Spiritual growth in addiction recovery requires experimentation.
Actually that is not entirely true. To clarify, you can get plenty of spiritual growth in early recovery simply by doing what you are told to do by other people. This can result in a certain amount of growth and progress, up to a certain point.
But once you reach that point you will have to start thinking for yourself a bit more. This doesn’t necessarily mean “taking your will back” or becoming reckless in your recovery. But it does mean that at some point you have to find the path and make it your own. In my opinion this requires some degree of experimentation.
For example, when I was in early recovery I was told to go to AA meetings every day and not to drink in between those meetings. This advice worked well for a while but I reached a point when the advice was no longer as useful to me. I had to find a new path to grow along because I was getting complacent on the old path. This is not going to be true for every person and it will depend a great deal on your individual situation and your personality. I tend to be self motivated and I was not getting a lot of value out of the meetings that I was going to at the time. Or rather, I was getting value of AA meetings but I could get more value for my recovery efforts by doing other things (online recovery, writing about recovery, working with others in recovery outside of meetings, etc.). The question is not “Are AA meetings good?” the question is: “Are AA meetings the best use of your time in recovery?” For some the answer will almost certainly be “yes.” For others the answer is “not so much” or even “not any more.” For me the answer became “not anymore” and so I was moving on to other actions in my life that were building success for me in recovery. I found another path. Not necessarily a “better path,” but it was a better path for ME at the time.
And this is part of the spiritual journey. Each recovering alcoholic and drug addict has to find a path that works for them.
There is this tendency towards fear in recovery. There is this fear that you will find in recovery where people want to wrap up recovery programs and put them in this neat little box. They want to take a program like AA or the 12 steps and declare to the world (and to themselves, really), that “this is it! This program is perfect and if you work it to the best of your ability then you will be sober and happy, so why in the world would you ever look elsewhere for your sobriety?”
And I disagree with that. And I see how it is completely rooted in fear. The person who wants to declare a recovery program to be perfect is the person who is terrified of relapse. They want to put their recovery in a box and wrap it up and forget about it. They want their sobriety to be foolproof. They want all the mysteries to be solved.
I don’t think that it really works that way. I do not believe that you can take every alcoholic and drug addict in the world and put them into this little box. This little box that says “go to meetings every day, get a higher power, work the steps, and you will be sober and happy.” I don’t think that is realistic.
And I have watched the results of this effort. Many people in AA want to spread the program far and wide and get the message out to every single person who may be struggling. And I look at the success rates and all of the data for how often and how long most people stay sober and I want to say: “Hey wait a minute. Let’s take a step back here. Is this really working for everyone? Is this really the right path for everyone? Is is possible that this box is not going to be the right fit for everyone? Is it possible that this may not even be the best solution?”
Those were the sort of questions that drove me to seek out my own path in recovery.
This was a spiritual journey. My peers in AA were cautioning me not to abandon the daily meetings out of fear for relapse.
Looking back though, I can see that they were not really afraid that I might relapse if I stopped going to AA meetings. What they were afraid of is that I might succeed in recovery by doing something other than what they were doing. And that is the sort of fear that I am cautioning you about.
Because your path to success in recovery may not be the traditional path that everyone is telling you to go down.
It certainly hasn’t been the case for me. I am on a non-traditional recovery path, and it is working out very well (and has been for 13 plus years now).
The spiritual journey in recovery is an evolution of learning about yourself
A spiritual journey is all about learning more about yourself. A popular analogy is “peeling away more layers of an onion” when you are learning about yourself in sobriety.
If you want to get through early sobriety then you should listen to other people and take their advice.
This helps you to build a foundation. This is critical for early recovery.
Keep in mind that most people who are in early recovery end up relapsing. You want to avoid this outcome so you need to be extremely careful about your first year or two of recovery.
The best approach in my opinion is to simply kill your ego. Get out of your own way and listen to other people’s advice.
This is contrary to what I have said already about “finding your own path.” I realize that it is a bit contradictory.
But if you pay attention to the timing of this advice then there is no contradiction.
In early recovery you must take advice and listen to others. This builds a foundation.
Later, in long term sobriety, you must learn to think for yourself and discover your own path. But you do this based on the foundation of action that you have already established.
For example, a huge part of my recovery efforts today is based on exercise. Physical exercise is a big part of what keeps me sober. I have my routine and I push myself to improve and I own this as part of my spiritual journey. For me, fitness and improvement through physical exercise is an important part of my daily practice. It helps to keep me sober.
This came to me as a suggestion over ten years ago. Someone suggested that I exercise in order to improve my recovery.
At the time I made a half hearted attempt, then let the idea go by the wayside.
Later on it was suggested to me again. And so I had to experiment. I had to try some different things. I had to experiment and be able to find my own path with it and really own it for myself. I have done this over time and today it is an important part of my recovery.
And a counter-example: I took a suggestion once to meditate. Many people made this suggestion to me. And it is essentially one of the 12 steps of AA. So I tried it. I studied meditation for a while and I practiced every day for several months.
So what happened?
Ultimately I rejected it. And this is not to say that I never get any meditation or benefits from it, because I absolutely do. I am “meditating” when I exercise. A famous monk once said “If you only have time for one activity, exercise rather than meditate.” He said this because most forms of exercise become meditative. You get many of the same mental benefits of meditation when you are exercising. This one of the main concepts behind yoga.
But my point is that I did not just accept this suggestion as part of my recovery and follow it blindly.
Instead, I experimented. I tested it. I gave it a fair trial (most fair trials are 30 day experiments in my opinion).
And I ultimately rejected it and moved on. I decided that traditional seated meditation is not for me right now, I need other forms of health and exercise. So I moved on with no regrets, no ill feelings. I tested it fairly and found other forms of exercise to be more beneficial.
And this is why there is no real contradiction. You must take advice from others and you must also carve out your own path. It sounds like a contradiction but you can do both. You can take advice, test out new ideas, and then keep the ones that work out well for you.
They even say this in AA meetings all the time: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” But how many people really do this?
And how many people push themselves to take suggestions and experiment with new ideas so that they can discover new things about themselves?
This is what recovery is really made of–personal growth, taking suggestions, and experimenting.
In order to learn more about yourself in recovery you must be open minded and do experiments
I had to find out what I didn’t like in recovery before I could settle on the path that I liked.
I took a suggestion to go back to college and finish my degree. I did that so that I could learn what I really wanted in life (entrepreneurship, turns out!). I took a suggestion to chair and AA meeting for a year straight in order to learn more about myself (I don’t really like chairing AA meetings! Though I learned a lot by doing it). I took a suggestion to quit smoking cigarettes from my sponsor after he finally quit himself. I learned a great deal about myself in that process. I learned that I could achieve pretty much any single goal, no matter how insanely difficult it was, through sheer force of will. But I had to be laser focused on the goal in order to persevere.
I learned more about building a business when I quit smoking cigarettes than I did at 4 years of business college. Seriously!
You can’t learn this kind of stuff by reading books. You can’t learn about recovery and how it works just by reading the Big Book in AA. You might gloss over the concepts but it does nothing in terms of how you actually apply the principles in your real life.
Recovery is all about learning about yourself and how you fit into the world. And you have to be open to different paths, to new ideas.
You may have an idea of what your life will be like after you are clean and sober. Maybe you picture what your life will be like 5 years from now, or 10 years from now.
I can assure you that such projections are wrong. Wildly wrong.
I know this because I have 13 years sober. And I have lived this path in recovery and I have stayed open to new suggestions. I have listened to other people and every time I have heard a viable idea for my own growth in recovery, I have tried to test that idea out and see if it works for me or not.
Early recovery: Follow other’s path. Long term sobriety: Find your own path
In order to achieve long term sobriety you have to find your own path. You must own the journey and make it your own.
There are many ways to do this. One way is to focus on your daily practice. What are you doing every day to take care of yourself in recovery? How can you improve your daily practice? What actions are you taking in order to build a better life for yourself in the long run?
I asked questions. I interviewed people (informally). I asked them what they were doing to take care of themselves each and every day. I asked them what their positive habits were.
Your daily habits will determine the person that you become in five years, in ten years.
I had to find the habits that allowed me to reach my own personal goals. I had to find the daily habits that would allow me to become the person that I really wanted to be.
You can’t do this by just following your instincts, in my experience. Because our short term compass will not necessarily lead us to form the sort of habits that will keep us healthy. For example, if you are not in shape at all then getting into shape can be really challenging. But once you are in good shape, staying in good shape becomes quite a bit easier.
This is an important concept in recovery, in my experience. They also mention this concept in AA meetings: “It is easier to stay sober than it is to GET sober.” Very true. Which is why establishing these healthy habits is so important in the first place. Establishing a daily practice that works for you is at the core of your recovery journey.
And you need help with this. You can’t do it all alone. You don’t have all the answers. When we think we have all the answers, we end up failing. We relapse.
But there is also a danger in relying on others too much. This can lead to complacency. Sometimes we can get stuck in our patterns. We can get stuck in our daily practice. And then we are in danger of relapse.
So what is the real answer, and how do we find that balance?
It is a daily practice. That means that you must take action every day. You don’t get to take a vacation from your recovery.
And you must be vigilant. You have to keep looking at your life and your life situation and asking yourself: “What can I do in order to improve myself? What is the lesson that my current situation is trying to teach me? What is the lesson, and what is the silver lining?”
Those are important questions. If you ask those questions of yourself every day, then you can keep learning more and more about yourself.
If people did not change and evolve in life then recovery would be a one time event. You would become sober, then move on with your life, with no more effort needed in recovery.
Why doesn’t it work this way? Why does recovery demand an ongoing effort?
Why must we keep reinventing ourselves in order to remain sober?
We must do so because we keep changing in recovery. Even if you don’t want to change, you are going to change! That is part of life. It keeps moving. It keeps evolving.
And your sobriety evolves with it. So it can never stand still. You either relapse or you get stronger in recovery. Those are your only two options. Get stronger in recovery, or get weaker in recovery. Choose one. There is no middle path.
And that is why we must keep reinventing ourselves. We have to keep pushing to improve ourselves. Because if don’t, we fall victim to our old behaviors. And those will get us drunk eventually. So we have to push forward and keep reinventing ourselves so that we remain healthy.
“There is a difference between knowing your path and walking your path”
In the movie “The Matrix,” Morpheous tells Neo that “there is a difference between knowing your path, and walking your path.” Then he goes on to say “you just walked your path.”
This is a great analogy to addiction recovery.
You get sober and you ask for help, go to rehab, hit some AA meetings. Everyone is giving you advice. Everyone is telling you “how to recover.”
So you are learning all of this stuff, and you think that you know recovery, or you have an idea of how it might work.
But here is a HUGE difference between being told how recovery works, and actually living your life in sobriety and overcoming the addiction on a day to day basis.
And there is no need to rush. Recovery will unfold before you in its own perfect time. Your job is to simply hang on, stay sober, and learn more and more about yourself.
One day you will look back and realize just how far you have come.
You will realize that you have been walking the path.
And in doing so you will come to know how recovery really works for you.
The way that it works for me is nothing like what I was told when I first got sober, when I went to my first AA meeting, when I first got to detox. I had much to learn about myself and I had to be open to new ideas. I had to be willing to take advice, to try a new path in life, to experiment.
For a long time in my addiction I was not willing to do this. I was too afraid.
Discovering your gift to the world that is unique to you
After you walk your own path in recovery you will eventually find that you have a unique way to help others.
That, just by “being you,” there is a way that you can reach out and help other people.
This is a part of the journey as well. This is part of your spiritual growth. Finding meaning and purpose in connecting to others and helping them.
Some people may do this through AA. Others will find a different path.
And it’s all good. It’s all part of your journey. To find your unique gift to the world, to reach out and help others in some way.