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Recovery Needs More Spirituality


I believe cultivating spirituality is critical for those in recovery from addiction, and Buddhism and Twelve Step recovery programs are two powerful spiritual pathways to end suffering. I define spirituality as “nondualistic bonding in love”—whatever our spiritual practice may be, secular or otherwise, cultivating love is essential to our physical, mental, and emotional health.

My new weekly podcast on the Insight Timer app, entitled “Spiritual Sobriety,” examines, explores, and celebrates Buddhism and Twelve Step spiritual practices for recovery. On “Spiritual Sobriety” we explore how the spiritual practices of love, loving-awareness, and loving-kindness liberate us from our suffering and restore us to joy and happiness.

In the West, spiritualty is typically associated with religion and is centered upon the belief in an all-powerful God. Practitioners of spirituality through Judeo-Christian, Islamic, and Hindu religions have rich lessons in which to study or practice spiritualty. Aboriginal and what might be called “world religions” also offer a beautiful pageantry of devotion to God, gods, and spirits that offer rich practices to manifesting spirituality.

The teachings of spiritual teachers like Alan Watts and Ram Dass share how their own Christian and Jewish roots (respectively) guided them toward spiritual love and spiritual awareness through Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Ram Dass offers this beautiful reflection on the critical need for spiritualty: “We’ve gotten lost in our ego and have forgotten that our soul’s motive is to merge with The Beloved” (2002, p. 38). Dass also states, “The one you start with is often the one you come back to, once you learn to go beyond the negative experiences you have as a child.” (Rifkin, 1992).

According to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), spirituality emphasizes a loving union with “a power greater than ourselves” and “God as we understood him” (AA World Services, 2002a). Remember that AA was founded on spiritual, not religious tenants. Bill Wilson struggled with this conundrum as he took from the Oxford Group’s basic concepts and, may I say, wrestled spiritualty from religious practices. Many of the founding members of AA fought with Bill on this very issue.

Bill Wilson tells us in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of AA, “The hot debate about the Twelve Steps and the book’s content was doubled and redoubled, there were conservative, liberal and radical viewpoints, some thought that the book ought to be Christian, others could accept the word God, but were opposed to any other theological proposition, and the atheist and agnostics wanted to delete all references to God and take a psychological approach” (AA World Services, 1957). And we see in AA’s publication, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, he states, “Maybe there are as many definitions of spiritual awakening as there are people who have had them” (AA World Services, 2002b).

I see the Twelve Step programs as a very liberal, very progressive fellowship where people are encouraged to freely define their union with nondualistic love or a “God of their understanding.” For me, I see God as the God of love, or simply love.

In Buddhism, secular nondualistic spiritualty is defined by the Three Jewels of Buddhism. The first Jewel is Buddha—Buddhists honor the man who shared his suggestions for ending human suffering. The second jewel is dharma, Buddha’s teachings, lessons, and practices that are suggestions for how to end our suffering. The third jewel is the sangha. The term “sangha” is Pali for one’s community or family. In AA, we call this community the “fellowship.” Buddha was asked which of the three jewels was the most important, and he promptly replied, “The sangha” (Sockolov, 2015).

Buddha taught that the spiritual pathway of cultivating non dualistic love for ourselves only comes by way of giving, serving, and caring for others. In AA, Step Twelve has a similar suggestion: “Having had a spiritual awakening, as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all of our affairs” (AA World Services, 2002a).

I contend that any secular or religious pathway of spirituality—when practiced to generate love for ourselves and others—is critical for relapse prevention and thriving in sobriety. In Buddhism, this nondualist union is the most powerful source for feeling joy and happiness. In the Twelve Steps, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous reports, “You will feel as though you were rocketed into the fourth dimension” (AA World Services, 2002a).

Huston Smith’s 2001 article entitled “‘Spirituality’ versus ‘Religion’” predicted the critical importance that spiritualty will play in America. Smith wrote, “One of the important roles that Buddhism has played in the West is that the West took the esoteric or mystical aspects of Buddhism out of the monasteries and made them available to the laity. This helped revitalize interest in the mystical aspects of Christianity and Judaism. In some cases, it furthered the return of contemplative practices in those religions that had fallen into neglect” (2001).

I urge clinicians, therapists, and those of us in recovery to celebrate and practice spiritualty. If fostering love for ourselves and others is the sole intention of our recovery practices, the grounds for cultivating joy and happiness will follow.


  • Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (1957). Alcoholics Anonymous comes of age: A brief history of AA. New York, NY: Author.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (2002a). Alcoholics Anonymous (4th ed.). New York, NY: Author.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (2002b). The twelve steps and twelve traditions. New York, NY: Author.
  • Dass, R. (2002). One liners: A mini-manual for a spiritual life. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
  • Rifkin, I. (1992). Ram Dass exploring Judaism. Sun Sentinel. Retrieved from https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1992-03-27-9201300673-story.html
  • Smith, H. (2001). “Spirituality” versus “religion.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Retrieved from https://tricycle.org/magazine/spirituality-versus-religion/
  • Sockolov, M. (2015). The importance of sangha in Buddhism. Retrieved from https://oneminddharma.com/sangha/

Chris McDuffie, MA, CADC-II, is a chemical dependency counselor at AToN Center, a thirty-day residential detox and treatment center for co-occurring disorders. McDuffie is a retired high school principal and will complete a master’s in clinical social work from Fordham University in August 2020. He teaches Buddhist psychology, mindfulness, meditation, and will complete mindfulness-based relapse prevention training from UCSD’s Mindfulness Institute. McDuffie’s teachings may be found on the Insight Timer app, where he is the host of “Spiritual Sobriety,” in which he teaches how to practice spirituality from a Buddhist and Twelve Step perspective.