The Curious Case of Spirituality and Recovery an article by OD Movement

The Curious Case of Spirituality in Recovery

Perhaps it has something to do with why they call heroin (or is it opium) the religion of the poor. For the record, I’ve always considered myself a spiritual person. In fact, I view myself as religious. Nonetheless, the greatest struggle I had with this whole recovery thing was a perceived necessity to include a spiritual element. Spirituality as an essential component to treatment, along with the accompanying significance, never made sense to me. 

If addiction is a disease then why are we “treating” it with spirituality? If a person sought treatment for anything else, say diabetes, they wouldn’t be told by approximately 74% of practitioners (inpatient treatment facilities) their best treatment option for long-term care would be an 85 year old program based on spiritual principles. Don’t get me wrong, on the meta level I understand the importance; the notion that all things can be overcame through God. However, like I said, I’m a spiritual and religious person! This stuff makes for an easier pill to swallow for me than most. What about the atheist, agnostic, or someone never before exposed to religious principles? 

The best place for us to start might come in establishing an understanding for what is meant by spirituality. Dr Maya Spencer provides an excellent definition in her electronic PDF entitled What is spirituality? A personal exploration, available thanks to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, as follows: Spirituality involves the recognition of a feeling or sense or belief that there is something greater than myself, something more to being human than sensory experience, and that the greater whole of which we are part is cosmic or divine in nature.

Spirituality vs Religion

We must clearly differentiate between spirituality and religion. It’s commonplace today for people to use them interchangeably. While the two go hand-in-hand for a large section of the population, they have significant differences. does an excellent job outlining the contrasts between the two. According to the article, the reason for the blurred lines arises because they’re the two vehicles (historically speaking) to find the foundational Truths (big T) of the universe, specifically: who am I, what do I want, what is my purpose, and what is the meaning of life?

OD Movement Religion vs Spirituality

Religion can be defined as an institutionalized system that dictates social norms and creates a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices. Done in the name, or service, of a God, gods, or forms of supernatural entities. While spirituality is far less institutional. A common theme among spirituality is the implication of something larger (or greater) than the individual, as well as some sort of universal connectedness. According to Christina Puchalski, MD, “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.” Regarding spirituality, it seems like the general consensus comes down to the idea of connecting to something bigger than the self.

Spirituality, Consciousness, or Higher Frequency?

In an effort to make sense of, or expand upon, the inclusion of spirituality in recovery I recently reviewed the idea of applying Dr. Joe Dispenza’s teachings on unlocking potential towards substance abuse treatment. Which, interestingly, brings to question a good number of parallels when comparing spirituality, “higher frequencies”, and consciousness. 

Map of Consciousness by Doctor David Hawkins OD Movement

The research of Dr. David Hawkins supports such a notion in his book The Highest Level of Enlightenment and it’s reflected in this Map of Consciousness. Through research, consisting of more than 250,000 muscle testing calibrations over more than 30 years, Dr. Hawkins accurately determined a range of values, attitudes, and emotions in correspondence with varying magnitudes of consciousness. Dr. Hawkins developed his Map of Consciousness using kinesiology (the study of muscles). The research identifies seventeen levels of consciousness. It’s no surprise that lower levels on the spectrum seem perfectly aligned with active addiction.

According to Dr. Hawkins, consciousness ascends from shame (the pit of hell) to enlightenment. An existence operating at a level under 200 can be destructive; to both the person and society as a whole. Therein lies the crossroads between savage and civilized. Our greatest evolution in consciousness takes place at courage, level 200, also known as the stage of integrity. At this stage in consciousness we begin cultivating an astute recognition of truth buried among lies, and distancing the self from the ego. Fun fact: Dr. Hawkins estimates that the US as a whole is currently around 204

Saṃsāra & Hell: Spirituality Validating Science

There’s a reason addiction commonly gets referred to as a “living hell”. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the lower levels on Dr. Hawkins Map of Consciousness match up almost perfectly with the principles appearing across various religious teachings! The Bible teaches of addiction to be like enslavement. Life in these lower levels feels agonizing, which is why they say you’ll pay a high price to live a low life. 

OD Movement Why Spirituality in Recovery

Samsāra, a concept taught across numerous eastern religions (including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism), serves as one such illustration. Samsāra (the Sanskrit word meaning “wandering” or “world”) is closely related to reincarnation, transmigration, and karma. Taken another way, it’s the journey a “soul” undergoes throughout the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In Buddhist beliefs, Samsāra takes place across six realms ranging from heaven (deva) to hell (niraya). The general premise being that over the course of our life we accrue Karma.

At its core karma comes down to the law of cause and effect, the cause being our ignorance (avidya) and cravings. Karma provides the fuel and direction for Samsāra. Our Karma in this life, being either positive or negative in nature, determines the realm of our reincarnation after death. However, what if our “realm of Samsāra” cycles not just in death, but also throughout life? After all Buddhism does preach impermanence. What if we were to interpret the Buddha’s six realms of Samsāra not in a literal sense, but psychologically?

The Six Realms of Saṃsāra

Lauren Simpson-Green seems to believe in the benefit of such concepts and their practical psychological application. In one of her blog posts Ms. Simpson-Green poses the question, “Could it be that the realm of the Hell Beings is simply a metaphor for our state of consciousness and suffering before we begin to awaken?” According to Buddhist teachings there are  Six Realms of Samsāra: The God realm, Human realm, Demi-god realm (Asura), Animal realm, Hungry ghost realm, and Hell realm. As we examine the realms be mindful of Dr. Hawkins Map and notice the parallels.

Characteristics of the hell realm (naraka) include humiliation, misery, shame, and various forms of intense suffering. The main characteristic in the hungry ghost realm (preta) are nonstop cravings or attachments. These are unquenchable, with no possibility of being satisfied. The animal realm (tiryag) is characterized as indifferent, apathetic, and ruled by instinct. As such it is fear driven, controlled by fight or flight and other similar responses. If craving, attachment, and addiction are the root cause of suffering in the hungry ghost realm, then the cause of suffering in the animal realm is ignorance. 

There is some debate as to the order between the fourth and fifth realms of existence. The human realm (manuṣya) and demi-god realm (Asura) are interchangeable in these two spots. Inhabitants of these two realms are both part good and part evil. Dominant characteristics of the demi-god realm include anger, pride, paranoia, and jealousy. Those occupying the human realm are seen as fortunate due to their potential to reach nirvana. Buddhist’s characterize the God realm by its lack of suffering. 

The “Spiritual Journey”

Interpreting the six realms of Samsāra as a metaphor outlining the path consciousness travels on the way to awakening is just one understanding of the spiritual journey. Taking some time to contemplate the premise of a “spiritual journey” can be quite fascinating. According to Dr. Maya Spencer’s article (mentioned above): “The spiritual journey involves first healing and affirming the ego so that positive states are experienced; with secure self-esteem, belief in self-worth and a capacity for love and generosity, a person becomes less constrained by ego defences. An opening of the heart is an essential aspect of true spirituality.”

OD Movement Spirituality in Recovery

Dr. Spencer’s personal exploration of the spiritual journey goes on to examine Buddhist principles. In the article she specifically makes mention of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. However, Dr Spencer leaves out one key component, acceptance, in her explanation of the spiritual journey as it pertains to addiction. In fact, we cannot overstate the importance of acceptance in addressing an addiction. For this reason, I argued why the principle taught by step one of AA is acceptance. The step reads, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Almost assuredly, the philosophy of Twelve Step becomes (on varying levels) familiar to most everyone who’s struggled with addiction. Without acceptance there’s only denial. Oftentimes addiction acts as the primary adversary for anyone committed to following any form of spiritual journey.

Mapping the Spiritual Journey

We have no right or wrong path when it comes to the spiritual journey, just like there’s no one-size fits all approach to substance abuse treatment or addiction. The spiritual journey is open to the interpretation, complexities, and subjectivity of the individual. Nonetheless, there seem to be some consistencies among practitioners of spiritual journeys. In order to highlight some of those consistencies outlines seven stages to the spiritual journey:

Why Spirituality in Recovery? OD Movement
  1. Recognition
  2. Breaking Loose (Renunciation)
  3. Claiming Our Power
  4. Embracing Our Greatness
  5. Expressing Our Uniqueness (Sovereignty)
  6. Integrating Our Roles as Creators
  7. Transcendence

Could it be Dr. Hawkins created a practical, scientifically backed, roadmap of sorts for use along the spiritual journey? Again, remain mindful of the Map of Consciousness as we examine these steps in more detail. Stage one can be thought of as an awakening. An illustration of this awakening can be seen in an article I wrote on concepts inconceivable during active addiction. At this stage we begin seeing reality through a different lens. Stage two is defined by courage and the process of release. We must risk our perceived safety that’s provided in the status quo so that we may evolve.

Stage three personifies the process of empowerment. Life takes on new levels of excitement in this stage; which might be accompanied by changes to your style, behavior, or interests among others. Stage four consists of deeper internal exploration and the recognition that truth and happiness come from within. Along with this comes the true understanding of the difference between pleasure and happiness. Stages four and five embody understanding. Stage five energizes our desire to share purpose with the outside world, thereby displaying a meaningful life-view. Views which are expanded upon in stages six and seven.

The Abstinence Myth

Clearly there are similarities between spirituality and religion. Common threads include the disregard of God/respect for the greater good, absence of fulfillment, and feeling a spiritual void to existence are the root causes to chemical dependency, addiction, and substance abuse disorder. Therefore let us move past the nuances between the two schools of thought. 

Dr. Adi Jaffe in his book, The Abstinence Myth argues that there are four various factions battling for significance and validation as the most influential component to addiction. The four factions Dr. Jaffe recognizes are spiritualists and religionists, psychotherapists and traumatists, neuroscientists and biologists, and environmentalists and social scientists. In other words: god, trauma, nature, and nurture make up the competing systems of beliefs in the battle against addiction. Dr. Jaffe perhaps explains it best in pointing out that by battling amongst themselves we’re losing the overarching war of addiction. 

The concepts and ideas brought up in The Abstinence Myth are absolutely fascinating. Dr. Jaffe makes a point to recognize the brilliance seen in each individual slice to the addiction pie. However, he argues that focusing on a singular origin for all addiction undersells the complexity of the issue, going as far to say, “I believe that this ongoing battle is a big reason for our inability to adequately address our addiction problem,” ( Each competing faction attempts to pinpoint the origin of addiction; along the way discrediting their contemporaries at the expense of those suffering. Of course, that’s not to say spirituality doesn’t provide value against addiction. He mentions seven specific elements of spiritual practices critical in recovery:

  1. Giving You a Sense of Purpose
  2. Making a Contribution
  3. Bringing Mindfulness to Your Recovery
  4. Connecting to Something Greater Than Yourself
  5. Establishing Yourself as Part of a Community
  6. Practicing Gratitude
  7. Having Accountability

Reading Tea Leaves

With such a wide variety of conflicting opinions, and so many moving parts, making heads or tails of any of this can be tough. Examining the role spirituality plays in recovery or addiction treatment begins with establishing a baseline on the definition of spirituality, and articulating what differentiates it from religion. It was for precisely this reason, I advocated the separation of treatment and recovery.

Spirituality in Recovery OD Movement

The benefits spirituality brings highlighted by Dr. Jaffe land into one of two categories: external (contribution, conection, community) and internal (purpose, mindfulness, gratitude, accountability). Religions are societal institutions, they teach a set of principles or societal norms. Religion’s are what the world tells you about spirituality or the nature of the divine. Religion is external; on the other hand, spirituality has internal roots. It’s what you learn about divinity from your experiences, what you know in your heart to be true. Spirituality is a connection to and understanding of something greater than the individual. Is that truly spirituality, or simply an essential element in personal growth? I’m inclined to believe that personal growth and spirituality are related, but not mutually exclusive.

Whatever the case, it seems apparent countless groups avoid treatment because of the emphasis on spirituality, along with the religious undertones that accompany it. If the general consensus on spirituality comes down to the idea of connecting to something greater than the self, couldn’t we present it less controversially? Wouldn’t advising patients to develop a strong sense of community accomplish the same thing? 

Closing Thoughts

This is why words are important, and that’s the problem. The definition of spirituality that first comes to my mind, as well as the dictionary definition of the word, is: “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” I can feel connected to something bigger than myself at school or work if there’s a strong interest in the subject or job. I can feel connected to something bigger than myself by playing coed volleyball, being a Laker’s fan, or volunteering. My point is that a sense of community, connecting to something greater than yourself, doesn’t have to be spiritual.

Buddhism in Recovery OD Movement

According to the Buddha the cause of all mankind’s suffering are byproducts of the human condition; arising as the result of an unwillingness to accept the true nature of reality. Spirituality involves recognizing a feeling or sense of belief that there is something greater than the self, something more to being human than sensory experience, and that the greater whole of which we are a part of is somehow divine.

Consider for a moment the possibility the spiritual journey, expanding levels of consciousness, accessing higher frequencies, the Quantum Realm, and recovery are all- in fact- one in the same pursuit. Different strokes for different folks. For instance, I’ve identified four elements (Pillars) articulating why spirituality is valuable in addiction treatment:self-awareness, Ending rationalization, an Outward Mindset, and finding a purpose Finding a Greater Purpose. Those Four Pillars, recovery, the Golden Rule, and The Eightfold Path all teach how to rise above the anguish brought on by suffering and reach a plane of serenity, acceptance, and peace.


  1. This is a very deep and insightful article. Another thing that I can see applying here is the connections in Native American views on spirituality and religion. I’m sure you have already looked into this as well but it is fascinating to connect those lines as well. The Native Americans are no strangers to the use of drugs in society and have a great sense of community, they have always seemed to have the view that introducing drugs to the human body is the introduction of spirit as well, of course this is also accessible via meditation and as you say a sense of higher power. Whenever one asks the natives about what is so wrong with society today their answers are simply that we have lost our connection to spirit.

    1. Thank you for such a positive analysis, and I sincerely appreciate your kind words! I must admit I hadn’t connected the link between Native American views on spirituality and religion mind altering substances. However it’s quite fascinating. The notion of substances having “spirit” reminds me of the Hindu concept (I believe it’s Hindu, but could be wrong) that everything holds spiritual energy. I’ll definitely look more into Native American spirituality and the parallels that come from their view on spirituality and substance use for future content. Possibly a podcast (since it certainly sounds as though you’re more well versed than myself in the topic might you have any interest in joining me in a discussion?) Anyways, thank you for sharing your thoughts and perspective!

      Be well,

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