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The Role of Spirituality in Overcoming Addiction

piritual prayer hands over sun shine with blurred beautiful sunset background. Woman praying to god with hopeful blessing against sunset. Concept of importance of spirituality in addiction recovery

Episode 49 Transcript: Exploring the Connection between Spirituality and Addiction Recovery

Our expert panel, Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II, David Livingston, LMFT, and Dwight Hurst, LPC discuss the role of spirituality in addiction recovery. They explore the definition of spirituality, how it differs from religion, and its potential benefits in mental health and addiction treatment. They discuss the importance of mindfulness and self-awareness, and how these practices can lead to a sense of relief and decreased suffering. They emphasize that spirituality is not exclusive to religion and can be beneficial for everyone, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. From mindfulness to self-reflection, learn how incorporating spiritual practices can help individuals find peace, purpose, and healing in their journey toward recovery.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: Welcome back to Addiction, Recovery and Mental Health, a podcast by Waismann Method Opioid Treatment Specialists. I’m your co-host, Dwight Hurst, joined, as always by David Livingston and Clare Waismann. Today we have a question that I think takes us in a direction that, you know, I don’t think we’ve touched on that much before, and I’m excited to hear your guys thoughts on this. So our question for today is what role does spirituality play in addiction and treatment and all that stuff? What where should we start with that?

David Livingston, LMFT: I’m going to let one of you guys take the lead.

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: I was going to let you do that today. Oh, Lord. Well, maybe we could help.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: Maybe it would help to define what we mean when we say spirituality first.

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: Yeah, because, you see, there’s always the confusion of spirituality and religion. Right?

Dwight Hurst, LPC: Excellent. I think that’s a good point.

David Livingston, LMFT: I mean, from my perspective, it’s all intertwined. And I and I do think that, you know, because AA has a strong spiritual or religious component, depending on and they leave that to the individual to kind of define. And for some people it’s very helpful. You know, AA has a very big spiritual component to it and they really leave it to the individual to define themselves. What that means, whether it’s got a religious base for them or it’s it’s more a spiritually, you know, based idea or feeling. And they they really leave it open to interpretation by the individual. And that’s probably a very good thing. I also know that there are people who don’t like that component of it and for their own personal reasons, don’t feel like they can relate to it or want to relate to it. And so it’s a very personal thing. You know, for some people they will report. And also there are recovery groups through churches and other organizations that, you know, have a religious or spiritual component to it that people are either already a part of or want to be a part of. But I guess the thing I would say that is important about the topic is that substance use has a strong component of needing better dependency or healthier dependency, that anywhere you can connect more deeply, where there’s it feels like there’s more connection with the people around you, there’s more shared. It tends to strengthen the process of resilience, closeness to the people that you’re you’re going through it with tends to help everybody more. So I think components, including spirituality or religion that have that effect are useful.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: Yeah. You mentioned how some people do have a turn off when they hear the term. I think because it gets intertwined. For me, the difference of spirituality, the way I kind of look at that is believing that there are things that are important and maybe more important than just ourselves. Like we don’t exist just in a bubble on an island. And that gets intertwined sometimes with people’s own experience, with perhaps an organized religion, perhaps one they didn’t care for, maybe especially in childhood. A lot of times people who either leave their religious community or step away or develop their own philosophies are not always treated well by the system in which they grew up. Right. Or maybe they have other, you know, rigid experiences with religious rigidity, which would be damaging any kind of rigidity in our upbringing can be problematic. So I think when people hear that it’s intertwined in their mind and sometimes they think nothing there for me. But you’re talking about more of a universal appeal. It’s not necessarily about a church or a group or even necessarily the concept of God.

David Livingston, LMFT: Or it could be, but.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: But it certainly can be. Yes.

David Livingston, LMFT: Right? Yes, that’s right. That’s right. It’s kind of left for the individual to decide.

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: Yeah, I think not just in recovery, but, you know, there are a number of studies that show that spiritual people have are healthier, are happier. I think in a way it takes a bit of that responsibility. I wouldn’t say even responsibility. It takes a bit of the weight from your shoulders. You know, you’re not just one is much bigger than you. There’s a humbleness about it. There’s gratitude about it. I think it makes you a bit more part of the world, a much bigger world than the one, you know, we’re physically in, if that makes sense perfectly.

David Livingston, LMFT: I think that’s a great way to put it. And that it can it can relieve part of the weight that comes with being conscious and human and having to manage all the dynamics that come with being a human being that we have to learn how to relax and not care. We have to learn how. How to take responsibility and care. We’ve got to, you know, and it goes on and on and on and in so many different ways. And the feeling that, you know, it kind of dovetails into that. The other topic we were going to potentially talk about, which is perfectionism, just the feeling of I don’t know how I got here, why am I who I mean, and I don’t know where I’m headed. Right? And there’s this feeling of of just being able to be small and it being okay and that we’re all part of that. And, you know, it it connects us as human beings. And that’s, I think, good for all of us. And that, that it doesn’t mean and it can’t mean that we don’t take responsibility as well.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: It’s interesting there’s a bunch of sort of balances in here to kind of resolve, I think, for people. You just hit upon a really big one, which is does a sense of spirituality or my philosophy about life, does it empower me to say, you know, I’m not I’m not terrible, I’m good, I deserve to be happy, I deserve a good life, and I can then engage with my own accountability, taking responsibility, investing in my healing. Or does it go into a place where it’s like, oh, my my spirituality becomes this burden that tells me that I’m terrible and I’m sinful and dark thoughts, you know? And I it’s interesting how there’s that can be a goal to try to develop, right? That healthy balance between accountability and self love and self-acceptance rather than having it skew as you mentioned, the other extreme would be even more of a I guess you could say, narcissistic traits of saying like, I’m fine, so whatever I do is fine and the rest all everybody out there can just lump it, right? That’s I feel like I grouped three spiritual perspectives there. But do you know what I mean? Like, like that sense of balance, I think, is what you’re talking about. Right?

David Livingston, LMFT: Right. I think that’s what you. I like the word you use, Claire. Take the weight off your shoulders, you know, and I think that’s and while I disagree with it in some ways, because I think the wording and the verbiage is confusing when AA tries to say you’re an alcoholic, the good part of it is that like, okay, we’re all here, we’re working on this issue together and we’re all struggling with it and okay, we’re just human in this way and we share this and that can be a really helpful thing. But the other side of it is that it can then, you know, the idea that you’re helpless only, you know, we are helpless in some ways, right? We don’t as I’ve said many times, we don’t necessarily decide how we feel as much as we discover it. Our needs are going to come whether we like it. We have a need for connection. I mean, during COVID, there was a lot of anxiety and paranoia that developed in people because they were isolated because there’s a need to be attached and have a connection and feel related to. And you know, similarly, if you’re hungry. And so these needs are going to come, the feelings are going to come with them. And so we’re sort of born into this body and this, you know, dynamic world. And but like Claire said, it can really help to not feel like you’re responsible for everything, that there’s some weight that can be taken and the recognition that we’re also just small and, you know, not in charge and in control of so many things. Um, as long as it gets.

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: Be a part of something much bigger, Right? Yeah.

David Livingston, LMFT: Right.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: Yeah, because ideally, it should be something that is counter to loneliness and hopelessness. That would be and I would even say I would go so far as to say if my spirituality doesn’t make me feel less lonely and more collected, more connected, I should say two healthy things, then it isn’t really serving well, and it’s what its intended purpose. Right?

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: Right. And what you’re saying is reality is, you know, your definition and how you are recognizing it maybe is not what it is. Right.

David Livingston, LMFT: And along those lines, there’s a lot of confusion about spiritual truths or religious truths and psychological truths. And while there’s some overlap and some connection between the two, there’s also a departure. And so, you know, you that that, you know, to live a good life, you can’t just you know, unless you want to go and live in a monastery, you know, you’re still going to have to pay your water bill. Otherwise, you know, no matter how strong your belief system is or, you know, eventually the water is going to not come. And so, you know, there’s a there’s this balance between just the practical ness of being human and understanding our needs and then the kind of the surrendering principle and, you know, something like that.

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: And I think because there is such confusion, a lot of different treatment centers have removed spirituality from their treatment because they did not want it to be seen as religion, because they know in the last few years society has almost condemned religion. Right. And trying to take it out of our schools and our government and everything else. So a lot of different treatment centers that I know of have removed a lot of the grounding services because they were being confused with imposing religion where they were not. They were truly just about giving people hope, giving people brighter look into life in the world, not such an isolated feeling of me, me, me, and how am I doing and what is expected of me, but something much bigger than they are. So I think that’s something that is going to be an issue because it was truly a good part of treatment that is being taken away because people don’t understand what it really means or what it really is.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: I’m curious how do you approach that hesitancy when someone and let’s say I mean, obviously you meet the client where they’re at if they don’t want to talk about spirituality, I assume we don’t. You don’t push that. Except what if someone is though, interested in the concepts or you’re talking about the pros of involving spirituality and they have that. They have that hesitancy for, you know, they either they look at it as well. This is just kind of a backdoor way to sneak religion in or they believe maybe they believe that or they have fear or maybe even trauma, whatever their reason for hesitation is. How do you feel like you work with that to help someone feel comfortable to develop their own spirituality?

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: I think the most important thing is giving them space to say what they feel, what they need to, not allowing a conversation without any judgment. I think that that goes in everything. Everything. You know, I have a family member that had, um, an addiction issue for a long, long time. And I’ve tried everything until he decided to go to a spiritual place. And this is a child that never had any religious background or spiritual background or anything like this. And he, he found something bigger than himself, and that helped him heal, I think not because of religion, but again, he just understood that there is a much bigger world out there. So I think how we bring in spirituality into treatment could be in so many different ways. You know, it could be, but it doesn’t need to be a group. It doesn’t need to be teachings of anything, but just a truly open conversation of hope and kind of meditation. I mean, there are so many ways to do it.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: And if you look at the way that some of those things are developed, it’s really interesting. The elements you see with like, let’s take DVT or dialectical behavioral therapy. It was a well, you know, it involves quite a bit of mindfulness like you said. And there are principles of reaching inside oneself to find, you know, the belief of DVT is that we all have wisdom accessible inside ourself. Right. That will tell us basically what’s the right and wrong for us, right, the right and wrong choice for us to make and the healthy choice. And there’s a lot of like objective, healthy decisions that are built into at least decision-making processes. And as I’m saying that I remember training I was at where they talk about Marsha Linehan, who developed DVT. She was either I can’t remember if she was if she went all the way through and became a nun and was a former nun or she was studying to be a nun at one point before she became a psychologist. And so there’s an essence of spirituality, not religious. In fact, you could say she brought in more Buddhism than Christianity principles. But there’s a lot of crossover of those things with spirituality. And so and that’s a widely accepted, research-based therapy that involves a lot of looking in into one’s own philosophies of life, one’s own spirituality. Right.

David Livingston, LMFT: Yeah. Mean that mean to exact to to what you’re both saying that um I believe it was Einstein who said that you can’t cure the problems of the world on the same level. They exist. So that, like you’re talking about with your family member, they, they found a different part of themselves that actually cured their problem at a different level. And I think that is a huge part of what, you know. And I think we try to cure the problems too often at the same level they exist rather than really trying to discover what moves and what can move somebody. And it really is more of a discovery process and you have to be really open-minded and hopefully have enough general experiences and multiple ways to to maybe help someone with that. So you could say that with mindfulness and meditation, you could you could say that as a mathematical equation, that resistance or pain times resistance equals suffering. Okay? So and this is a there’s a big crossover to this and psychotherapy and treatment. So, um, anger, fear. Sadness. None of those things in and of themselves cause suffering.

David Livingston, LMFT: It’s our resistance to them that causes the suffering. And mindfulness will show you that similarly to what psychotherapy does. That is, you help a person feel and get to know and relax around even what are now called negative feelings. Which drives me crazy because it’s the worst thing we can do for people is to call those things negative because it’s like putting yourself at odds with yourself. I so disagree with you, and I can’t even. Well, you can hear, but. And it’s terrible. It’s the opposite of what a mindfulness approach is and really what an in-depth therapeutic approach is. Because what happens when we have those feelings, How about we relax into them? How about we don’t resist them? How about we get to know them and and and understand their benefit? You learn how to utilize them well, how to grieve if you need to, how to be strong or protective if if you’re feeling angry or set some boundaries. I mean, so it’s it kind of all dovetails into each other.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: That’s it. I hope I hope when you say, you know, when you say I’ll be quiet after this, I hope you won’t be too quiet. It’s not good radio, but. Right. I know. I think that’s really a big part. One of the things that we that keeps coming up is that phrase something bigger than us. Right. And once again, there’s this sort of balance and not really see, I don’t I don’t regard it as a paradox, but you could say there’s a paradox there, or at least a need to balance these things, right, where we say something bigger than us. And at the same time, you know, it’s also about my own internal peace and judgment and decision-making and all those things. They’re both present, right? The individual work, as well as then being connected to something. And.

David Livingston, LMFT: That’s right. That there’s a process. There’s a process that can heal me. And in good therapy, the therapist knows the process and discovers it with them. And so, therefore, you’re not responsible for healing yourself per se. Now you’ve got to show up and participate and genuinely and make effort and hopefully have some enthusiasm in it. You have to do that. But that and the same with mindfulness. You have to cross your legs and sit and find an object of concentration and develop that. But there’s a process that can heal us and it takes away from this feeling that, you know, I’m flawed, you know, but or I’m this, I’m that. And, but okay, can we discover the process that’s going to help us?

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: That process, You need acceptance, right?

David Livingston, LMFT: What do you mean by acceptance?

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: Self-acceptance. Let’s as you were saying, of all your feelings of who you are, then you can begin to heal. But first you got to accept all those feelings you were talking about. And it is okay to have them.

David Livingston, LMFT: A professor of mine said that all change begins with the acceptance of where we’re at. I correct. And there you go.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: As you’re saying that, I think I think quite often about what you brought up, David, of positive and negative feelings that term. I have the same aversion to that where, you know, I look at that and it’s like, well, aren’t there you know, isn’t it a principle of psychotherapy and psychology that there’s no such thing as negative feelings, at least in the terms the emotional definitions of those like these feelings are bad because that so even just by calling them that, then we gravitate towards rejection instead of that acceptance. Right? That’s not a mindful or healthy response.

David Livingston, LMFT: It is a new thing. And I think it’s it’s a part of the new thinking. And I think it’s a it has a lot to do with behavioral therapy and CBT and is effective and good as that approach can be in many ways. And there’s there’s a lot of evidence that it can be very helpful in this way by making something negative that isn’t an inevitable part of your inner life. First of all, you’re going to tend to repress it. Second of all, you’re not going to get to know it to the degree you possibly could. And third of all, it will deaden you from being as creative and as dynamic a human being as you might be. And I’m not for any of that.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: Oh, that’s why I like some of the modern critiques of cognitive behavioral approaches. And I think I think one of the problems is sometimes we look at cognitive behavior and we just focus on the behavioral where and or we interpret the cognitive as push away those types. Personally, I like to when I talk about feelings, I like to talk about them. If we’re going to talk about them in terms of I don’t want this or I want this, I like to try to share with people the idea of there are some feelings that are enjoyable while I’m feeling them. And then there are others that are healthy but less enjoyable. And if we’re looking at negative and positive, I think that the healthy component is to say, Yeah, I don’t like when I’m mad, I want to do something about it. But actually, that’s the healthy function of Mad is maybe to cue me in that there’s something going on or maybe even give me some energy if I can use it in the right way. I like the term. There’s a term that is getting thrown around more nowadays where they talk about actual toxic positivity, right to where if I’m required or requiring myself to be, quote, positive all the time, then that’s actually unhealthy because I’m throwing out, you know, I’m throwing out the good with the bad with those feelings. Right. See, I just did it. I said good and bad. What? I mean, throwing out the healthy with the less enjoyable. I can’t. You can’t have healthy development without having the unenjoyable hard work part of it. Right.

David Livingston, LMFT: Well right that now we dovetail back into to mindfulness and meditation. You know, the goal is, is to develop high levels of concentration and equanimity. That means we don’t have a preference. We don’t have equanimity at its root and mindfulness is that we don’t have a preference. And we just observe these changing states and these thoughts and feelings that arise and pass away and the changing emotional states and everything else without preference. And there is such an ease and openness and a relaxation that then comes from just being able to be a human being because they’re all going to come and go.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: Yeah, I came across a study that was being quoted just the other day, and I don’t have the reference offhand, but that they’ve done some studies that, you know, funny enough, if you’re feeling even a feeling of despair if you take a truly mindful approach, which you just said, and in some like DBT and some others, they call it being an objective observer of your own feelings, right? You when you have a feeling that is alarming or is one of these non-enjoyable or you know, I’m feeling depressed or despair. I have this feeling hit upon me in the middle of the day. They the study indicated that people who observed it and didn’t try to change it one way or the other, they didn’t try to do anything with it except observe it, that they reported that those feelings, the duration of the unpleasantness of that was was lower than those who tried to push it away or tried to just simply quote affirmations, whatever it was that when they essentially it was kind of saying like, when you mess with the feeling, it gets you know, it goes in unhealthy ways. If you watch it for a minute, the pain and sting of that actually wears off faster than if you try to change it.

David Livingston, LMFT: That’s it. Pain times, resistance, whatever the pain is or whatever the discomfort is, times resistance. I want it to go away or I don’t want to be with it equals suffering because then we’re at odds with ourselves. And I would say from a psychological perspective, what needs to get added to that is you have to understand the need behind it. You know, from a more meditative perspective, they don’t pay much attention to that. But from a psychological perspective, if I’m sad, what do I need? Do I need to go talk to somebody? Do I do I need to grieve? Is there something missing in my life that I need to pay more attention to and my lonely and right? And so you pay attention to the needs, you know. But. But like you’re saying, if you can relax into it and you will suffer less even as you’re getting to know and act upon the needs.

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: And then going back to recovery. Isn’t that the focus of most of the patients really know not being able to fulfill those needs and having to self-medicate or those feelings that they did not allow themselves to feel?

David Livingston, LMFT: Exactly right. That you have to be able to bear yourself to stay off of to need a substance. And if you find a way to suffer less and you can learn to just relax into yourself and let these things move around without resistance, you will suffer less. And the chances of you needing something to dole your consciousness will go way down. That’s why there’s a tremendous amount of evidence that meditation is useful towards recovery.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: When we talk about meditation, one of the things that I think is kind of hard for people is that some people really struggle with that traditional what you were you were kind of talking a minute ago about transcendental meditation, right? You sit down, cross your legs, you pick a focus word or phrase or picture, you know, all that kind of thing. There are some people who really struggle with that. And I think finding for me the key that mindfulness, that focus on living in the present, that opens up doors for people to be able to try alternate forms. So if I go for a walk mindfully, then that can be a form of meditation, right? Or I work in my garden mindfully or something like that, that for some people who don’t groove on, sitting and meditating in that way, they can still engage in meditation or meditative pursuits.

David Livingston, LMFT: 100%. And I’m not talking about any I’m talking about mindfulness only really not transcendental or anything like that. I’m just talking about mindfulness. And. Absolutely. You like you said, you can be mindful throughout your day and whatever your, you know, process is, I think people I think having some sort of a process to strengthen the mindfulness is often helpful. You know and in some sort of technique to do that usually helps people strengthen it. But you can do it in in many, many ways.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: Well, how are we feeling? I feel like one of the interesting things to me before we I was going to say, what else do we want to say on this topic? But I just wanted to throw out there first. One of the fascinating things to me is that as we discuss the elements of spirituality and it goes into some of these just basic little psychological pursuits or, you know, the philosophy of spirituality and what that means to us individually. For anyone who has that hesitation or bad experiences with religion, as we put it, it’s not spirituality isn’t exclusive of religion. Obviously, it’s involved with that for a great deal of people. On the other hand, all the things we’re talking about that aren’t in the religious camp, to me, those are elements of spirituality that are actually useful for someone, whether or not they happen to be religious or, you know, a person of faith. As regards to God or whether they aren’t even if they’re atheist or agnostic, it doesn’t matter that there’s these mindfulness and spirituality principles are actually good for everyone. Kind of aside from that.

David Livingston, LMFT: Oh, you want to comment, Claire?

Clare Waismann, M-RAS/SUDCC II: No, you go ahead.

David Livingston, LMFT: Yeah, I’d agree. I think they’re good for everybody. And these things, you know? Um. That that you can you can increase your awareness of yourself and life in a way that actually gives you. Relief. That. That. That. That. That mindfulness allows for that and that over time it will allow for that in a similar way to I think effective therapy does where you just get comfortable with baring yourself and you learn to relax, that you don’t have so much preference about what’s coming up inside yourself. And over time that muscle can get so strong that the preference of how you feel or what is so minimal that you’re suffering less and less. And that’s real, that’s not fictitious, that’s not a fantasy that can be developed in anyone.

Dwight Hurst, LPC: And we’re going to leave it there for today. Thank you so much for listening and joining. Please make sure that you reach out to us if you have questions that you’d like to hear us address on the program, or if there’s anything in general that you’d like to share about your experiences with addiction treatment, mental health recovery, any of those things, we’d love to hear from you. Send your emails to info@opiates.com or visit us online. Opiates.com or on Twitter @opiates. Our music is the song Medical by Clean Mind Sounds. This show is brought to you by Waismann Method opioid treatment specialists for Claire Livingston and David Waismann. I’m Dwight Hurst, and just want to remind you to continue to ask questions because if you ask questions, you’ll find answers. And if you find answers, you can find hope. We’ll be back again soon. Bye-bye for now.