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From Spirits to Spirit

by Rabbi Paul Steinberg

In January of 1961, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Bill Wilson, exchanged letters with renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung. They discussed Roland H., who suffered from alcoholism and had tried every available cure and therapy at the time. He even underwent treatment with Dr. Jung. Nothing worked. Thankfully, Roland did become sober, but only after becoming an active member of AA, which was the subject of Bill and Dr. Jung’s exchange. Why did AA seem to work when other approaches did not - which included help from one of the planet’s best available therapists? What experience did AA provide that other programs seemed to be missing?

Jung concludes his letter with his own explanation:

“These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation to Roland H., but I’m risking it with you … You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula is: spiritus contra spiritum.”

A Spiritual Malady Demands a Spiritual Remedy

Jung is saying here precisely what many alcoholics and addicts have claimed for decades: addiction is a spiritual malady and, because it is a spiritual malady, it demands a spiritual remedy. In his brief formula - spiritus contra spiritum - Jung is suggesting that when alcoholics or addicts use their drug (in whatever form or behavior) they are ultimately seeking a feeling of relief, comfort, and freedom, which parallels the quintessential spiritual experience. Alcohol and drugs may provide a taste of such an experience and therefore, the alcoholic and addict return to it again and again, coming to rely upon it. The tragedy that the recovering alcoholic or addict comes to face is that their addictive high is merely a temporary and shallow version of what they really seek, which is a sense of integrative connection and relief from the toxic anxiety and fears of the world.

Feeling Powerless and Not Enough

When I was in my own personal cycle of addiction, I was struggling with coping with the challenges of my career, marriage, and my own personal development. I did not know how to integrate my career identity with my personal identity in a healthy way; I did not know how to work through questions and problems in my marriage; and I did not know how to feel at home with myself. I knew I wanted to grow into becoming a better and more whole person, but did not know how to talk about it. I knew I wanted to feel spiritually rooted and connected, but I did not know where to turn nor did I believe anyone could help me get there.

Bearing witness to this, a colleague once said, “I don’t understand you, Paul. You have everything - a good job, a family, and house. I just don’t get it. What else is it that you want?” My colleague may have cared, but what he failed to appreciate was the concept we refer to in AA as “powerlessness.” I was powerless over my addiction because nothing else in my life was enough to make me feel like I had any power or agency. It did not matter what I had or did because I was not enough. I did not feel myself enough as myself - smart enough, talented enough, good-looking enough, and so on. I was trapped with all I could ask for, while feeling ashamed and all alone in the world. And when an addict feels trapped, the bottle or drug or casino (or whatever the obsession) is one sure thing with which to escape.

Jewish Practice as a Source of Healing

As I began to heal, the practices of Judaism, such as prayer, study, and teshuvah (taking a moral inventory), began to take on new meaning. Prior to my alcoholism and crashing my life, I primarily viewed Jewish practices as either discharging an obligation in order to align myself with my tradition and heritage, or upholding what I thought was an impeccably wise system of ritual behavior. When I began to learn AA’s 12-Steps as a suggested program of spiritual healing, renewal, and change (i.e., recovery), I began to realize that I could explicitly understand Jewish practice from the same perspective. That is to say, daily Jewish spiritual practices are also intended to heal, renew and affect change.

In hindsight, this seems like such a simple shift in perspective - perhaps even obvious - but accepting it at the time was momentous for me. This difference in perspective, which I learned from AA, is marked by what one assumes about being human. Viewing Jewish practices as a program of healing, renewal, and change inherently assumes that human beings are imperfect, pained, and broken. It assumes that we need healing, renewal and change. Moreover, it assumes that we need help in the form of practices, community, and guidance. Again, this may seem like obvious and simple wisdom, however, there is a monumental difference between giving it lip service (of which I had become an expert) and truly and deeply believing in it. Thanks to alcoholism and AA, I had come to believe it.

Spiritual Awakening Transforms Powerlessness

Today, after years of recovery and remaining faithful to my practices of prayer, meditation, study, and daily teshuvah (as well as others), I can say that the one fundamental difference between me in my addiction and me in recovery is the relationship I have with my own mind. In addiction, my mind was a burden, a curse that appeared to have its own power over me. I may have had good intentions, but my mind would direct my behavior. Now, my mind is something I can watch without compulsion; it is a tool that I work with to align my intentions with my behavior. Now, I can listen and now am open to help. Yes, I need my practices - indeed I feel commanded to perform them - for without them my mind narrows.

Most of all with the clarity that my program and practices has provided, I have become open to a more intimate relationship with God. Faith as an experience, as opposed to a philosophical construct alone, has become a working part of my life. My spiritual awakening has transformed the powerlessness that I once endured into a source of power through my faithful adherence to practices and a healing renewal of faith in a power greater than myself.

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, California and a nationally recognized transformative educator. He is the author of Recovery, the 12 Steps, and Jewish Spirituality: Reclaiming Hope, Courage and Wholeness (Jewish Lights, 2014), which tells his personal struggles with addiction, as well as provides the first comprehensive approach to integrating Jewish spirituality with the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. He has published many articles on Jewish thought and education, as well as several books, including the three-volume series Celebrating the Jewish Year (JPS, 2009), which earned the National Jewish Book Award. He currently serves on Jewish Addiction Awareness Network’s Advisory Board.

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