Spirituality is an elusive concept that can conjure up many different and sometimes contradictory images, from churches and chakras to healing crystals and holy books. But while it may seem vague or inaccessible, spirituality is more down to earth and universal than most people may think. In its essence, spirituality is each individual’s way of finding meaning and purpose in the chaos of everyday life.
Anyone can benefit from spiritual practices, but the search for meaning is particularly important for those struggling with addiction. When incorporated into the recovery process, spirituality can help people understand themselves, connect to a greater sense of purpose and stay dedicated to sobriety.
Spirituality is a broad concept that means something different to everyone. In general, spirituality includes the search for meaning and purpose in life, making it a universal human experience. It may also involve cultivating a connection to something bigger than oneself, such as nature, the universe, humanity, God or a higher power.
Because everyone connects to themselves, others and the world in different ways, different people respond to different spiritual experiences. One person’s spiritual practice may involve attending a place of worship, praying or reading from a holy text. Others may find more solace by spending time in nature, considering a piece of art, or listening to music. There is no wrong way to be spiritual — what’s important is to find something that personally speaks to you and helps you find meaning in your experiences. In this way, definitions of spirituality can change throughout a person’s life. Most people’s idea of spirituality evolves and adapts as they are exposed to new perspectives and experiences.
Spirituality is often connected to larger questions about life, the human condition and personal agency. These may include:
- What is the purpose of my life?
- What does it mean to be a good person?
- Why do I suffer?
- Does everything happen for a reason?
- How am I connected to the world around me?
- What is the best way to conduct myself in the world?
Spirituality is “the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.”
Dr. Christina Puchalski
Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health
Myths About Spirituality
Because the definition of spirituality means something different to everyone, it is often misunderstood or exclusively tied to religion. This confusion is understandable. Spirituality is often depicted in extreme ways that make it seem remote from everyday life and experience. But anyone who has ever thought of something as “meaningful” has engaged in spiritual practice. To be human is to interpret the meaning of our experiences — even the belief that life is meaningless is still an interpretation of experience.
While religion plays a key role in many people’s spiritual lives, spirituality is not exclusively tied to any religious organization or practice. Religion typically involves traditions, rites, rituals and the search for ultimate truth. Spirituality is a broader concept, including a more general search for personal meaning and interconnectedness.
Religion and spirituality are by no means entirely distinct from one another. Both involve:
- Believing in something bigger than oneself
- Finding comfort in a belief system
- Searching for meaning in experiences
- Living by a set of values
- Experiencing awe in the face of something transcendent
Benefits of Spirituality
Regular spiritual practice can:
- Increase compassion, empathy and attention: Contemplative practices — like meditation, gratitude, devotionals and yoga — encourage inner reflection, which can allow you to understand yourself and others more fully and generously. These practices can also help you pay more attention to and appreciate life’s little pleasures.
- Improve your sense of connectedness: Spiritual communities such as churches, meditation groups or even yoga classes can be sources of social support, providing people with a sense of belonging, security and community. Because your spiritual community is comprised of people who share similar values, it also offers an opportunity to form strong, deeply fulfilling friendships. This doesn’t just improve your mental state — it can actually boost your physical health.
- Help you live a healthier life: Many spiritual traditions have rules about treating the body with kindness and respect. This can include avoiding potentially harmful behaviors, such as eating specific foods, drinking in excess or smoking. By connecting these practices to a larger spiritual purpose, you’re more likely to stick to them and make healthier choices.
- Encourage you to work through negative emotions: Letting go of negative emotions like blame, anger, jealousy and frustration is an important part of many spiritual traditions. These emotions are inevitable, but keeping them in check doesn’t just improve your mood and overall well-being; it also benefits you physically. Lower amounts of negative emotions have been linked to longer lifespans, improved immune function, lowered blood pressure and better cardiovascular health.
- Make it easier to overcome hardships: A spiritual framework can help you make sense of life’s more difficult events, and even enables you to find meaning and growth in them. Recognizing the universality of suffering and pain can allow you to see hardships as part of the shared human experience.
Types of Spiritual Practices
Meditation typically involves self-regulating the mind’s normal internal monologue, either by breathing deeply, focusing on a specific point in space, or practicing mindfulness. Russel Brand, a comedian, actor, author and person in recovery, described it as a “negotiation with your feelings.” In general, meditation is a range of practices used to promote relaxation, increase awareness and develop compassion for oneself and others.
If you’re new to meditation, take it slow at first. Set aside a few minutes to practice, gradually increasing the amount of time as you feel comfortable. Before beginning, find a comfortable position, either seated or lying down, where you will not be disturbed. While there are countless meditation techniques, the simplest involves focusing on the breath, the sensations of the body, or a single word. As you meditate, your thoughts will inevitably drift into your awareness. Try to acknowledge these thoughts non-judgmentally and take note of any patterns you notice, but do not engage with them — gently return your attention to the point of focus. There are also many free and paid apps that help teach meditation and can help you commit to a regular meditation practice.
According to the National Center for Complementary Integrative Health (NIH), regular meditative practice inspires a whole host of physical and mental benefits, including:
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower heart rate
- Improved blood circulation
- Decreased anxiety
- Increased feelings of well-being
- Less stress
Practicing gratitude is simple — it just means taking time to feel thankful for the positive experiences in your life, both big and small. While expressing gratitude is part of many religious and spiritual traditions, this process can be incorporated into any belief system. Gratitude practice doesn’t have to be elaborate or time-consuming either; simply setting aside a few minutes every day to write in a gratitude journal or to verbally reflect on what made you feel grateful is all you need. Gratitude practices can also be extended to the people around you in the form of appreciative letters, cards or gestures.
Whether it’s a new promotion at work or a surprise piece of cake, taking time to feel grateful for the good in your life can bring both mental and physical benefits. Recent studies show that regular gratitude practice can:
- Increase positive emotions
- Improve sleep
- Enhance empathy
- Contribute to quality friendships and relationships
- Bolster physical health
Devotionals are any practices that help connect individuals to a higher power or feeling of transcendence. For those who are religious, this could mean regularly going to a place of worship, reading passages from a holy book, repeating mantras, singing sacred songs, or praying to a higher power. For others, devotionals may consist of activities traditionally seen as secular, like listening to music, spending time outside or contemplating a piece of art. While some devotional activities require that you travel to a specific place, most can be done in the comfort of your own home or neighborhood.
Devotional practices offer a multitude of benefits.
- Prayer elicits the body’s relaxation response, calming the body and mind while evoking feelings of gratitude, hope and comfort
- Regularly attending religious services may increase lifespan
- Spending time outside has several physical and mental benefits, including lower stress levels, reduced inflammation, improved concentration, boosted creativity and even a stronger immune system
- Listening to music can decrease stress, improve mood, lower levels of anxiety and increase relaxation
A spiritual tradition that began in India about 5,000 years ago, yoga is an integral practice in religions like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. However, yoga can be practiced in the absence of any particular religion. While it is most often thought of in Western cultures as a mindful practice involving stretching, breathing and moving through a series of poses (asanas), it is part of a greater philosophical system that includes:
- Meditative practices
- Visualization exercises
- Selfless acts of service
- Moral rules discouraging actions like stealing, harming oneself and others, and lying
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to attend classes to begin practicing yoga. Yoga can be done in your own home on any comfortable surface. Be sure to start small, beginning with short sessions that incorporate simple poses that you can comfortably perform. Gradually work your way up to more difficult sequences to avoid injury. There are many resources available online to help you understand basic yoga poses and begin a practice.
Both the physical aspects of yoga and larger philosophical components work to improve physical health, quiet the mind and bring increased awareness to the interconnectedness of all things. This ushers in other benefits, including:
- Reduced stress
- Increased relaxation
- Improved mood
- Increased strength and flexibility
- Improved balance and coordination
- Improved reaction times
- Improved lung function
- Weight loss
An often overlooked practice, journaling can be one of the best ways to experience spirituality and parse out the meaning of experiences. Setting aside time every day to contemplate daily events can help you reconnect with your inner life, better understand your own thoughts and feelings, and remain mindful throughout the day. It can make it easier to sympathize with others too. Instead of taking to heart the small ways others hurt you, journaling gives you the space to consider the greater context of their motivations, making it easier to empathize with the root of their actions. In this way, journaling helps you treat yourself, others, and perhaps the world, more gently.
Taking a few minutes every day to write about your experiences can help:
- Make sense of difficult experiences
- Manage anxiety
- Cope with mental health issues, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Reduce stress
- Prioritize problems, fears and concerns
- Identify negative thoughts and behaviors
- Understand yourself and others
Including Spirituality in Your Recovery
The causes of addiction are as complex and multifaceted as the people who experience it. People develop substance use disorders for different reasons, but addiction often stems from a place of emptiness, dissatisfaction or trauma. Drugs and alcohol provide an escape from life’s hardships and allow those struggling to forget their problems and find temporary solace. But there is no true satisfaction or safety in substance use.
Recovery is an opportunity for people to reexamine their beliefs and live life in a new, more meaningful way. That search for meaning and greater purpose is essentially a spiritual journey, though people can choose to describe it in different terms. By participating in spiritual activities throughout this formative time, individuals in recovery can build a solid foundation of meaning to fall back on in difficult times.
The most common examples of structured spirituality in recovery are 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). These programs outline a step-by-step process of spiritual transformation.
- Admitting your powerlessness over drugs or alcohol
- Believing that a power greater than yourself can help you recover
- Making the decision to put your life in the hands of this greater power
- Taking an honest, fearless moral inventory of yourself
- Admitting the wrongs you’ve committed to your higher power, yourself, and another human being
- Allowing yourself to be ready for your higher power to remove the wrongs you admitted to in the previous step.
- Humbly asking your higher power to remove your shortcomings
- Making a list of all the persons you have harmed, and becoming willing to make amends with them
- Making amends with the people mentioned in the previous step, whenever possible.
- Continuing to take a personal inventory and be willing to admit when you are wrong
- Improving your contact with your higher power through prayer, meditation and other spiritual practices
- Passing the lessons you’ve learned through the 12 steps on to other people struggling with substance use disorder and continuing to incorporate your new values into all that you do
For many people, the “higher power” central to the 12 steps is God. For others, it’s something not grounded in religion, like nature, humanity or the oneness of all things. While 12-step programs are the most common way to bring spirituality into recovery, they are by no means the only way. Incorporating spiritual and meaning-seeking practices like meditation, devotionals, yoga and journaling into an addiction treatment program without the use of the 12 steps can be just as valuable. These activities allow people to become in tune with their innermost desires, better understand their reasons for using substances, and discover new meaning in a drug-free life.
Benefits of Spirituality in Recovery
Spiritual practices can be beneficial to everyone, but they are particularly useful and vital for those in recovery. In many cases, the allure of drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with life’s difficulties can be nearly impossible to resist without a framework of meaning to fall back on. When you can make sense of suffering in a meaningful way and take constructive, healthy steps to work through hardships, you’re more likely to stay successful in recovery.
Incorporating spiritual practices and principles into your recovery process can benefit you by:
- Improving your sense of self-worth and self-esteem
- Allowing you to feel more joy and peace in daily life
- Helping you find greater meaning and purpose in your life
- Making it easier to heal from past experiences
Spirituality at The Recovery Village
Spirituality and the search for life meaning are integral parts of treatment at The Recovery Village. Our primary goal is to help each client understand the causes of their substance abuse and find renewed meaning in a drug-free life. Individual therapy, group discussion and other reflective practices build a stable framework for sobriety that can continue long after treatment.
At The Recovery Village, we believe spiritual programming can help heal the mind and body and set the stage for recovery. That’s why we offer*:
- 12-step programs
- Art therapy
- Music therapy
- Nutritional planning
*Activities offered may vary by facility and as medically appropriate
By participating in spiritual and meaningful activities during the rehabilitation process, clients can cultivate a source of support, comfort and clarity that they can continue to practice outside our center. Private reflective activities, guided classes or spiritual communities can be useful for fostering this sense of meaning during the continuous experience of recovery outside formal treatment.
Supporting Spirituality in Your Loved One’s Recovery
A stable network of support is essential to the recovery process. As the friend or family member of someone going through rehab, you can be a vital source of encouragement and stability. If your loved one has chosen to incorporate spirituality into their healing, it’s important that you accept and respect their journey. It’s difficult for someone to truly dive into a spiritual practice or fully commit to recovery if they suspect those close to them will judge them for it.
If you harbor any resentment or anger toward your loved one, you may want to consider ways spiritual practice could help you too. Meditative practices, journaling, devotionals and other methods of contemplation can help you better understand and empathize with your loved one. It may also make it easier for you to move past any negative experiences you had with them when they were under the influence of substances.
Treating a substance use disorder can be the first step to finding new meaning and purpose in a life free from drugs and alcohol. If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, The Recovery Village is here to help. With centers located across the country, our admissions team is ready to answer your questions and help you on the path to recovery.
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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.