What Is A Spiritual Awakening In Recovery


addiction and spiritual awakening

The English word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, but also "spirit, soul, courage, vigor", ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European *(s)peis. It is distinguished from Latin anima, "soul" (which nonetheless also derives from an Indo-European root meaning "to breathe", earliest form *h2enh1-).

When asking oneself the question of what a “spiritual awakening” is, we are often faced with a psychological dilemma of sorts. Should I buy into this new age way of thinking, or discard it entirely? How can something I lack the ability to entirely understand help me?

If you are hesitant to engage with the concept of spirituality, that is entirely okay. We simply use that word as a means of conveying an otherwise largely ineffable and subjective idea. After some research, however, we can see that while the term might have a “new-age” stigma associated with it, psychologists have been investigating the phenomenon for years. While discussing this concept, let us first take a brief look at some commonly accepted definitions of it.

It is a common underlying theme in addicts and alcoholics to feel a constant sense of “dis-ease” in their everyday human experience. This emptiness often leads to a compulsive seeking of gratification from external things: sex, food, drugs, alcohol, cars, money, etc.. While these things may work to fill this void temporarily, eventually the dopamine rush they originally provided wears off and leaves the person in an even darker state of emptiness. After this feedback loop of instant gratification and rebound effects reaches a certain point, we begin to lose sense of reality and the mind becomes tricked into believing the things it once latched onto are the only source of relief. In many ways, once our brain stem becomes exploited in this way, we begin to worship whatever we have identified as a “fast way out.” The irony here is that while we may be cognitively aware of what is going on, we still lack the power to do anything about it. The reason this is relevant to the concept of a spiritual awakening is because we can grasp or understand anything in the world with our thinking minds — and the majority of the time this leads us nowhere. One of the foundations of a spiritual awakening is the recognition that our thoughts and mind can only go so far, and that we are not the most powerful force in the universe, which ironically enough becomes a source of endless empowerment. In this light, we can see how the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for our unique human abilities to “ideate” is largely intertwined with what Sigmond Freud and Carl Jung referred to as the “human ego.”

While it is, as Bill Wilson, co-founder of A.A., wrote, "a broad, roomy, all inclusive" realm, many newcomers to it feel excluded by much of the spiritual language, especially the words God or Higher Power.  "I hated the 12-step literature," "I had trouble with the idea of God," and "I thought the Big Book should be re-written" all are common expressions of the initial reaction many people have in early recovery, many of whom later become active members of 12 step communities.  The narrative of drastic, if not always sudden, change is expressed symbolically in  Christian psychology as the story of Saul, a persecutor of Christians, who, on the road to Damascus, encounters Christ,  and experiences a rebirth so profound that, now as a disciple, he changes his name, becoming the disciple Paul.  The process of recovery is often much like walking a maze, or labyrinth;  what appears to be a wall ahead may in fact be a turn so sudden the new view cannot yet be seen.  The complexity of the psyche, like the folding lobes of the labyrinth, makes it impossible to receive and integrate all of experience at once, which is why the first-person narrative of the 12-step tradition, the story of I've been there, helps to suggest to the newcomer the possibility of a new orientation to experience.

At the heart of Jungian psychology is the notion of individuation, of becoming a distinct entity with sufficient gravity to attract others, meaning that only an I can speak to a you.  

All of the punishments imagined in Hades entail the agony of a meaningless repetition--only something miraculous could release Sisyphus from pushing his rock, or finally offer Tantalus the nourishment eternally just out of reach.  This is why recovered addicts often speak of the everyday "miracles of this program:"  from the narrow circuit of self-punishing behavior, a vision is needed "of something greater than myself" for the faith of creative living to be restored.  As Jung wrote in a well-known letter to Bill Wilson,  alcoholism represents "a craving...on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in mediaeval language: the union with God."   Such a union, as Wilson wrote later in the Big Book,  suggests more than following "a mere code of morals," more than the literal, externally sanctioned rules of conventional religion.  The mystical knowledge of gnosis  (in contrast with agnosticism, or not knowing) implies a deep and direct, intuitive access to the Self--an idea Jung derived from Indian philosophy.  

Atman, soul, Self or Higher Power all express a sense of who we are beyond the limits of the ego's daily experiences.   Jungian psychology concerns itself less with God as an extrinsically defined entity, as it does with the image (or imago) of God as it exists in the Psyche, or, in the words of Twelve Step spirituality, God as you understand God.   Whether or not a deity exists cannot be proven or demonstrated, but that people throughout history have believed in one can be--the belief in God, then, is a measure of what Jung called psychic reality.  The invisible topography of the Psyche can only be inferred, glimpsed as if in mirrors or watery reflections, by our beliefs,  by the characters and myths we create, by our poetry and song.

  When Nietzche declared God's death at the end of the nineteenth century, he spoke an attitude that has characterized modern life, one that Wilson addresses in We Agnostics.  But the philosopher could have added that, as water becomes vapor, becomes cloud, becomes rain, becomes new water, so we live in cycles of death, transformation and rebirth.   Just as in childhood, we often reject the toys we loved, only later to reclaim them, so, often, a period of alienation is necessary for a new connection to be made, at a higher level,  in consciousness.     

The story of God's death and rebirth is not a new one; it is simply that for the first time we are no longer living solely within the story's dream, nor forgetting its symbolic message, but are awakening, and awakening into the capacity for remembrance.

This death and rebirth occurs within the individual Psyche in recovery; it is the recovery of one's original potency, the "Divine Child" incarnated, not replicated as it would have been without the advent of suffering, but with the benefit of adult experience, and an adult's capacity to create meaning from what has been lost.