The term “spirituality” has become overused and misused by people in recovery from alcoholism and addiction.
And part of the problem is that each individual has their own personal history, their own past experiences based on culture, religion, their upbringing, and so on–and all of it affects what is conjured up in the mind when someone says the term “spirituality.”
It’s important to remember that most of that baggage that we bring into recovery regarding all things spiritual is not really relevant to our sobriety. Some of certainly is but much of it is not. And it’s important to figure out the things that really matter when it comes to staying sober.
Unfortunately, when it comes to “the things really matter when it comes to staying sober,” many of us believe that this must automatically equal spirituality. They even say in the traditional recovery literature “If a solution isn’t spiritual, it isn’t practical.”
I have another conclusion after being in recovery for 13 plus years now:
It’s all spiritual.
One of the most spiritual things in my own recovery journey has been physical exercise
Let me give you an example.
At one time I believed that meditation was meditation, and exercise was exercise.
And what I mean by that is that I thought that seated meditation was critical for sobriety, and the idea of physical exercise was just a distraction at best.
I was quite wrong in this belief.
What I came to understand later was that I never really found the spiritual truth that I was seeking when I practiced seated meditation for a few months straight. I gave it a try but I eventually found it to be lacking. Later on, I took a suggestion from someone to try jogging. So I started doing distance running on a regular basis.
After a few painful months of this running I eventually found myself “in the zone.” Suddenly running was no longer a chore, it was light and free and easy. And it was meditative.
Indeed, running was a moving meditation for me. I ran outdoors. I ran without headphones (not that it really matters!). I ran along the countryside.
And I continued to run for many years, day after day.
Before this experience, I never used to enjoy running. In fact, I pretty much hated exercise my whole life, up until I went through this transformation.
And at one point I could look at my daily exercise and realize that it wasn’t like meditation, it actually WAS meditation. I was actually meditating while I was running. And I was enjoying all of the same benefits that people get when they meditate on a regular basis.
And so in doing this, I realized that the way that I had defined “spirituality” in my mind was all wrong. I had all of these ideas about what it meant to be spiritual, and most of it was just garbage.
Relationships with other people have been the source of much spiritual guidance and wisdom
I went through a period in my early recovery where I was trying to find the answer. I was seeking.
That was when I was doing seated meditation every day and ignoring the idea of exercise. At the same time, I was reading spiritual texts, the bible, and recovery literature because I thought that this would give me all the answers. I thought I could read my way to spiritual wisdom.
Again, I was wrong. This was not the way to spiritual wisdom. I read a lot of different books, and perhaps some of the ideas helped me in some small way, but this was not really an important part of my recovery. I did not get much “spiritual growth” by reading all of those books during my first two years of sobriety.
No, I think what was far more important than all of those spiritual books that I read were the relationships that I formed and the people that I talked with.
Some of the most important advice that I got in recovery came from people rather than from books.
Someone suggested that I go to long term rehab. Someone suggested that I go back to college. Someone suggested that I start distance running. Someone suggested that I quit smoking.
Sure, I could have discovered some of these paths on my own. But I felt motivated to pursue many of them based on the guidance of other people.
Not because of some spiritual direction or religious traditions. But simply based on the people in my life and the advice they gave me.
Some people in the program say that “our higher power speaks to us through other people.” I’m not sure I would disagree with that. There is much wisdom to be found in the advice of others, if we are willing to listen to it.
Your preconceived notion of what “spirituality” is, as it pertains to recovery, is probably all wrong
What is the most important spiritual principle in recovery?
Is it faith, as outlined in the third step of AA?
Is it the concept of hope, embodied in the second step?
Is it helping others, as outlined in the twelfth step?
In my opinion the most important spiritual concept for recovery is not even found within the twelve steps (at least not explicitly).
That spiritual principle is gratitude.
Gratitude is so powerful that you can stay sober just by this one principle alone, if you had to.
Gratitude is the ultimate protection from relapse. You cannot possibly relapse if you are genuinely grateful, in this very moment.
And gratitude can permeate everything that we do. It can become the backdrop for our entire life. When we view our world through the lens of gratitude, we discover the power to learn more deeply about ourselves.
How does that happen? How do we “learn more deeply about ourselves” because we are grateful?
Gratitude is a lens. It is a way to see things. When we are grateful, we look at the positive side of every situation. We find the hidden lesson in things. We look for the silver lining.
The opposite of this is discontent. We are upset with the current situation and we wish it were different. We close ourselves off to the idea that we might learn something. We don’t care if we learn anything, we just want things to be different. We are upset.
You cannot really learn anything unless you open yourself up to the hidden lesson. We do this when we force ourselves to search for it, to find the reason to be grateful.
Gratitude is something that we practice. We don’t just decide to be perfectly grateful one day and then become experts at it overnight. We cannot “fool ourselves” this easily.
But we can improve. We can practice gratitude and get better and better at it over time. We can force ourselves to practice it every day, to make out gratitude lists, to find the secret bonus in every situation, to find the reason that things worked out the way that they did. If we practice gratitude every day it will even turn into faith. You don’t even have to try to believe in anything, you just have to force yourself to keep practicing gratitude, and belief will follow naturally.
When it comes to recovery, spirituality and being grateful should really be synonymous. If you are claiming to be spiritual but you are not grateful, then something is wrong. Something doesn’t add up. You can’t be both discontent and “spiritual” at the same time. The two don’t really mix. You are either grateful for existence and the thing that you are experiencing, or you are not. When you are not, you are “not spiritual.” This is my interpretation anyway.
If you want to “be more spiritual” in recovery, how do you do that?
Do you go to church, join a religion, chat with a priest? Do you have to look into your past, into old traditions, in order to find a way to be more spiritual?
Do you have to go sit up on a mountain in the early morning and meditate for a few hours in order to be more spiritual?
I don’t think these things are the real answer. I think that they are just preconceived notions that we sometimes have.
No, if you want to “be more spiritual,” that is open to you right here, right now.
Anyone can do it. Anyone can make this shift.
And it is a shift in attitude.
You can reject the present situation and be upset and discontent. Or you can be grateful for existence itself, and everything that comes along with it.
One of these is “spiritual.” The other is not.
You must discover the path for yourself and be open to new ideas
There is a time for following others and there is a time for blazing your own trail in life. This also pertains to recovery from addictions.
I can only speak from experience. But I have also had the experience of working in a treatment center for 5 plus years and watching thousands of alcoholics attempt to sober up.
The time for following is early recovery.
The time for blazing a new trail in life is when you are transitioning to long term sobriety.
Allow me to explain. This is how it worked for me.
I struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. I was stuck in denial. I could not figure out how to live a happy life. I kept trying to be happy by self medicating. It wasn’t working. In fact, it was getting worse and worse.
I reached a breaking point. I decided that I could not go on with my life as I was just too miserable. So I surrendered. I asked for help. I went to rehab and I said “show me how to live my life.”
This is the time for following.
I am not necessarily a fast learner. I did, however, manage to stay sober. I was advised to live in long term rehab, which I did.
So I was living in a long term treatment center. I was attending AA meetings, going to therapy, seeing a sponsor in AA, and so on.
But I was scared because so many people that surrounded me in recovery were relapsing. Of course I was living in a long term facility that was also attached to a 28 day residential rehab program. So I was exposed to thousands of alcoholics per year who struggled to get sober during this time. Some of them were in short term rehab and some lived with me in long term treatment. So I made lots of observations and I carefully watched people.
I wanted to know the secret of sobriety. I wanted to figure it all out, so that I could avoid relapse myself.
Everyone was giving advice. But many who gave advice also relapsed. So I stopped listening to people unless they had significantly more time sober than I did. There was just too much information coming in. I had to filter it. Otherwise it was overwhelming, and I did not know what to focus on.
And I was searching for the perfect solution to alcoholism. I was searching for the secret of recovery.
So I started to talk to “the winners” in recovery. To the people who were living the sober life, who had it figured out, who had many years of sobriety under their belt. I wanted to know their secrets. So I asked them questions. Then I also started to compare these people to figure out what all of “the winners” in sobriety had in common. Because those similarities were the real secrets of recovery.
In doing this I found some fundamental principles. For example, every person who was one of “the winners” in recovery had gone through a process of surrender. They had each made a massive commitment to change their life at any cost. Sobriety was their top priority. I discovered many fundamental principles such as these.
And I also discovered one principle in particular, that each of these people had to make the transition into long term sobriety. Each of them had to make recovery their own, to define their path in sobriety and own it for themselves. In other words, they did not just go to rehab, go to AA meetings 3 times a week, and then never expand beyond this in their journey. If they stopped at those suggestions then my assumption is that they relapsed, and therefore I never spoke to them. The people who remained sober in the long run had to evolve. They had to find their own path. Some of them still attended AA and some of them did not. But even those who still attended AA had somehow made it their own, they had found their own unique path, they had discovered what really worked for them in recovery. And this is an individual thing. It is part of the spiritual journey.
There is a danger in recovery of complacency. I think sometimes the treatment industry sets people up to fail when they encourage them to do certain things. If you get stuck in a healthy pattern are you still stuck? Maybe. If you go to the same AA meetings for several years straight but you stop challenging yourself to grow, does this result in relapse? It seems like that is probably the case for some. So I would challenge you to look at the idea of complacency, to see if maybe you have fallen into trap or into a routine that is keeping you stuck.
There was a time when I really believed that strict AA meeting attendance was my salvation. I really thought that not missing an AA meeting was the key to long term sobriety.
But my observations were not matching up with that. I found people who attended meetings every day who relapsed, and I found people in long term sobriety who did not attend meetings. So I had to rethink my premise. I had to evaluate my ideas again. And what I discovered is that “the winners” in recovery, even those who attend AA meetings for life, still have to find their own path in recovery. They still have to think on their own two feet. They still have to discover their own path to sobriety, beyond what they are told to do when they first get to rehab.
And this is a spiritual transformation. The leap from early recovery to long term sobriety is a personal journey, one that each of us has to make for ourselves.
Early recovery is largely passive living. You are told what to do, and you do it. This works. Keep doing it.
Long term sobriety does not work this way. You have to live your own life. You have to find your own path. If you try to apply the early recovery techniques to long term sobriety, you will relapse. Your mind will reject it. You have to discover your own path and make it your own to stay sober in the long run.
Exploring and experimentation are critical parts of your spiritual journey
So how do you find your own path in sobriety?
How do you make this transition from early sobriety to long term recovery?
How do you grow up from what some people refer to as “a spiritual kindergarten” in early recovery?
I think part of it is in finding a balanced lifestyle. During our addiction we probably did not have much balance. And in early recovery we may not have much balance either.
In long term recovery we have to find some balance if we want to maintain our sobriety. This is not something we learn overnight. It takes practice. It is part of the spiritual journey. It is something that we discover a piece at a time.
A great example of this is when I finally took the suggestion to start exercising on a regular basis. This was in my second or third year of sobriety. And it changed my life for the better. Part of that change was that it brought a whole lot more balance to my life. Getting out for an hour of meditative exercise every single day had a powerful effect on me. It helped to balance me emotionally no matter what I may have been going through at the time.
But I could not know this beforehand. I could not say to myself: “Oh, I think I should start running six miles each day so that it brings balance to my life.” Nobody says that. Nobody can predict that kind of long term effect from a new positive habit like daily exercise.
So how do you discover it? You sort of have to just do it.
You have to experiment. You have to take suggestions. You have to try new things in your recovery and keep the ideas that are working well for you.
And so this, I think, is how you transition. This is how I transitioned anyway. I started taking more and more suggestions from “the winners” in recovery. I started taking their advice and turning that advice into positive new habits. And the long term effects of these positive habits started to compound over time. And my life got a whole lot better.
Some of these suggestions were “spiritual.” Some of them were definitely not what we would label as being “spiritual.”
But in the end, I can look back today and realize that all of it is spiritual. All of it matters.