The Varieties of Religious Therapy: Twelve Step Spirituality

Rabbi Rami Shapiro on Twelve Step Spirituality

Posted Nov 09, 2011

Psi and AA's symbol of Recovery, Unity and Service, by WG

The Varieties of Religious Therapy (VRT) is a blog series featuring representatives from twelve belief systems discussing how they integrate faith with their approach to psychotherapy. This installment is an interview with an outspoken author in the areas of spirituality and recovery. See the Introduction for a full description of VRT and the table of contents.

Twelve step spirituality began with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the 1930s and grew into a global recovery movement that is known for its recognition of a "Higher Power." It is neither a church nor a religion, but a distinct, non-sectarian spirituality. Men and women seeking sobriety through twelve step recovery programs do so by acknowledging a "God of their understanding" with the expectation that members will not disparage nor promote specific religious traditions. 

Due to this inclusive structure, twelve step spirituality has as many shapes and forms as there are members. Today we hear one spiritual perspective from the author of Recovery - The Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as a Spiritual Practice, Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro. 

Rabbi Shapiro (Ph.D. Union Graduate School) is recognized as one of the most creative figures in contemporary American Judaism. An award-winning poet, liturgist, and essayist, his prayers are included in worship services across the denominational spectrum of American congregations. Shapiro was the founding rabbi of Temple Beth Or in Miami, Florida and senior rabbi of Metivta, a center for contemplative Judaism in Los Angeles. He currently directs the One River Foundation, and is an adjunct professor of religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University. He has written several books including Rabbi Rami's Guides to God, Parenting, Forgiveness and Psalm 23, in addition to a blog called Beyond Religion and a column, Roadside Assistance for Your Spiritual Journey, in Spirituality & Health magazine. 

What is the role of religion or spirituality in your clinical practice?

First let's be very clear that I am not a therapist and do not take clients and rarely counsel people and have no clinical practice. So, why you are asking me these specific questions isn't clear to me. But I will do my best to answer them in my own context.

The role of religion is to conform people's thoughts and behavior to a theology and rule of practice deemed somehow superior to all others. After all, no one is asked to conform to a religion whose leaders admit to their system being inferior to some other. The role of spirituality-spirituality as practice, not spirituality as feelings-is to shatter the work of religion and free people to encounter reality directly. While I function in the world of religion, and do my best to help those who wish to conform to Judaism to do so in a manner than is focused on love and justice rather than rote and rite, my passion is for spirituality, especially those teachings and practices that help one break free of religious conditioning.

How does your technique or theory differ from mainstream psychotherapy?

My technique has nothing to do with mainstream psychotherapy. I value psychotherapy highly, and have spent many fruitful hours with excellent therapists, but I am not a therapist. My concerns are not with becoming a more healthy or well-adjusted self, but with seeing into the illusory nature of the self altogether.

A new client comes to therapy reporting his main problem is feeling detached from God. How would you proceed?

As you say, detachment from God is a feeling. Feelings come and go, and are in no way permanent. If you feel detached from God when thinking about God, the best thing to do is stop thinking about God. Go take a long walk in the woods with a dog, and after a time the question won't matter. If this is too much to ask, I often use the teaching of Ramana Maharshi: The you that knows you are detached from God isn't detached from God, otherwise it wouldn't know you are detached. Shift your focus from the detached ego to the always attached Self or Soul and the problem disappears. If this too doesn't register with the person, if they need to do something spiritual to overcome what is essentially an illusory problem (you can no more be detached from God than a wave can be detached from the ocean), then I prescribe chanting. Chanting is the core of my own spiritual practice. As one sits or walks and chants various Names of God, one's egoic mind fades and with it all the silly problems it invents for itself. Chanting doesn't attach you to God, it only helps you realize you cannot be detached from God.

What is the relationship between sin and psychopathology?

The difference between sin and psychopathology? Sin is in the Bible. Pathology is in the DSM IV. Neither book is revelatory and both books reflect the limited of their authors and times. Seriously, these terms are not helpful. Either a behavior makes you more loving, compassionate, humble, and just or it makes you less loving, compassionate, humble, and just. The labels are extraneous.

Who or what is the primary agent of change in therapy?

There is no agent of change; change is the nature of reality. If the client is taught to look at her life mindfully, she will notice that whatever pathology she suffers from isn't permanent. There are moments of illness and moments of health, moments of clarity and moments of irrationality. What we have to learn is not to cling to any of them. So reality is the agent of change. The therapist can help the client attend to reality, and this is no small thing at all.

What is the most difficult part of practicing psychotherapy while maintaining your beliefs?

Unless a person is asking me what I believe, when I talk to people about religion and spirituality I do my best to have no beliefs. I assume that whatever reality is it isn't what I think it is, so I might as well focus on what the client thinks it is. I take the stance of a curious seeker. I want to know what they believe; why they believe what the believe; how it impacts their lives; how it makes them more loving and less judgmental or, if it doesn't, why they would cling to a belief that makes them less loving and more judgmental. Given the right questions, people who believe crazy things will come to know they believe crazy things and may stop doing so. Or they may not, or they may pick up some other crazy beliefs. The key is to realize that all the stories we tell are just that-stories. We can rewrite them anytime we wish.

What is the most rewarding part?

The most rewarding part of engaging people in genuine dialogue is the aha moment when we both step out of our systems of thought and meet without defenses in the sacred, unlabeled, and unbounded space that Martin Buber called the "between." It is here that we stop playing god and realize God is playing us.


Just tuning in? See the other VRT participants in the table of contents and like my facebook page to get updates for the rest.