Many people who enter treatment for addiction recovery are taken aback by the spiritual concepts normally associated with a recovery program. Others initially welcome the spiritual aspects, returning to a religious belief system they once were familiar with, as it instills a sense of hope for them. Still others view the 12-step program as a cult like movement. Others are atheists, and have trouble with any program that suggests they rely upon an unseen force or entity. This article will attempt to address these circumstances, as well as provide some spiritual beliefs that the reader may have been previously unfamiliar with. It will also focus on some of the similarities between religions of the world, spirituality, and the 12 step program. Most of this information comes from my personal experience and readings on spirituality.
I will begin by addressing the atheist entering recovery, as this is the easiest to address. An atheist is someone who denies the existence of any higher power. In this case, the only suggestion I have is to make the group conscious your higher power. Bounce your decisions off of a few recovering people, and follow the consensus. The 12-step programs have an excellent acronym for GOD- Good Orderly Direction. If a consensus of recovering people lean toward a certain decision, and you have been honest with them (not manipulated the facts to guide them toward the decision you want to make) then this is good orderly direction. It is important to use recovering people or people who have a thorough understanding of recovery, because they are aware of more of the intricacies of recovery and its effect on thinking. After all, any good addict could probably get a group of people who know little about recovery to condone their drinking beer or wine or smoking marijuana, especially if these were not the drugs of choice.
I have only known well one person who was a true atheist. Even this person relates to some Eastern philosophies that will be introduced here. So I hope that an open mind in the atheist will prevail, as this discussion from here on out will be largely spiritual in nature. As for agnostics (those who are unsure of whether a Higher power exists or not) I do not believe I can say it any better than the authors did in the chapter of “Alcoholics Anonymous” (The Big Book) “We Agnostics.” I refer the agnostic reader there.
As to an individual who has difficulty accepting the tenets of their given religion, I encourage exploration. I have known people who quickly returned to the faith they were raised in, particularly, Christianity. This person dove into the New Testament; to the point other counselors confronted them on trying to find an easier, softer way to recover. This person was then asked to no longer read the Bible, and focus on recovery. Later in the treatment center other counselors introduced this individual to varied beliefs. These included mystical and Eastern beliefs that varied greatly from Western religious beliefs. Once the individual left rehab they kept exploring, and since have formed a belief system that has components of varied origin, but that they are comfortable with. I encourage anyone who is uncomfortable with their given belief system to explore others.
There are many world religions, and there would be no way I could include them all here. I will address some of the major ones, and provide any minimal understanding I have of their core beliefs.
The Jewish Religion- includes different interpretations of the sacred text as with most major religions. The best explanation I have of the Jewish God is from the Old Testament. There are guidelines for behavior and for entrance to heaven. There is no threat of hell. There has not yet been a messiah or savior.
Christianity- this religion includes many different sects, ie: Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness, etc. Believes Christ is the savior, and he must be accepted as such to reach heaven. Failure to do so results in condemnation to hell or non-exsistance. The rules surrounding other aspects of Christianity vary be sect.
Islamic- This religion also has sects. The God of Islam, usually referred to as Allah, is similar to the God of the Jewish and Christian religions, in that It will render judgment. A core belief is that Mohammed was a prophet after the time of Jesus (who was a prophet not the savior). Holy book is the Quran.
Buddhism- Another religion that also has varying sects. The goal is enlightenment; there is no afterlife, as Westerners understand it. Some sects believe in reincarnation, others believe in a simple return to energy, which permeates all living things. The Buddha is not God, and there are actually several Buddhas. A Buddha is anyone who attains nirvana and returns to this existence until all living things are enlightened.
Hinduism- Again, there are varying sects. Believer of this religion believe in one God who is at once everything and more than everything. Everything that makes up this reality is God, or Brahman, as it is called in the Hindu religion. Reincarnation as another living being is a central belief.
Taoism- Taoism is a Eastern natural religion, also with differing beliefs by varying sects. Generally speaking, the higher power is a force that moves through all. When working in flow with this force, things are good; when acts go against the flow, things are harder. There is no judgment, just being in or out of the flow.
Of course there are many other religions that I have not covered, but these are the world’s major religions. What has always struck me as interesting about the world religions is how people argue about which is right, look at the religions other than their own with fear or disdain, and yet these religions are so similar. All religions have guidelines for behavior, for which the ultimate goal is to bring one closer to their higher power. For example, in the Jewish and Christian religion there are commandments, which guide ones behavior. The Islamic religion also has commandments that guide one’s behavior for the benefit of all humanity. In Buddhism, there is the eight-fold path to enlightenment, which consists of guidelines such as “right intention, right action and right speech,” obviously among others. In the Hindu religion, all living things are part of “God”, thereby inferring that one would act accordingly, and do no harm. It seems a reasonable assumption then that all religions impress upon its followers to behave in a fashion that most rational people would perceive as good.
Someone who is familiar with the 12 steps of any 12 step program (as they are all similar with some semantic changes to address the particular malady) would likely agree that the 12 step program is also a guideline for behavior that will bring one closer to a higher power. Bill Wilson, a cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, at times corresponded with Carl Jung, a prominent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst of the time. In a letter Jung wrote to Wilson, he described alcoholism as a “thirst for wholeness.” This is interpreted to describe a longing to be closer to one’s God. Bill Wilson held a belief that alcoholism required a spiritual cure. He prescribed the cure in the 12 steps.
If we step back for a moment, it is easy to see why the 12 step programs are considered spiritual programs. There is room for any religious belief, any higher power, but a belief in something beyond the realm of perceived reality is helpful.
I like to step back even further. At the risk of offending anyone, I propose that all religions are perhaps just guidelines to enlightened living. Perhaps rather than just one religion being right, they all are different paths to the same goal. And perhaps this goal; enlightened living and the proper treatment of all living things, is the goal for all of humanity, and the only goal any God wants.
This brings me to a book that lays out a seven-fold path to enlightened living. The author, Robin S. Sharma, identified seven virtues to enlightened living. I have shortened the explanations in the interest of space.
Master your mind- This refers to monitoring your thinking, replacing the preponderance of negative thoughts one thinks throughout the day with positive ones. This is similar to cognitive challenging, a therapeutic technique I advocate, practice, and highly recommend. Simply monitor your thoughts, or think about your thinking. Challenge the negative ones and replace them with more optimistic and positive thoughts. The power of positive thinking is well documented.
Follow your purpose- This is a direction to discover, and enact, your purpose in life. Perhaps you love art. If so make art. Set time aside regularly to do what you love, and what you believe your purpose may be.
Practice Kaizen- Kaizen is a Japanese word that basically means self-improvement. This virtue refers to setting aside time daily to improve yourself, both intellectually and physically. This includes exercise, meditation, reading and studying, or any other form of self-improvement you can think of.
Live with discipline- This refers to self discipline. Do the things you know are best for you, despite an aversion to them. Get up early to meditate, even though your thoughts may say to skip it. Or do the chores around your house you’d rather put off.
Respect your time- Most people “kill time” on occasion. This virtue is about making use of your time, and realizing your time is limited. I try to live by a deathbed philosophy. Am I doing anything now I will regret on my deathbed, in respect to time? For example, I once read in “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” “No one ever wished they had spent more time at the office when on their deathbed.” I try to make time for the things that are important, family, loved ones, etc. This is not to say I don’t work my fair share, because I do. But I also prioritize time with loved ones.
Selflessly serve others- It seems true that when someone helps others they help themselves. This is true in recovery and anywhere else in life. Most religions encourage helping others.
Embrace the present- Too many people hamper their present with regret or baggage from the past or worries about the future. The present is all we have. Its like AA says, “if you have one foot in the past and one in the future, you’re shitting all over today.”

Regardless of whether my proposition that religions are a path to the same goal is correct or not, the benefit of the 12 steps to a recovering individual is undeniable. Most people in recovery, who have worked the 12 steps, will readily agree the program has had a spiritual affect on them. This is not to say that they are beyond reproach. Many 12 step members, as well as Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus fall short at times of the beliefs they purport. All humans are human, and fall short. This is at times difficult to take, especially to someone new to recovery that has perfectionist ideals. It is also a reason many lose faith, whether it is in the 12 step program or in their religion. I mention this so when any reader witnesses someone fall short of their stated or implied beliefs, they do not use it as a rationalization to abandon a spiritual program.
The 12 steps promise a spiritual awakening as a result of working them. There are, however, pitfalls or roadblocks for many along the way. In this world we live in it is often difficult to keep a spiritual focus, especially when dealing with the daily problems that arise in life. Perhaps you have been betrayed by a person who projects a religious image, and have lost faith. Or perhaps you are tempted to denounce all who follow a spiritual purpose as deluded. Perhaps you feel God has let you down in the past. Or maybe just your negative experiences with religious zealots have you fearing becoming one. Whatever your obstacles or roadblocks, I hope you remain open-minded and continue on your path to a spiritual awakening.
In conclusion, I hope I have addressed some of the Spiritual aspects of the recovery process. I believe it is essential in recovery to work a program of personal growth that enhances the self and the relationship with others. The steps are a simple program that lays out a formula for personal growth and spiritual awakening. It has been proven to work in the lives of many an alcoholic and addict. Beyond being sober a new life emerges, one with new perspectives, hopefully a sense of purpose, and a connection with a higher power.

Author's Bio: 

William Berry has worked in the field of addiction for over 15 years. He has been a Certified Addiction Professional since 1996. He has worked in nearly every form of addiction treatment available, including detoxification, residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and traditional outpatient. He has worked with all types of clientele, from the inner city in Philadelphia, to the high functioning substance abusers of Weston area. Mr. Berry has over 12 years experience conducting group and individual therapy.

Mr. Berry is well read in the areas of addiction recovery, psychology, and Eastern philosophy. He obtained a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from FIU.

He is also an Adjunct Professor at Florida International University, conducting a social psychology course in drugs and drug abuse. Recently William has developed seminars for reducing the risk of teenage substance related problems and has developed a workbook for his outpatient program, which is being revised for publishing.

William continues to be creative in his career to keep the passion for what he does alive.