Our Thirst for Wholeness

What is the connection between mental health and spirituality?

Posted Feb 03, 2012

The majority of people's problems are caused by the fact that they are disconnected with the rest of creation. (C.S. Lewis)

We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We made a decision to turn out will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (Steps 2 and 3 of the 12 Steps of AA)

In his correspondence with Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, the psychologist Carl Jung stated his opinion that craving for alcohol was really "the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness." In their book on Maharishi Ayur-Veda, Transcendental Meditation, and treatment of addiction, authors David O'Connell and Charles Alexander state that in addition to genetics and physiology, "addiction arises from the 'mistake of the intellect,' known as pragyaparadha, in which one perceives one's self not in terms of the wholeness of pure consciousness (the Self), but rather as a highly limited individual personality burdened with conflicting impulses and feelings, cut off from the wholeness of pure consciousness."

In an article titled "The 12 Steps: Building the Evidence Base" that appeared in the May 2009 issue of Addiction Professional magazine, Valerie Slaymaker, Ph.D., reviewed a series of studies examining the role of spirituality in addiction treatment. In the introduction to her article, she acknowledges the difficulty of defining spirituality.

"Spirituality is a difficult concept to study scientifically," she states. "Ask 10 people how they define spirituality and you will receive 10 different answers. To some, spirituality implies a connection with the metaphysical, whether that is a traditional concept of God or a nontraditional concept of a higher power. To others, spirituality is intertwined with religion and formal, organized practices such as church attendance and group prayer."  That said, spirituality has become an integral part of many forms of treatment for addiction. "Despite differences in conceptualization, and challenges with measurement," Slaymaker state, "scientists have begun to examine spirituality's role in recovery from alcohol and drug dependence."

Slaymaker found that studies suggest that people with a spiritual belief system are less depressed, less anxious, and less suicidal than non-spiritual people, and that they are better able to cope with stressful and traumatic events. Those who incorporate spirituality into their daily lives through meditation, prayer, and other spiritual practices report having a more positive outlook and an overall sense of satisfaction with life.

Dr. Slaymaker also pointed to research that compared individuals in treatment for alcohol use who relapsed with individuals who maintained abstinence. Although all participants demonstrated significant initial increases in spirituality scores (measured by spiritual experiences, gratitude, tolerance, humility, and other factors), those who relapsed showed significant declines in spirituality scores in a three-month follow-up. Still other research highlighted by Dr. Slaymaker has shown that higher spirituality levels directly relate to improved treatment outcomes and life satisfaction.

Many people have a negative experience of religion.  Throughout the course of human history, people and cultures have committed horrible deeds in the name of religion, and individuals have preached messages in the name of religion which have turned many away from the concept of God or spirituality. Still others have never been exposed to a healthy spiritual community or tradition, and are bereft of regular practice that gives them the spiritual experience they need.  In addition to contributing to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, this lack of experience can contribute to a spiral into addiction, just as gaining regular spiritual experiences can help lead the way out.

So how does one cultivate a more spiritual life? There are many paths to expanding spiritual connection, some formal and others not. Twelve Step programs, organized religion, some forms of therapeutic treatment, meditation, and yoga are all more formalized paths. Going for a hike in the woods is not. In his letter to Bill Wilson, Carl Jung address it by stating his opinion that "The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality, and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to a higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism."

In addition to psychologists, other scientists have articulated the importance of spirituality. Francis S. Collins, MD, head of NIH, has written about his views on God and how spirituality fits with his experience as a doctor and scientist. "Science is not threatened by God," he writes, "it is enhanced." Albert Einstein wrote about how living without an expanded consciousness is like living in a prison. "A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space," he wrote. "We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive."

However one cultivates it, the cultivation of a spiritual life must be conscious, purposeful, and regular to be effective.  While the rigorous separation of church and state in the US gives everyone a right to pursue their own path of connection to something more expansive then our own self, this leaves the task of finding that path up to us.  And find it we must.

Like the air, God's grace is available to us. It is permeating every fiber of Being and the Being of the entire universe. When we take our attention to that Being, finer than the finest, then we establish ourselves on the level of God's grace. Immediately we just enjoy. Life is Bliss! (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)

Director/philanthropist David Lynch and actor/comedian Russell Brand practice Transcendental Meditation together. Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

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