Everyone in traditional recovery programs knows that “the solution is spiritual.” But what specifically about the spiritual life makes it so effective at combating relapse when it comes to addiction?
This is a question that I explored a great deal in my early recovery. People in traditional recovery were always quick to tell me not to ask “why something worked” but instead to simply have blind faith and to follow directions.
This was not good enough for me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why recovery worked for people and exactly how it worked. I felt that in order to work my own recovery well I needed to have a strong understanding of the principles that led people to success. For example, if believing in a higher power could lead someone to sobriety then I wanted to know how and why that worked. It was not enough that people told me the direction and told me to follow through, I wanted to know exactly why and how it all worked. I guess I was just stubborn that way.
What I learned in asking these questions during my early recovery was that the spiritual forces that kept people sober were not as they first seemed to be on the surface. In other words, I found spirituality to be important to sobriety, but not necessarily in the way that it was being described in the recovery literature. Or at the very least it seemed to deviate from what the 12 steps were indicating to me.
One of the key differences for me was the emphasis on gratitude. I found gratitude to be one of the fundamental principles in recovery, and therefore it was massively important to success. I also found this to be fairly universal when I talked with other recovering alcoholics. Yet none of the 12 steps addressed the principle of gratitude directly, and I found that to be a glaring omission and a mistake. It is too important of a concept to miss out on.
In fact, I believe that gratitude is so powerful that it can keep you sober all by itself in some cases. Gratitude is “all you need” from a spiritual standpoint.
It is impossible to relapse if you are truly grateful in this moment
One thing that I thoroughly explored is what the state of mind was of people who had relapsed. These people would come back to AA meetings and describe their relapse experience so that other people could learn from it and benefit, hopefully avoiding the same mistakes.
What I noticed was a lack of gratitude. People who relapsed were definitely not grateful in the moment when they picked up a drink. In fact, they were usually experiencing the exact opposite of gratitude. They were angry at the world or at other people and they felt like they deserved something that they were not getting. This is the opposite of being happy with what you have right now, or being grateful.
Think about it: If you are truly grateful for the moment and everything that it contains (your existence), then you are not going to be as likely to become angry at this moment and self medicate as a result.
You have to be a little bit angry at the world to relapse. You have be in a state of mind where you say “oh, just screw everything.” This is the mentality of relapse.
Now think about your mentality when you are really, truly grateful. It is the exact opposite of this “I don’t care about anything” attitude. When you are grateful, you care deeply.
It is impossible to make a horrible decision and relapse when you are grateful like this. It simply won’t happen. You are too grateful for existence, you are too happy with the present moment. You are content, so why would you try to change the moment by self medicating? This is how gratitude keeps you sober. Because when you are grateful you are content.
Gratitude does not depend on certain circumstances
You may be thinking that you can be grateful just as soon as your circumstances turn around and life starts going your way for once.
This is not really how gratitude works though.
If you are waiting for good fortune to favor you so that you can be grateful, you have it all backwards.
Instead, what you must do is to create the attitude of gratitude first. Start being grateful right now, today, this very moment. Make it into a daily practice.
Then what you will notice is that your circumstances will start to slowly change to reflect this attitude of gratitude.
In new age terms they might call this “intention manifestation.” You can create your own reality just by changing your thoughts!
But this is not new age magic or some marketing gimmick. Gratitude really works and it absolutely will change your reality. And there is nothing magical about it. There are no quantum physics involved. We are not going to use gratitude to manifest a red sports car. That is not what this is about.
Instead, what every alcoholic and drug addict needs to do is to realize that gratitude is a fundamental part of their spirituality. If you lack gratitude but claim to be on a spiritual path then you are only kidding yourself. Gratitude is fundamental and massively important to your spiritual life.
You practice gratitude on a daily basis. As you do this, over time it starts to change your reality. Not through any sort of new age mysticism, but simply because you are now teaching yourself to focus on the positive, to notice the positive things, to turn the negative things into a lesson.
If nothing else, gratitude is powerful because it allows you to become grateful for the “bad things” that happen in your life. Because when you practice gratitude you turn even the negative events into a learning experience. “Well, at least I learned something from this.” So instead of focusing on the negative and feeling bad you turn it around and find the lesson in things, find the silver lining, and turn it into a positive. For example, you could be playing the victim rather than empowering yourself through the use of gratitude. It is all about your attitude.
When you practice this every day it is very powerful. When you practice this consistently it has the power to prevent relapse. Gratitude is power.
Gratitude is something that you practice and cultivate over time
Now the tricky thing is that most people believe that gratitude is just supposed to happen. They expect for life to get better for them first, and then they will allow themselves to finally feel grateful.
Again, this is backwards. You don’t wait for good fortune to strike before you become grateful. Instead, you practice gratitude now, at this very moment, and then good fortune will come to you. Or rather, you turn every moment into “good fortune,” because you are always looking for the positive and finding the lesson in things.
So this becomes a daily practice. And you should find a way to ask yourself every single day if you are being grateful or not. Are you finding the lesson in every event that creates adversity for you? Are you finding things to be grateful for every single day, even if you are not “happy?” These are the questions that can drive you to create a daily practice.
So now then: How do you practice gratitude every day when you may be down, upset, or feeling bad? How do you turn that around when you have no motivation to do so?
In other words: How do you create gratitude out of nothing? How do you create it out of thin air?
The answer is:
First of all you need to increase your awareness about the issue. So you need to focus on gratitude every single day.
You may need reminders to do this. You may put up a post it note on your bathroom mirror that says “what are you grateful for today?”
Or you may start a routine where every day during your lunch break you make a list of the 5 things that you are grateful for right now.
You might say “well, that will get boring after a few days. Won’t my list of 5 things be pretty much the same?”
Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. Maybe you will find new things to be grateful for each day. And maybe you will get better at finding those things when you force yourself to practice.
This is a practice. Gratitude is a skill. You can get better at it.
And in order to get better at it you have to make your brain do push ups. When you make a gratitude list every day, you are forcing your brain to do push ups. You are building the gratitude muscle.
This way, if you have built up your gratitude muscle, then six months down the road when there is a perfect storm and you may have otherwise relapsed, you may be strong enough to realize that you have too much to lose and too much to be grateful for in life. And therefore you will overcome that situation and avoid relapse because you will be strong enough to do so. You practiced gratitude enough by doing your daily push ups.
The most basic form of “gratitude exercise” is in simply making a gratitude list. If you can force yourself to practice this every day then your spiritual foundation will get much stronger.
When you are grateful you invite more of the “good stuff” into your life
Can a person choose to have a spiritual experience? Can they choose to believe in a higher power? Can they choose to experience a spiritual awakening?
I say that they can, but not in the traditional sense of falling to their knees and having a sudden revelation.
You can create a spiritual experience through a daily practice.
In other words, you can transform your life through simple actions. But these actions must be consistent.
One of these actions is abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Another one is the practice of gratitude. Another one is surrender. These are some of the fundamental principles of recovery.
When you practice gratitude every day you are inviting more of the “good stuff” into your life.
First of all, you begin to notice more of the “good stuff.” This is because you are constantly focusing on the positive. And even when things are so bad that you don’t really believe that there is anything positive at all in the situation, you force yourself to dig deeper and find the silver lining. This is “forced gratitude.” You are forcing yourself to find the positive side of every situation.
Second of all you are doing “gratitude push ups” every day by creating gratitude lists on a regular basis. This is practice. You are practicing gratitude. You are constantly asking yourself “what am I grateful for right now?” And even when there are seemingly no answers to that question, you force yourself to sit there and come up with 5 things (or fifty things, it doesn’t matter!). Again, notice that you are forcing yourself to practice gratitude. There will be moments when you are sitting there and not coming up with any reason to be grateful, but you will have this daily quota (“write down 5 things you are grateful for every day!”) and therefore you force yourself to find the gratitude.
So this is an important concept, that you are forcing yourself to discover the gratitude. It won’t necessarily come easily at first. This is why it is a practice. With forced practice it becomes easier over time.
So then finally these things become automatic. Suddenly it is six months later and you have been “forcing yourself” every day to practice gratitude. Now other people look at you and say “wow, you are full of gratitude even when it seems like the chips are down temporarily, how in the world do you do it?” And you will just smile and know that it was not easy, that you had to work for it, that you had to really practice and put in the hard work every day in order to get to this point. And you will be able to look back and see that you are happier now as a result and that the circumstances may not have really changed much in life, but that your attitude towards everything has simply changed. Now you are able to see the gift in everything. You are able to find the lessons and learn from every situation. And because of that your life really is different and it really does change your reality in a profound way.
One of the most counter-intuitive things about happiness in addiction recovery is this:
We don’t become happy by achieving our “happiness goal.” Instead, we become happy when we eliminate the negative things from our lives. This is counter intuitive.
So when we chase after happiness it remains elusive. But when we stop drinking, get into shape, improve our sleep habits, eliminate toxic relationships, and so on–our lives get better and better. We find real happiness and real contentment. We find peace.
Gratitude is a big part of this path. When we force ourselves to practice gratitude every day we start to slowly realize that we no longer have to chase after happiness. We realize that peace and contentment are much better goals to have in our life. But we cannot discover this unless we force ourselves to slow down and find the hidden lesson in things. We have to practice gratitude every day for a while to start to see the true benefits of it.
The only spiritual concept you truly need
There are other spiritual concepts that could certainly benefit you in recovery. For example, forgiveness. Or faith in a higher power. But it is really important to consider the concept of gratitude and learn how being grateful can actually lead to all of the other concepts.
For example, can you figure out how gratitude can lead naturally to forgiveness? Or how being grateful is related to faith and a belief in a higher power? When we are truly grateful for our existence, we are tapping into a massive store of spiritual power. And this power can most definitely have a positive impact on our lives.
Gratitude is fundamental to recovery. Without it we are opening the door to almost certain relapse. This is why we need to make gratitude a part of our daily practice.
Ask yourself: “What am I truly grateful for today, right now, in this very moment?”
If you cannot answer that question, then consider the idea that you can learn to be grateful, that you can cultivate gratitude through practice.
All you need to get started on this is willingness. If you can raise your awareness about being grateful then you are already halfway there. The other half is in doing the mental push ups, in making your brain sweat a little to figure out the various things that you are grateful for.
Everyone has reason to be grateful. Existence itself is cause for celebration. But we have to remind ourselves each and every day that the present moment is a huge gift. And if we forget about the miracle of this gift then it opens the door to relapse.
When we are grateful we open the door to learning new things. If we are not grateful then we close ourselves off to these new lessons in life. With the right attitude we can turn even the worst situation into a learning experience.
There was a time in my early recovery when I was “waiting for gratitude.” I was waiting for things to line up properly so that I could finally be grateful. But then over time I realized that this was not working. I was unhappy and I realized that if I kept this up I would never be truly grateful.
So I made a decision. I decided that I would flip things around, and I would fool myself for a while. I would simply be grateful, right now, even if I did not think there was reason to be happy! And so I started doing this every single day, and acting as if I were truly grateful. And I started forcing myself to do the mental push ups, to find things to be grateful for.
This transformed my life. Because the actions I was taking at the time started to producing amazing results. It was not new age magic, it was simply a healthy shift in attitude. I was empowering myself because I was no longer being negative while waiting for happiness to land in my lap. Instead I was deciding to be happy, and then finding reasons to justify that happiness. I was no longer “waiting for gratitude.” I was claiming it right now, this very moment, and then figuring out why it was so.
What about you, have you found gratitude to be such a powerful force in your own recovery? How do you practice gratitude on a daily basis? Do you need to make a greater effort to create more gratitude in your life? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!