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Alcohol and Mental Health

Exploring Spirituality In Recovery

Published:
April 4, 2024
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24 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
April 4, 2024
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24 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
April 4, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
April 4, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
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The Spiritual Side of Recovery: Getting Back to Your True Self

  • Spirituality plays an important role in the holistic process of recovery, which involves finding a new source of meaning and rediscovering your authentic self.
  • You can explore different spiritual paths and practices, including meditation or creative pursuits, to find ones that resonate with you. It doesn’t have to be about religion or a “higher power” (though it can be!).
  • Reframe can help you by providing tools to spark your motivation to recover and keep going as you explore life beyond alcohol. Our meditations and inspiring daily quotes can add a spiritual aspect to your journey.

In Passage Meditation — A Complete Spiritual Practice: Train Your Mind and Find a Life That Fulfills, the renowned meditation teacher and author Eknath Easwaran writes: “There is a tale of a man who found on the road a large stone bearing the words, ‘Under me lies a great truth.’ The man strained to turn the stone over and finally succeeded. On the bottom was written, ‘Why do you want a new truth when you do not practice what you already know?’”

In this way, recovery begins to look like the “rediscovery” of a new and improved version of ourselves that already exists but has been hidden by addiction. Let’s look within and set it free!

Recovery as Rediscovery: A Holistic Process

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Addiction affects every aspect of our lives, and recovery isn’t just a physical, mental, and emotional process —  it is a spiritual one as well. For some, the word “spirituality” might set off alarm bells, especially if they’ve had negative experiences with organized religion.

Rest assured, spirituality doesn’t have to mean going to church or performing religious rituals! 

Instead, let’s look at it as a broader concept that has to do with finding meaning in life. Recovery is all about finding a new source of meaning and rediscovering our true sense of self — an inherently creative (and exciting!) process.

There are several elements of spirituality that are particularly relevant to recovery:

  • Searching within rather than looking for external solutions. As Eshwaran suggests, the answers we’re often looking for — including those we think we find in alcohol — are already accessible to us from within. 
  • Rediscovering our true self. By looking within and aligning with our intuition, we can get back in touch with our authentic self — the way we feel when we have meaningful interactions with others, are engaged in activities we enjoy, and feel truly alive.
  • Tapping into creative possibilities. Recovery (or rediscovery) is a creative process — one that helps us combine old aspects of ourselves and our lives, which might have been overshadowed by alcohol, and see them in a new light. We are not the same as we were in the past, and that’s okay. In fact, that only makes for a more interesting and exciting future: who knows what new parts of ourselves we might be able to discover?

Benefits of a “Spiritual” Recovery

There are many benefits to adding a spiritual element to our recovery journey. 

  • Spirituality helps us find our “why.” For recovery to become a way of life (and, most importantly, a fulfilling, sustainable, and happy one), we need to feel motivated. Spiritually based motivation can act as a compass on our journey, reminding us of our reasons to change and motivating us to shift our habits. Spiritual approaches naturally connect us to a higher sense of purpose and allow us to see ourselves as a part of something greater. What that purpose is, however, is entirely up to us to define. 

    Whatever our motivation for changing our relationship with alcohol — whether it’s becoming healthier, having a better relationship with our partner, connecting with friends in a more authentic way, being more productive, or achieving our career goals — a spiritual practice can provide the structure that keeps things in perspective and reminds us to see our actions in a greater context.
  • Spirituality connects us with others. Whether we are engaged in a spiritual practice together — for example, attending a religious service, yoga class, or meditation retreat (we’ll explore specific options for spiritual practices a bit later) — we find it easier to surround ourselves with like-minded folks. But even if we’re practicing by ourselves, the very nature of spiritual pursuits makes it easier to feel empathy and connection to those around us on a daily basis.
  • It offers tools for building resilience. A lot of spiritual practices focus on transcending the difficult times in our lives and finding meaning in them. This view makes it easier to reframe challenges as opportunities for growth and discovery!
  • It helps us see cravings in a different light. By recognizing ourselves as a part of something larger than ourselves (whether that’s a community of like-minded people or a set of specific spiritual beliefs about the world), we can also see our cravings as just one element of our overall experience. Plus, the element of mindfulness that is present in most spiritual practices makes “urge surfing” that much easier!
  • It helps us build awareness of our thought patterns. Another way in which spiritual practices help us dismiss cravings and identify triggers is through their tendency to focus on the present moment and nurture a sense of awareness of our own thoughts. While this aspect — known as mindful awareness — is at the forefront of practices such as meditation or yoga, many other spiritual practices contain elements of mindfulness as well. For example, meditation is built into the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as into many traditional religions.
Types of Spiritual Approaches

Types of Spiritual Approaches

Not all spiritual approaches will work for everyone, and that’s okay! Luckily, there are many “paths to the same mountain,” as they say.

1. Traditional Religions

In a Journal of Religion and Health review article titled “Belief, Behavior, and Belonging: How Faith is Indispensable in Preventing and Recovering from Substance Abuse,” Melissa and Brian Grim describe their analysis of 130,000 congregation-based substance abuse programs that feature faith-based approaches to recovery. They argue that these programs greatly contribute to the field of addiction recovery, often without any cost to taxpayers. The vast majority (87%) of the studies they reviewed as part of their research point to faith as “faith is a positive factor in addiction prevention or recovery.”

That said, if traditional religion isn’t for you, no problem! There are other options to explore.

2. The 12 Steps and the “Higher Power” 

While the 12 steps of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are also not for everyone, they’re a great example of how spirituality could provide a useful structure and set of principles that help our recovery. The first three steps are all about admitting powerlessness and asking a “Higher Power” to “restore us to sanity.” This formulation may not resonate with everyone, but the point is simple: what happened to us is not our fault, and our experience with alcohol doesn’t have to mean that there’s anything “wrong” with us. Alcohol is addictive, and we simply fell into the same set of habits that millions of others have fallen into. Luckily, we have options: we can look at our situation from a broader perspective and realize that help is available. 

When viewed in this light, the “Higher Power” doesn’t have to be the traditional “God” — many AA members actually choose to see the group itself as a collective power generated by like-minded people coming together to help one another in a way that would be impossible to do alone. In any case, if this approach resonates with you, go ahead and give it a try!

3. Mindfulness and Other Forms of Meditation

In the words of writer and motivational speaker Wayne Dyer, our thoughts determine our reality. “Remember, you become what you think about all day long. How often do you clutter your mind with thoughts of non-peace? … All of these thoughts and their expressions are indications that you have become trapped in a non-peaceful mind and, therefore, a non-peaceful world.”

A way out of this “thought trap” is mindfulness, a core element in many spiritual traditions and an excellent form of spiritual recovery practice in itself. Mindfulness is incredibly simple: all it requires is to observe our own thoughts or perform any activity with our whole attention focused on it. As a spiritual recovery practice, it can help us break out of “non-peaceful” thoughts, including ones that push us closer to our addictions and habits.

There are countless benefits of mindfulness that have now been backed by science. For one thing, neuroscience research tells us that mindfulness benefits the brain by rewiring circuits responsible for stress and chronic pain and boosting those related to focus and attention! There have been many recent studies that show mindfulness as one of the best ways to boost our mental and physical health.

According to an article in the NIH newsletter News in Health, practicing mindfulness can help with a host of mental health issues, including depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and addiction. Additionally, mindfulness has other health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing stroke risk).

And as neuroimaging studies have shown, mindfulness can physically change the neurological wiring of our brain. A large-scale study in BioMed Research International titled “The Meditative Mind: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of MRI Studies” paints an impressive picture of the brain “on mindfulness.” According to many studies reviewed within the report, participating in mindfulness-based practices physically rewires the brain, engaging circuits that promote resilience, self-awareness, and reduced impulsivity.

4. Nature-Based Approaches to Spirituality

Spending time in nature is yet another way to connect to something greater than ourselves (without the need for organized religion or the 12 Steps). One of the best expressions of this sentiment comes from American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Nature, he writes: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair.”

Nature has proven to be just as versatile within therapeutic contexts. Recently, ecotherapy has been touted as a great form of treatment for those who might be reluctant to engage in traditional talk therapy. According to psychologist Maurie Lung, “One of the top benefits that we address are for people who are trying to reduce anxiety or depression and increase relationship and connection … it’s super engaging, so for kids and teenagers ... [and] for people who are reluctant to be in therapy.”

There are many ways we can use nature as a therapeutic and spiritual springboard. There’s no need to travel tens or hundreds of miles to a faraway National Park, forest, or beach — a city park or even your own backyard will do. All we need to find is a small sanctuary away from the noise and traffic where we can feel connected to natural surroundings and walk or just simply sit and meditate.

5. Creativity-Based Approaches

As author Kurt Vonnegut said, “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” Creativity is, indeed, another way to grow spiritually while supporting our recovery. After all, rediscovering our true self and our new purpose is an inherently creative process. That’s also what makes it fun!

One of the clearest ways in which creative pursuits can become a spiritual practice is through the state of “flow.” Defined by psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as optimal experience done for its own sake, flow is liberating and spiritually fulfilling: “It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.”

We can achieve flow through any activity that captures our creative attention — painting, writing, gardening, cooking, or creating a digital photo collage. Flow is all about the process instead of the result (no need to be a Picasso, Chopin, or even a Top Chef contestant). By absorbing ourselves fully in the creative process, we automatically tap into something greater than ourselves — and that’s where things start to get spiritual!

Science shows that engaging in activities that make us feel fully absorbed — the kind that give us the sense of being outside of time — naturally quiet the part of our brain that’s in charge of judgments and ruminating thoughts. Such activities serve as a boost of dopamine — the feel-good neurotransmitters that get depleted with increased alcohol use. While there are many “flavors” of flow (for example, artistic pursuits or socializing with friends), spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation are among the best ways to get into this state.

Creating a Spiritual Recovery

How can we start getting in touch with our spiritual side and tap into the power of spiritual recovery? Here are some ideas:

  • Narrow down the options by exploring different spiritual paths to find what resonates with you personally. Visit religious centers and churches focused on a philosophy that sparks your interest. Check out some 12-step meetings to see if the community you find there makes you feel at home. Also, consider yoga classes and mindfulness groups in your area, as well as communities devoted to creativity and nature. Or just try them out on your own by reading, looking up resources online, listening to podcasts, or watching videos related to a practice that piques your interest.
  • Experiment with different formats and approaches after you’ve chosen a path. For example, try different types of meditation, various artistic activities, or different types of 12-step meetings, all of which have a slightly different atmosphere and rhythm.
  • Surround yourself with a community or support group that respects and supports your spiritual journey. This can be a church community, a 12-step group, a yoga or meditation community, or even a local art class or nature society. As long as the vibe is supportive and resonates with your recovery goals, it will be an enriching experience and will help you form authentic connections with people on a similar path.

Daily Spiritual Tips

Finally, let’s look at some specific suggestions for incorporating spirituality into daily life to support recovery. Drawing on the wisdom of Wayne Dyer once again, let’s take a look at how he advises us to incorporate spiritual elements into our daily lives for optimal growth (as well as recovery from addictive behaviors) in There’s a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem. His words resonate with many and have a trademark touch of warmth and compassion.

  • “Tune in” to your own thoughts. This form of mindfulness can work wonders for recovering from substance misuse or other habits. Tuning in is all about watching your thoughts without judgment, just to get a clear “lay of the land.” Don’t focus on changing anything — simply observe. You’ll find that the more you do this, the more control you’ll have over which thoughts you choose to act on. In Dyer’s words, “Activating spiritual solutions means converting inner thoughts and feelings from discord and disharmony to love.”
  • Practice “allowing” instead of striving or expecting. As Dyer says, “Perfect joy is found in the absence of striving for it, and instead realizing it is within you.”
  • Train your focus and attention. According to Dyer, “Concentration breeds efficiency while division brings inefficiency, error, and tension.”
  • Stay curious, playful, and creative. As Dyer says, “Often we use the word problem only because we have not learned that imagination and creativity can handle the situation.”

A Spiritual GPS

In Divine Living: The Essential Guide To Your True Destiny, destiny coach Anthon St. Maarten writes, “Intuition goes before you, showing you the way. Emotion follows behind, to let you know when you go astray. Listen to your inner voice: it is the calling of your spiritual GPS system seeking to keep you on track towards your true destiny.” Let’s turn to our “spiritual GPS” to jumpstart our own version of spiritual recovery!

Summary FAQs

1. What is spiritual recovery?

Spiritual recovery is all about connecting with something greater than yourself as a part of your alcohol journey. While for some it might be a religious or 12-step community, others can find spiritual connection in nature, creativity, and mindfulness.

2. What are the benefits of exploring spirituality in recovery?

Spirituality in recovery has many benefits. It helps us gain a sense of purpose, connect with a community, navigate cravings, and build up our resilience.

3. How can I start incorporating spiritual elements into my recovery?

You can start by exploring different paths and finding specific modalities that resonate with you. For example, visit different group meetings, meditation sessions, or online groups to find your “spiritual tribe.”

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