Across world religions and throughout the history of human experience with the Divine, we find certain universally recognized strategies to nourishing spirituality. While each person’s experience is unique, there are ways of approaching life that maximize our availability to spiritual presence. In this episode of our mental health and addiction recovery podcast, Jackie Pack talks about some of the things we can do to increase our spiritual practice and to connect to something Higher around us. Perhaps the real challenge in life is learning to love others, ourselves, and accept there are forces in the universe more powerful than the self in control.
TRANSCRIPT: The 12 Steps | Principles of Recovery: Spirituality
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today’s episode we are continuing in our 12-part series on the 12 principles, and this is principle #3, spirituality. William Faulkner once said, “All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born.”
Patrick Carnes tells this story in his book, “A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps,” which is the companion book and precedes the 12 principles book. He says:
“I was raised Catholic. It was Christmas time, and I was in the first grade. The priest of our little country parish called my mother and asked if I could serve as an altar boy on Christmas morning. I expressed some fear because I had never done it before, nor had I been through the altar boy training program. He told me to come early that morning, and he would show me all I needed to know.
On that fateful morning, I dutifully showed up early. My mother, thrilled at the prospect of my serving at Mass on Christmas morning, had invited her five sisters and their families to join us. This had now become a high-drama event. My fear was escalating.
Old Father Yanni, however, was very reassuring. There were only two things I had to remember. One was when I was to move the Holy Book from one side of the altar to the other. The second was to ring a set of bells whenever he put his right hand on the altar.
In those days, the bell was a signal to the congregation to kneel, sit, or stand at different points in the liturgy. Father Yanni was getting on in years. He probably wasn’t aware that he often leaned on the altar to steady himself, using his right hand. When he leaned, I rang. When I rang, the congregation moved.
I had that congregation going up and down, up and down. My mother was mortified. My aunts thought it was great, and they tell the story to this day. Whether it was right or not, the people moved when the bell rang.
As an adult, I think of that experience as a metaphor about religion. For many, it’s seems like a forced or a meaningless motion. How many of us have become detached from a spiritual life because the ritual does not fit our lives anymore?”
Now this question of meaning that most of us are looking for or seeking in life, that question of finding meaning or finding purpose is a spiritual one. In the 12-step program, steps 2 and 3 ask us basically, I mean it’s not these words, but they basically ask us, whom do you trust? In whom or what do you have faith? How much you trust others often parallels your trust in a higher power, and if you have trouble accepting help from others and insist on handling things alone, chances are you will resist the help of a higher power in your life, in whatever form that may take.
Now I know that there’s a lot of people that I’ve worked with who are getting into recovery and who I’ve also talked to who have been in recovery, and I know this issue of higher power with the 12 steps can be kind of a tricky one, and I have had some anxiety around this particular episode on spirituality because I know, I can hear so many of my clients’ voices in my head, and unlike with my clients where I have a process to journey with them on, this is one episode, so I’m hoping that I can do justice and maybe alleviate fears or angst that you may have around higher power, around spirituality, about religion.
Now the first of the 12 steps asks us to admit that we have an illness, admit that something in our life has become unmanageable. Then like I said, steps 2 and 3 ask us to confront the question of what gives our life meaning. Without meaning, we cannot establish the priorities that bring balance, focus, accountability, and serenity that encompass recovery.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs teaches us that lower levels are about need fulfillment, need for shelter, for food, for those types of needs, and when we have that foundation, we can shift from our relationships and our focus being about need fulfilment to meaningful connections. Healing often involves intimacies too frequently forgotten.
Now if you, like me, grew up in an orthodox religion, you might have grown up thinking that spirituality is prescriptive, or as in Patrick Carnes’ story, it’s ritualized. It’s simplified, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. You may have a pretty narrow definition for spirituality, or you may have left spirituality behind when you walked away from the religion of your childhood. My hope is that this episode may get you wondering again or listening for something to start to build from, for you to redesign or add to what you have that is working for you or will work for you.
Now I grew up in a religion that was pretty focused on answers, the right ones, the right answers, and I would say it was also focused on making the abstract concrete, and for a time in my life, this was reassuring to me. I was looking for answers. I wanted to know how things worked.
Given the circumstances in my life, in my family, I was dealing I would say with a lot of fear and anxiety about how everything worked, so I was looking for that answer book. I was looking for a guide or a rulebook for my life, and it took me time to realize that there’s beauty in the unknown, the uncertainty, the ethereal, to appreciate what was not and could not be defined, and that I could both be part of it and have it be bigger and unknown to me.
Dostoyevsky said, “It’s not as a child that I believe in Christ and process him. My hosannah has passed through a great crucible of doubt.” Now I would also say that I’ve had my crises of faith, some large, some small. Doubt is something I’ve learned to live with and even appreciate.
I would say today that I’m the kind of person who is preoccupied with questions and skeptical of answers, which is almost a full 360. I find in life as I understand it, answers to enough important questions that I can function purposefully and effectively without answers to the rest.
I tell my kids, and this did get me in trouble with the people I was going to church with, but I often told my kids never stop doubting. Never stop questioning. Never, ever assume you have all the answers. Having all the answers kills the question itself, renders it lifeless, and you, too. Keep looking. Keep seeking. Never find it all because when you find it all, you deny that there is more, and there is never not more.
Now across world religions and throughout the history of human experience with the divine, we find certain universally recognized strategies to nourishing spirituality. While each person’s experience is unique, there are also ways of approaching life that maximizes our availability to spiritual experiences or to a spiritual presence.
The first one of these is to be as a child. Children, if you’ve been around one lately, live fully in the moment. As adults, we’re often distracted by the past. We get caught up in our concerns or worries about the future. As adults, we focus on what’s practical or what’s realistic. Children don’t do that. They focus on what is, and they explore with all of their senses. They’re vulnerable and open.
I remember when I was a new mom and I just had two kids, so my oldest would have been about 2, and I had a newborn, and it was a busy morning. I was trying to get myself ready to go to work, head out the door. I was trying to get both of them ready so I could drop them at daycare and then head to work.
So I’m coming down the stairs to head out the front door, and my 2-year-old is a little bit ahead of me, and then behind her, I’m coming along with a diaper bag that’s packed, my work bag that I’ve got, plus the baby, and I’m carrying her in a car seat to get her ready to go in the car, and I’m opening the door ahead of my 2-year-old on the ground, and we go to move out the door, and I practically fell over my 2-year-old, who had stopped dead in her tracks, and she was surveying what was outside our front door in our front lawn, and I remember so clearly her little 2-year-old voice going like, “Oh look, Mama!”
Like I said, I practically tripped over her. She required, she forced me to stop dead in my tracks as well. As I looked up, in my busyness, I realized that this was the first snowfall of that season, and really for this 2-year-old, it was the first snowfall that she really could remember or witness as a thinking, walking human being, and it brought her dead stopped in her tracks.
Again, I’m in a hurry. I’ve got to get them to daycare. I’ve now got snow falling, and I’ve got an infant that I’m carrying in the car seat that I’m trying to just get to the car so that we can get everybody in, not get too wet, get buckled up, and get on our way, and yet I couldn’t really move my 2-year-old from where she had stopped.
She bent down and she had to touch it, and then she had to taste it, and then she had to put it in her hands and throw it, and all of these things she was having this experience, and there was a part of me I’m grateful for that I could in that moment step back from the hustle and bustle of the morning knowing that traffic was going to be a little bit slower on the road as I headed out to the office, and just take a moment to be present with this 2-year-old who, for the first time in her cognizant existence was interacting with snow and was amazed by what had happened as she slept overnight.
Spirituality is often about intimacy, and that’s one of the things that we learn as we’re around children. Their openness, their vulnerability, their inability to filter brings about an intimacy. They’re easy to connect with. When we spend time with a child, or when we can ourselves be as a child, there’s a closeness and an appreciation of one’s self, of others, and of a higher power around us.
Another time with my kids, this was years later, I have four kids now, my oldest is probably a young teen, 13, 14. My third daughter has always been a go-getter, lots of energy, attacks life, full energy, full board, and then just drops exhausted at the end of each day.
So this particular daughter… The idea of Sabbath was always an appealing one to me. I was busy during the week. I worked, taking care of the kids, that one in particular just required a lot of energy, so I always look forward to this idea of Sabbath and taking a break from the hustle and the bustle and the busyness of my life, which was important. Those were all important parts of my life, but I looked forward to and was refreshed by this idea of Sabbath.
Now that’s not ever how that looked at my house on the day that we identified as Sabbath, which was Sunday, which is true for a lot of Christians, and because this particular daughter, she didn’t like to be still. She didn’t like to rest. She didn’t like to take time to replenish or reveal her energy the way that I needed to, and so often on Sabbath, I still had to entertain her. I still had to come up with ways to keep her busy, or she was going to just create havoc for the day.
This was about the time that I was reading that book I’ve talked about on this podcast before, the book “Sabbath” by Wayne Muller, and I came across this quote in the book that just really resonated with me. He said, “During the week, our work, our contributions to the well-being of our family and community are essential and necessary. Sabbath time offers the gift of deep balance. In Sabbath time, we are valued not for what we have done or accomplished, but simply because we have received the gentle blessing of being miraculously alive.”
Now other things he talks about in that book from my memory is he talks about different ways people recognize Sabbath, and the whole tone of the book just kind of gets you into a different energy level that I think brings us into this energy of balance of taking a step back, of being present and not necessarily caught up in the doing and more just connecting and being in the being.
One of the things he had suggested in this book, and I don’t know how concrete it was what he suggested and what we ended up doing as a family, but he was talking about candles as part of the Sabbath, and that’s in some religious rituals. Some people have certain religious rituals that are combined with candles. That’s not necessarily something that was prevalent in the religion I was raised in, but I always loved candles, and so we started, we would go down in the basement and we would sit on the floor as a family on the wood floor, and we’d have candles in the center of our circle as a family.
I got like a smudging kit, and my kids were fascinated by this, as kids would be, and we would do some smudging, not of the space, but of our energies and of our bodies and of our spirits, and what we had been holding. We would smudge the back to cleanse the back of all that it had to carry that week, and we would smudge the front of our bodies in preparation of all that we would be facing in the upcoming week, and the kids would take turns going around the circle and doing the smudging and kind of offering these blessings one to another.
Now when I look back on that time, it was necessarily the act of smudging. It was this service that we gave to each other in those moments down in the basement where it was a little bit darker, sitting on the floor in a circle lighted by candles, and just being in that space with each other, talking about what we had carried the past week, what our experiences had been, what we would be facing this next week and what our hopes were moving forward.
Another way that we can approach life that maximizes our availability to spiritual presence is connecting with the earth. Our senses are the gateway to a spiritual life. They put us in touch with the complexity, beauty, and wonder of creation, whether that’s mountains, seas, sunsets, sunrises, the woods, they all create a sense of awe and tranquility. When I think of most of the peaceful and serene moments of my life, nature was usually involved. It’s a connection to a larger picture of the universe, to a power that’s greater than ourselves.
A third way we can enhance and develop our spirituality is to develop a beginner’s mind. There’s a sort of surrender that comes when we don’t know the way, whether that’s learning something new we haven’t done before, whether that’s stretching or challenging ourselves beyond what we know we’re capable of or comfortable with, or growing from one level to another level. There’s kind of an emptying of the mind where we literally have to discard preoccupations, fears, distractions in order to be in the moment and to experience what there is for us to experience.
I often find with clients that when they are on a path to recovery, I usually encourage them to start something new, something that they have wanted to try but for whatever reason have not tried yet. Sometimes it can help too, maybe something they started at something but put down or walked away from and pick that back up and re-engage with it from where you are today, and that can start to open and unfold this beginner’s mind, where I find so many clients find experiences and truths and parallels to where they are in their recovery journey to what they’re learning and what they’re stretching towards.
Another way for us to enhance spirituality or to practice our spirituality is to access our own wisdom. Emptying ourselves of distractions, preoccupations, and obsessions allows us to connect with who we really are. Henry Nouwen described this early stage of spiritual life as the conversion of loneliness into solitude. It means discovering what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the ground of our being”. It’s finding the sacred within us.
When we are true to ourselves, we are most spiritual. That means tuning into our own authentic voice. Carl Jung talked about a larger consciousness that we can tap into without intuition if we will listen. This is called discernment, the ability to see clearly what is, especially in those situations when we don’t have rules, laws, or prior experience to direct us.
That leads us to caring for our body. Now going back to the story with Patrick Carnes at the beginning as a young altar boy, again we can get stuck in these rituals or ways of doing things that disconnect us from actually what’s going on around us, and I think that’s a common thing that happens with this next example of putting ourselves in a place where we can develop spirituality or connect with some spiritual presence within us, and that is to care for our body.
Our body is the primary vehicle through which we experience our world. It would follow that if we want a life of meaning and beauty, we have to care for it, nurture it, and tend to it. We must stretch and grow. Anything less splits us off from one of the central sources of awe and wonder. Our body is the most concrete way we have to embrace the spiritual struggle that’s going to teach us.
Now often I think we start to connect with or we’re caring for our bodies in ways that may actually be abusive to our bodies or focus us not on something deeper and not as a way of creating meaning in our life and provide a source through which we experience our world, but instead we want to look good. We want to be attractive. We want to be desirable. It’s a much more I would say superficial way that we can connect in caring for our body that isn’t necessarily going to drop us down into some of those more spiritual, more meaningful experiences that we can have as we care for our bodies.
Now I often work with clients, we talk about in addiction that there is this disconnect that happens, and addicts disconnect their mind from their body. Often hearts are completely buried, but we find this disconnect between the mind and the body, and oftentimes I will tell clients it makes sense. Going back to when I was talking about how children so often live through their senses. They bring so much information in through the five senses, touch, taste, smell, feel, all of that kind of stuff, and sometimes when they don’t have a loving caregiver to help them process that information or be safe in that information, they’re bringing in information that overwhelms them and is too much for their system to handle, and I think that’s where that disconnect starts where through trauma and through attachment wounds, we start to become unaware of all that our body is bringing in, all of the information that is housed in our body, and we start to just live in our mind, which we have a little bit more control over. So part of recovery is, again, reattaching the mind and the body, opening up the senses so that we can bring in information, wonder, creativity, and connectedness.
Another way that we can maximize our availability to spiritual presence is to accept pain as a teacher. I think sometimes we think that or we’re taught in religion that if we’re obedient enough, if we’re good enough, if we’re righteous enough, that we can avoid pain, and I think it’s a big let-down when we realize that that’s actually not how that works, that pain is a teacher, and all of us are going to have pain at times in our lives. Also that pain can bring about great growth.
Now I know I’ve shared this on my podcast before a couple of times, but I just love it, so I’m going to share it again because I think again when we’re talking about suffering or when we’re talking about accepting pain, this is just one of my favorite stories. So this is the Buddhist parable about the mustard seed. The story goes that there’s a mother whose child dies. She’s grief-stricken and heartbroken. She wraps her child in linen cloth and then wraps the linen cloth around her body and goes to various people in her community, faith healers, the elders of her village, the wise men, asking them to please help her resuscitate and bring her child back to life.
As she is going from person to person, she’s growing more and more desperate, and she’s not finding anyone who can bring her child back to life. Finally, one of the tribal elders says to her, “I don’t know how to help you, but I know a guy. There’s a holy man on top of a mountain, and if you travel to him, I believe he will be able to help you.”
So she starts her 3-day journey up the mountain to find this holy man. When she gets to the top of the mountain and finds him, he tells her, “I can help you. I need to make a potion, and one of the ingredients for this potion is a mustard seed.” Now the mustard seed has to come from a home where the sun of darkness has not visited, meaning this home has not been stricken with grief, loss, challenges, sickness, death.
So she returns to her village and begins the task of finding a mustard seed from a home that has not been visited by the sun of darkness. As she goes door to door and house to house, what she discovers is communal grief. Inquiring for a mustard seed that meets the conditions the holy man laid out, she shares with her neighbors her story about the loss of her beloved child, and in response, her neighbors shared their own stories of loss, grief, sickness, or challenge.
As she inquired whether they were free from death, they would respond that the living were few, but the dead were many. What she found was that as she collected these stories of grief and heartache and pain her neighbors had suffered, she was able to add them to her own story of grief and heartache. She began to realize that she was not alone, and she gained strength from others who had similar experiences with suffering. With this strength and community, she was then able to let go of and bury her child in the earth. Our suffering always opens our hearts to others. Our suffering also opens our hearts to ourselves.
The last one I think that can be a way for us to maximize or make available spiritual experiences is to create sacred circles. Now I believe it’s sacred to have an inner circle of people who have earned the right to be in that inner circle.
Now I haven’t always felt this way. There was a time in my life I literally did this, the Simon and Garfunkel song with the lyrics “I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship. Friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.” That actually became a sort of mantra for me, and it’s kind of embarrassing, but remember I was looking for a guide. I was looking for answers on how to live life, and as I would listen to that song, I literally was like, okay, okay, got it, okay, next step, okay, do that. And you know, I’m a child of the 80s, so who hasn’t found themselves belting out the lyrics to Whitesnake’s ballad, “Here I go again on my own. Like a drifter, I was born to walk alone.”
Now as much as I loved the idea back then of going it alone down a lonely street of dreams. I’ve learned that the journey is meant to be made with company. We need support. We need friends who will let us try out new ways of being in the world. We need a hand to pull us up when we fall or get pushed down.
If you’re like me, there came a point when I understood I needed company on my journey, not just any company, I needed intimate company, company where the people were doing the same sort of work that I was doing, but I didn’t even know how to find these people. I had a lot of questions, like how do I know if I can trust someone? How can I tell who’s really got my back? How do I build trust with people? How can I know if they’re going to betray me?
Unfortunately, there’s no trust test, no scoring system that tells us it’s safe to let another person in and to be vulnerable and to let ourselves be open with them. Instead, it’s a slow-building process that happens over time, and sometimes what we’ve built collapses. Moving slowly and being selective in bringing other people into this layer of intimacy is important. If we trust someone too quickly or choose to see only the good in another and minimize any red flags that there also are, that’s going to be risky.
Now when I think of the characteristics of those in my inner circle, I see a common thread. They keep my confidences, and they share their confidences with me. It’s a two-way street. They remember my birthday. They know who the important people in my life are. They make sure I’m included. They know what’s really happening in my life and how I feel about it, not just what I put out on social media. They allow me the space to be imperfect and to make mistakes. They will be honest with me and call me out if they think I’m not being true to myself.
These are the people I know I can go to if I’ve dug myself into a hole I can’t seem to get out of, and they’ll respond with “Let’s do this.” I also know that I can show them the darker, unrefined parts of myself, and they’ll go there with me without judging.
I read somewhere before that rarely do phrases on bumper stickers or refrigerator magnets change our lives. Affirmations of self-worth often don’t change how we feel about ourselves if all we are doing is quoting them over and over again. These things don’t work mostly because we don’t believe simplified statements of feelings. We instinctively know that emotions and relationships aren’t simple.
What I really want to know in my relationship are these questions. Can I be most myself in your presence? Can I be creative, funny, vulnerable, shy, outgoing, smart? Can I be tough, forgiving, generous, spiritual, graceful, self-indulgent, unrefined? Do I feel equal, successful, attractive, encouraged, important, and trusted? Can I be fully competent and not have you disappear? Do I feel challenged? Can I be accountable? Is it okay to make a mistake?
Being in my inner circle doesn’t require that they fix anything for me, but rather that they witness the strength and courage it takes to be a human being. Alan Cohen said, “Everyone and everything that shows up in our life is a reflection of something that is happening inside of us.”
There’s been times in my life where I didn’t have people to put in my inner circle, and I had to remind myself to still keep it sacred. Don’t just put people there simply to make me feel good to have people there. If there weren’t people there, that was a reflection of something that was happening inside of me, and when I addressed what was happening inside of me, people started to show up.
Now when we come here, wherever “here” is, with another person, with a loved one, with a group member, we come having had very different lived experiences. We share our stories and we find common threads. Here we learn something valuable that we’re not alone.
It has long-fascinated me that two intelligent individuals can and often do look at the same set of circumstances and walk away with different conclusions. I think that difference allows for connection. It allows for something spiritual to happen. We don’t experience life, belief, or spirituality in the same way. We just don’t.
This quote by Victoria Safford pretty much captures my hope. She says, “Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope—not the prudent gates of optimism, which are somewhat narrower, nor the stalwart, boring gates of common sense, nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges, nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘everything’s gonna be all right,’ but a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world, both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be, the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle, and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”
Some of examples of ways that you can practice spirituality. Like I said, learning or trying something that is new, challenging, or unfamiliar. Asking someone that you care about, “How can I help?” and really stay there until you get an honest answer. Allowing someone who is grieving to share their grief with you. Serving as an ally for someone that you care about, and what it means to be an ally to them, not to you. Changing my plans or your plans without regret when we’re needed in an urgent and unexpected situation.
In the book “Sabbath” that I’ve talked about before, he says, “These are the useless things that grow in time. To walk without purpose to no place in particular, where we are astonished by the textured bark of an oak. To notice the color red showing itself for the first time in the maple in fall. To see animals in the shapes of clouds. To walk in clover. To fall into an unexpected conversation with a stranger and find something delicious and unbidden take shape. To taste the orange we eat, the juice on the chin, the pulp between teeth. To take a deep sigh and exhale, followed by a listening silence. To allow a recollection of a moment with a loved one, a feeling of how our life has evolved. To give thanks for a single step upon the earth. To give thanks for any blessing previously unnoticed. The gentle brush of a hand on a lover’s body. The sweet surrender of sleep in the afternoon.”
Joseph Campbell said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is the rapture of being alive.” When I read that quote in the book “Sabbath” by Wayne Muller, that simple paragraph that he wrote, that’s the rapture of being alive. It’s nothing big, it’s nothing magnanimous. It’s just the simple beauty and complexity of life.
In the 12 principles book, the question associated with the third principle of spirituality is “Am I lovable to the God of my understanding?” For me, that’s a little bit overwhelming. I just ask, “Am I loveable?” When I ask clients if they believe they are lovable, I’m often met with fearful looks or overwhelming shrugs.
When I’m asked what I think spirituality is or what it means, my answer is I believe spirituality is what gives life meaning, or as Joseph Campbell says, it’s the rapture of being alive. It’s leaving our ego-self behind in order for our spiritual self to live, the part of us that creates meaning, purpose, vision, connection, breath. This to me is the meaning of rebirth, baptism, resurrection, and I get lost in that cycle sometimes weekly, for sure monthly, where I get lost, there’s a re-birth, there’s kind of a baptism, and a resurrection.
Perhaps the real challenge in life is learning to love and to let. I think it’s easy to obey. It’s easy to surround ourselves with likeminded people. It’s much harder to love regardless, and I think loving is deeply spiritual, but it’s not loving on our terms. It’s much harder to let others navigate their own path, especially when it isn’t our path. It’s much harder to trust that all striving is worthy. Our job, I think, is to navigate our own peace and joy and love and to let others do the same.