Spirituality is about how my way of living relates to the human spirit—the thing that makes me human, not just another critter. Whether or not I am a religious believer, I can aspire to a spiritual life, taking those aspects of the program that apply, and leaving the rest for those who feel them appropriate. Here, for whatever it is worth, is my take on spiritual awakening, and the aspects of spirituality.

Tolerance, the disposition to allow freedom of choice or behavior is, I think, the absolute foundation of spirituality (and of recovery). It is the basis of all reasonable systems of ethics, because it permits me freedom as long as I do not harm others. Tolerance does not mean that I agree with you, or even that I approve of you. It does mean that I recognize your right to follow your path, as long as it does not interfere with mine. It implies, “Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.” The flower of tolerance needs constant tending.

Patience goes hand in hand with tolerance. If I am to allow you to pursue your happiness—your bliss, as Joseph Campbell called it—then I must allow you the time and room to do so, as well. The old woman in the grocery line, fumbling in her change purse, becomes a person much like the one I will someday be, just trying to get through her day in the best way she can. To deny her the right to find the correct change simply because I want to save a few seconds—to glare, to raise eyebrows, to make comments to others—is to take away some of the shine (what little there may be of it) from her day. How selfish! The spiritual life is not a theory.

Forgiveness, a willingness to set aside the past, is a gift that I can give myself. It means recognizing that others can make mistakes, too. It means recognizing their worth to me, and being willing to make allowances—without being a doormat—because of what they may mean to me in the future. If this is not possible, it means putting the matter aside and going on with my life (one of the purposes of the 4th and 5th Steps). Are long-lived resentments worth the dissatisfaction they bring with them? I need to remember that the resentment that knots up my belly whenever I think of wrongs done in the past is my problem, and that it probably isn’t bothering the other person much — if at all.

Compassion is the logical outcome of tolerance and forgiveness. In being patient and forgiving, I need to look at my relationships with others in a new way. I need to see things as they may have been from their points of view. Compassion, a humane understanding of others and the way they may be feeling (especially in the case of suffering), is not only inevitable when I recognize another’s humanity, it is essential to healthy relationships based on recognition of mutual needs. It is another foundation of recovery programs. Compassion is not pity, it is understanding and a willingness to help to the extent of my ability.

Love means different things in different situations, but I like to think of it as an inevitable result of tolerance, forgiveness and compassion, or perhaps they are the results of love. In any case, a willingness to love and allow myself to be loved, with the trust and openness that are necessary for that to happen, are clearly essential traits of the human spirit. To feel and act otherwise stifles the spirit, at the same time that I am trying to set it free.

A sense of Responsibility has grown as a result of these steps, the understanding that my actions affect the lives of others, that theirs affect mine, and that we are all needed in order to create a world that will sustain us with the least pain. “When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA to be there—and for that, I am responsible.” Over my years of sobriety there has come the realization that this principle extends far beyond the walls of the rooms, and beyond AA itself. We “try to…practice [it] in all our affairs.”

Harmony, too, is a natural result of spiritual growth. This is the feeling that I am moving through the world with as little friction as possible. A sense of harmony allows for the bumps and scrapes, as well as the smooth stretches. As a grown-up in recovery I understand that I cannot have my own way all the time, but that the way in which I grant others theirs is of great importance. I choose to live a life of harmony—or not. As a feeling, it comes and goes; as a principle, I try to keep it firmly in mind.

Joy is extreme happiness; a feeling that all is as it should be; the knowledge that this will pass, but that it is ok—that it will come again. Joy is the reward, occasional but real, mundane but spiritual, that awaits me when I remain willing to allow my life to change, and to awaken to reality. If I have had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, and if I am truly practicing the principles of my program and the spiritual life in all my affairs, how could I not achieve this last as well?

Both religious and secular thinkers can benefit from these pursuits. Spirituality can be—and ought to be—an integral part of the religious experience, but it is available to non-believers as well. It is, simultaneously, the goal, the reward, and the absolutely essential aspect of a sober life.

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