How do we know when it’s a beautiful day? What makes us say so? I stood on the lawn the other evening and wondered. Why was I responding so deeply, why was I so moved? And why did I feel so much lighter, like a burden had been lifted?
When I looked around, the answer seemed obvious: beauty, harmony, and flow. Everywhere I turned, I saw the air lifting the leaves, causing them to sparkle with green light, shuffling the blades of grass. Everything seemed to be moving as one, flowing together, creating a picture of perfect harmony, like a moving photograph. Together, they created beauty: the moment when everything comes together and aligns with the wiring in our brains to evoke a response in us of peace, joy, or bliss.
We are hardwired for this. When all of the aspects of a thing come together to make a whole greater than the parts, it is called holistic. The idea that there may now be other methods of treatment than the 12 Steps—including ones that aim at addressing every aspect of the person in recovery, even making a full cure possible—is appearing in more and more discussions of recovery.
We live in a time in which many of the older ways of doing things are giving way to new ones. This is certainly true of religion. Most of us are probably familiar with the popular saying, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” But it looks like this sentiment is also impacting the 12 Steps. In this blog, I want to take a look at the roles of religion, spirituality, and holism; and raise the question, “What does ‘spiritual’ really mean?
In an article at psychologytoday.com entitled “AA Without the God,” Dr. David Sack, a specialist in addiction psychiatry, asks, “Is believing in a higher power an essential component of the recovery process?” He notes that “…I’ve heard often in my years helping those with addictions: ‘I tried AA, but I just couldn’t get past the God part.’” “The God part” has to do with all the references to God and spirituality, that are in AA and other 12-Step literature, as well as “the more overt signs of religion that can be part of some AA meetings, such as the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer.”
Dr. Sack reflects both sides of this complex issue:
For the agnostic, atheist and humanist, it can feel like a distraction from the work at hand as well as a disturbing admonishment to check their beliefs at the door. For others, however, tapping into God’s power is the very thing that makes recovery possible. How, then, to ignore it?
The 12-Step groups are not unaware of the dilemma. It was sensitivity to these concerns on that led AA to “encouraging a personal definition of God as any higher power the person may choose. It could be…nature, love or the AA group as a whole.” But Dr. Sack takes exception to this, saying
Even so, when the nonreligious find themselves encouraged to follow steps such as “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out” (italics in the original), the process rings hollow.
With all respect to my friends in one or another program, this has always felt to me like it just ducks the problem. For one thing, “God” has been an established concept in human thought for thousands of years. We all know what it’s supposed to mean: a supreme, all-powerful, all-knowing Being, the Creator of everything. It’s hard to use that word and shake that meaning.
Even if we drop the “old man with a beard on a throne” model, it’s still hard to imagine how an infinite being could be anything like us. Then there’s all that sexist and authoritarian language: we’re supposed to seek to understand “him,” and to discover “his will” for us. The language reflects an ancient model of the world and structure of society that most of us have never experienced. How many of us have been the subjects of a “Lord”?
Dr. Sack then returns to his original question:
Broadening the concept of higher power…doesn’t answer the question whether this belief is essential to the recovery process.
Belief has been an important part of religion, the driver that empowers the whole process. For decades, there was pushback against this from more liberal parties within religion, who stressed experience more than belief. But recent medical studies have increasingly suggested that belief, after all, may be just as potent as the ancient teachings claimed, as the idea of “the placebo effect” has gone from something said to dismiss symptoms as “just in your head” to a legitimate branch of investigation. Studies have shown that what we think, the words we use, and how we perceive have profound impact on our emotions, health, work, and relationships. Alternative thinkers like Dr. Joe Dispenza, in his book, You Are the Placebo, say that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the power of the human mind—ironically suggesting that all of those revival tent miracle workers may have been on to something, while questioning whether the actual power belongs to an outside God or is something inside all of us.
Such findings have led agnostics and atheists in recovery to create new organizations that reword the Steps in modern language. One of these is AA Agnostica, described by Dr. Sack as “a website created by a group of secular AA members…for those put off by the religious content of some AA meetings.”
In an article at wellmind.com called “The 12 steps for Agnostics and Atheists,” Dr. Michael McGee, author of the book The Joy of Recovery, presents the AA Agnostica version of the Steps. Here are the first three (you can find them all and more at www.agnostica.org):
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe and accept that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.
Secular AA groups can now be found in almost every major city in the United States.
If you have trouble relating to the religious language in AA, one of these groups might be just the thing. But you should know that the 12-Step community is divided as to the wisdom of stripping out the God-talk from the Steps. In Indianapolis and Toronto, the right of agnostic versions of AA to list their meetings in the local AA directory was challenged by traditional members, who de-listed them.
Part of the conflict here probably stems from the fact that AA was co-founded by Bill Wilson, and it was his experience of what he regarded as a spiritual power that enabled his recovery. So spirituality was woven into the beginnings of the 12-Steps. But as far back as 1946, Wilson left cautionary words to keep AA as open as possible:
So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti- social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an A.A. Group if they think so! (Original italics)
In the light of all the changes since, even the inclusion of spirituality in the meetings has led some who are uncomfortable with this to form still more secular organizations. These include:
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety
- SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training)
- Rational Recovery (RR)
- Addiction Alternatives
Dr. McGee notes that roughly 488 million Buddhists practice a religion that doesn’t include God, and says that “the 12 step fellowships are spiritual, not religious,” and that “Everyone can develop their spirituality without having a belief in God.” But what if you don’t believe in the spiritual, either? Or don’t see the difference?
The Home page of axisresidentialtreatment.com features a piece called “Can the 12 Steps Work for Non-Religious Addicts?” It presents the provocative information that the journal
Substance Abuse and Misuse…identified spirituality as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to participation for many prospective members. In a culture that prizes self-reliance and secularism, a lot of addicts resist the idea of admitting that they can’t control their substance use or manage their lives without the help of a spiritual force.
More and more secular treatment programs are presenting a different paradigm, suggesting that addiction is “a learned behavior rather than a spiritual disease.” And there is a growing body of evidence that there is a definite genetic component to addiction.
This has led some treatment centers to adopt the holistic approach I mentioned at the beginning. The Sanctuary in Sedona, Arizona is one of these. On their website, sanctuary.net, in an introduction titled “Non 12 Step, Holistic Alcohol Rehabilitation,” they make the controversial assertion that “We believe that addiction is not the ‘chronic, incurable and relapsing disease’ that traditional recovery models have believed in. We also believe that addiction can be cured…”
This of course contradicts the identification of oneself as “an alcoholic” that is part of the opening of every traditional AA meeting.
The Sanctuary takes the position that one of the reasons traditional methods have sometimes failed is because “until the underlying root causes of alcohol addiction are addressed, abstinence will be so uncomfortable that relapse will likely result.” They argue that
Identifying, addressing and resolving underlying trauma gets to the root cause of many people’s need for alcohol. When trauma is resolved, there is no longer a need for numbing its symptoms by drinking.
A more holistic, integrated approach is needed in which all parts of one’s life related to the alcohol problem are restored to balance.
They go on to claim that “we offer you a full and sustainable recovery.” (Italics mine)
The methods The Sanctuary employs include “nutrition, bodywork, acupuncture, herbalism, Energy Medicine, Functional Medicine, psychology and psychiatry.” If what they say is so, does it make the Steps outdated, being surpassed by more cutting-edge treatments—just as many are finding religion and spirituality outdated?
Marya Hornbacher, the author of Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Power, addresses many of these issues:
I was one of those people who came into the Twelve Step program and was more confused by the notion of a Higher Power than opposed to it….I waited for that sense of the presence of a Higher Power that I’d heard of. I chastised myself for not being open to real spiritual experience. It was one of the loneliest things I’ve ever done….It sent me, actually, to a pretty bad place.
But Hornbacher goes on to relate what happened to her in a way that I think brings it all together:
Finally someone pulled me aside after a meeting. He said, “Here’s the thing. I don’t know what God is, or if there is a God. I only know that there are moments when…I get that sense of being spiritual. Of something alive in me. It’s not necessarily a sense that something outside me is present. It’s the sense that I am present.
This is the crux of the thing: “Something. Alive. In me.” Can “spiritual” mean “something undefined and bigger than anything we know, that has the power to make us whole now?” Hornbacher sums up what she learned:
I recognized that what I felt…was a spiritual experience. It was an enormous relief. I stopped feeling like I was doing the whole thing wrong…. I could move forward with a new sense of what spirit meant….
This last part is almost identical to the confessions of thousands of people throughout history. Hornbacher’s experience suggests the truth and value of such experiences is not confined to religion; and that the shift to redefining these things as “spiritual” is not necessarily the last word, either.
For all its God language, the Twelve Step program isn’t actually an attempt at religious conversion….This is about how we live here….Some believe that a God is the guiding force and principle in this evolution in ourselves. I believe what guides us is already in us, is in fact the deepest part of who we are…. (Italics mine)
That evolution itself is a spiritual process…It is my belief that just as much as we need to reach outward in our search for spiritual nourishment, we need to reach deeper within.
From a scientific standpoint, it just means we are a brand-new species as far as evolution is concerned. We’re not very mature yet. Maybe part of our immaturity is our inability to see that concepts like “God” and “spirit”, “outside” and “inside,” are ultimately just words, and our best chance of recovery lies in using all of the means at our disposal for healing while not getting too attached to any of them.
For my money, this is what Don Joseph Goewey’s book, The End of Stress, points to:
…there is a direct connection between attitude and the capacity of the brain to change in ways that quell stress reactions and expand brain capacity. It’s a very simple algorithm: a change of attitude that changes your experience literally changes your brain structure.
Change your attitude from judgmental to compassionate, from defensive to open, and you will experience people differently. Change your attitude from pessimistic to optimistic and you will experience problems differently…Change your attitude from worry and doubt to faith and trust and you will experience life in a completely new way. Change your attitude from fear to peace and you will end stress…. (Italics mine)
Right here is where religion, spirituality, and science make the same point: we are not locked in to the way things have been. There is hope for the future, if we have the faith to make a change in our fundamental attitudes. The discovery of the brain’s neuroplasticity provides the explanation for what human beings have always intuited: we have the power to change. Maybe this is why the great spiritual teachers have always argued that these changes are available to everyone, even though it often doesn’t look that way. I’d like to believe it.