What does spirituality mean? What does it mean to be spiritual?
If you ask this question of a hundred different people, you will get 100 different answers.
Because what happens is that every single person has their own interpretation of what it means to “be spiritual.”
Every time you ask someone this question, they have to reach back into their memory banks and decide what it really means to be spiritual. What is spirituality to them? What does it mean to be spiritual based on their own experience?
Some people were exposed to religious concepts while they were growing up. Others were not. These past experiences can influence what the word “spiritual” means to you.
The word “spirituality” has lost much of its meaning through overuse and misuse
If you go to plenty of AA meetings then you will certainly hear people talk about spirituality. After all, in the world of AA and 12 step recovery, “spirituality is the solution.”
In the strictest sense of the term, spirituality just refers to “belief in a spirit.” The program of AA hinges on belief in a higher power, as this is what the 12 steps are based on. You have to develop faith of some sort if you want to work through the 12 steps.
Don’t get me wrong here–it is possible to go to AA meetings every day, hang on to your sobriety, and never develop any faith in a higher power at all. But that is not working the program as it was designed. The 12 steps specifically call for a spiritual experience. They are designed to get the person to “live a spiritual life.”
If you go to meetings and you are involved in mainstream addiction recovery then you will probably hear someone say things like “I need to be more spiritual” or “I need to work on my spirituality.” We hear such things and we assign it meaning based on our own filter, on our own interpretation of the word “spiritual.”
But in order to be successful in sobriety we need to get a bit more specific. In my experience, it is not enough to just be vague about “being more spiritual” in recovery. We need to get crystal clear on what positive actions we want to take and what we need to do in order to remain sober. “Being more spiritual” has become somewhat vague and is pretty much useless to us.
Defining the concept so that it works for you demands experimentation and testing
When I was in my first few years of sobriety I was experimenting a great deal with spirituality. What I was trying to do is to define spirituality as it pertained to my own recovery program so that I could figure out how to stay clean and sober in the long run.
I did this through experimentation and testing.
Other people told me what they believed “spirituality” to consist of, and I experimented with these ideas and tested them.
I also did my own research, which mostly consisted of reading books about spirituality and exploring various recovery programs online. I was interested in finding people who were successfully recovering from addiction so that I could learn their secrets.
What was driving this experimentation was a lack of faith in the traditional program. I was living in a long term rehab for the first 20 months of my sobriety, and quite frankly, I was terrified that I would not remain sober. Many of my peers relapsed. The AA meetings that I attended locally were filled with relapse as well. I was not convinced that I should just blindly accept the 12 step program as my solution and build this sort of generic brand of spirituality into my life that everyone seemed to be clinging to in AA. This was not what I wanted. And I did not see stellar results from it anyway. So I started to look elsewhere.
One of my peers in early recovery was someone who I considered to be “very spiritual.” I was making this judgement based on my own filter of course, but my peers also believed this to be true. They all observed that this particular person was “more spiritual” than the rest of us. So I looked up to this person and I tried to learn all that I could from him. And I was taking ideas from him and suggestions from him and trying to apply them to my own life. It was a form of admiration, almost worship. I had put this person on a pedestal in my mind because they were so spiritual, and I believed this to be the ideal and something that I should strive for. As in, “if I were that spiritual then I would never have to worry about relapse.”
Well, you can guess what happened probably. This person that I looked up to as being so spiritual ended up relapsing. And this was quite a shock to me at the time, I had maybe a year of sobriety or even a bit less at that time. And this just totally rocked my foundation of recovery. It rocked my belief system. Because up until this point I was sort of following the herd, believing that I needed to cling to AA, cling to traditional recovery, and cling to the sort of vague and generic idea that I had of what spirituality really meant.
So that path was disrupted in a big way. My close friend and peer that I believed to be the golden standard of spirituality had relapsed. He did not have what I wanted. His example was worthless to me, or rather, he had shown me what NOT to do. But I no longer looked up to his “brand” of spirituality as being part of the solution. Clearly it was not the solution that I wanted.
And so I started to venture outside of this little generic vision of what “spirituality in AA should be like.” Keep in mind that this generic little version of spirituality is simply my own interpretation, as it came through my own filters. We each have to find our own flavor of spirituality that works for us. And maybe yours will be found in mainstream AA meetings. Or not. It is up to each of us to experiment and find what works best for our sobriety.
And that is what I started doing after my friend relapsed. His relapse rocked my world and so I had to examine my own belief system. I had to get real with myself. I had to say “wait a minute, why am I just clinging to these ideas about spirituality that others are suggesting, rather than finding out the truth for my own self?” So I had to get real. I had to take a big step back and ask myself: “What really helps ME to stay sober?” Not just what all of these other people are suggesting that I do for recovery, but what actually works for me and helps me?
Be open to figuring out your own brand of spirituality in the long run
I had to get open minded all over again.
When I first got sober, I had to be open minded enough to go into treatment and accept AA as my solution.
I did not really have a choice if I wanted to stop drinking at that time. I needed something other than my old life, other than drinking every day, to come in and help fill the void. So I lived in rehab for almost two years and I went to meetings and I talked to therapists and so on. I had to have a solution.
But as my recovery progressed I started to see that “traditional recovery” was really still in its infancy. No one really knew what the heck they were doing. Some people had it all figured out, but they were in the minority. And of those who did, many of them were using different solutions. For example, there are certainly people in AA who “have it all figured out.” Or rather, they are working a very successful program of recovery and they are enjoying a new life in sobriety. They are one of the “winners” in recovery.
But there are also recovering alcoholics who are “winners” who are not working the AA program.
If you talk to newcomers in AA you will find that some of them have a strict belief that there is no way that a person could ever get sober outside of AA. This is, of course, not true. People can and do recover using programs of recovery other than the 12 steps. But there is definitely a belief in AA that “this is the only thing that possibly works for anyone.”
I had to move past that belief. I had to reject it outright. I had to look around and find a new brand of spirituality.
I did this partially on the internet. Actually I had found some online recovery forums where I met some people (virtually) who were in recovery. Some of them went to AA in the real world and some of them did not. I was very intrigued by the people who did not attend AA because according to the mainstream wisdom in AA that I was hearing, this was impossible. These people should have relapsed by now if they were not in AA, right?
So I started to ask questions. I started to find people who were building their own path in recovery, who were not doing the traditional “go to AA every day and cling to this generic version of spirituality that we all discover, etc.”
I was finding such people who were doing something different in recovery, and I was asking them questions. And I was discovering that it was possible to recover outside of AA and the 12 step program.
And as I started to do this I was also rearranging my own life and my own daily actions. I started to drift away from daily AA meetings (oh no, was I going to relapse?). And I continued to find people in recovery who were doing their own thing and I was asking them how it all worked for them.
I was slowly redefining what it meant to ME to be spiritual. I was redefining my own concept of spirituality. And I was also redefining my own path in recovery. The two were obviously tied together.
My new brand of spirituality was based on action. I was doing things. I was taking action. I was pushing myself to improve as a person.
And I was asking questions. I was shocked to learn that my grand sponsor in recovery who had 22 years sober at the time did not go to AA meetings more than once a week. I was amazed at this actually. How could this person remain sober if they went to so few meetings? I wanted to understand why and how. Because I did not want to keep attending meetings myself, and I wanted to find my own path in recovery.
So I kept asking these sort of questions, some to other people and some of the questions directed internally, and I started to see a new pattern. I started to see that much of the “traditional wisdom” in recovery was actually false. Or that it wasn’t really grounded in reality. I was testing assumptions. I was exploring what it meant, to me, to be spiritual in my own recovery. And I was finding that the real truth had very little to do with my assumptions, with what I had been taught was so important.
The fundamental principles of spirituality
What I discovered in this journey of mine is that there are some fundamental principles of recovery.
In other words, there are certain principles in recovery that every single person has to go through and deal with.
Or rather, if you are someone who stays sober and is successful in recovery, you will encounter each of these fundamental principles.
The first principle is surrender. It is a spiritual principle and it is fundamental to recovery. You cannot recover from addiction unless you surrender.
So it doesn’t matter if you go to AA. It doesn’t matter if you use a religious based program. It doesn’t matter if you are in some other part of the world and you use therapy or counseling to overcome an addiction. No matter which path you are on, you must surrender in order to be successful in beating an addiction. Surrender is fundamental.
There are other fundamental spiritual principles. I think forgiveness is probably one of them. Many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have resentments. These resentments can fuel their anger and cause them to relapse. The solution is to forgive others, to let go, to find peace. This is obviously a spiritual process. And it is fundamental to success in recovery. You cannot be successful in sobriety while walking around angry with all of these resentments inside of you. Forgiveness is fundamental.
There are dozens of these fundamental principles. If you study the 12 steps in AA you will find at least 12 such principles in that list (surrender, hope, faith, humility, etc.).
Helping others is the essence of step number 12 in AA. This, too, is a fundamental principle in recovery. And in a broader sense, this is a fundamental spiritual principle as well. Help others. Love your neighbor. And so on.
From a practical perspective, one of the things I learned in my own journey is that one of the most important spiritual concepts is gratitude.
Why gratitude is so important for sobriety
Practicing gratitude every single day is perhaps one of the most powerful things that you can do in order to remain sober.
Notice that I did not say “being grateful every day.”
I said “practicing gratitude every single day.”
The difference here is that, if you just go through your recovery without giving this much thought, then some days you will find yourself to be grateful, and other days you will not.
When you are feeling truly grateful in the moment it is impossible to relapse.
This is a profound truth. It is also one of the “secrets of recovery.” When you are feeling truly grateful you are 100 percent protected against the threat of relapse. It is impossible.
This is powerful stuff. You should think about it.
Obviously there is great power in gratitude.
But we are not always feeling grateful. That is a problem.
What is the solution?
The solution is to build up the gratitude muscle.
You can build up your gratitude muscle in the same way that you build up your other muscles by doing push-ups every day.
It is the same exact thing.
There are times in your life when everything is going perfectly and gratitude comes easy. It is easy to stay sober during that moment.
There are other times in your life when everything is going badly. Gratitude becomes very difficult. And the threat of relapse becomes much more dangerous.
How can we use the power of gratitude to help prevent relapse during the “bad times” in our lives?
The way to do it is to practice.
You must build your gratitude muscle.
You must practice gratitude every day so that when the bad times come (which they inevitably will in every life) you will be ready for it. And the gratitude will come automatically. You will force yourself to seek out the positive, to find the silver lining. Even among the chaos or the misery.
And this is power. If there is “a spiritual solution” in recovery, this is definitely one of them. In fact, this is perhaps the most powerful spiritual concept that can help you to recover.
As I indicated, there are other fundamental spiritual concepts in recovery. But perhaps none of them are as important as gratitude in terms of preventing relapse on a day to day basis.
Can you discover gratitude in mainstream recovery? Sure. You can go to AA meetings and follow along with other people and work through the 12 steps and you can discover gratitude. Or you can find it on your own way, by discovering your own path.
Whether you go to AA and work through the 12 steps is not really what will make or break your recovery. The principles that you apply to your life is what is important. The actions that you take are what are important. Are you taking care of yourself every day? Physically, emotionally, socially, mentally, and spiritually?
My friend who was in early recovery with me was not doing this. In a way, he had me fooled. Because he was, at least on the outside, showing the world that he was taking very good care of himself spiritually–I was convinced that he had recovery all figured out. I was convinced that he was setting the perfect example. And then he relapsed, teaching me that the real solution is probably a bit deeper than just “how spiritual you appear to others.” Obviously, what is going on inside is more important than the outward appearance. But it is also important to expand our definition to include a holistic approach, rather than just a surface level spiritual approach. In other words, taking care of ourselves in a holistic manner, in every area of our lives.
I believe that in the end, no one can really hand you the keys to spirituality. You have to find them yourself. And that may take some soul searching. It may take some time. And you have to be patient with yourself, and really get honest with yourself. I had to watch others in recovery and really question things for a while before I started to find my own truth.
What about you, how have you defined spirituality in your own life? How is it working out for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!