Episode 63: Don M. Seeking (the definition of) Spirituality

Just before leaving for our two-week summer break, I recorded this podcast with Don M. from The Broader Path Group in Odessa, Ontario. Don and I talked a little about his journey in AA, and his experience with helping to start a secular AA group. We also had an interesting conversation about the concept of spirituality, and as an added bonus Don provided this marvelous essay that goes further into his thoughts on the subject. Thank you, Don.  It was nice to have the opportunity to speak with you and it was a pleasure to read this essay. 

Seeking (the definition of) Spirituality

By Don M. 

When most people talk about seeking spirituality, they are talking about becoming more spiritual or seeking practices that increase their spirituality.  My quest is much more basic than that.  I am wondering: What does spirituality mean?  What is the definition of spirituality?

Well, as a first step. I checked an online dictionary for definitions of spiritual and secular.

Spiritual: relating to religion or religious belief.

Secular: denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.

Given these definitions, the often heard statement that “AA is spiritual not religious” is contradictory and confusing.  I have often felt as an atheist in AA that this is a bait-and-switch technique to get reluctant newcomers to believe in God.

When I helped form a secular AA group in the Kingston area, we were met with a great deal of anger and opposition.  One member told me that alcoholism is a spiritual disease and that we cannot recover without God.  Another suggested that God had gotten me sober through the original 12 Steps and I was just in denial of His presence in my life.  My sponsor argues that a spiritual awakening is the result of working the 12 Steps.  I disagree.  I have experienced long term abstinence from alcohol, improved personal relationships, a sense of peace of serenity, less fear and financial manageability all as a result of working the steps.

Through these experiences, I have become quite antagonistic to the word spiritual and its use in AA.  Thus, I started my quest to find the definition of spirituality. 

Wikipedia has an interesting definition of secular spirituality.  It basically describes secular spirituality as awe, wonder and a feeling of connectedness or oneness.  I don’t think this is what most AA members mean by spirituality

A friend recommended that I read “The Spirituality of Imperfection” by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham.  At one point they define what spirituality is NOT for several pages.  Unfortunately, they do not offer a clear explanation for what spirituality is.  In addition, it seems clear to me that Ernie Kurtz believes in God so he is describing two ways of getting closer to God:

  1. Striving for perfection (the method of most religions)
  2. Accepting our imperfections as God-given (AA’s way)

Either way, as an atheist I don’t believe in a God nor believe I can strive for conscience contact with one.

I have also read “Waking Up” by Sam Harris in which he describes a secular spirituality that resonates with me.  He states that most people live life chasing happiness and avoiding pain.  An apt description of an alcoholic.  Unfortunately, once we reach a goal, the happiness is fleeting and we chase the elusive feeling with a new goal, purchase, job, relationship, or another drink.  Spirituality is the realization that we are all one and connected, that now is the only time we have and that we can find a lasting satisfaction and meaning in our life and extend love and compassion to others. 

Feeling connected to others, helping others, calming the relentless chattering self-talk, and finding contentment in our lives definitely fits what I imagine people mean by spiritual.  But I still, don’t like the word spiritual as I feel religions have hijacked the word and that the typical usage of spiritual is relating to religion.

Besides reading about spirituality, I decided to start honestly inquiring at AA meetings what spiritual means to AA and Al-Anon members.  Then, in context of that definition, I asked how they would define spiritual and not religious.  Everyone I talked to was very thoughtful and engaged in this discussion with me.  Most people described events that they find spiritual: northern lights, a birth, nature, or sunsets.  I agree these events definitely inspire awe, wonder, and a sense of mystery.  Unfortunately, the examples still don’t define what spiritual means.

Finally, I asked my mom, who has been in Al-Anon over 40 years, what her definition of spirituality is.  She defined spirituality as “getting into oneself” and then getting out of oneself”.  When I asked what spiritual not religious means, she said, “It means letting people do and believe what they want.”

Perhaps because she is my mom, this resonates with me.  I recall the years of meetings, inventories, therapy, and inner child work where I worked to understand my feelings, fears, and motives (get into myself).  Then I recall giving without demand in AA, being a loving husband, and raising a beautiful daughter (getting out of myself).  I love the acceptance and detachment with love that Mom advocates in “letting people do and believe what they want.”

After all this, I am still not comfortable using the word spiritual.  I have started ignoring it when it is used in literature.  I am confused by a statement such as “living a principled spiritual life,” where “living a principled __________ life” is quite clear to me.  I feel the meaning and essence is much clearer to me by dropping the s-word.

If I am feeling particularly cranky, I replace the word spiritual with wah-wah-wah in my mind.  If you recall the old Charlie Brown television specials, when the adults talked all we heard was wah-wah-wah.  Whether I drop the adjective spiritual or substitute wah-wah-wah, I feel it does not significantly change the meaning of passage.

I wish everyone a sense of awe and wonder, humility, peace, contentedness, true intimacy, a feeling of connection with others, and love.  And if you know of a word without religious connotations that encompasses all this, please let me know.

Thanks Mom, and all the people who talked to me and humoured me in my quest for (the definition of) spirituality.

About Don M. 

Don M. has been sober since 5 July 1991.  I have belonged to Alateen, Alanon and A.A.  I have belonged to .A.A. groups in Ireland, Michigan, and Kingston.  I helped start two secular meeting in the Kingston area in the last 2 years.  I feel impassioned to advocate for secular A.A.

Additional Resources

In this podcast, Don mentioned the book Waking Up, by Sam Harris. This book is available for free in audio form at Sam Harris’ SoundCloud Channel

Meeting information for Don’s Group in Odessa, listed on the Secular AA website