Can a Person Choose to Have a Spiritual Experience?

Can a Person Choose to Have a Spiritual Experience?


For many of us in recovery, it has become clear that a spiritual experience (or awakening) has been the key to our continuing sobriety. Many addicts and alcoholics have struggled to stay clean and sober, only to one day have some form of spiritual awakening and finally enjoy lasting sobriety. My own experience mirrors this exactly, and my spiritual awakening was of the educational variety. Someone recently posed the idea to me that we can not choose to have a spiritual awakening, that it is instead a gift from above that is only bestowed on certain individuals. It occurred to me that I can see truth to both sides of this argument, and decided that it was definitely worth exploring further.

spiritual experience
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Did I Choose Recovery, Or Was I Chosen?

First, let’s consider the idea that I was Chosen.

1) I am Blessed with Recovery

There is no doubt about it: I am blessed to be in recovery today. I have also found this to be a very popular sentiment that others in recovery always seem to be expressing. Perhaps this is because we can look back at our destructive lifestyle with amazement that we made it through and can live sober today. I also feel this deep gratitude for recovery when I look around at the recovering community and see so many people struggling. Why should it be that I enjoy lasting sobriety when so many others are doomed to the endless misery of addiction? There is no doubt that I feel extremely lucky to be alive and sober today.

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2) My Moment of Surrender was Baffling

I can’t really explain what finally motivated me to surrender, so it seems like it was a blessing from above. Many addicts and alcoholics “hit bottom” with a jarring experience that has a real impact on their life. For example, some people might attempt to get sober after landing in jail with a drunk driving offense. Maybe someone else loses their job due to drug addiction. These are the kinds of wake up calls that we expect to convince people to try and change. But my personal moment of surrender wasn’t based on those types of consequences. I simply threw in the towel one day–there was no great event that pushed me over the edge or anything. This would also lead me to believe that I was “chosen” for sobriety.

3) Other Addicts With More Passion For Recovery Seem to Fail

All through my journey in recovery, I have been surrounded with other addicts and alcoholics in recovery. This is because I lived in long term treatment for 20 months, and basically built up a network of friends exclusively from the recovery community. It astounds me to see how very few people actually “make it,” and many of those who fail in recovery seemingly have more passion and dedication than I do. I frequently wonder how it could be that others try so hard at staying clean, and yet seem to fail, while I have managed to “stay the course.” Again, this seems to support the idea that I have been blessed, or chosen to receive the gift of recovery.

spiritual experience
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Now let’s consider the idea that I chose to have a spiritual experience.

1) Learning to Be Sober – Choosing to Actively Educate Yourself about Recovery

There were times in my addiction that I got clean and sober for very short periods of time. I actually went to treatment during two of these periods and “dried out.” Although I quickly returned to using drugs and alcohol, these short lived periods of sobriety and recovery “education” still required some initiative and participation on my part. Most of us have short periods of sobriety during our years of active addiction similar to this. We might even be introduced to recovery or twelve step meetings during those times. All of these experiences might lead us up to that moment of true surrender when we finally get clean and sober for good. Those who shun the idea of recovery and refuse to learn anything about staying clean will stay stuck in addiction. Those who choose to learn how to live sober will have a chance at “making it.” This idea represents a shift from being “chosen,” to the idea that someone can choose recovery when they are offered glimpses of it.

2) Initiative and Taking Suggestions to Pursue a Spiritual Experience

The idea around the tables of Alcoholics Anonymous is that a newcomer can effectively “fake it till they make it,” meaning that someone who lacks faith can start praying and meditating and worry about the belief part later. This requires a choice on the part of the newcomer. They have to take action in order to cultivate this willingness, but in doing so they can develop faith. Many have had this experience and followed this exact path in recovery, and my story is no exception. Just a small bit of willingness can pay huge dividends if you give it a chance. That mustard seed of faith is all that is needed to make a start, but I still had to make a decision to start down this path. In other words, I had to choose to develop spiritually.

3) Thousands of Small Decisions can Alter Your Personality

Is it possible to look back through your life and examine the series of decisions that you had to personally make in order to bring you to the point that you are at now? If you believe in free will, then we could argue that any series of choices that you made have brought you to your present state of being. I somehow transformed from a selfish and self-seeking drug addict into the person I am today: a recovering addict with a genuine interest in helping others. And I can see how certain decisions that I made along the way played a big role in this. I decided to go to long term treatment. I decided to start praying every day. I decided to start working with others in recovery in order to help them. If those decisions are mine alone, then it seems that the initiative was all mine as well.

spiritual experience
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It is also worth noting that, while in active addiction, I relied only on myself to make decisions. I was completely selfish in this regard, and thought that I was the only one qualified to make decisions about my own life. In recovery, I have become open to receiving guidance from others–family members, friends, my sponsor, and my higher power. Allowing others who care about me to influence my decisions has been an enlightening experience for me. I thought that I was the only one qualified to look out for my own life, but it turns out that a lot of other people helped me in getting my life back on track. Therefore, a big part of my recovery was relinquishing control of my decision making for a while. I made a decision to let other people help me with decisions. This was part of my surrender, the end of struggling. In my eyes, this moment of surrender was a blessing, not an internal decision that I reached by my own thinking.

The whole idea behind twelve step based recovery is to bring about a spiritual experience through the working of the twelve steps. It’s this transformation in personality that brings about lasting change and helps people to stay sober. If we didn’t think that we could elicit this spiritual awakening, would we really bother attempting to recover?

Most of us who have “made it” in recovery were so desperate in the beginning that we were willing to surrender our will completely and do whatever was asked of us in order to escape the insanity of addiction.

Open Mindedness and Willingness

These two concepts go hand in hand and point to the same idea. People need to be open and willing in order to make big changes in recovery. Working a twelve step program is about doing something different. In fact, it’s about changing our whole lives, our entire attitude.

Recovery literature talks a great deal about willingness. It also talks about how to cultivate willingness. The whole key is to just get your foot in the door a little bit and allow yourself to have a bit of hope. Letting down defensive walls even a little can lead to great changes in the end. Willingness towards spiritual concepts almost always breeds more willingness.

spiritual experience
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Take a look at the following passage by someone describing their own spiritual awakening. Notice that the passage supports both ideas–that we must strive personally for spiritual enlightenment, and at the same time this effort is futile and the awakening will happen on its own:

“Without effort you will never reach it, with effort nobody has ever reached it. You will need great effort, and only then there comes a moment when effort becomes futile. But it becomes futile only when you have come to the very peak of it, never before it. When you have come to the very pinnacle of your effort — all that you can do you have done — then suddenly there is no need to do anything any more. You drop the effort.

But nobody can drop it in the middle, it can be dropped only at the extreme end. So go to the extreme end if you want to drop it. Hence I go on insisting: make as much effort as you can, put your whole energy and total heart in it, so that one day you can see — now effort is not going to lead me anywhere. And that day it will not be you who will drop the effort, it drops on its own accord. And when it drops on its own accord, meditation happens.

Meditation is not a result of your efforts, meditation is a happening. When your efforts drop, suddenly meditation is there… the benediction of it, the blessedness of it, the glory of it. It is there like a presence… luminous, surrounding you and surrounding everything. It fills the whole earth and the whole sky.

That meditation cannot be created by human effort. Human effort is too limited. That blessedness is so infinite. You cannot manipulate it. It can happen only when you are in a tremendous surrender.” (source)

My final verdict on the question? I am blessed beyond measure. By all rights I should be dead. I was a hopeless drunk, completely miserable, and had wished myself dead many times. I continued to drink and abuse drugs with no care in the world for my personal well being, and had basically written myself off. Somehow I was lifted out of that mess, seemingly through no choice of my own. So my gut tells me that I am one of the lucky ones who is simply blessed to be alive and recovering.

On the other hand, if you are going to offer hope to the newcomer, and if you are going to carry a message of recovery to the world, then you had better error on the side of optimism, and tell addicts that they can choose recovery and make it work. How could it help to be negative and pessimistic when it comes to helping the newcomer? Therefore, I believe we should have faith, optimism, and hope–and spread the message that any addict can make a decision and find a path to true sobriety.

What do you think? Are we blessed from above, or can we initiate the spiritual experience on our own?


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