For Young Adults age 17-25

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Spirituality, Psychotherapy, and AA

By Donald Durham, Ph.D.,
Licensed Psychologist
Clinical Director

In graduate school in the early 1980’s we were warned away from Alcoholics Anonymous because it was cultic! And like an obedient graduate student I did not investigate the 12 Steps until 1990 – and again at the direction of another professional director – this time a mentor. (I did have one gratifying experience that didn’t fit with what I had heard: at the conclusion of therapy with a grateful recovering alcoholic, she gave me a personalized copy of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and her own one-year sobriety chip!) What I discovered personally from that initial investigation of the 12 Steps was a practical guide to daily living that enriched both my personal spirituality and my relationships with both friends and family. From there I began to both practice the Steps and learn more about the actual organization called Alcoholics Anonymous. My conclusion right away was that AA is certainly not a cult – it is not exclusive, there is no authoritarian charismatic leader, and there is no “special” knowledge that only those who belong are privy to. AA certainly is spiritual but not religious; their practice is more a rejection of stale church culture than of religion per se. The fervent AA resembles very closely the fervent religious believer – but specifically those who are loving, forgiving, and embracing, not those who are judgmental, intolerant, and exclusivist.

What is spirituality? Although several definitions can be found in the professional literature, here are two: spirituality is the response to a deep and mysterious human yearning for self-transcendence and surrender. Similarly, spirituality is the dimension of human existence whose focus is the human capacity to create (discover or encounter) meaning, purpose and value. These two definitions lead us to reflect upon two dimensions of spirituality that are pivotal to psychotherapy. The first asks us to contemplate both the individuality and the communality of the human being. One of the most frequently seen root issues in therapy is the loss of a sense of personal identity, such that the pain of that emptiness drives a person in pursuit of artificial “filling up” experiences – abuse of drugs, sex, and power being the most common. But once a person has begun to experience some of the satisfaction of a more stable identity, he is almost immediately propelled into the reality that the human being does not thrive in isolation – that he is designed to be a part of the whole. Humans, by and large, are joiners – there is a satisfaction in being a part of something bigger than oneself. As soon as a person experiences this sense of losing self-consciousness in favor of consciousness of the greater whole – there is no going back; transcendence transports a person to a different plane of awareness. And it is actually from this new awareness that a person can begin to discover the second dimension of spirituality – that of meaning for life. Discovering a meaning or purpose for one’s life is what gives it a vector – energy and focus in a specific direction. This sense of purpose is essential for long-term, permanent sobriety. The initial goal of being sober just so the pain of living will go away is only transient; the “old-timer” always has a sense of being sober in order to achieve his/her purpose in life.

If you are an experientially-oriented person, the above description of the spiritual life is probably appealing. However, if you are an analytic type of person, you may well be complaining that there is nothing in the above description to really take hold of. For this latter group of us, here are some of the measurable differences, gleaned from the psychological literature, made by the cultivation of a spiritual life:


  1. Greater subjective well-being and life satisfaction.
  2. During stressful times tend to adjust better to crises and problems.
  3. Less anxiety, including death anxiety; more
    free of worry and neurotic guilt.
  4. Less depression, especially among the elderly.
  5. Less likely to divorce; higher marital satisfaction and adjustment.
  6. Less likely to use or abuse alcohol or drugs.
  7. With clear prohibitions against premarital sex, there are lower rates of premarital sex and premarital pregnancy.
  8. Lower delinquency.
  9. Fewer suicidal impulses and suicide.
  10. More moral behavior, curbing personal desire or gain to promote the welfare of others and of society.
  11. Higher empathy and altruism.
  12. Better physical health; lower prevalence of a wide range of illnesses.
  13. Longer life spans, better response once an illness is diagnosed.
  14. Cope better with illness, include lower likelihood to depression and perceived disability.
  15. Lower rates of postoperative mortality, less depression, better ambulation.

The fundamental religious or spiritual tenets are that there is a God, that such a being is not humanity and that although man is flawed he is called to perfection. This latter conflict is what creates the need for a spiritual, life-saving experience, and it is an experience that the addict knows only too well – that of not doing what I want to do and in fact doing the very thing that I don’t want to do. So the simplest statement of the first three Steps of AA – “I can’t, God can, and I think I’ll let Him” – come into focus as truly a life-and-death experience. Not just a life-saving experience, but a life-giving one. The slogans of AA, that so very often provide an emotional life-line in the midst of the storm include two that are relevant here: “I am a spiritual being having a human experience, not a human being having a spiritual experience” emphasizes the complete change in focus of the spiritual awakening. And finally, “religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell – spirituality is for people who have already been there and don’t want to go back” reminds us all to keep our spirituality real and practical – no empty piety or religiosity here!

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