Spirituality and Recovery

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O P I N I O N


I am one of the last people you should listen to on issues of spirituality. After all, when I first got into recovery, my higher power (Higher Power for those of you for whom higher power is a substitute word for God) was an imaginary number—i is the symbol for the square root of -1, a value that does not exist for square roots must be positive. Although imaginary, i is indispensable in solving some quadratic equations. If math problems can be solved with a nonexistent value, then it was good enough to help me solve the problem of my life. If nothing else, it placed something outside my will, ego and appetite at the center of the universe.

After that, my higher power morphed into my ability to express gratitude. From the minute I got into recovery, two suggestions kept coming from people whose opinion I valued—be grateful and pray. My first mentor must have said 100 times, “A grateful heart will never drink or drug.” He and others continually told me it did not matter whether I believed or not, prayer was good for me. I took this advice in the most efficient way possible. I prayed perhaps 50 times a day the same prayer, “Thank you, God.” This action seemed to transform my inner factory, so I changed from being a regional distributor of resentment and instead manufactured gratitude. To this day, the most common single thought that runs through my mind is that simple prayer. Whether any God exists, the act of expressing gratitude is a spiritual Roto-Rooter for me, cleaning out my spiritual pipes of any detritus.

Recently, my notion of a higher power has evolved into . . . never mind. I began this piece by saying you shouldn’t seek my advice on spiritual matters. The last thing you need is to hear more of the nonsense that has kept me clean and sober. This is about what might work for you, not about what has worked for me.

Do you need any ideas about a higher power to be in recovery?  ABSOLUTELY NOT! Millions of folks have found recovery without any need of a Great Joker in the Sky who requires voodoo rituals to calm him down. Likewise, millions of recoverees have found great comfort and strength through their faith, whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam or some other tradition. Religious or non-religious, theist, atheist or agnostic, people in recovery fall into all kinds of camps.

Still, spirituality of some kind seems a part of almost every person I’ve known in recovery. Whether that spirituality manifests through chanting, meditation, long walks in the woods, prayer or simply stopping to recognize the beauty of each breath. Richard Thompson, a brilliant English musician and singer, summed up our pre-recovery situation: “A drunk’s only trying to get free of his body/And soar like an eagle way up there in heaven.” In recovery, we still have that need for transcendence, to exist if only briefly on some higher plane, to get out of ourselves. Spiritual actions provide that.  No matter what recovery pathway you may choose, SMART or 12-Step or Three Principles or Recovery Dharma or a distillation of these or none at all, you may, dare I say it, will benefit from some kind of spiritual practice.

I know some folks have been traumatized by early religious experiences, and I’m terribly sorry about that. Please keep in mind that religion and spirituality are sometimes related but are far from synonymous. One thing I firmly believe is that religion is the vessel that tries to hold the juice of spirituality. Too often the cup is long empty and gathering dust, but the juice is always there. Taste and see that it is good.


Keith HowardKeith Howard is Executive Director of Hope for NH Recovery and author of Tiny White Box blog.