Addiction Recovery and The Spiritual Experience

spiritual experience

Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. 

The terms ‘spiritual awakening’ and ‘spiritual experience’ are ones that we will undeniably hear quite often over the course of our journeys in recovery. Many of us are told early on that in order to truly understand and appreciate the bountiful gifts of recovery, we will need to undergo a spiritual experience. We read of the experience that Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson underwent – a bright light experience that he later came to call a ‘hot flash’. While undergoing treatment for alcoholism at Towns Hospital in 1934, he experienced a flash of white light followed by an overwhelming sense of well-being, and believed himself altogether freed from his alcoholism in a spontaneous and overwhelming act of God. The first printing of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (published in 1939) focused pretty exclusively on this variety of spiritual experience, leading many to believe that if they did not come face-to-face with God in a sudden and spectacular upheaval, they were essentially doing it wrong. Fortunately, this is not the case.

Spiritual Experiences in Addiction Recovery

In the 4th edition of the Big Book, which was published in 2001, the term ‘spiritual experience’ is covered in depth – and it is clear that such experiences manifest themselves in a wide variety of forms. In fact, the vast majority of experiences are what psychologist William James calls of the “educational variety”, meaning that they occur slowly and over a prolonged period of time. In most instances, the individual himself will be the last to know that a profound and authentic alteration has been taking place. Close friends and family members may be well aware of this fact, but not until the individual takes an honest and sincere look at how far he has come will he likely recognize that any significant transformation has been occurring. At some point in time, after a period of continuous sobriety and personal dedication to the indispensable principles of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness, the individual will likely come to see that he has made an overwhelming amount of progress.

And progress, after all, is our goal.

“By surrendering our lives to God as we understand Him, we are changed. The nature of this change is evident in recovered alcoholics. This personality change is not necessarily in the nature of a sudden and spectacular upheaval. We do not need to acquire an immediate and overwhelming God-consciousness, followed by a vast change in feeling and outlook. In most cases, the change is gradual.”

Take an honest look at where you are today. Do you see a gradual and continuous change within yourself – within your attitudes and outlook towards life in general? As alcoholics and addicts, we tend to be much harder on ourselves than is necessary or appropriate. We instinctively compare ourselves to others, figuring that we are always either better than or worse than our fellows – never resting on the same plain; never equivalent, always atypical. We have a difficult time relating because we simply never try. We are characteristically close-minded and unenthusiastic. We either believe that God is punishing or that He has abandoned us altogether, leaving us alone to die in a self-inflicted pile of misery and isolation. We are intractable and disinclined, and we will gladly tell anyone who asks (and even those who do not) why we are doomed and ruined and alone in it all.

Gradual Change and Enlightenment

We hear the term ‘spiritual experience’ and we immediately assume that if God does not personally come to us in a white hot burst of pious light, we have not been successful. We unwittingly compare our experiences to the experiences of others, assuming that dissimilarity is equivalent to falling short. However, we are merely undergoing the educational variety of spiritual experience – we are deliberately becoming connected to something much greater than ourselves; something that we cannot fully comprehend, something that is saving us, slowly by slowly, from a fruitless life of self-pity, fear, and segregation. Rather than dwell on the meaning of this phrase, try accepting the fact that it has been occurring and evolving in your very own life from the moment you set down chemical substance – the minute you began seeking a deeper, lasting sense of fulfillment and meaning.

“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”  – Herbert Spencer