What is Spirituality?
For years I drove around with a spare wheel cover that had a picture of the globe and the words “only connect,” the epigraph to EM Forster’s novel Howards End. In parking lots, strangers would approach me and asked what it meant. I’d reply, “What do you think it means?” Then we’d discuss how connecting would solve most, if not all, of our personal and the world’s problems.
Connection is the essence of spirituality, which is a set of relationships with self, others, and a higher power. We are born spiritual beings. Looking at this relational definition of spirituality we can see how picking up a drink or a drug for the first time so often facilitated a sense of connection.
Did you feel comfortable in your own skin the first time you used? That’s a connection to self.
Did you feel “I finally fit in”? That’s a connection to others.
Did you feel an expanded awareness of the universe? (One man told me “Alcohol was my first religious experience.”) That’s a connection to something larger than ourselves.
However, by the time we get into recovery, most of us are more isolated, alone, alienated and empty than ever because any spiritual connection gained through alcohol and other drugs is not sustainable.
Our work in recovery is to find healthy ways to fulfill our human need to be connected.
Spirituality or Religion?
I experienced the difference between religion and spirituality the summer I was an exchange student in Turkey. I lived with a family outside of Istanbul and spent weekdays swimming in the Marmara sea. The women cooked vegetables, eggplant and yogurt, visited in the afternoons over tea, and we all played cards at night. On the weekends, the men arrived from the city and we celebrated: the food was more festive, instruments appeared, and we danced and drank raki. My Turkish mother, who had worn only two dresses all summer, made me a dress as a parting gift to add to my suitcase of clothes. Although I didn’t speak any Turkish when I arrived, by the end of ten weeks I was speaking a rough syntax and experienced a connection with others that went beyond words. I got drunk for the first time in my life in Turkey, and I remember expressing in a gush my love for these warm and generous people.
When I returned to high school, deeply tanned and bleached blond by the saltwater and sun, I presented my slides and experiences with over a dozen civic organizations in my small town. I loved sharing the customs and practices of this Muslim culture and was happy every time I spoke, reliving the magical three months on the other side of the world. Apparently this concerned my pastor, who one Sunday took me aside and said, “JoAnn, I know you had a great time, but you need to realize these people will not go to heaven because they don’t believe in Jesus.” Well, I knew in my bones that if there was such a thing as heaven, these people, with their open hearts and generous spirits, would be there. Right then a crack emerged between religion and spirituality because I trusted my own experience of connection more than I believed religious authority.
The Twelve Step path of recovery is not religious; it is a program of spiritual action. The writers of the Big Book Alcoholics Anonymous expanded the religious notions that were its underpinnings from the Oxford Group, modeled on first-century Christianity. They made this spiritual path more inclusive by calling God a Higher Power, Creative Intelligence, and Spirit of the Universe and by inserting “God as we understood Him” into the Steps. We are invited to set aside any religious prejudice so that we remain open to the spiritual solution to addiction. Had I relied only on my religious training while I was in Turkey, I could have missed the generosity of spirit and wealth of connections I experienced with the village and family.
Many think of this journey into recovery as a spiritual quest, a walk through wilderness no one has charted. While it is true that everyone’s journey is unique and we have our individual stories of how we arrive at the door of recovery, the Steps, set down as “suggestions” and “guides to spiritual progress,” resemble a pilgrimage that millions have walked, with guides (sponsors), and milestones (steps), and maps (the literature of the program). The Twelve Steps invite us to spend a great deal of time in self-reflection and honest self-appraisal, and in that process we find connection with our inner truth and authentic self.
The invitation to look within rather than outside ourselves for a connection to the sacred is expressed in the Big Book as follows: “We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us.” (p. 55).
When we put down drugs and alcohol and reach out for authentic connection with others, ourselves, and a higher power, we can experience that great reality as the sustaining nectar of a life in recovery.
By JoAnn Campbell-Rice
Renewal and Spiritual Care Coordinator
Dan Anderson Renewal Center at Hazelden