Most people beginning their journey into recovery enter through the gateway of a 12-step program. Especially in early recovery, the religious connotation of the language in the Big Book can be challenging for those who have not yet developed a spiritual belief system or, in some cases, have suffered as a result of previous religious upbringing or involvement. (Even those who have already developed strong religious or spiritual beliefs may find their faith shaken and tested by the many perils of life in recovery, after all.) It is common for 12-step groups to begin or end with the Serenity prayer and other spiritual or religious readings, and many veterans of the program have seen the rolling eyeballs and uncomfortable stares of newcomers unaccustomed to spiritual discussion and unsure of their own beliefs.
Spirituality vs. Religion: What’s the Difference?
Some people automatically equate spirituality and religion— but the two are not the same. Religion offers a more structured, theologically based platform for exploring one’s relationship with God and is generally oriented more toward rituals, sacraments, and other traditional practices. Although religion contains a strong core of spirituality, it is more formal in application and community-focused.
Spirituality, on the other hand, is generally understood to be a more personalized sense of connection to God/“Higher Power” or the meaning of life. To most people, spirituality is rooted in individual experiences of love, compassion, and understanding of the interconnectedness of the universe and all of creation. Despite its more independent orientation, spirituality has strong pockets of community focus and group involvement, both inside and outside of 12-step recovery.
How Spirituality Is Critical to Recovery
Research has revealed that spirituality is a critical aspect of recovery. Addiction is a stubborn, disempowering disease that hijacks free will and tarnishes the very foundation of spirituality— one’s ability to choose. Once addicted, people become isolated. Disconnected from themselves and others, they struggle to make clear, balanced decisions, largely because of the cumulative effects of whatever substance they are unleashing on their brain.
Finding freedom from the stranglehold of the disease requires spiritual connection: getting anchored to life meaning and a purpose greater than oneself.
Although there are rare cases where people manage to achieve long-term sobriety without the vital support of spirituality or religion, they are overshadowed by the failure of those who refuse to consider the presence of a Higher Power and greater purpose in life. Someone may arrogantly feel powerful enough to beat the disease themselves— solely as a result of their own willpower and intelligence. This self-inflating strategy may work for a while but, inevitably, the struggle becomes overwhelming and the ship of their recovery sinks under the heavy weight of a depressing, nihilistic vision.
Initiates in the world of early recovery often take comfort in knowing the common struggles of their peers and making spiritual connections as they gradually adjust to the pace of the program. When someone is told at a 12-step meeting, “it works if you work it,” as is often the case, they are receiving not only excellent advice relating to every aspect of life— but especially to the spiritual and practical aspects of their own recovery. When they are told, “principles above personalities,” they are receiving further confirmation of the importance of spirituality to the program, which demands earnest commitment to developing a relationship with a Higher Power in life.
For many people in early recovery, there is no need to overindulge in religious involvement or become fanatical about developing a sense of spiritual identity. Until a deeper spiritual connection and understanding naturally emerge, practices such as daily prayer, meditation, and mindfulness can all help provide a solid foundation. And sometimes, a simple walk along the ocean shore, a close look at a beautiful sunset or the nighttime stars is all it takes to remind them that they are not alone in the universe—and, that there is always hope beyond every struggle.