Spirituality and Addictions


"When I’m trying to encourage clients struggling with addiction to attend a 12-step program I often hear 'I don’t get anything out of that' or 'I don’t see how hanging out with a bunch of people talking about how terrible their lives are is supposed to help me.' Notice the self-focus in both objections to getting help."

This series is intended for information purposes only and is not intended as a guide for any reader’s specific mental health situation. If you are struggling with mental or emotional symptoms, see your physician for a physical checkup and consult a mental health professional.

Before I became a psychologist and a writer, I studied engineering and mathematics. I still love physics. One of the enduring questions in physics is whether light is a particle or a wave. Physicists have never resolved that mystery either way. Instead they say that light sometimes behaves like a particle and sometimes like a wave. When we ask, “What is addiction?” I think we face a similar dilemma. Is it a disease that needs treatment like diabetes or any other physical problem? Or is it a dysfunctional way of dealing with the difficulties of life marked by perpetual self-medication and denial? Is addiction a physical disease or a spiritual problem? As with light, I think the answer is both.

If you’re familiar with the 12-step model you know that it encompasses both the disease view of addiction and a spiritual way of being in recovery. The first step involves admitting that one is powerless over substances and that one’s life has become unmanageable. This is a statement both about the power of the disease of substance abuse and the harmfulness of its effects. The second step refers to a Power greater than oneself as the key to recovering. Seven of the 12 steps refer to a higher power, God, or spiritual awakening. Just as mindfulness eventually becomes not a technique to practice but a way of living, the 12 steps are far more than a model of recovery. They are about a spiritual awakening that transforms lives.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur said that the human dilemma is that we are finite beings with infinite longings. This is one way to think about the spiritual dimension of addiction. People struggle with the finite limitations of their lives—their intimate relationships, depression, chronic pain, social anxiety, sense of aloneness and desire to fit in, or their boredom with life. Addictive substances give a temporary break from finite realities. Anxieties are eased, pain fades from front and center, the world momentarily loses its rough edges. But, of course, addiction only makes one’s finite situation more difficult, which reinforces the need to continue using the substance to escape again and again.

Addiction is like having Bernie Madoff as your personal advisor. All the while addiction is telling you it is taking wonderfully good care of you it is robbing you blind—robbing you of your health, your relationships, your reputation, your self-respect. Yet you treat it like a trusty old friend. It’s a Ponzi scheme that’s bound to come crashing down, but today life is difficult and it’s easier to just keep believing the lies.

A spiritual approach to addiction involves an acceptance that life is difficult for everyone and that certain ways of trying to make it less so make it not just more difficult but nearly unlivable. Addiction is mindlessness in action. Instead of being present to inner tension or the outer circumstances of life that require our best energies, addictive thinking is on autopilot, but that autopilot keeps threatening to crash our whole life project. Does mindfulness practice have a role in recovery, a role in addressing the mindlessness of addiction? Every aspect of recovery is enhanced when mindfulness becomes a deep habit. Mindfulness allows I am aware of having cravings to be present without having to act on cravings. It allows I am aware I want to use, and I am aware I feel ashamed to call anyone to proceed to a decision to reach out. It can help put a gap between triggers to use and using. Mindfulness can help a person in recovery be aware of when the lies return, see them for what they are, and draw on others for support.

When I’m trying to encourage clients struggling with addiction to attend a 12-step program I often hear “I don’t get anything out of that” or “I don’t see how hanging out with a bunch of people talking about how terrible their lives are is supposed to help me.” Notice the self-focus in both objections to getting help. For any of us, with or without addictions, self-focus is the most basic spiritual disease. I often suggest people go to meetings expecting to get nothing for themselves. Instead, I tell them to stay alert for opportunities to help another struggling person. When they offer their objections to “all that religious stuff,” I tell them I consider a 12-step community to be one of the most genuine spiritual gatherings on the planet because people drop their well-crafted public personas and tell the truth about how the Bernie Madoff of addiction is making off with the best parts of their lives.

As I wrote in the second segment of this series, theologian Martin Buber called the highest form of relationship I-Thou. Such a relationship requires seeing the sacred dimension of oneself and the other. When two people treat each other this way, Buber says, God is the energy that flows between them. That is my way of understanding the Higher Power that is so central to the 12-step model. If you don’t believe in any kind of Being as a Higher Power, you can still see a power larger than yourself in a community of people that is willing to be vulnerable, real, and supportive—people who can see past the mess and treat you as a Thou, a sacred human being who has lost none of your inherent dignity and worth. And by your involvement in a 12-step community you can become one who can pass the I-Thou light on to others.

Returning to the question I posed at the beginning of this article—Is addiction a physical disease or a spiritual problem?—we can now say that light comes to the darkness of addiction through admitting it is a disease and by allowing various spiritual pillars to support recovery: openness to a power larger than yourself, involvement in a spiritual support community, mindfulness as an alternative to mindless addictive patterns, compassion for others born of your own familiarity with suffering, and service born of that compassion.

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