Ask an Expert: What Spiritual Practices Best Support Recovery?

By Brian Donohue 01/08/15
Today's question is on the best of the more spiritual side of treating addiction.

What Spiritual Practices May Best Support Recovery?

Brian Donohue: A client once came to my counseling practice with an extraordinary story: he had just come back from a business trip where he had nearly lost his job after missing an assignment due to his drinking. He was now on final probation at work and staring the firing squad in the face. But he wasn’t concerned about that; he wanted to understand the meaning of something else that had happened on that business trip.

After he’d missed his appointment and been caught AWOL once again, he had wandered the streets for hours, and finally stumbled into an empty church. He approached the altar and fell prostate before it, asking desperately for help from God or whatever, even if that help came in the form of his death. Then it happened: he saw Jesus walk out from behind the altar and sit beside him. Christ helped him up and told him: “I can’t do this for you but I can be there with you. Go home now, and stay sober. I will go with you.”

Whether, like my client, we stumble into a spiritual encounter or seek it out (as in most 12-step programs), the fundamental danger is the same: expectation. It can be positive (God will bring me healing) or negative (nothing can make me free; I’ll always be a slave and nothing can change that). In every case I’ve encountered, it’s a chaotic combination of both. So the work of true spiritual practice is not to dispel devils or false gods, or to erase sin, but to strip away the shroud of claim from the still-living body of your true self. The following is a brief list of spiritual or spiritually-inspired practices worth examining for their potential in your own healing.

Mindfulness Meditation: The most effective, well-researched, and time-tested of Western adaptations of Zen and other Buddhist practices can be represented generically by this term, “mindfulness meditation.” Since Dr. Herbert Benson first published “The Relaxation Response” nearly 40 years ago, meditation as “mind-body medicine” has achieved pockets of recognition in professional circles beyond the arc of the “new age” community.

One of the leaders in research, treatment, and advocacy of mindfulness meditation as a support for standard medical treatments and therapies has been Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The best introduction to this approach to healing is in any of Kabat-Zinn’s excellent books. I would personally recommend Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are. If you are in the Boston area, there are continuous research projects being developed and implemented in mindfulness meditation’s efficacy across many areas of medical and psychological study.

Transcendental Meditation: There have been many claims made about the efficacy of TM for addiction recovery, and some research has tended to support these claims. If you believe it’s worth a try, I wouldn’t discourage you. I think TM has great potential; but it’s not for everyone. The cost of more than $1,000 for a single introductory program, along with the ideological baggage it tends to carry with it, can be prohibitive to many.

Yoga. There is evidence – mostly anecdotal and experiential – that hathayoga (the familiar stretches and poses known to most Westerners) has beneficial effects as a support to traditional recovery interventions. There is also a strong vein of advocacy for kundalini yoga, both as support and replacement for traditional therapies. It could well be worth looking into, but one warning: kundalini must be taught by experts who are thoroughly versed in its potential dangers. In the wrong hands or as a DIY undertaking, kundalini can be as perilous a practice as the addiction it is meant to undermine.

Prayer: There have been many claims made for propitiatory prayer, both within and beyond the 12-step universe. Personally, I don’t buy any of it. I believe in propitiatory prayer about as much as I believe in genies. And after all, I have found that the greatest and deepest blessings we receive are those for which we never ask. If there is a single God, It certainly doesn’t need my steerage or suggestion-box input. The only prayer that works is an opening rather than a plea: receive and then share. As the old saying goes, pay it forward. That’s effective prayer.

So a meaningful practice of prayer may have far less to do with what happens between you and God and more to do with what occurs purely within yourself. If you’re seeking a specific outcome or the fulfillment of an expectation, then you’re just making deals with a silent universe. But if you ask from the core, from the heart, for some understanding in bringing your life back into resonance with the cosmic harmonic, then you are engaging and activating energies that are not separate from your essence. I think asking for that kind of help in that frame of mind is both healthy and potentially transformational, for it begins with a single, heartfelt admission: I can’t do it all by myself. This is not about affirming your need for help from people, programs, institutions, and teachings. It is about suspending disbelief in the invisible and saying, “I may not understand who or what I’m trying to connect with, but I’m ready to feel them now. I’m ready to stop being alone, even if no one is with me.”

I often wonder if that admission is itself the foundation of all healing.



Brian Donohue has an MA degree from Long Island University in clinical psychology, and has worked in private practice as a therapist with a loosely Jungian perspective and as a meditation teacher. He has worked with depressed people, anxious people, and people undergoing major life changes, challenges, and crises. See   Full Bio.

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