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What Constitutes a Spiritual Awakening?

Awakenings of the spirit come in many different shapes and sizes.

One of the core characteristics that makes people vulnerable to addiction (and is also amplified as a consequence of active addiction) is a sense of internal emptiness—a pervasive feeling of being hollow, empty, of something missing. The specific manifestation(s) of addiction represent an attempt to fill this emptiness from the outside. Substances, activities like gambling, eating, or sex, material objects, jobs, money, or people, may fill this hole, but only very temporarily. When the mood-altering effects of the attempted “fix” wear off, the feelings of dis-ease return and are often worse, driving the urge to “use” again.

While a sense of spiritual emptiness is an experience familiar to many people, it is extremely common for those who struggle with addiction. While the absence of spirituality in no way causes addiction, it is generally accepted that addiction has a spiritual component. This acknolwedgement led to the incorporation of spirituality as an important ingredient in the process of recovery, and provides an important intersection between Western psychology and psychotherapy and twelve-step recovery. Carl Jung viewed addiction as a spiritual malady and addicts as frustrated spiritual seekers. He believed the craving for altered states of consciousness reflected a spiritual thirst for wholeness, and that only those who have a spiritual awakening could successfully overcome addiction. Jung’s position was ultimately incorporated into twelve-step recovery, specifically Step Twelve.

Although spiritual awakenings are often part of the recovery process, obviously they are far from unique to people in recovery. Such awakenings need not involve religion or “finding God.” In a general sense the experience relates to recognizing and beginning to internalize a connection with that which is beyond self. But more specifically, what is a “spiritual awakening”? Some people have an image of an instantaneously life-changing event—the equivalent of being struck by a bolt of lightening or being spoken to by a burning bush (a la Moses) or some similarly dramatic and unmistakable occurrence. They may anticipate a sensational event that will forever change their lives, permanently elevating them above the routine din of the daily grind, and giving them the secret to ongoing happiness.

Spiritual awakenings don’t necessarily happen the way we might expect, along a timeline we prefer, or in a form obvious to us. They can take many different, often subtle forms. Spiritual awakenings often evolve so gradually that they are almost imperceptible. And only when our eyes, ears, mind, and heart are fully open, are we positioned to discern, receive, and appreciate them.

The best definition may be found in the actual experience of one’s own shifts in conscious awareness. Spiritual awakenings can be as profound as a smack-upside-the-head, clear-as-a-bell recognition that all people (no matter how damaged and/or disturbed they may be), in fact, all living things are inextricably interconnected with one another and therefore deserve nothing less than compassion and empathy. They can also be as “ordinary” (though there’s really nothing ordinary about it) as consciously tuning in to the chirping of birds or noticing with greater present-centered clarity the magnificence of a sunset or how wonderful and fresh the desert smells after a rainstorm.

Each time we wake up from a modus operandi state of unconscious reflexive autopilot thinking and reacting and become mindfully aware of our internal and external experience, there is an awakening of spirit. It is a spiritual awakening to realize our attitude and outlook come from within and that we have the capacity to adjust them when we make a conscious choice to do so. Just because we may have had a shitty day thus far doesn’t mean that it has to continue in that direction.

Spiritual awakenings occur when we see glimpses of the much bigger picture around us and find humility in the moment. We can become aware that humility is not thinking less of oneself, but rather thinking of oneself less, and that we are worthy of self-compassion. Compassion for others means appreciating their pain and experiencing a heart-based response to it. Compassion evokes an interest in offering support, understanding, and kindness to others when they struggle, make mistakes, or fail. Self-compassion consists of responding the same way toward ourselves when we have a difficult time, act out on our personality challenges, or experience something we don’t like about ourselves. Having compassion for ourselves means that we honor our humanness with self-acceptance when we bump up against our limitations and fall short of our ideals.

The practice of compassion is a spiritual experience with a spillover benefit—compassion breeds more compassion. Scientific research provides evidence that the experience of compassion toward a single individual facilitates compassion toward others. Empirical data also demonstrates that our sense of compassion increases measurably when we can find commonality and connection with others. Compassion radiates whenever we can connect with another through shared experience. The more we can open our hearts with the awareness that suffering, failure, and imperfection are universal to the human experience, the more we are capable practicing compassion for others and for ourselves.

Copyright 2014 Dan Mager, MSW
Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain

Paul Condon and David DeSteno, “Compassion For One Reduces Punishment For Another,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2011): 698–701.

Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno, “Synchrony and the Social Tuning of Compassion,” Emotion 11, no. 2 (2011): 262–266.

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