Mindful Acceptance as a Spiritual Skillset

By Michael Hoffman, Dr. AD, MRAS, AAPC

Think of mindful acceptance as a skill set for the practice of prayer and meditation that Bill Wilson lamented not knowing well enough in his 1958 article “The Language of the Heart” (1988, pp. 239-242). Wilson felt that he had neglected Step Eleven in favor of the conviviality of meetings and the relief found through working the preceding 10 steps.

When it comes to the practice of A.A.’s Step Eleven— “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.” —I’m sure I’m still very much in the beginner’s class; I’m almost a case of arrested development. (p. 239)

Even though he said he was otherwise satisfied with his recovery, Wilson believed his journey to higher consciousness was incomplete, no matter how sane and sober he felt.

But inside, we know better. We know we aren’t doing well enough. We still can’t handle life, as life is. There must be a serious flaw in our spiritual practice and development. What, then, is it? The chances are better than even that we shall find our misunderstanding or neglect of A.A.,’s Step Eleven—prayer, meditation and the guidance of God. The other steps keep us sober and somehow functioning, but Step Eleven keeps us growing, if we try hard and work at it continually. . . . I was astonished at how little time I had actually been giving to my own elementary advice on meditation, prayer and guidance—practices I had so earnestly recommended to everybody else. (p. 242)

With Wilson’s statements as a starting point, we will find commonalities between ancient and modern practices of spirituality. We will encourage direct experience of mindfulness and prayer rather than accepting theoretical models that substitute for authentic and profound spiritual experience. The new ideas and conclusions drawn here serve to inform clinicians how to more effectively help patients find their own spiritual truth.

Many physicians and psychologists have influenced perceptions of both 12-Step work and Eastern meditative philosophy, but their comments require clarification. Depth psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, for example, made early contributions to the spiritual element of the 12 Steps with his emphasis on higher consciousness through education, acts of spiritual grace and the importance of human community. Yet, no records indicate that he practiced formal mindfulness meditation. As we will later discuss, he discouraged the use of Eastern forms of meditation and died in the early 1960s, after exchanging a series of heartfelt letters about spiritual recovery with Wilson (e.g. Wilson & Jung, 1987). In contrast to Jung’s psychologizing spiritual semantics, emerging meditation advocacy groups like The Buddhist Recovery Network (2012) and authors such as meditation teacher Kevin Griffin (2004), Richard Rohr (1999), a Franciscan priest and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, and dharma teacher Mel Ash (1993) characterize tens of thousands of persons worldwide who approach recovery with dedicated practice of contemplative prayer, vipassana and its close relative, Zen meditation.

The 12-Step program, prayer, Buddhist meditation and Jung’s depth psychology each have distinct appeal to recovering addicts. Twelve-Step programs offer a logical roadmap and readily available social encouragement. Buddhist meditation’s neurological benefits have been validated by science. Vipassana, Zen, and Jung’s description of the archetypes of the collective unconscious have all gained popularity as alternatives to Christian religiosity. Jungian psychology provides a bridge between clinical diagnostics and exploration of the human spirit, psyche and soul. The use of mythology, symbolism, active imagination and archetypal characters in Jungian analysis bring animism to talk therapy. All these approaches have become valid with recovery communities around the world.

Blending Practices

A recovery model that blends all these approaches could enhance the supracognitive effect of its interventions with addicted patients and breathe new life into spiritual conversation. Little communication currently exists between these disciplines on an academic, practicum or certification level. The California State Board of Behavioral Sciences licensing exams for Marriage and Family Therapists, for example, minimize addiction expertise and include virtually no mention of Eastern spirituality, prayer or depth psychology. Reductionist interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and family systems theories dominate current educational training. Licensure and certification in California, for instance, can be achieved without any knowledge of metaphysical thought and practice. The reductionism that dominates the drug and alcohol counseling field denies patients’ spiritual rights.

The 12-Step program itself does not receive the historically rich spiritual credit it deserves. Upon closer examination, we find it is a timely cultural restatement of spiritual truths and recommendations for living written millennia before the 1930s. The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path of Gautama Buddha sound remarkably like the 12 Steps. Steps Two, Three, and Eleven (A.A., 1952) recommend taking a spiritual leap of faith, just as Christ advised seeking freedom within, not in the external world. Carl Jung ’s letter to Bill Wilson (Wilson & Jung, 1987) includes the recommendation for seeking a higher power and human interaction in reference to Jung’s contact with Roland Hazzard during his struggle with alcoholism years before. Christian contemplative prayer as an ineffable spiritual experience appears in monastic writing from the 14th century, and Wilson’s 1958 article, “Take Step Eleven” is a straightforward appeal to alcoholics to return to it as an essential complement to the social interaction at meetings.

A great theologian once declared: “The chief critics of prayer are those who have never really tried it enough.” That’s good advice, good advice I’m trying to take ever more seriously for myself. Many AAs have long been striving for a better conscious contact with God and I trust that many more of us will presently join with that wise company. (1988, p. 239)

No research shows that this 1950s endorsement of prayer resulted in a measurable increase in the number of alcoholics adopting prayer and meditation, and it is unfortunate that a lack of specific spiritual concentration occurs in 12-Step meetings today. If meeting rosters are any indication, Step Eleven meetings are in the vast minority. In Orange County, California, for instance, Step Eleven meetings by listing account for less than 5% of the total number of weekly gatherings.

Recovery professionals should do more than talk about spirituality. They should use structured treatment interventions that actually teach the skills of vipassana mindfulness meditation, Jung’s practice of active imagination and contemplative prayer as taught by progressive Christians like Rohr (1999) and Cistercian monk Thomas Keating (2009). Counselors will have to build strong personal skill sets of their own to accomplish this. When counselors become proficient in skills that have previously been considered nonclinical, spiritual depth will be added to recovery counseling. At this time, reimbursable treatment is often limited to interventions that state agencies and insurance companies consider clinically acceptable, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text revision) (DSM-IV-TR) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) contains only one paragraph discussion of spiritual issues in its 780-page text. Fortunately, the paucity of spiritual treatment is changing with the introduction of protocols like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).

The Sacred Approach Meets Science

Lionel Corbett (2011), a psychiatric physician, Jungian analyst, and core faculty professor at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California, explains the inviolable right of the patient’s psyche to be healed through spiritual intervention in treatment. This is where medicine, psychotherapy and the religious dynamic meet. Corbett agrees with psychologist Abraham Maslow (1971) who terms this confluence of treatment modalities a “resacralization” (p. 284) of the counseling experience. Corbett (2011) addresses the relationship between spirituality and surrender of ego in therapy as a strength-building intrapsychic enrichment of the individual soul. His affirmation of the importance of individual awareness reinforces the insistence on personal spiritual understanding urged in Step Three and sharing of awakenings in Step Twelve.

A personal spirituality may involve the discovery of a private myth of meaning, but that does not necessarily imply social withdrawal; in fact, such a discovery could make a major difference to the way one behaves in the world. Nor is there concern that the psychotherapeutic emphasis on the development of a healthy sense of the self will deny the spiritual importance of selflessness. Indeed, with a firm sense of self that is able to tolerate painful affects, one is more likely to be able temporarily to put oneself aside in the service of others. (p. 3)

Treatment based on intellectual and fundamentalist didactics lacks soul and often fails patients eager to discover the deepest spiritual meaning in the sober journey. Structured spiritual interventions must be offered now that seekers’ enthusiasm for recovery has been sparked by scientific research into the cognitive, physical, and spiritual practice. Patients and counselors need and deserve a more detailed spiritual roadmap, and clinical validations abound. Mindfulness Research Monthly (MRM), published electronically by David Black (2010) at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California at Los Angeles reports on the most recent studies and research trials. In addition to citing test study hypothesis and factual outcomes, each edition includes “Shifting Perceptions,” a review of opinions on the application of mindfulness in clinics. Black regularly posts a “Call for Papers” to encourage both qualitative and quantitative heuristic studies. Reductions in perceived pain, reduced cerebral atrophy in the aging population, reduced menopausal symptoms and alleviation of insomnia exemplify benefits documented in the MRM.

Clinical research can invigorate Steps Two, Three, and Eleven by providing the scientific benefit of practicing them. With the Steps as an original call to action and science as validation, many questions are posed for the future of spiritual recovery counseling.

• Should all counselors and sponsors pray and meditate?

• How do contemplative prayer and meditation differ?

• Can spiritual practice be licensed?

• What insurance codes cover prayer and meditation?

• Can patients take antidepressants while meditating?

• Who will answer these questions?

Clinicians are challenged to bring facets of mindful acceptance into practical counseling frames. Regardless of how centuries-old traditional meditative practices are analyzed, mindfulness is best generated by meditation practice. In the perfect state of mindful acceptance, clarity of perception and engagement in moment-to-moment experience provide epiphanic flashes of wisdom about how thoughts and emotions impact quality of life. The mindful experience itself breeds mental and emotional health. There are more than enough varieties of cultural meditative techniques for clinicians to learn from. China, Japan, Tibet, Burma, The Middle East, Wiccan, Indian and Christian mindfulness practices are ubiquitous in learning centers throughout the United States.

Michael Hoffman is a Doctor of Addictive Disorders and Pastoral Counselor. He is Clinical Director of Zen Recovery Path in So. Cal and uses a Jungian and Buddhist approach to recovery.