May 6, 2001
There is a relationship between spirituality and relapse. To understand it, we must first define spirituality. People have both physical characteristics, determined by the structure and actions of their bodies, and non-physical characteristics, determined by the structure and actions of their minds. These non-physical or spiritual characteristics include the ability to perceive, think, feel, act, and assign meaning and purpose to life.
Human beings not only think and feel, but they are conscious of the fact that they do so. This individual consciousness creates a core personal identity that moves beyond physical existence into a complex world of ideas and images. This personal consciousness drives people to find meaning and purpose in human existence.
This desire for a sense of meaning that transcends the physical has led many recovering people to a search for the laws or organizing principles of the non-physical dimension of human existence. They believe that human existence is ruled by laws, or organizing principles. The physical world is governed by physical laws. The non-physical world is governed by mental and spiritual laws. People who live in accordance with these universal laws find peace and serenity in life. They discover a sense of meaning and purpose in their sobriety. Those who violate these universal principles, either through ignorance or intent, experience inner pain, turmoil, and frustration. They become disillusioned in recovery and many relapse to chemical use to medicate the pain.
Mystical & Non-mystical Spirituality
There are two different ways of thinking about human spirituality. Mystical spirituality is based upon the belief that there is a spiritual world inhabited by a Higher Power or God. The meaning and purpose of life, according to mystical spirituality, can only be found through a conscious relationship with this spiritual Higher Power who reveals information not available through our ordinary senses or intelligence. The ultimate goal of mystical spirituality, therefore, is to establish a personal relationship with God, and to seek knowledge of his will and the courage to carry that out.
Non-mystical spirituality recognizes that human beings exist not only in the physical world, but also in a unique world of ideas, thoughts, feelings, and fantasies that transcends physical limitations. In this sense the word spiritual can be used interchangeably with the word psychological. Non-mystical spirituality, like psychology, is directed at learning to effectively use human mental powers to find meaning and purpose in life. The spiritual life is based upon developing these mental and emotional abilities. Non-mystical spirituality, however, believes that human beings can discover basic spiritual truths thorough the use of their senses and intellect. They do not rely upon divine revelation, but look to human reason to find the answers to sobriety.
Mystical and non-mystical spirituality are not mutually exclusive.
Many recovering people have a mixed spiritual system. In the mystical sense, they seek to develop a personal relationship with the God of their understanding and pray to discover what God’s will is for them. In a non-mystical sense, they actively work at psychological growth. They believe this mixture of the mystical and non-mystical captures the principle of “turning it over, but doing the leg work”. Mystical spirituality allows them to turn over some aspects of their human experience to the care of a Higher Power. Non-mystical spirituality allows them to “do the leg work” by taking responsibility for personal growth and change.
Relapse & The Extremes of Mystical Spirituality
Extreme and rigid views of spirituality can result in relapse. Many people relapse because they believe that the mystical god of their understanding will somehow magically save them from their problems. They abdicate personal responsibility and expect God to take care of everything. When God doesn’t, they sink into a deep existential depression and say, “Since God won’t fix my life, I might as well get drunk.”
An example of this is the man who turned $60,000 worth of debt incurred from his cocaine addiction over to his higher power. He was absolutely shocked when his higher power turned his debts over to a collection agency.
Another man, who was divorced shortly after getting sober, looked to God to clean up his apartment. He was disappointed when God wouldn’t do it. Upon spiritual reflection the man concluded that since God wouldn’t clean his apartment, it must be God’s will for him to live in the mess. Shortly afterwards he got drunk.
Relapse & The Extremes of Non-mystical Spirituality
Other people relapse because they cannot find a higher power to believe in. Some of these people are overwhelmed with such intense shame and guilt that they can’t believe God or any other higher power is available to them. Others are locked into grandiosity. They see themselves as bigger, strong, and smarter than anyone or anything else in the universe. When they encounter overwhelming problems they feel cut off from all sources of courage strength and hope. They often become disillusioned and relapse to chemical use.
Most people who succeed in recovery have organized their sobriety around a source of meaning and purpose that is greater than themselves. Most practice the mixed system of spirituality described in the serenity prayer. The Serenity Prayer is “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can, God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
People who live in accordance with these spiritual principles recognize that there are things that they can and must change if they are to stay sober, and they seek the courage to make those changes. They also recognize that there are other things that are beyond their control. They turn these things over to a Higher Power. They have faith that there is someone or something bigger, stronger and more powerful than they that will take care of the things that they can’t manage. As a result, they can comfortably let go of the things that they cannot manage and invest their energies in taking care of things that are within their power.
Recovery & A Balanced Sense Of Spirituality
People who stay sober are able to transform themselves by surrendering their narrow, addictive world view and embracing a broader and more effective sobriety-based world view. This transformation is a spiritual process, though not necessarily a mystical one. It is a consciousness expanding experience that requires a belief that there is someone or something more powerful than I am. It requires a willingness to believe in a seek out that source of power, to ask for help, and ultimately to follow directions.
Recovering people need to find a source of courage and strength that can overcome frustration, transform despair into hope, and motivate them to move ahead in the sober life. Some recovering people find this in a mystical higher power that many call God. Others find it in the mysterious power present in their group conscience. Still others find it in a higher value system that replaces addictive thinking with rationality and reason.
People who maintain sobriety learn that they are responsible for themselves. They internalize the AA principle of “easy does it, but do it.” They realize that they need to identify the next little thing they have to do to stay sober, and do it. In essence, they realize that they are responsible for whether or not they take the next drink or the next drug. They recognize that they must learn how to look within themselves and find the source of courage, strength, and hope needed to stay sober. Ultimately, they are responsible for rebuilding their lives and finding meaning and purpose in sobriety.
The Spiritual Paradox of Recovery
This is the paradox of recovery. We cannot do it alone, but yet we must do it by ourselves. We cannot expect God or a higher power to do what we are able to do for ourselves, but yet we cannot do it for ourselves without somehow touching a source of courage and strength that exceeds our own abilities. And here seems to be the ultimate spiritual principle that allows alcoholics to avoid relapse and move ahead in recovery. It is a philosophy of balance. It is the ability to recognize and affirm the quality of physical existence, to learn how the physical world operates and operate within the limits of its laws and imperatives. It is also the willingness to affirm the world of ideas, thoughts, and images. It is the ability to learn to turn within and find a creative spark of life, a creative spiritual energy that will allow us to go on and find solutions when none seem available. The balance of these two worlds, the world of physical reality, and the world of ideas where the ultimate spiritual reality exists, allow people to forge a strong and powerful sobriety.