Spirituality in addiction recovery, Part 2

What is the role of spirituality in addiction recovery? Part 2

Spirituality in addiction recovery, Part 2/2

This is a continuation of a Q&A about spirituality in addiction recovery – Part 2 of 2.

Myths, misunderstandings concerning spirituality

So often misunderstood is the fact that spirituality and religion are neither synonyms nor are they diametrically opposed. Religion often serves as the container in which spiritual practices are preserved and carried forward. Some people find the container to be helpful and choose to belong to a specific religion, often the result of one’s particular upbringing or adherence to a cultural “norm” or standard (e.g., Christianity in the West, Hinduism or Buddhism in the East, Islam in the Middle East, and so on). Others simply take what they need from the containers and find their own way to the realization of inner peace and service. Interestingly, in modern times the fastest-growing group religion-wise has been “none,” or those choosing not to be affiliated with any religion.

Spirituality continues to be a loaded word that can be misunderstood to the extent some think it is actually based on or in opposition to Western religion, or that it’s somehow meaningless if it is not mentioned in a Christian context. It is not unheard of for common spiritual practices like meditation, contemplation, yoga, and other “Eastern” or “New Age” sounding activities to be feared as being foreign, strange, or even unacceptable. Pope John Paul actually condemned yoga and meditation as being immoral and even sinful! Fortunately, such closed-minded attitudes, while still lingering in some circles, are definitely on the decline.

3. What is a spiritual experience? Is it exactly the same thing as a spiritual awakening?

In the literature, several synonyms are given for spiritual awakening:

  • Psychic change
  • Spiritual experience
  • Personality change
  • Attitude change
  • Religious experience

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, there can be some rather subtle nuances or shades of meaning between the terms spiritual experience and spiritual awakening.

Spiritual awakening

The term spiritual awakening often refers to a major change – often a complete reversal – in perspective or attitude to the extent the practitioner is more of a new person than a slightly or moderately improved version one’s old self, generally over a period of months or years. A spiritual awakening could be seen to be the result of multiple spiritual experiences. One could say that a succession of spiritual experiences over a period of time (generally months or years) could lead to a complete attitude change, psychic change, personality change, or spiritual awakening.

The fruits or results of a spiritual awakening might include one or more of the following (this is not a comprehensive list):

  • Thinking and living more in terms of we than I, having realized that each and every one of us is connected to and interdependent with humanity, all beings, God/higher power, and/or everything in existence
  • Recognizing ego-based thinking when it occurs, with ego being anything that causes us to believe we are separate from others, our higher power, God, the universe, etc.
  • Feeling a deep spiritual connection, God-consciousness, Christ-consciousness, Buddha-consciousness (or however else one chooses to frame it), more often than not
  • Acceptance of reality or the way things are in the present moment (more often than not), rather than constantly wishing things were different; transcending grass-is-greener-ism; mindfulness, as in moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment of self, others, circumstances, etc.
  • Deeply understanding and believing in the truth of the spiritual axiom — that whenever you are disturbed or experience negativity, the issue or challenge is internal (e.g. your own attitude, opinion, judgment, belief, perspective, thinking, or reaction) and not external (e.g. the other person, the actions or speech or attitudes of others, outside circumstances, the job, the significant other, society, Congress, etc.); not taking anything personally

Spiritual experiences

One of our favorite parts of the Big Book is the second appendix, the Spiritual Appendix. One of the main points of this section is to provide clarification on the nature of a spiritual experience. In its original form the Big Book inadvertently implied that a real spiritual experience or awakening must include a major, like a “burning bush,” a “white light” experience, and other such “spectacular upheavals” and “sudden, revolutionary changes.” Gladly, this implication is wrong; while a spiritual awakening can certainly include incredible, sudden, lightning-bolt shifts in perspective, more often spiritual awakenings happen in subtle increments.

The terms spiritual experience and spiritual awakening are used many times in this book which, upon careful reading, shows that the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us in many different forms. (Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Spiritual Appendix (Appendix 2), p.567)

The much more common form of spiritual awakening is what the psychologist William James called “the educational variety” which occurs gradually over a period of time.

With this type of awakening, others may see the changes in you before you realize the extent of the changes yourself. The spiritual awakening may be the result of a number of spiritual experiences over time.

Some examples of spiritual experiences we have experienced ourselves or heard about from fellow recovering alcoholics and addicts include events, realizations, or “a-ha moments” such as:

    • Coming to understand deeply that drugs and alcohol are not the root issue, that at the very core, the challenge involves selfishness, self-centeredness, self-seeking behavior, and other manifestations, characteristics, or consequences of an overall spiritual malady
    • Experiencing for oneself the joys of service, altruistic behavior, helping others
    • Walking through major fears; performing actions that we deeply fear(ed), such as telling one’s story to a group of recovering people, chairing meetings, going on 12th-step calls, and so on
    • Deeply meaningful group experiences
    • Understanding for the first time that you are not separate from anyone or anything else, God, higher power, etc.
    • Having a breakthrough in the understanding of how things really are, the nature of reality, etc.
    • Having an experience which brings about a sudden or deeper understanding of spiritual concepts
    • A particularly moving sermon, church service, or other religious worship event

4. Is a spiritual awakening required to recover from alcoholism/addiction?

Yes, a spiritual awakening is essential – but not to worry. The suggested path to your own spiritual awakening could not be more clear: Work the twelve steps to the best of your ability with a sponsor who has a sponsor and who has worked the twelve steps. You may be happy to learn, as were we, that you are not being asked to adopt a particular belief or belief system; you are being asked to perform some simple actions under the guidance of a sponsor. This a program of action, not of specific belief.

Dr. Carl Jung on spiritual awakening

Jung definitively recommended spirituality as the solution to alcoholism; in fact, Jung is considered to have had an indirect role in establishing Alcoholics Anonymous. Jung once treated an American patient (Rowland Hazard III) who was suffering from chronic alcoholism and had the financial means to consult Dr. Jung in Europe. After working with Hazard for some time and achieving no significant progress, Jung told Hazard that his alcoholic condition was near to hopeless, save only the possibility of a spiritual experience. Jung noted that occasionally such experiences had been known to reform alcoholics where all else had failed. (Paraphrased from spirituality section of Carl Jung Wikipedia entry)

Maybe there are as many definitions of spiritual awakening as there are people who have had them.

12 Steps and 12 Traditions, Step Twelve, p.106

Let’s look at what Dr. Carl Jung actually said about the importance of a spiritual experience, according to the Big Book:

Some of our alcoholic readers may think they can do without spiritual help. Let us tell you the rest of the conversation our friend had with his doctor.

The doctor said: “You have the mind of a chronic alcoholic. I have never seen one single case recover, where that state of mind existed to the extent that it does in you.” Our friend felt as though the gates of hell had closed on him with a clang.

He said to the doctor, “Is there no exception?”

“Yes,” replied the doctor, “there is. Exceptions to cases such as yours have been occurring since early times. Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. In fact, I have been trying to produce some such emotional rearrangement within you. With many individuals the methods which I employed are successful, but I have never been successful with an alcoholic of your description.”

Upon hearing this, our friend was somewhat relieved, for he reflected that, after all, he was a good church member. This hope, however, was destroyed by the doctor’s telling him that while his religious convictions were very good, in his case they did not spell the necessary vital spiritual experience.

Here was the terrible dilemma in which our friend found himself when he had the extraordinary experience, which as we have already told you, made him a free man.
Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, There is a Solution, p.27-28

5. Do I have to adopt someone else’s religious or spiritual beliefs?

Absolutely not.

When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you. (Big Book, We Agnostics, p.47)

In our personal stories you will find a wide variation in the way each teller approaches and conceives of the Power which is greater than himself. Whether we agree with a particular approach or conception seems to make little difference. Experience has taught us that these are matters about which, for our purpose, we need not be worried. They are questions for each individual to settle for himself. (Big Book, We Agnostics, p.50)

6. Can a recovering addict be spiritual if he happens to be an atheist, agnostic, or if he currently chooses a non-theistic higher power?

Yes, because spirituality and religious belief are two different things.

See also  Journey to Wholeness: How AA's Spiritual Principles Foster Lasting Transformation

Agnostics, atheists, and non-theists in general are often altruistic and a great many seem to apply spiritual principles in their lives. If living in a deeply spiritual manner were not possible for those who do not believe in a traditional version of God, then spiritual programs would actually be religious programs, limited to religious folks or those interested in moving toward such. This is clearly not the case, as the rooms are full of happy, recovered/recovering people of every religious belief/non-belief category from hard atheist to religious fundamentalist.

7. Having trouble with the “God thing” or the “spiritual angle”?

First of all, some encouragement is in order. Are you considering recovery, or in very early recovery, and perhaps having a problem with the concept of God, higher power, or even the whole spiritual thing? Don’t give up! One doesn’t have to equate spirituality with a traditional religion or any specific religious or spiritual path. We must consider spirituality in open-minded ways, as being something free of institutional structures and man-made hierarchies. Spirituality is not so much about traditional beliefs and religious dogma as about perspectives, attitudes, values, and spiritual practices (ACTIONS). Spirituality is about what motivates the individual at the deepest level, influencing how one thinks and acts, and helping folks find a true and useful place in their community, culture, and in the world.

Don’t forget the ultimate promise of the 12 steps, found at the beginning of Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps… This means it will happen for you as long as you follow the suggestions of those who have gone before you (especially the suggestions involving things you don’t want to do) and work the steps with a sponsor to the best of your ability, remain open-minded toward spiritual concepts, and practice HOW (Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness) to the best of your ability.

Now I am convinced in my own mind… that there’s only one problem in this life, one problem that includes all problems, and one answer that includes all answers… I am totally convinced that the only roadblock between me and you and me and my God is the human ego… I further believe that the best definition you’ll ever hear of the human ego is, The feeling of conscious separation from…”. From what? From everything. From God. (I like to use three words: life, good, God, which to me are synonymous words.)
— Chuck C., A New Pair of Glasses

The “spiritual side” of the program?

We have heard folks in very early recovery (esp. the first 30 days) say that they “don’t really get the spiritual side of the program.” One sober fellow was heard to respond, “There are two sides to AA: The spiritual side and the drunk side.” He was right; it seems the entire basis of 12-step recovery from alcoholism and addiction is spiritual. Regardless of our beliefs, when we don’t do our best to apply spiritual principles in all areas of our lives, chances are we’ll be drinking and/or drugging again.

Indeed, the entire program of Alcoholics Anonymous (as well as the other 12-step programs based on AA’s 12 steps) is based on spiritual principles. Alcoholics and addicts may very well have physical and psychological issues over and above substance abuse, but primarily, successful recovery from alcoholism and addiction occurs in the spiritual realm.

So, it’s all spiritual! In truth, there is a spiritual solution to every problem, issue, and challenge we face as we trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.

See also  Spiritual principles behind Step Eleven: Spiritual Awareness

Please check back here soon for another article in the Spirituality in Recovery series focusing on the spiritual principles behind the 12 steps.

More definitions: Spirituality defined many different ways


In modern times the emphasis is on subjective experience of a sacred dimension and the “deepest values and meanings by which people live,” often in a context separate from organized religious institutions. Modern spirituality typically includes a belief in a supernatural (beyond the known and observable) realm, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate/sacred meaning, religious experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension.”


Merriam-Webster has five definitions for spirituality:
1: of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit : incorporeal spiritual needs
2a: of or relating to sacred matters: spiritual songs
2b: ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal: spiritual authority
3: concerned with religious values
4: related or joined in spirit: our spiritual home; his spiritual heir
5a: of or relating to supernatural beings or phenomena
5b: of, relating to, or involving spiritualism: spiritualistic

Traditional spirituality

Traditionally, spirituality refers to a religious process of re-formation which “aims to recover the original shape of man,” oriented at “the image of God” as exemplified by the founders and sacred texts of the religions of the world, especially Christianity. Celebrate Recovery, a wholly Christian program, offers a heavily modified 12-step and 8-principle program based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing (University of Minnesota)

Spirituality is a broad concept with many perspectives. In general, spirituality includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience. Spirituality is something that touches us all, including those who do not know what spirituality is. People may describe a spiritual experience as sacred or transcendent or simply a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness.

True sobriety is not ordinary life with the drugs and alcohol cut out. It’s a new way of living, of relating to ourselves and to the world. It’s not a different version of the life we are living; it’s a completely new life, one that can’t be imagined until you are there. And it is both appealing and frightening. (Kevin Griffin, One Breath at a Time, p.167)


Statement of faith

NOTE: These beliefs are NOT espoused or promoted by Alcoholics Anonymous, nor are they suggested by Discovery Place, this article, this blog, or this website.

What follows is a typical, characteristic example of a Protestant Christian statement of faith, according to the website of a popular church in Nashville. This is included here ONLY to help illustrate differences between religion and spirituality.


  1. Who is God? God is a Spirit who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. He exists eternally in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  2. Who is Jesus? Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. He became man, (literally) born of a virgin, worked miracles, fulfilled prophecy, lived a sinless life, suffered and died for our sin, bearing its guilt and penalty. He was physically raised from the dead. He will physically come again to gather his people and judge the world.
  3. What is the Bible? We believe that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
  4. What does it mean to be saved? Salvation is gift of God. It is a restored relationship with God that comes to us not by our good works, but by receiving the free gift of God by faith. Saving faith relies on Christ as our sacrifice and only basis for fellowship with God. This saving faith inevitably motivates us to obedience.
  5. What did Christ do for us? Jesus Christ made that gift of God possible. His life, death, and resurrection provide a way for us to be reconciled with God. Jesus Christ lived the life you should have lived and died the death you should have died.

(Source: What We Believe – West End Community Church)

Resources: Spirituality in recovery

Defining spirituality

Spirituality in recovery

Religion and spirituality

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