelve Steps Your Steps
Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to affect contact with Him. “To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive, never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men.” Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.
If you are having problems with the concept, write down your pros and cons. Remember the disease of addiction thrives on subtle twists in your thinking. As you do your homework, keep questioning others in the program about how they use the Steps, their sponsors, slogans, meetings, phone calls, and other recovery tools.
What is Spirituality?
Organized religion generally depends on a group of people reaching agreement on core beliefs about God, divine revelation, doctrine, and mortality. Those who join a particular religion agree to make these core beliefs their own and organize their lives by these principles. The doctrines are objective that is impersonal. Having an important personal spiritual experience that validates or intensifies the religious beliefs is ideal, but not necessary. On the other hand, spirituality is highly personal, and subjective. People can continue to participate in a religious group without fully embracing all the doctrines of the church. Twelve-Step spirituality does not require members to adhere to a specific set of teachings about the nature of God or living a spiritual life, although it allows for those who need to do so. Instead, it nurtures and validates personal spiritual experience in light of the addiction and the individual’s vital need for recovery.
Many religious people use AA because it does not insist on a particular doctrine and can be blended with their accepted religious beliefs. On the other hand, spirituality is more subjective that is, more individually defined. For many, this highly personal experience and interpretation of life and its meaning has validity on its own and need not be accepted by others or fit into any particular system of beliefs. What is important is the inner sense of stillness and peace as a personal yardstick. “To thine own self be true.”
Addiction is the common bond. We are like passengers on a great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to captain’s table.
Despite our differences, we are all addicts. So while all this talk of spirituality may be excess luxury for those “normal” people who pursue personal growth for other reasons, we addicts are strapped with a built in enemy that demands we take some spiritual action or die…literally!
Recovery spirituality focuses on the need for sobriety and on personal experience rather than impersonal doctrines. Attempting to jump into a comfortable personal spirituality without first clearly identifying the specifics of your addiction is falling for the typical addictive desire for a quick fix. Recovery spirituality begins by confronting these realities through the first three steps of your Twelve-Step program. The foundation of any spiritual recovery program is this painstaking and painful look at the personal wreckage your addiction has caused. Beware of the delusion that simply reading about spirituality recovery is enough to bring about health and continuous sobriety. We must continually break through the denial and rationalization. We must confront the reality of our personal chemical-use history and its consequences…the painful truth.
It is such a painful picture. In fact, we set up automatic defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from it. Our addiction uses these defenses to keep us in the dark about reality and minimize our problems.
In recovery, confrontation that is caring and loving, yet at the same time direct and forceful, is often necessary to break through the layers of denial we have built up over the many years. The truth can only make you free if you actually hear it. It is also important to get in touch with all the feelings you are likely to have as you dig into the hard truths about yourself. Spiritual allies are those who will give it to you straight. You don’t have to invite abuse from others to get sober, and if someone is shaming and accusing when telling you the truth, find someone else.
Denial is not the same as deceit. It is, nevertheless, a distortion of reality and therefore untrue. It is a lie, usually to us about ourselves. Denial is self-destructive and requires a spiritual antidote…the truth.
No one among us has been able to maintain anything close to perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection. Beware of those who appear to be more “sober” than the founders of the program. Beware of those who confront us at a low moment and suggest you “shouldn’t feel that way.” Beware of those who seem to know all the “correct” recovery language or who never seem to have a bad day or whose only response to life’s sober reality appears to be gratitude. Yes there are hypocrites in the program. They look good.
Many people mouth the slogans but are unable to delve into the depths of despair and pain that is addiction. “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living that demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. The spirituality of recovery is a manner of living, not just a way of thinking, praying or talking.” What we say is not what we believe. What we do is what we believe.
The pain of exposing our own hypocrisy, of not being a saint, comes from admitting our real feelings and misgivings, and that includes misgivings about our sobriety. Delusions can be attractive and articulate, but recovery spirituality is a dedication to reality. While prayer and meditation are important, spirituality is primarily a program of action.
Facing the Challenge
“Chemical dependency is cunning, baffling and powerful”—Big Book. Rather than face the pain and begin the action needed for recovery, many dedicate themselves to presenting the appearance of working a good program. If you are not challenging your own motives—and not allowing others to challenge them—you may find that your disease has tricked you and that you’re back to sweeping painful chunks of truth under the carpet again. You may say “keep it simple” when you really mean “ keep it easy” or “easy does it,” or you say “just forget it” and “turn it over” when you actually mean, “pretend it isn’t so.”
Reality-based spirituality demands the truth—the truth about how you really feel, what you really did, what you’re really thinking, and who you really are.
Working your way through the Twelve Steps is a spiritual journey, one that takes great courage. Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
More Horizontal than Vertical
The Twelve Steps are non-denominational. They can be used both for sobriety and for personal growth, satisfaction, and fulfillment.
Many religions express a belief in a God outside of human nature or experience—a Supreme Being. This Being is called upon through prayer, meditation and ritual. Responses are received through sacred texts, clergy, mediums, or private interpretation. Some religions also include demands on behaviors and lifestyle. This leads to the development of morality, that is, what is officially right and wrong in a given religion.
This kind of relationship with a God or Supreme Being is vertical in its focus. The ultimate reason for a religious practice is to sustain this relationship—to please the God or receive a particular favor or blessing. This Supreme Being is the focal point of meaning in a religious person’s life.
The miracle of the Twelve-Step approach is that we recover together. It is much more of a horizontal democratic process. I allow a sponsor, counselor or friend in recovery to have power over helping me return to sanity and I allow other people to be used as instruments by whatever Higher Power I believe in. We can use the power of the group as a legitimate spiritual approach.
Most spiritual experiences in recovery are gradual and unglamorous. The challenge is: how will the spiritual practice of this program help to keep you sober under all circumstances? It will if it is grounded in daily reality, talking with sponsors and others in the program, owning and sharing difficult and painful feelings, and attending meetings, especially when it’s the last thing you want to do. The paradigm shift is a gradual process that may start out with a bang.
Become a Poet
Poetic expression takes ordinary words and expression and turns them into something sublime… rich images that communicate not only information, but also move the spirit. Daily life is transformed by the spiritual life in recovery into an exciting journey. We find beauty and richness in the process. Wonder and awe are traditionally associated with spirituality. These qualities characterize the spiritual view of life—the most common daily events take on new meaning and can be filled with a spiritual radiance.
Why do all this?
Developing a spirituality grounded in reality is very hard work. In fact, a part of our addiction, itself, seems geared towards the avoidance of what Scott Peck calls “legitimate suffering.” Remember, things don’t get instantly wonderful just because you got sober, but they do keep getting better if you’re willing to hang in there and work with them. Healthy recovery and healthy spirituality aim for balance. It is a combination of making it happen and letting it happen; do your part and then let go.
1. Do some therapy work
2. Develop a daily ritual or meditation style to express your personal beliefs
3. Return to the church of your childhood, or find another established religious expression
4. Find a spiritual mentor or coach
5. Attend spiritual retreats
6. Find a particular cultural expression of spirituality that suits you
Hazelden Foundation, 1993
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