Other Faith Traditions

12-Step Spirituality

Addiction consumes life of the addicted. This disease takes over and produces a feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces. Because of this the addict is often reduced to ultimately seeking, or at least becoming open to spiritual help. Whether it is prayer directly or just a reliance on the group for support, the very many the struggle over addiction cannot be won without this help.

The program of Alcoholics Anonymous and by extension, other 12 step programs, is based on spiritual principles. Addiction in these models are seen to have both physical and psychological dimensions, but the primary help is realized through spiritual means.
Interestingly this 12 step spirituality is realized through practical “steps,” designed to give practical guidance. And while the steps are essentially very practical, the power derived from them to overcome addiction stems from a willingness to completely surrender to a “higher power.”
The vast appeal and reach of the 12-step approach to addiction comes largely through its non-prescribed theology. The spirituality of the 12-Steps is not defined or articulated specifically. There is no precise meaning or explanation of God that anyone must accept. When members talk about a higher power, they are expressing their own personal idea about just what this means. Each participate is met where they are in their understanding and there is freedom for them to come to their own understanding, or as some might argue, to allow God to be revealed in God’s own way and time.
The key point is there is a willingness to stop relying on their own failed attempts to overcome addiction and recognize their need for help. For those with strong religious convictions, the idea of yielding to an outside authority to help heal is a natural one, but this too can become a stumbling block because some of those strong religious convictions may be misguided or misinformed theologies that prevent them from seeing or understanding their God in new ways. They may get stuck in some old ideas about God. The theological genius of the 12-Step program stems from what gets repeated in many steps, “a God of my own understanding.” Nobody gets to say who God is or how God should work. There is no religious authority in the 12-Step program which helps to create diversity and unity at the same time.
Four of the 12 steps mentions “God,” either directly or indirectly. This sometimes leads to the misunderstanding that the 12-Steps is a religious program. Its important understand the goal of the 12-Steps isn’t for worship or religious instruction, but rather to reach people at an emotional level and offer a path toward healing. The only goal is one of repair of a particular life issue, addiction in whatever form it takes, and offer a guiding and supportive path toward healing. 
Typically 12-Step groups avoid particular scriptural text and rely on literature created by the fellowship for guidance and reference. This literature usually does not avoid the mention of God, but mostly articulates this “higher power” at work in their midst through the sharing of the stories of those who were freed from their disease. 

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It is impossible to define one overarching Native American theology as spiritual understandings will vary from tribe and region. Spirituality however, is deeply rooted in the psyche of every Native American regardless of tribe or region.

The essence of Native American spirituality is wholeness, the viewing of the disparate elements of the world as part of one interwoven whole that connects the natural world to the spiritual world. It is a kind of animism, a seeing that all things alive with a distinct spiritual essence–animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork and sometimes even words—as actually animated and alive in a spiritual way.

Native American spirituality seeks harmony and balance as essential to the linking of oneself to the circle of the community and the cosmos. This harmonious linking leads to hope and meaning and a sense of completeness within the comforting family of the circle.

Addiction, where drugs and emptiness reign supreme causes imbalance and a broken circle of harmony. Attention to the ancient traditions and practices are needed to restore balance and harmony. 

Sweat Lodge, for example, is a traditional ceremony that reminds the individual of their connectivity to every living entity and takes place in total darkness, representing a return to the womb and a rebirth of one’s spirituality. Along with detoxifying and purification rituals, song and dance and other rituals are used as part of the healing journey and restorative process of the body and spirit. 

Reminding oneself of cultural roots and beginnings the Native American spiritual pathway to rediscovering who you are. Traditionally, native diets, harvest ceremonies, and the use of native herbs and plants have been used to contribute to the health and well-being of native communities.

Younger generations have largely abandoned these traditions and have consequently experienced increasing rates of diabetes and other forms of poor health. Others, however, are learning to connect with these healthy life alterations, including running each day at dawn, taking time with ceremony and prayer, and telling stories that reinforce positive behaviors and warn about going up against the laws of nature.
Even though alcoholic beverages such as wine are part of Jewish rituals, the community generally stigmatizes addictive behaviors, particularly Orthodox Jews who separate themselves from others and follow very strict traditional Jewish values.

In some instances, practitioners of Judaism with substance abuse issues may become alienated from their peers due to some longstanding myths associated with substance abuse in the Jewish community. These myths include:

  • People who practice Judaism are protected from addiction.

  • Only Jews who have become alienated from their faith develop substance abuse issues.

  • Substance abuse is a sign of moral failure.

  • Orthodox Jews do not use alcohol or illicit drugs.

  • There is no need for addiction recovery programs that incorporate the tenants of Judaism.
Regardless of these myths, research studies indicate that nearly 20 percent of individuals of the Jewish faith have a family history of addictive behaviors. In Israel, there is about a 13 percent lifetime prevalence rate of addiction, relatively consistent with the rates of substance abuse from many other industrialized countries.

It is well accepted that addictive behaviors do not discriminate between individuals from different genders, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, or on the basis of other demographic barriers. Judaism, like many religions, teaches that addictive behaviors are wrong, and substance abuse is frowned upon within the Jewish community.

Practitioners of Judaism are taught that their body belongs to God. They are to distance themselves from influences that destroy the body and attempt to engage in practices that nourish and heal the body. Because practitioners of Judaism are very devoted to their faith and attempt to live by strict traditions and rules, the treatment of substance abuse in these individuals should incorporate aspects of faith-based or spiritually based treatments that involve family members and spiritual leaders in the overall treatment program.
Islamic law seeks to protect the belief in Allah by promoting life, the maintenance of property, and the maintenance of a healthy state of mind. The Islamic view of the use of drugs or alcohol is quite clear that drugs or alcohol should be avoided (with some reservations for the use of wine).

Because of the cultural difficulties with obtaining survey data from individuals with strong Islamic convictions, there is little reliable data on the prevalence of substance abuse in individuals who describe themselves as Muslim. Most of the data comes from clinical samples (sample participants that are in hospitals or other treatment centers).

Best-guess estimates suggest that overall substance abuse rates of individuals in Muslim communities are typically reported as being lower than for individuals in other religions, with a few countries showing a little more variance. For example, alcohol use is often lowest among Muslims than any other religion. However, due to the severe restrictions on substance use that is part of the Islamic doctrine, these reports may not be reliable. Moreover, other substances that are not viewed as prohibited, such as khat, may have higher use rates than traditional drugs of abuse and alcohol in these populations.

The research does suggest that drug and alcohol use among individuals identifying as Muslim is far lower in those who have stronger commitments to their faith than those who do not. In addition, there may be a geographical variation in substance use and Muslims. For instance, higher rates of past-year alcohol use are reported by college students who describe themselves as Muslims in the United States compared to those in other countries. Thus, actual prevalence rates of substance abuse among individuals describing themselves as Muslims are most likely lower than in the general population, but reliable estimates are not available.

The major risk factors that appear to contribute to an increased risk of substance abuse among Muslims are their level of acculturation in a particular area (e.g., the United States) and their commitment to Islam. The greater the level of acculturation (identifying with the predominant culture in the area where the individual lives as opposed to their own traditional cultural norms) and the lower the level of commitment to their religious beliefs, the higher the likelihood of substance abuse.

Individuals with the highest levels of acculturation and the lowest levels of commitment to their religious beliefs are often younger individuals who may attempt to hide potential substance use from family members, thus hindering the identification of substance use disorders in these individuals.

It is generally considered that tobacco and alcohol are the major substances of abuse among individuals who identify as Muslims, particularly males. There may also be increased rates of prescription drug abuse in this population, but again, reliable data does not appear to be available.
Whether consciously acknowledged or not, we live in an almost constant state of anxiety. We are concerned with what we may lose, or what we may not gain. We also live in grief and regret over what we have left behind or at least feel we may have indeed lost. We thus attach ourselves to the very things that we cannot, ultimately, control; the past and the future. In truth, there is only today, this moment, and this breath with which we are, and can actually be, connected. The past is gone, and the future has not yet happened. We are here, now.

From a Buddhist perspective, addiction might be considered the archetype of attachment. Addiction is, in fact, a collection of attachments. It is attachment to fear, attachment to loss, and attachment to longing, emptiness, and a lack of a sense of purpose. Whether we choose alcohol, drugs, sex, food, pornography, exercise or even shopping, we are simply employing the means serving the compulsion to fill a space and dampen our pain. The means does not matter; that is simply a gesture. The compulsion is the crux of it, and that compulsion is not so much to drink, or do drugs, or to spend; that compulsion, ultimately, is to fill that space.

And just what is that space? We might look upon it as the “God-shaped hole.” The wisdom teachings suggest that in identifying with a self, a “me”, we divorce ourselves from the true nature of our existence. From a psychological perspective, this division presents itself as inauthenticity, and the internal conflict that condition engenders promotes internal strife. In our attempt to reconcile this sense of inauthenticity, we cling even more desperately to establishing a sense of “me-ness” and can, in some cases, become morbidly self-destructive in our attempts to soothe the pain of failure in that reconciliation.

Addiction generally begins as an interest in something that feels good. As soon as we express an interest in something, we are expressing a preference. In expressing a preference, we are dividing our attention and creating an attachment to something in the world around us. As that interest turns into a fascination, our attachment deepens. Our attention becomes more and more exclusive, and we become increasingly imbalanced; emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

Fascination may then flower into obsession, and we become a slave to our attachment. We are no longer ourselves, and, rather than ‘losing our mind’, which would be the skillful means by which to escape our attachment, we are trapped inside the mind.

With obsession, our attachment becomes even more intensified, and our exclusion even more narrow. As we become slaves to our attachment, our mind, and our behavior, we lose the ability to exercise free will and, in that light, move from obsession to compulsion; from place of being driven, to a place of need.

At this point we fail the First Noble Truth; our attachment has become so involved that we have invited suffering. We are no longer willful, but, rather, subject to and at the sufferance of the will of our attachments. When we find ourselves in a place that we cannot live without exercising this attachment, whatever it may be, we have fallen into a state of addiction.

Within the context of addiction, people often feel that they do not have a choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. We always have a choice. When confronting someone who themselves is confronting an addiction, saying to them, “Stopping your behavior is your choice.” is, however, often met with profound resistance for their failure to see that choice.

The key to getting a grasp on this is recognizing that choice is a constant state; it is not a single moment in time. If the choice not to be addicted were a single choice point, then all we would ultimately do is move our attachment from something socially defined as negative (say, drinking or being promiscuous) to something that is socially defined as positive (not drinking or being chaste). In point of fact, we would become addicted, or at the very least attached, to not being addicted.

Buddha spoke of the Middle Way. Within the context of choice that suggests that if we are present in the moment, our choices are constant. We do not, then, go right or left, say yes or no, think good or bad, or see black or white; rather, we are aware that both opportunities are presenting themselves, we recognize this and acknowledge it, then choose neither.

When we lose the Middle Way and fall off our balancing point, we create our pain. We create our sense of emptiness, and our anxiety around loss. We deceive ourselves into believing that we are less than whom and what we are by virtue of attaching ourselves to things, objects, situations, emotions, and anxieties that take us away from ourselves. This is the engine of addiction.

Michael J. Formica MS, MA, EdM, Pyschology Today, May 02, 2008
Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world with nearly 1 billion followers, the majority of whom come from India. Hindus will generally believe in one Supreme Being with multiple deities associated with that being and in the notion of reincarnation based on how a person lived in a previous life (karma).

In general, Hinduism disapproves of the use of drugs or alcohol, although in some Hindu sects, cannabis products are used to promote spiritual experiences through the use of an intoxicating drink called Soma (not the muscle relaxant). However, since the major focus of Hinduism is to achieve spiritual enlightenment and move forward to the process of reincarnation, most sects do not endorse the use of alcohol or drugs.

Hinduism may involve the use of meditation, yoga, or other techniques to sharpen the spirit, mind, and body of the practitioner. The major belief is that the entire universe is connected, that one should have a daily relationship with God, and that one should take responsibility for their behavior as their first intention. Thus, the use of self-control and meditation can be used to an advantage for Hindus who are in recovery from some type of substance abuse problem.

Hinduism also endorses a holistic approach to health and wellness. This type of holistic approach, treating all of the needs of the person, is now one of the major focuses in addiction treatment.

All of these methods have applications in the treatment of substance abuse. It should be noted that Hinduism concentrates on the use of meditation, prayer, and self-discipline as an approach to recovery as opposed to psychotherapy or medication.
Agnostics and atheist are often overwhelmed by the amount of religious language surrounding recovery. In such cases it is helpful that they begin with the things that every addicted person has in common.

No matter your religion or lack thereof these things appear to be true for everybody who struggles with a substance abuse disorder or behavioral addiction: 

  • Both religious people and atheists with a substance abuse disorder should consider detoxing in a medical facility.

  • Both types of people will find it critical to associate with understanding people who have been through similar struggles.

  • Both groups can benefit from rehab and therapy.

Despite the evidence that religion and spiritual approaches may enhance outcomes in recovery from substance use disorders, it should be noted that the overall body of research regarding the effective principles of substance use disorder treatment does not specify the contribution of spiritual-based or religious-based interventions as important factors in evidence-based treatments. In fact, one of the most comprehensive overall summaries of the principles of effective substance use disorder treatment by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) does not even include any notion of spirituality or religion as one of the major principles of treatment despite the growing body of evidence of the efficacy of spirituality. 

Virtually all treatments for substance abuse, such as medication management, behavioral therapy, or alternative therapies, are based on the need to adopt a spiritual or religious approach while at the same time strangely insisting they are effective whether or not a person has a commitment to a divine supreme being or has spiritual beliefs. Thus, treatment does not require any type of spiritual or religious belief or commitment according to the NIDA principles of effective substance use disorder treaments.

The types of programs that regularly attempt to incorporate religion or spirituality into recovery are typically peer support groups like 12-Step groups or other similar groups. These groups will often refer to notions of spirituality or religion and surrendering to God or a higher power as a component of their program. However, many of these groups demonstrate acceptance for individuals who do not have any type of spiritual or religious belief.

Individuals who do not wish to be involved in programs that focus on spirituality or a religious doctrine, but still wish to become involved in peer support groups that allow them to freely interact with others in recovery, can readily find groups to suit their needs. Some of the major organizations that offer nonreligious environments that are appropriate for atheist or agnostic individuals include the following:

  • Smart Management and Recovery Training (SMART recovery) is a nonspiritual, nonreligious approach to empowering people to achieve successful recovery from substance abuse.

  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is a nonprofit network of secular recovery programs.

  • Life Ring is a secular group that focuses on abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

  • Moderation Management (MM) is a secular program that focuses on the controlled use of alcohol in recovering individuals. 

  • Women for Sobriety is a nonprofit secular organization for women in recovery.
There is a large and growing body of research studies going back decades that investigates the contribution of spirituality and religious beliefs to recovery from substance use disorders. The overall body of evidence suggests that individuals who adopt a “spiritual” or “religious” aspect to recovery often express greater life satisfaction and notably improved physical health measures. 

Individuals who have committed spiritual or religious beliefs appear to have lower rates of substance abuse than those who do not. There is evidence that individuals in recovery who have spiritual and religious convictions may have better overall outcomes than those who don’t. The medical profession itself has begun cautiously to acknowledge religious beliefs do have a notable positive treatment effect for many health conditions.