Spirituality: The Embrace of Feeling in the Here and Now

By Ken Wells - 05/18/2021


Series Two: Blog Thirty

Most addicts struggle with spirituality. There’s conflict with understanding what it means and how to be spiritual. For many, it is about creating a relationship with God who they cannot see or understand. It is about religion for many. Many feel like a fraud trying to wrap religion around addictive behavior. Shame blocks many from ever believing that it is possible for them to be spiritual. Of course, there are many who reject the idea, concluding that they will never be spiritual because they do not believe in a God or want to participate in a religion.

Most people have a mental paradigm that is applied to the word spirituality. Addicts often relate to spirituality from the criteria taught to them when they were children. Some totally reject what they were taught, become defiant, and struggle with the emphasis on God in 12-step meetings.

Some addicts, like myself, grew up in a religious cult and carry the baggage of abuse around any concept of God and religion. They are not only in conflict with a concept of God, but also struggle with the gurus and role models who promote and teach the religion in which they were abused.

Coming to terms with spirituality is often a journey in thought and understanding. Many people don’t resolve their inner enmity and contention, and live with ambiguity about spirituality throughout their lifetime. I suggest that leaning into the struggle and discomfort about the concept of spirituality and creating meaningfulness is beneficial. For some, it means to overhaul or even reject the word itself, favoring other words like energy to spirituality. It has been my experience that those who avow atheism, reject the concept of spirituality but do have other ways of connecting with intangible concepts of living.

Personally, I do find the concept of energy very helpful but have settled on the word spirituality as a fit. Many other concepts may provide even better ways of relating to the subject of spirituality. You will need to do your own exploration within to settle on a concept that best fits you. Authors have written tomes of material on the subject of spirituality. I do not have a magnum opus to offer on the subject. A key to my own spirituality is the word connection. A crucial assessment in my recovery is the way in which I connect to myself and the world around me.

Spirituality is fostered by embracing feelings, remaining connected with self, and feeling whatever is present in the here and now. Addicts disconnect from their feelings under the influence of stress, fatigue, and other forms of discomfort. When they disconnect they lose themselves in whatever they are doing–which can quickly create emptiness and an experience of void. They can lose their sense of self. When this occurs, an addict can fall victim to incongruity which fuels dissonance in what he believed and felt from what he said and acted upon. In essence, when an addict loses him/herself they are set up to live a double life. They say one thing and do another. This disconnect will ultimately lead to relapse. So, from a spirituality perspective, it is important that addicts remain connected to what they feel, even more so than what they think. Addicts are famous for stinking thinking. Yet, it is my experience that pulling the plug on feelings gets an addict in big trouble. Eventually, it contributes to losing his way in maintaining sobriety.

Many life experiences trigger an addict to disconnect from feelings. Fear of consequences, unfulfilled dreams, and grieving losses are but a few life experiences that addicts can lose through disconnecting from unwanted feelings.

When an addict fears that a given outcome will be unfavorable, he has a myriad of ways to avoid the disappointment and dread. Pulling the plug on feeling discomfort can be automatic and requires purposeful action to steady the focus and not disconnect. The goal and benefit is that when I remain connected to the unwanted feeling I will better know how to meet the unmet need without disconnecting through many other substitutes including addictive behavior. Numbing out is a spiritual disconnect.

Grieving loss is a momentous experience for addicts. Death of loved ones and friends, loss of position and power in relationships are common death knell struggles that impact the sobriety of many addicts. Burying my mother and father were epic moments of loss in my life that impacted my own sobriety.

Vulnerability to relapse in addiction and other destructive behaviors is never more likely than during times of great loss. These experiences are exacerbated for addicts because our culture does not encourage tending to those who grieve. I remember reading that Ella Baker, a legendary civil rights worker, ceased her activist work to tend to a dear friend who had lost a loved one and was overwhelmed with grief. She simply moved in with the dear friend and lived with her for a season of time, tending to her grief and struggle around the devastating loss. In time, the friend got better and moved on with her life.

Who does this? Most of the time we designate a few days of grief prior to the funeral or memorial, publish an obituary in the newspaper, attend a wake and then the funeral, and move on with life, treating the loss as an historical event. More addicts have relapsed from disconnection from feelings triggered by great loss than any other experience that I have known as a therapist. Certainly, this experience has created vulnerability to relapse in my own recovery journey.

I have learned that spirituality comes from connecting to the present moment. Unwanted feelings threaten addicts to be present in here and now. When addicts feel disconnected, they will find their connecting energy by sifting through the ashes of disappointment, fatigue, loss etc and embrace whatever feeling is there. Sitting with the discomfort and embers of human experience will ignite spirituality.

This experience can be rather uneventful. Often, people look for spectacular breakthrough spiritual experiences. We like to hear stories about people who were desperate and distraught and who then became wonderfully transformed into grounded serenity and poise. We think of saints as those who in the presence of every-day living, lived above it all and somehow remained unwavering and unaffected by trials and tribulations. They were able to endure and abide in faith with a resolute single-minded focus. I thought it interesting to read about Mother Teresa and her admission that she lived many years without ever feeling connected to God!

Spirituality is about choosing to be connected to the presence of life, even when feeling is absent. Though difficult, centering and grounding occurs when I embrace what is in the circumstance of life you find yourself. The experience of emptiness is painful but is very spiritual when embraced. The depth of spirituality is formed during these moments and experiences of life by embracing what you do or do not feel.

Learning to accept unwanted feelings that are inevitable throughout the course of recovery and life is a path toward deepening spiritual reality. The journey toward deepening spirituality is one that travels through the desert and places in life that are unspectacular and deemed as uneventful by those seeking a magic makeover. Yet, when an addict remains connected to whatever feelings life brings, he/she transforms meaningfulness from emptiness. This is their brilliance identified as spirituality.  

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