Perhaps you feel stalled out by the spiritual aspect of 12-step programs, all that religious sounding stuff. But before you go out and find a new variation on the 12 steps, one that has been purged of all references to a higher power consider this proposition. Spirituality is something we are born with. We don’t so much acquire it as we discover it as it pops up in the course of our day and as it weaves in and out of our lives at different times.
I was complaining to a friend that my husband wasn’t very spiritual. My friend said that I just needed to look for where his spirituality was. I started thinking about the whole process by which I and my clients and people in recovery look for and find their “spiritual awakening.” Here are some of my own ideas about what it all means.
The Thought Machine
I now believe that spirituality is what happens when you’re not busy doing something else; mostly when you’re not busy thinking. By thinking I mean judging, comparing, labeling, analyzing and everything that goes with verbal thought. Verbal thought is a characteristically human process. In fact it seems to be the default position for most of us most of the time.
But most thinking is preoccupied with past events, anticipated future events, problem solving and fantasizing (imagining things that haven’t happened). Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time deconstructing past experiences and strategizing about future events.
This is not usually a peaceful process nor is it one in which we feel particularly connected to (or mindful of) what is going on around us at the moment. When you stop thinking you reconnect to present reality.
I remember well the gurus of the hippie era who advised us to “Turn on, tune in and drop out.” I now see that they were talking largely to an audience of students and young adults; people in a phase of life that is dominated by achievement and ego driven, competitive pursuits.
It seems that connecting to ourselves, other people, the planet, the universe etc. are put on hold to some extent during our most productive periods of life. (Those who have the chance to work and live as artists are somewhat of an exception.)
In adulthood verbal thought dominates and is essential to learning and career building. But somewhere along the line, especially for recovering people, there comes a wish for greater meaning. Instead of working hard to stay focused and NOT wander off to smell the roses, we now have to find our way back to where we started.
Prayer and meditation are optional
You already have all the spiritual skills you need. So how do you identify them and build on them? There are both activities and attitudes that support a feeling of greater awareness, empowerment and spiritual connectedness.
• Listening to another person without an agenda. Really listening to someone, giving them your full attention requires a letting go of our ego, self-interest, and preconceptions. It is a higher level of consciousness we sometimes achieve accidentally but it is one that we can cultivate.
• Noticing something and allowing yourself to experience it unfiltered. For example, when you listen to the purring of a cat, when you detect a change in someone’s mood, or when you are dazzled by refracted light. No labels, just the pure sensation.
• Reflecting on your own thoughts and emotions. Once you notice yourself going through some mental gyration you have already detached from it. This is the spiritual skill that is essential to self awareness and recovery.
• Acting on instinct or intuition. These non-verbal processes are directly linked to your spiritual self. This can take the form of “rapid cognition” as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.
• Feeling your heart go out to another. Empathy is a direct connection that bypasses thought and logic. It is essential to the feeling of connectedness to the world and the universe.
• Accepting that you can’t control outcomes. You can do whatever is in your power to make things work out but then at a certain point you have to let go of the end result.
• Being grateful for what is good and rewarding and beautiful in your life and relationships. Gratitude inevitably leads to an attitude of acceptance.
• Doing nothing. This is an important spiritual skill to remember. It means different things to different people, but the willingness to make some empty space inside and outside of you is what allows for growth.
• Honoring anything creative that you do. The act of being creative in any way, of having an idea “come to you” seems to come out of nowhere. You tap into some source of inspiration without “working” at it. You honor it by making room for it in your head and some time for it in your day.
It is not important in recovery that you have a transcendent “white light moment.” It is only important that you exercise the spiritual practices that are already present in you and in your everyday life. In fact it is essential.