Do You Need to Have a Spiritual Experience in Order to Overcome...

Do You Need to Have a Spiritual Experience in Order to Overcome Addiction?


Yesterday we looked at what you can expect when you first quit drugs or alcohol.

Today we are going to look at the question of whether or not you need a spiritual experience in order to overcome addiction.

Yes, but hold on a moment…..

My belief is that you do have to have a spiritual experience in order to overcome an addiction.

However, the way that most people define “spirituality” has become tainted over time through misuse of the word.

When someone says “spiritual,” what do you think of? What does the word cause you to think about?

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Many people tie the word to their previous experience with religion. This can be a bit of a mistake, and it can mislead people into believing that they have to become religious in order to overcome their addiction.

My stance is that a transformation definitely has to occur in order to overcome addiction. But this transformation is:

* Based on individual and personal growth.
* A shift in priorities.
* A personality change.

Traditional recovery and AA

In traditional recovery circles the accepted standard solution is that you must have a “spiritual” experience in order to overcome addiction. Therefore, programs such as AA and NA are geared towards only one single goal: bringing about a spiritual experience that is sufficient to bring about recovery from addiction. The 12 steps are designed to bring about this spiritual experience.

If you interviewed a whole bunch of people who attend AA, a very large percentage would say that they believe that they need to “find God” and a certain percentage would also say that they are trying to do so “through religion.” To some extent, this is just all about the words that we use to describe something though.

In reality, the problem is not that people believe that they need to get religion, find God, or explore a higher plane of spiritual existence. The problem is that people are thinking of “spirituality” in far too narrow terms.

The reality is that recovery from addiction requires a transformation, but this does not have to be a mystical or religious experience. It just has to transform your life, your personality, and how you react to things.

What is misleading is that some people who really dig in and “get” religion can certainly undergo this type of personality transformation based on their experience. So they may start praying, meditating, studying the big book of AA, maybe they study the bible or religious texts, they attend AA meetings or they might even attend religious services, and so on. You might say that this is bringing about a spiritual experience through “spiritual activities.”

In reality all of those ideas are simply things that we might attach to the words “spiritual” or “religious.” They are just words, but our minds give them certain meaning, based on our past and how we think about spirituality.

So there are plenty of people in traditional recovery programs (such as AA or christian based recovery) who may have gone through an experience like the one outlined above–an experience that involves traditional ideas of what it means to be religious or spiritual. So people in recovery who have followed this spiritual path will tend to believe that this is the way to recovery, that these are the things that define spirituality, and therefore they know the secret to achieving spiritual growth.

What I have found in my recovery is that many of the people who I thought were “spiritual” actually ended up relapsing.

Why was that happening?

The simple answer that I eventually discovered was because “spirituality is an inside job,” and the people who I thought were so spiritual were actually just putting on the best show. They talked a good game, and they appeared to be very spiritual on the surface, but obviously they ended up using drugs or alcohol again for some reason, so in my mind their faith was lacking. Or rather, whatever “spirituality” they had simply failed to keep them sober.

If that is what spiritual is, I don’t want it.

I wanted a spirituality that worked for me, something that would help me to actually stay clean and sober.

And so what I discovered in my early recovery journey that there was a big difference between “talking the talk” of spirituality, and actually living the kind of life that led to long term sobriety. Many people who I watched in traditional recovery programs were very good at talking the spirituality talk, but they were not always living this joyous and growth-driven recovery that they claimed was the ideal.

Defining the spiritual experience

One thing I discovered in recovery is that people can tap into spirituality in different ways. It does not have to be in a church basement through AA meetings or in a real church necessarily.

A great example of this is with exercise. I had no idea that exercise is spiritual. I would have scoffed at the idea ten years ago, thinking that it was foolish to believe that physical activity could correlate to any kind of spirituality. But I would have been wrong.

What I discovered in my recovery was that meditation was constantly harped on as being very important. It was one of the 12 steps of AA (step eleven) and I was also seeing the idea of meditation as a recurring theme when I was attempting to read about and explore spirituality.

I actually did a great deal of seeking. I read the new testament in early recovery. I attended lots of 12 step meetings. I even tried to astral project for a while and explore lucid dreaming. I read books about Taoism, Buddhism, and so on. I read other books about spirituality, about Christianity. I read all sorts of books like “Conversations with God” and so on.

I was seeking, but I was probably doing it in the wrong place. Because my journey in recovery was not to be an intellectual one, it was to be about taking action.

My problem is that I think to much. I get ideas and I follow them, believe in them, obsess over them. I could talk myself back into drug or alcohol use if I am not careful!

I actually like to read books and digest ideas–that is what I enjoy doing. So reading all of those books and “exploring spirituality” was sort of a failed path for me. It did not really work, other than to show me that I was seeking in the wrong places, and in the wrong way.

I wanted to discover the mystical truth by reading about it. I wanted to intellectualize my spiritual journey in recovery. This was not to be. You can’t do it that way–it won’t work.

Recovery is about action.

And spiritual growth is about taking action. Your thoughts and ideas are only a small part of this journey. I believed that they were the whole thing. I was wrong. It was really more about taking action, doing stuff, and making real changes in my life.

So for me, the spiritual experience had more to do with exercise than it had to do with reading books about spirituality. But I never could have predicted this in the beginning. I was looking for all the answers in the wrong places.

Instead, I had to actually get active and do some things. I had to get out there and try some stuff.

So I went to meetings, I got a sponsor, I went back to school, I tried to meditate every day, I started exercising, and on and on and on.

Some of that stuff worked, and it really helped me. Other stuff did not seem to do much for me, and so I let it fall by the wayside. I stopped meditating every day because it did not seem to be benefiting me much. On the other hand, I was getting a lot of the same benefits from jogging that everyone said I would get from meditation: a clear mind, an increase in emotional balance when I ran, a boost in how I felt as a result of exercise, and so on. Exercise was my preferred form of meditation, and it was working great for me. So I continued to keep running for years and years.

Recovery is experimentation. You try different stuff, and some of it helps and some of it doesn’t. They have a saying about this in traditional recovery: “Keep what you need and leave the rest.” This is good advice. But you have to experiment and try new things in recovery if you want this philosophy to work for you. You have to take action and try to make positive changes.

Not all of those changes will pan out. In fact, most of them probably won’t. I have failed at many things in my recovery, but no one would call me a failure. There is another saying: “Fail quick and fail often.” If you keep trying to make positive changes, eventually something will stick. You will stumble on something that really clicks with you, much like I did with exercise. Now my life sort of revolves around the fact that I get this great workout four times a week. It is just four hours each week but it makes a huge impact on my life, and I would not give it up for anything. It works for me. But I did not discover this in my first year of recovery, I was still experimenting, still exploring, still trying to find the path.

I am not necessarily saying that exercise is spiritual and that you should exercise. What I am saying is that we have defined “spirituality” far too narrowly. What we need to do is to take action in recovery. Positive action. We need to try to make positive changes and thus try to become a better person. It is this journey that defines your spirituality.

You are not the books you read. You are not even the prayers you say or the rituals you practice. The search for spirituality is about who you can become, about the transformation that you can make to become a better person in this life.

Some people take the approach that they are a spiritual being, here on earth having a physical experience for some reason. They believe that their spirit took the flesh form in order to learn something, to grow in some way. If this is the case then spirituality should be about learning something new, about experiencing something new, about growing as a person in a way that nurtures your spirit. Not a bad perspective to have if it helps you to take positive action! Also–why would such a perspective limit you to things like prayer, meditation, or rituals?

For a long time in my recovery I allowed my idea of “spiritual” to be defined by other people. I had a past (Catholic upbringing) and I allowed other people’s ideas to influence what I thought to be spiritual.

Somehow I as able to move past those definitions in my recovery and discover a path that would allow me to become a better person, without necessarily being put in this little “spiritual box” that I had allowed others to define for me.

Today I enjoy a life of personal growth that has all sorts of different challenges in it, but I am not living according to some old rituals or traditions. Instead I am pursuing positive growth and positive changes in my life without allowing myself to be defined by traditions and rituals and such.

How to bring about a spiritual transformation that is healthy for sobriety

Much of what I write about on this website concerns the idea that you can bring about enough personal growth to overcome addiction.

Naturally my suggestion for spiritual transformation is all about making changes. Positive changes.

Sometimes it may not be perfectly clear what a positive change is for you in your particular situation, so I would suggest that you start with the big and obvious stuff first.

For me, this meant that I had to get clean and sober and establish a baseline of recovery. This had to come first and I had to make this single (obvious) positive change in my life before I could try to do anything else of significance.

The fact is that I had some negative habits in my life and they were holding me back from making positive changes. If you want to talk in terms of “spirituality” then these negative habits were also holding me back from being a more spiritual being, from experiencing growth of my spirit, and so on. Certainly drug addiction and alcoholism has a profound negative effect on the spirit, and anyone who has made the journey to sobriety can look back and see the truth in this (even though many of us try to justify our addiction by claiming that we gain spiritual insight or get closer to God through our drug use).

After I got clean and sober and had established a baseline of sobriety in my life, I was on my way to spiritual transformation and a healing of the spirit. Note that I had to make the positive change first (removing the drugs and alcohol) before my spirit could transform. Some people may believe that they will have a spiritual transformation first, and then this will lead them to take positive action. While this may be true for some (is it?), I have always found that positive action had to precede any sort of spiritual healing (not the other way around).

In other words, I had to get off the couch and take action before I could experience any sort of spiritual benefit. I could not sit still and be completely stationary and not be taking any action and somehow still get spiritual benefit from it. Every time I made a positive leap forward in terms of my spiritual growth it was based on a whole lot of action, a whole lot of footwork, and honestly a lot of hard work (or courageous changes).

So when I say that you should make positive changes in your life “starting with the obvious stuff,” what do I mean by that?

In my own life this meant that I had to quit drugs and alcohol. After I did that, there were still more obvious changes to be made. One was that I was still smoking cigarettes, so that had to go. This is what I mean by “obvious.” If you want to have a healthy spirit then you might start with the idea of having a healthy body. Having one can lend itself toward nurturing the other. I never would have believed that ten years ago, but then something interesting happened…..I got into shape. Now I know better.

My lack of physical activity in my life was another thing that was obvious to other people but I never thought it was important. Enough people convinced me to start exercising and suddenly it took hold of me and I saw how important it was to my own sobriety. Again, this may not be true for every person and perhaps for you there will be something else that turns out to be important to your own personal path (yoga, meditation, tai chi, cycling, swimming, etc).

I had some positive goals in my life that I wanted to achieve that were being held back by some of these “obvious” changes that I needed to make first. I had to go through what I went through in order to get to where I am at now. This meant that I had to go through the pain and discipline of building up my mileage as a runner before I could later have the discipline that it took to build a successful business and quit my day job. I had to experience the discipline that it took to get clean and sober so that I could later have the discipline to be able to put down cigarettes. Each growth experience that I had in early recovery set me up for future growth experiences that would build on the ones that came before.

In my opinion this is what real spiritual growth is all about–learning new things about how to become a better person, and then applying those lessons to create even more positive changes in your life. Learning and personal growth can become a skill, one that you continue to practice over and over again.

Most of what we think of as being “spiritual” (religious traditions, rituals, prayer and meditation) is all just sort of a backdrop to the idea that we should be trying to learn and to grow our spirit. The backdrop is what gives it all meaning and purpose, but that is not what we necessarily need in order to grow our spirit. What we need is to take positive action, to become a better person, to grow in ways that allows us to reach out and help others.

The important thing is the learning, the growth, the positive action, the transformation into a better person. All of the other “spiritual” stuff is just a backdrop for all of this positive change. When we talk of spirituality, we should focus on growing our spirit…not on the rituals and the traditions and all of that stuff from our past that clings to the word “spiritual.”

Stop worrying that you are not spiritual enough and instead try to become a better person in recovery

So ultimately I had to stop worrying about my spiritual quest and my spiritual journey and instead I had to start focusing on taking positive action.

When I did that (and continued to do that) everything started to fall into place in my life. I was excited to face new challenges because it was all an opportunity to become a better person, to improve my life, and to deepen my experience.

Recovery is created through positive action and positive changes. Spirituality is simply how those changes affect our spirit. The important thing, therefore, is not to “be more spiritual.” The important thing is to keep making positive changes, and this will then nurture your spirit.


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