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What do we Mean by ‘Spirituality’ in Recovery?

By Geoff Thompson
Program Director
Sunshine Coast Health Center

Spirituality is a hot topic today. Bookstores are filled with works on ‘Mindfulness’, ‘Purpose-driven life’, Ekert Tolle’s and Wayne Dyer’s bestsellers, and so on. In this blog article, we’ll examine a little more in depth the nature of spirituality.

There is good reason to spend some time thinking about spirituality. If you are involved in the 12-step program, then you know that Bill Wilson considered alcoholism a “spiritual” disorder, which required a “spiritual” solution. If you are a fan of psychology, then you know that cutting-edge research has concluded that good recovery is linked with ‘spirituality’—and poor recovery with a lack of ‘spirituality’.

So, everyone agrees that ‘spirituality’ is very important to live a great life in recovery. The problem is that nobody seems to be able to tell us what exactly this ‘spirituality’ thing is.

In a previous article, we looked at two ideas that seem to have something to do with ‘spirituality’. Alumni talked about their experiences with coincidences that seemed to be more than just accidental (synchronicity), and Joseph Campbell said that when you live the life that is true to you, then you will feel as if “hidden hands” are helping you along. We also chose three common things about ‘spirituality’ that just about everyone agrees with: spirituality is a good thing, it inspires hope for the future, it is a way of living.

In this article, we’ll look at the idea that the power of spirituality is that it allows people to live a personally meaningful life. This won’t surprise alumni who were at Sunshine Coast when we put the new program in place, which emphasizes the importance of meaning and purpose in life.

The new treatment model is called ‘meaning-centered therapy’, developed by Dr. Paul Wong. Wong believes that spirituality can provide a way to live meaningfully. And he’s not alone. As one example, the Association of American Medical Colleges Consensus Conference for Spirituality and Health defined spirituality as “every person’s inherent search for ultimate meaning and purpose in life.” So even the medical doctors are on board with this.

Here’s the basic idea: There is ‘something’ going on in the world beyond what you and I see in everyday life, some sort of benevolent force that provides order to life. If you discover this ‘something’, then you realize very quickly that there is a lot more to life than the limited, narrow-minded view many have in active addiction. By joining with this Force, we find a sense of belonging. We realize that life is valuable and worthwhile. Being spiritual means that we join with the Force.

Suffering as Part of Spirituality

If spirituality is acceptance that there is something ‘bigger’ happening in life, then even the suffering in life must have some sort of meaning. There must be some sort of logic in the experience of suffering.

Psychologist Ken Hart has just completed a very interesting research project on addiction and spirituality. Part of the study was to test Viktor Frankl’s idea that happiness depends on finding meaning in suffering. And Hart’s research data indicated that Frankl was right. Those who found meaning in their drug-induced suffering had a better quality of life than did those who dismissed their suffering as merely a place of pain and misery—that is, suffering was of no value and had no purpose.

Last year, we asked alumni at Sunshine Coast Health Center to tell us their thoughts on their personal experience of hitting bottom. The answers were remarkable. Those who avoided thinking about their suffering or who dismissed the drug days were all struggling in their recovery. But those who told us that they realized that hitting bottom was a necessary step on their journey to happiness were all doing well.

Knowing this, Sunshine Coast counsellors are concerned when they hear a client say: ‘I don’t want to think about the old days; I’m starting a new life’. We worry because psychology tells us that their lives will actually improve if they reflect on their old way of life and make some sense of it.

Here are three ways our alumni have made sense of the old days in active addiction. Some see it as a gift: “I would never have known how amazing life could be if I didn’t hit bottom.” This is the idea that you have to go to Hell to find Heaven. Some see it as part of a meaningful life: “I should have been dead a hundred times; there must be some reason why I’m still on this Earth.” Some see it as a necessary step to wake up to life: “When I hit bottom, I realized that I’d better get on with living.”

At Sunshine Coast, we remind clients that this was what happened to actor Christopher Reeve when he broke his spine, to Viktor Frankl at Auschwitz concentration camp, to many people when they were diagnosed with cancer or HIV, and so on. These people were not victims of their biology or circumstances because they “tapped into their spiritual core,” as Frankl put it.

Those people who have no ‘bigger’ picture of their lives believe that suffering is 100 percent pain. Self-proclaimed spiritual people, such as Frankl, are able to find meaning in suffering—in other words, because of spirituality, suffering is much more than just pain.

Spirituality is Attitude, Experience, Creativity

Frankl helped us understand some of the concrete, daily activities that are part of ‘spirituality’. If it’s true that the essential component of spirituality is that it provides meaning in life, then there are specific things you can do to achieve this. According to Frankl, you need three things: develop a positive attitude, experience what life has to offer, make the world a little better place to live. 

You need a positive attitude. Silly as it may sound, we need to see the cup half-full, not half-empty. We ask our alumni to think back to their time at Sunshine Coast. They may remember all the remarkable people they met, or they may still cringe at all the irritating stuff such as people not doing chores, showing up late, pushing their buttons, and so on. There is no scientific reason why we should choose the good over the bad, but Frankl says that remembering the good stuff is necessary for happiness.

Secondly, we need to experience life. In active addiction, we find that our clients often wandered through the universe with blinders on. The things they paid attention to revolved around the drug: how to get it, how to avoid feeling guilty about using, how keep out of trouble at work and home over the drug use, and so on. It’s really quite a pathetic life when you think about it.

According to Frankl, you have to start taking things from the world. Watching a child smile, going to a football game, listening to their favorite songs, watching a good movie, watching a sunset, etc, are all ways of taking something from the world. We are not the child smiling or the one playing professional football or the musician or the movie director or the sunset. But our lives are enriched by paying attention to these blessings.

Thirdly, we have to give something to the world. If we find a cure for cancer, that’s great. But for most of us this means being a good father, friend, employer/employee, lover, neighbor, citizen, member of a congregation, etc. These are what Frankl called acts of creativity.

If we can put these three things together in a way that is personal, then, according to Frankl, we will be living a personally meaningful life. And the byproduct of this life is happiness. Perhaps attitude, experience, and creativity are three components of what it means to be ‘spiritual’.

Spirituality is Living for more than Yourself

Spirituality is often interpreted as recognizing that all of us are in this thing called ‘life’ together. If we believe in a religious God, then we recognize that everyone is created in His image. In 12-step programs, a common saying is, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” If spirituality is based on some idea of Nature, then we may recognize that we are part of nature. In other words, spirituality offers a sense of belonging to a greater whole. 

If we recognize that we belong to a greater reality, then we might follow psychologist Paul Wong’s advice and “not live life just for ourselves.” Dr. Wong believes that happiness is a result of positive relationships with others. He’s a great believer that happiness depends on living life not only for yourself but for others.

Here’s an example we hear from Sunshine Coast alumni. Those who are thriving in their recovery have figured out how to live for more then themselves. Some are now little-league coaches, some have used their jobs as an opportunity to help their community by setting up Eco projects, some have volunteered at the SPCA or seniors’ home, some have become involved in 12-step volunteer activities, and so on.

A warning. Some alumni seem to have lived their lives only for others. This is also not a good idea. We talk to our alumni who tell us that they are craving drugs again because their family is on their case. Attempting to control the family, they choose their words careful so as not to “give my wife an excuse” to criticize, they go to meetings to “keep the family off my back,” etc. In other words, they give up being true to themselves to appease others. This is definitely not what Dr. Wong means when he says to live life beyond yourself.

Most alumni who are struggling in recovery are usually living life only for themselves. They have pursued a job because it would give them lots of money. Others sit in the house hoping that the phone will ring, others are so wrapped up in a blanket of their own depression or anger that they have little interaction with others, others are too afraid to take risks of setting boundaries or take risks even to challenge their fears.

Spirituality is Making Sense of Life

Aaron Antonovsky recognized that some people are much better able to cope with stress and challenges better than others. Those who did not seem to be resilient often fell ill to disease and suffering. But those who had resilience had fewer health problems and more happiness in life. So he studied what it was about people that made them better able to cope with life’s problems.

He concluded that the key was ‘meaning’. They were able to make sense of their lives in a way that worked for them. Those who were not able to make sense of their lives fell victim to stress and challenge. He called this a Sense of Coherence or SOC. If someone believes his life is predictable, manageable, and worth emotional investment, then Antonovsky says the person has a high SOC. On the other hand, if he finds his life confusing, unpredictable, unmanageable, and not really worth an effort to save it, then Antonovsky says he has a low SOC.

He even developed a test to measure SOC. Interestingly, researchers discovered that SOC and spirituality were closely related. Those who scored high on SOC tests also scored high on spirituality. Those who scored low on SOC tests also scored low on spirituality.

Based on this research it seems reasonable to say that someone who is ‘spiritual’ also makes sense of his life in a way that leads to happiness. He finds life predictable, manageable, and worth living and fighting for.

It should be no surprise that the SOC test has been used extensively in recovery, and research has shown that those who score high on SOC also do well in recovery. Go figure, eh…

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