The Spirituality of Alcoholism and Recovery
Spirituality means different things to different people. Ultimately, spirituality is a belief that life has a meaning and purpose. This definition is inclusive and respectful. It includes the many different, specific beliefs that people have about that meaning and purpose. For some people spirituality includes specific beliefs that there is something bigger and greater than our individual existence. People might call this a higher power; a God; many gods; the life force; the universe; Source; or Spirit (to name just a few). For other people, there is no higher power or religion attached to that belief. These people derive meaning and purpose through a personal set of values and goals. Only a tiny minority of people can claim they truly believe life has absolutely no meaning and purpose. These people would denounce the validity of spirituality. This section will be of little value to them.
A disconnection from, or loss of, life's meaning and purpose contributes to the development and progression of addiction. This disconnection causes a failure to live in harmony with the universal laws or principles that we hold to be important. It is possible to envision addiction as a loss of one's humanity. Our true, authentic, and spiritual self has become disconnected from our physical being because of the addiction. Therefore, a change that reunites the authentic spiritual self, with the physical body, would be healing. Alternatively, it might be possible to understand addiction as a way of coping with a previous loss of our true authentic self. This kind of loss might occur from trauma such as abuse. These kinds of trauma often shatter our belief in a meaning and purpose to life.
The majority of people have a unique and personal understanding about the meaning and purpose of life. This understanding may include direct guidance about how to live life in a meaningful manner according to specific rules or laws. It may also include indirect guidance in the form of values and principals concerning the meaning and purpose of life.
When our actions don't line up with our own values, we see ourselves as immoral. The decline into addiction nearly always involves a decline in one's morality. This may include lying, stealing, cheating, deception, dishonesty, selfishness, etc. Therefore, recovery from addiction most always involves re-connecting to our former beliefs and value system. This means we learn to live in a way that honors our values. Because other living creatures do not appear capable of this, we understand spirituality as the highest capacity of a human being.
People will include spirituality in their recovery programs differently. For some people, spirituality means a belief in a specific God or gods. This usually includes a religious practice or faith. These people (theists) can easily bring spirituality into their recovery plan. They may wish to consult with a spiritual leader or practitioner of their particular faith for guidance. They also benefit by their involvement with spiritual community of other people with similar beliefs: churches, temples, covens, synagogues, mosques, shrines, etc. These groups provide significant social support. They also provide hope and inspiration in the form of prayer, meditation, music, religious texts and readings, and education.
For other people (non-theists), the notion of God does not serve to organize meaning or to provide purpose to life. They might more broadly describe spirituality as a profound belief in humanity. This person's value system might emphasize the importance of kindness and fairness; being of service others; or simply making a positive contribution to the world. For non-theists, spiritual leaders, and clearly defined religious principles or laws are not available. Instead, their value system serves to provide meaning, purpose, and direction in life.
People's approach to recovery should be consistent with their deeply-held beliefs and values. A person can derive these values and beliefs from an organized religion or spiritual practice. Alternatively, they may derive these values in a more secular and humanistic way. For recovery purposes, the way people acquire these values is not important. What is important is the identification of their beliefs and values.
Now some readers may be questioning whether spirituality merits inclusion in a scientific discussion of addiction and recovery. The answer is a resounding "Yes!" Research supports the importance of spirituality. It has positive benefits for health and wellness. Research has also demonstrated a strong, positive relationship between religious and/or spiritual activities and healing. This is true for both physical and mental health. Put simply, the addition of religion or spirituality is associated with getting healthier. What remains unclear is the underlying cause of this positive change. One of the leaders in this field of study, H.G. Koenig, M.D., is a Professor and Director of the Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. He recently summarized the research in this area of study:
"The research that is coming out in peer-reviewed medical, public health, sociology, psychology, nursing, social work and rehabilitation science journals suggest that there are relationships between religious involvement and both mental and physical health. Much more research is needed to understand how these relationships operate and whether they are causal (i.e., that religious involvement actually causes better health). There is mounting evidence from randomized clinical trials and prospective studies that religious beliefs and practices have positive effects on coping and on speeding remission from emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression. By improving coping, giving hope, and fostering a sense of meaning and purpose during difficult life circumstances, religious beliefs have the potential to impact not only mental health, but physical health as well, given what we know about the impact of negative emotions and stress on physiological symptoms (immune, endocrine, cardiovascular), disease outcomes and longevity (Koenig, 2008, pg. 172).
In our topic center on addiction we include some suggestions about how to include spirituality into your recovery program.