Regardless of what sobriety program you choose, eventually you’re going to run into mention of a Higher Power, or the need for spiritual experiences and spiritual growth. For those of us who have a little bit of a bad taste in our mouth from religious experiences, the emphasis on spirituality in sobriety can be daunting.
On the one hand, you really want to do well with your sobriety program, and to a certain extent that means taking it at face value and going through the motions of the entire program; after all, if you pick and choose one aspect, you may as well pick and choose through the whole thing. On the other hand, whether you come from a religious background and had negative experiences, or simply don’t think of yourself as a spiritual person, it can be distracting and disconcerting to have someone else insist to you that you cannot be successfully sober without accepting some idea of Higher Power or spiritual experience. For people to whom that comes naturally, or who have had a lot of practice with it, that might not be such a tall order, but for those who struggle with spirituality, it’s really a lot to ask. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves: suddenly integrating even a vague concept of deity into a life that hasn’t had one, or into a life that has rejected that concept, is no small feat.
So, what does the non-spiritualist recovering alcoholic do in the face of a program that demands you acknowledge a Higher Power, or that spiritual growth is the fundamental object of life?
Well, I think it helps to understand why these programs include this stuff in the first place. I think the emphasis on a Higher Power is to help an alcoholic understand that there are greater guiding forces in the world than our own willpower. This can be a powerful truth for a person whose willpower alone has often failed her. And I believe that the emphasis in Women for Sobriety on spiritual growth (which is always paired with emotional growth in the program) is meant to instill the recovering alcoholic with: a) a sense of wonder with the world around her, and b) a sense that there are deeper things at work in our lives than mere biochemical addiction. There is more to work on than merely Not Drinking.
Understanding these perspectives can be really helpful, because it allows us to back away from the wording used in the programs (God, Higher Power, spiritual growth, etc.), and allows us to reframe the goals in language that makes us more comfortable. For a person who hasn’t or doesn’t want to reconcile themselves to the idea of a Higher Power, it’s still possible to identify forces in the world that are larger and more permanent than our own wills. This can be everything from a vague notion of Fate, or Karma, to a solid understanding of the rules of physics or elementary particle theories. Sometimes even just clinging to the reminder that there are things that are constant, that we can’t screw up and that keep us firmly rooted in place – like gravity, for instance – is enough of an anchor to give us the same reminder that a more spiritually inclined person would receive from mentions of a higher power.
Also, we can derive a sense of wonder from scientific understandings of nature, and by learning more about the things that drive and connect all of the life in the world. To me, when trying to tackle spiritual questions about the Oneness of humanity or the Unity of Christ’s church or the Brotherhood of all of the Tribes (or whatever) is too much for me to handle, it’s enough for me to feel awe and connection by learning about something like photosynthesis, or by reading literature about situations and characters from which I can derive a sense of empathy and compassion for my fellow human beings.
It doesn’t have to be fluffy spiritual or religious stuff for me to derive from it the same result that the programs intend: a sense of connection to other living beings, a sense of being held in a framework of greater mastery and control in the universe than that which I possess, a sense of gladness and gratitude and amazement at the intricacy of life around us.
I hope I’m clear in that this isn’t a slam on religious comfort at all. If you can look at a sunset and feel spiritually connected to all other people or feel in your heart that some Higher Power is in compassionate control of your life and the forces that affect it, then I couldn’t be happier for you, and I think you’ll find that the language in a sobriety program needs no adaptation for you to derive the full benefit from its lessons. But if that isn’t the place you’re in, if that isn’t the reality that makes the most sense to you, then there is still a way for you to gain the optimum benefit from your sobriety program. You don’t have to give up hope.