The Holistic Path to Recovery is Superior to the Spiritual Approach

The Holistic Path to Recovery is Superior to the Spiritual Approach


This is the third article in the “25 secrets of sobriety” series. The last secret of sobriety was about creation rather than elimination.

Keep in mind that these “secrets” may be obvious truths to some people, but their implementation often remains elusive or tricky to recovering addicts and alcoholics. Thus their “secret” status.

The third secret of sobriety is this:

Holistic recovery is a better approach than a spiritual program of recovery.

Now before you get too upset that I am dogging on spirituality, please keep in mind the following key points:

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* Addiction affects your whole life, not just your spirituality.
* Ignoring aspects of recovery is dangerous.
* The holistic approach contains spirituality.
* Spiritual pride can lead to relapse.
* Balanced lifestyle is a key component of successful long term recovery

Let’s take a closer look at these points.

Addiction affects your whole life, not just your spirituality

I know it may sound blasphemous at first to suggest that the solution in recovery is not entirely spiritual. After all, the traditional solutions for recovery–twelve step programs such as AA and NA–state very clearly that the solution is spiritual.

But stop and think for a moment about addiction and how it affects a person.

Does your addiction not affect you:

* Physically?
* Mentally?
* Socially?
* Emotionally?
* Spiritually?

When I think back to my own experience with addiction to alcohol and other drugs, it very clearly affected my whole life….not just my spiritual condition.

My disease most definitely affected me physically. I was abusing my body for a long time, I was out of shape, I was a smoker, and I was losing all sorts of weight because I was not eating right. My body was malnourished and when I got to recovery I was thin and my body had bruises on it.

My disease had affected me mentally. This was mostly due to the fact that I would obsess about drugs and alcohol nearly all of the time, leaving very little time for more healthy and normal kinds of thinking. Instead my brain was always planning out my next high in an obsession fashion.

My addiction affected me socially. I was isolated because of my drinking and my drug use and I would only want to associate with others who used as heavily as I did. I could find precious few people who fit this description. In the end I isolated anyway due to the risk of blackouts. Thus my addiction had crippled me socially.

My addiction affected me emotionally in a very negative way. I medicated all of my real feelings and emotions with drugs and alcohol so that I did not have to deal with them, process them, or communicate them to other people. I was very immature when it came to feelings and emotions because I did not know how to deal with them without medicating them away.

And of course, my addiction affected me spiritually too. I was distanced from my higher power due to the selfish nature of seeking pleasure in my addiction. It was all about me and I cared very little for helping others or seeking any kind of spiritual path. At best I was seeking a spiritual experience through chemicals, but this was a sham. I was spiritually bankrupt due to my drug and alcohol use, just like it suggests in AA and NA.

But as you can see, being spiritually bankrupt was only one part of my overall problem. One could even make the argument that it was not even the most pressing problem that the addict or alcoholic is facing. My physical problems due to addiction were very pressing and needed a quick overhaul to the say the least (if I was going to stay alive).

So addiction clearly affects a person’s entire life–not just their spiritual condition.

Furthermore, if you focus only on fixing the spiritual condition, this does not necessarily address other aspects of a person’s life. Some would argue that a spiritual path can, and should, fix all things.

For example, let’s say that a person is smoking cigarettes when they get clean and sober, and they continue to smoke in their recovery. Now they could continue to smoke and still work a decent program and stay clean, but ultimately in the interest of their overall health they will want to leave this addiction behind at some point as well.

The question you have to ask yourself is: “Does a strictly spiritual approach address this problem?” If it does then you might be OK. But if it does not then you need a more holistic approach, one that would say “hey wait a minute, let’s look at the person’s overall health in recovery, let’s examine their physical health and ask some basic questions here…..are they eating right? Have they addressed obvious health issues? Have they given up bad habits such as smoking? And so on.

Most people would argue that if you are on a spiritual path that you would eventually push yourself to quit smoking cigarettes. Or maybe if you are religious that your supportive religious community would encourage you to stop smoking.

But the point here is not JUST about smoking cigarettes. I am talking about your overall health in recovery, the entire holistic approach to recovery. If a person focuses too narrowly on the spiritual solution, are they really going to be able to address all of the areas in which addiction affected their lives? Are they going to be sure to look at their emotional health, their social connections, their physical health, their bad habits, and so on?

If you focus too narrowly on spirituality for recovery then you are making an assumption that “these things will work out” without you addressing them directly. If you ignore the holistic approach to recovery then you are sort of leaving it to blind faith that these other areas of your life that were negatively impacted by your disease will just take care of themselves.

They may work out and they may not. When you take a holistic approach to your recovery, however, you are making a deliberate and conscious choice to look at each area of your life and to try to improve it. Instead of leaving it to chance or to blind hope, you examine your overall life in recovery and consciously attempt to fix the problem areas–be they physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual, or whatever.

This is much more careful and thorough than simply focusing on one aspect of the solution and assuming that the rest of your life will just take care of itself.

Ignoring aspects of recovery is dangerous

The holistic approach is important to recovery, and ignoring it can be dangerous and even fatal.

I had a friend in early recovery and he died somewhat young because he was not open to the holistic approach.

The things that were really important, he argued, were his sobriety itself and his spiritual connection.

Meanwhile, his health was failing as he was still smoking cigarettes and was overweight. The doctors told him to make changes quickly and he could not do it.

The fact is that he had already been clean and sober for several years and should have addressed such changes long ago. The holistic approach to recovery would have prompted him to do exactly that. Once you are clean and sober and you find some stability in your recovery, what is your next biggest problem? For him it would have been his smoking habit, and therefore he should have addressed that next.

The holistic approach always looks to eliminate any bad habits first, as that is the biggest “bang for the buck” when it comes to increasing our overall happiness in recovery. After you have gotten rid of the bad stuff in your life, then you can start seeking out positive changes or other goals and chase after those too. But it makes most sense to eliminate the bad things first as those tend to drag us down, hold us back, and well…..kill us sometimes.

If you take the hard line that all you need is a spiritual approach to recovery, you may be jeopardizing other areas of your health.

The holistic approach contains spirituality

If you are still freaking out about how anyone can downplay the importance of spirituality in recovery and suggest that the holistic approach is superior, consider this:

The holistic approach contains spirituality. But it also goes beyond just spiritual matters to address all the areas of a person’s life and health in recovery.

So just because you may advocate and use the holistic approach does not mean that you are ignoring spirituality entirely. It is still part of the ball game, it is just no longer the only focus like it is in traditional recovery programs.

If you really believe that your disease of addiction is ONLY a spiritual malady, and that it does not really affect other areas of your health (such as physically, socially, emotionally, etc.) then you would have no problem sticking with solutions such as AA or simply going to a church and getting involved with a religious community as your solution for recovery.

If you believe that your addiction is based entirely on a spiritual malady, then there is no problem with seeking a solution that only addresses this spiritual malady.

On the other hand, if you believe that your health suffered in other ways other than just the spirituality aspect, then you might consider broadening your approach in recovery. Having a spiritual focus might work well for you, but it might also help to look at other areas of your health in recovery.

The spiritual approach is narrow. The holistic approach is broad, and contains the spiritual approach within it. You have to ask yourself: do you need the extreme focus in fixing the spiritual aspect of your life in order to recover, or could you benefit from addressing other areas of the disease as well?

Spiritual pride can lead to relapse

Because I lived in long term rehab for almost two years, I was able to watch a lot of people come and go in the twelve step program.

For the most part, I just sat back and watched. I took it all in. I watched people who were working the twelve step program, who were attending meetings along with me, and who were seeking long term recovery just like I was.

Many of these people relapsed. In fact, nearly all of them relapsed over time. This was scary enough in itself, because many of the people who relapsed were people that I looked up to in the meetings. Some of them were people who seemed to have a very powerful message. Some of them were people who I considered to be more spiritual than I was. And many of them were people who had more clean time than I had.

What I started to realize was that many of these people that relapsed were guilty of pride. They were the type of people who would preach in a meeting about their world class humility, if you know what I mean. They might have a great message and they might be a great speaker and be very enthusiastic about recovery, but ultimately they were talking the talk without really walking the walk.

And many of them were what I would call “spiritually proud.” What they were really doing is trying to affirm their own faith in public, by talking about the importance of finding God while in an AA meeting.

Essentially their message could be boiled down to this: “I am clean and sober today because I found God in my life, and if you do not do the same then you are going to relapse and die.”

Or they would say something like “The most important thing in my life today is God, without him, I would be drunk or probably dead, so if you want to stay sober then you had better find God in your life.” Meanwhile if you follow such people around and actually watch them, how much of their time do they really spend in prayer, meditation, or helping others or volunteering or “doing God’s work?” My experience in recovery showed me that such people only talked the talked and almost never were actually walking the walk. They preached about the importance of spiritual matters while they themselves tended to ignore them. I saw this happen over and over again in early recovery and started to have a growing distrust of people who spoke of their own lofty spirituality.

The end result of course was that every single person that I encountered like this eventually relapsed.

Now, on the other hand, the people who were truly spiritual, the people who stayed clean in the long run and talked about spirituality in the meetings and actually “walked the walk” were:

1) Much less likely to be proud of their spirituality or preachy in meetings about it.
2) Much more balanced and measured and reserved in their approach, and also very practical about it.

In other words, the people who I found who actually “walked the walk” when it came to spirituality were actually using more of an holistic approach to recovery. They may have still paid lip service to the idea that it was all about their higher power, but what were these people actually doing in their lives?

I can tell you what they were doing:

They were using a more holistic approach to recovery. They gave all the credit to spirituality but they tended to actually live a holistic approach.

For example, when I was in my first year of recovery I believed that the solution was entirely spiritual, and I had no idea what the holistic approach was or what it was all about. At the time I had a sponsor who was pushing me to do certain things. For example, he was encouraging me to quit smoking, to go back to school, and to start exercising.

To be honest I thought he was an idiot! I really did, because the message I was hearing in AA meetings at the time was that the solution was spiritual, and it was all about finding your higher power in your life, and so on. So believed that I understood the solution at the time, and that this solution was 100% spiritual.

Now even though I thought that my sponsor was foolish I took some of his suggestions. I went back to school and finished up my degree at college. I managed to quit smoking through the help of a new exercise habit in which I was running several times per week.

Of course, just these three changes alone had a huge impact on my life. In particular, I attribute much of my success today in recovery with the fact that I became dedicated to exercise and getting into good shape. I really believe that this holds more power in recovery than most people give it credit for. In truth, regular exercise is tough at first and so most people tend to be lazy and do not want to commit to it. In the long run though it can become a pillar of your recovery if you are serious about getting into shape and pushing yourself a bit.

So little did I realize at that time that I was being “taught” the holistic approach to recovery. People who focused on narrow spirituality, both in and out of 12 step programs, tended to have a much more one-dimensional view of recovery and of personal growth. To them, there were no real personal growth opportunities outside of spiritual growth. Or rather, they did not believe that personal growth was benefiting their recovery directly, whereas I can clearly look back now in my recovery and see that all forms of personal growth, not just spiritual growth, can benefit a person in recovery.

Spiritual pride can be a dangerous thing. If you believe that you spiritually superior to others, and that your recovery is strong because you are so very spiritual, you are probably setting yourself up for failure. I have seen it happen more than once and the people who are successful in the long run in recovery who preach a spiritual solution all seem to be working a more holistic approach when you investigate their real actions.

Balanced lifestyle is a key component of successful long term recovery

Here is another key point that, in my opinion, is counter-intuitive.

When I was in my first two weeks of recovery I went to a rehab and they had a class called “balanced lifestyle.”

To be honest I thought that this was pretty stupid, because I believed that what I needed at the time was extreme focus on improving my spiritual condition. Here I was at one week sober, sitting in this class where they talked about how important balance was, and how you should be using a more holistic approach in the long run, and so on.

Looking back I can see how they were right on the money, and how important balance really is.

After living through more than a decade of recovery and watching hundreds of people relapse, I can definitely say that balanced lifestyle is important in long term recovery. You would not necessarily think so when you have one week sober and you are desperately trying to find your higher power, but it is true. Balance is important.

Just another reason that holism trumps spirituality. Focus too much on the narrow spiritual approach and you run the risk of living an unbalanced life.

If you are still not convinced then do yourself a favor:

Find someone in recovery that you look up to spiritually. Talk with them about their day to day approach to life and really think about whether it is an holistic approach or if it is all spiritual. You will be surprised to learn in most cases that such a person is more balanced than you thought, and is likely using an holistic approach to their recovery.

Remember, the disease affected us more than just spiritually. The solution should therefore address more than just the spiritual malady.

Seek holism.


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