SPIRITUALITY & RECOVERY
As a psychologist with over twenty years of clinical experience, I believe that spirituality can transform personal psychology. After evaluating thousands of people through the legal system, I began to notice that – no matter what the religion or country of origin – people who have spirituality in their lives seem to react similarly to trauma and challenges, but differently from those who are not spiritually involved. People who are spiritually oriented seem to cope better with life’s challenges and to be overall more satisfied with life. I also noticed the same trend within my therapy practice.
These observations were brought home to me when I was awakened to spiritual ideas and began to incorporate them into how I lived my life. A sensitive person, with chronic struggles with relationships and low self-esteem, I found that spiritual values were more in sync with my core – and who I wanted to be. I began to discover a foundation of peace in my life and new avenues and ways to relate to others. Over time, the “old” struggles and emotional torments, that had been so central in my existence, seemed to recede into the background as I followed a new “way” and found a new identity. It is for all these reasons that I feel spiritual belief and practice can be a tremendous and sustaining resource in recovery.
HOW DOES SPIRITUALITY AFFECT US PSYCHOLOGICALLY?
First of all, spirituality is defined in terms of personal experience and perspective. Spirituality is not about the rules and regulations of any one religion, although there are universal core spiritual principles that appear in all religions. Spirituality is “living” philosophy. When people begin to incorporate the core principles into how they live their lives, this affects how they see themselves and life in general, how they behave and interact with others, and even how they feel physically and emotionally.
It is well established by academic psychology that how we view the world affects how we experience the world. This is the old dilemma of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. This is so important in recovery – to maintain an attitude of hope and self-empowerment. Spiritual values are positive and “higher” level (i.e., in contrast to the materialistic, narcissistic, and competitive values so often found in contemporary society.) This leads to more authentic, purposeful and ultimately rewarding behavior – and results in positive feedback from the environment.
SPECIFIC TOOLS FOR RECOVERY…
Let’s look at the three core universal spiritual principles – and how they can be implemented and positively affect recovery.
PRINCIPLE #1 – A BELIEF IN GOD OR GREATER SPIRITUAL UNITY
How one defines a Higher Power or greater spiritual unity is deeply personal and varies from one individual to another. The important point is that a “living” belief in a Higher Power or greater Universe creates a sense of meaningful connection to something beyond one’s self. This sense of connection to a Higher Power translates into actual “spiritual” feelings of belonging, being cared for, peace, serenity, replenishment, physical and psychological harmony, and (at least temporary) respite from emotional ups and downs and the stresses of daily living.
Such “spiritual” feelings wax and wane, but are strengthened by periods of prayer, meditation, contemplation, communing with nature, and going into “the quiet” (however that occurs for the individual.) There does seem to be a place within our consciousness – that we go so far into ourselves that we are beyond ourselves. Here we are able to transcend psychological problems and painful emotions and feel infused with inner tranquility for a space of time. All sorts of activities can lead us into this “quiet” state – such as creative pursuits, gardening, listening to music, even doing routine chores.
It is easy to see how a regular “spiritual” practice (however the person defines that) can be a day-to-day emotionally stabilizing and replenishing regimen. Seeking “spiritual” connection can also be a source of guidance and anchor during emotional upheaval and personal crisis. Often someone will come out of a meditative or contemplative session and feel resolved about a specific issue – or just psychologically renewed in general and ready to push forward. During emotionally difficult times, an internal sense of “spiritual” connection can provide a psychological “lifeline” and “perspective of wisdom.” Even in the midst of turmoil, there is a sense of connection to something meaningful, beyond ourselves – and the realization that this too will pass.
PRINCIPLE #2 – THE IDEA THAT WE ARE “SPIRITUAL” BEINGS WITHIN PHYSICAL BODIES
This principle means that, as individuals, we are on an evolving “spiritual” journey as we go through life – and we have “spiritual” purpose. This reflects on how we view our lives and ourselves. Each of us is equal, but unique in the greater spiritual unity or family. Each of us has our own path – with challenges and opportunities. We are always learning – and always have the opportunity to use what we have learned for our highest good and to serve others. This perspective reframes psychiatric symptoms as a human challenge that the individual faces, and does not categorize, limit, label or focus on such symptoms as central in terms of the person’s identity or self-esteem.
“Living” this principle in recovery means that the important thing is the quality of life, learning from life – and the contribution to life – and everyone defines and experiences that in his or her own way. While it is important that we all take responsibility for our lives (each one of us is “captain” of our own ship, so to speak). this means there is no one standard of wellness or success, although society often portrays life that way.
PRINCIPLE #3 – THE IMPORTANCE OF CHARITY AND COMPASSION
“Living” this principle can be difficult for human beings. It means trying to respect others we meet in life as fellow spiritual travelers, putting our own narcissistic agendas and negative reactions aside, and trying to remain cooperative and compassionate as we relate to others. This can be a balancing act in our dog-eat-dog society – and be particularly challenging for some people in recovery, who may have issues with trust, boundaries, and co-dependency (and thus may be giving compassion where it is not warranted).
One rewarding way to “practice” this principle is involvement in activities that actually serve others – or in groups or projects, that have a higher purpose. This can lead to new ways to relate to people, exposure to others who also are looking to “serve,” and an enhanced sense of value and purpose. Serving others can also actually feel good. Many people describe the same types of “spiritual” feelings (of peace, harmony, and transcendence) that occur in meditation or prayer – when they engage in altruistic activities or reach out to someone is a selfless way. Over time there may be the development of friendships and bonds, based on shared interests, mutual respect, and integrity.
Spirituality, like recovery, is a transformative and ongoing – but often uneven – process throughout life. Like recovery, it requires commitment of the individual, but also reaps immense rewards.
Judy Marshall, Ph.D.
Related CDs > WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY? | A SPIRITUAL APPROACH TO DEPRESSION | SPIRITUAL VS. MEDICAL MODELS OF HEALING
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