The spiritual malady

Striving to quench our thirst for wholeness

Skipping stones, by Andreya
“When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”
From the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous

Although the idea of the spiritual malady came to me through reading about Alcoholics Anonymous, I believe it is a concept any person can connect with whether or not they suffer from addiction.

Haven’t we all wondered if life has any meaning? Haven’t we all, on occasion, been overcome with a feeling of emptiness at the thought of our life and the fact that it will end?

For some, these feelings embed themselves like a parasite in our hearts, making us sick. We feel alone, sad, angry, anxious, or guilty, and can’t quite figure out the cause. These emotions are felt in our bodies, making our neck and shoulders tense, tightening our chest and throat, constricting our breathing, and elevating our heart rate. This is the spiritual malady.

The spiritual malady and addiction

In the case of the addict, alcohol (or some other substance or activity) is used as a medication to treat the spiritual malady. Drinking alcohol is found to provide relief, and turned to with increasing frequency. Though alcohol starts to have health consequences, cause problems with relationships, and decrease productivity, the user is unwilling to give it up. Eventually, they lose executive control — they are compelled to drink and are unable to stop themselves.

Alcoholism and depression are often comorbid and have reinforcing effects on each other. A survey of the research literature makes this clear (see these research articles: 1, 2). It appears that either disease can come first and promote the development of the other (see these research articles: 3, 4). Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that the depression and compulsion to drink felt by the alcoholic is caused by a disease of the spirit.

Dr. Jung — Spirituality as a cure for alcoholism

Alcoholics Anonymous is founded on the belief that addiction has effects on the physical, cognitive, and spiritual aspects of existence, and that nothing less than a spiritual rebirth can enable someone to overcome addiction. The founders of AA, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, were moved by the beliefs of Carl Jung, who had treated a friend of theirs, Rowland Hazard III. Jung insisted that Hazard attend to his spiritual health.

“His craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness.”
Carl Jung’s written response to AA co-founder Bill Wilson’s letter regarding alcoholism and the spiritual malady.

What causes the spiritual malady, and how can one overcome it, especially if they are not inclined to believe in a God or Gods?

The spiritual malady as a sense of meaninglessness

For each individual, the spiritual malady can be created by a different cause, such as anger, isolation, suffering, or feeling an insistent need to behave outside the cultural norms. For many, I assert that the spiritual malady is synonymous with the existential vacuum described expertly in “Man’s Search for Meaning”, by Viktor Frankl.

“Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.” Viktor Frankl
By Anna_Om

An existential vacuum occurs when a person feels their existence does not have any meaning or purpose. Turning that outward, they may also feel that no individual life is meaningful. This may result in a sense of isolation and disconnection with the world and the individuals they encounter.

The word vacuum suggests that it requires force to keep meaningful existence out of our lives, that if we were to stop pushing against meaning it would flood in and fill us up. Thought of this way, an existential vacuum makes me think of grief, which has been described as love with nowhere to go. An existential vacuum is created when one’s spirit has nowhere to go.

Put simply, our spirit is our sense of self and our place in the world. It is our consciousness, or the workings of the brain that allow us to have subjective experiences.

Individual freedom and existential angst

What might make one’s sense of self feel ill-defined and like it has nowhere to go? Perhaps we can find answers by comparing modern life to that of our ancestors.

Even in the recent past, each person was born with a set of clear expectations and responsibilities to fulfill in their lifetime. Life spans were much shorter. Daily needs were more difficult to satisfy and took up much of one’s time. Most people were part of a group that taught traditions and morals, and held group members to a standard of behavior. Major life transitions were typically commemorated with sacred rituals.

Thanks to the industrial and biomedical revolutions, we have longer lives, daily needs readily met, and many options for how to live. We have extended childhoods where the only person we need to worry about is ourselves. We focus on our education and career. We wait to have our own children until the final years of our reproductive viability.

Our cultural values have also shifted, and it seems that we now value individual freedom above responsibilities to others, even to our family or local community. We settle far from our families, and may move many times in our lives. As described in “Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande, we don’t even take care of our aging parents anymore because neither the older nor the younger generation wants to give up their freedom to choose where and how they spend their days.

Individual freedom has a cost. Having so many options can create existential angst. As a result, the spiritual malady is a widely felt consequence of modern human life.

“The choices I know that I have as a modern day woman, the freedoms, the changing societal norms, sometimes makes it harder to choose. My mom would always say ‘I don’t know how you do it, you young people, you have so many choices.’ There is something about choice sometimes that is difficult. Sometimes if you know what you are supposed to be and there is a limit to what you can be, you just be that. … I’m of the generation of choice. And what comes with choice is the challenge of choice, because you can’t have it all at the same time.” Michelle Obama, SuperSoul interview with Oprah
“Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.” Viktor Frankl

Our prioritization of individual freedom makes us self-centered. We tend to think of what we can do to live better, happier lives for ourselves. Unfortunately, this self-centered approach leaves us without any reason outside of ourselves to do anything. So what happens when we lack a strong internal drive? Or when we are indecisive about where to put our energy? Enter the existential vacuum.

How to restore meaning to our lives

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” Viktor Frankl, who himself survived being interned at a concentration camp during World War II

If the spiritual malady is caused by an existential vacuum, how might we recover? I think this is a deeply personal question, as what works for one person will not necessarily work for another. I offer some non-theistic perspectives that have proven useful to others as a starting point.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl provides an overview of logotherapy, the goal of which is to help an individual discover what makes life meaningful for them.

“If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together. So if therapists wish to foster their patients’ mental health, they should not be afraid to create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.” Viktor Frankl

Frankl suggests that meaning can be found in assuming more responsibilities, such as completing a creative work or volunteering for our community. He also says we can find meaning through our experiences and interactions, or by thinking of suffering as a human achievement. Whatever the approach, Frankl argues that self-transcendence is one requirement for finding meaning. It seems paradoxical, that to understand and feel solid in ourselves, we must direct our attention away from ourselves.

“The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” Viktor Frankl

Wholeness in an open system

Jung’s words, that our cravings for addictive substances are “the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness,” deserve more attention. What does it mean to be whole, or to feel a sense of wholeness? System theory may provide some insight.

All living things are open systems, in that they need to continuously exchange matter and information with their environment in order to survive. So what does it mean for a human being, as an open system, to be whole? I believe it means we must recognize that we depend upon, and are a part of, a much larger system.

“The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.” Viktor Frankl

Human beings are unique among organisms in that we have many non-utilitarian behaviors and rely greatly upon information exchange, especially with other humans.

A person is “not a passive receiver of stimuli coming from an external world, but in a very concrete sense creates their universe.”
Humans, in contrast to other animals, are “surrounded by a universe of symbols. Starting from language which is the prerequisite of culture, to symbolic relationships with their fellows, social status, laws, science, art, morals, and religion and innumerable other things, human behavior, except for the basic aspects of the biological needs of hunger and sex, is governed by symbolic entities.” From “General System Theory,” by Ludwig von Bertalanffy

People need much more from our environment than fuel for our bodies. We are social, creative beings. To be whole, indeed to function in a healthy way, we need to be open to exchanging our spirit with those around us.

Given that we are biologically dependent upon our environment, and that our actions affect our environment, can there be any doubt that we are connected to our surroundings and all living things? And here we are, arriving at a common definition of spirituality with those who may have arrived at the same in other ways.

“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.” Brené Brown, definition of spirituality that came out of her data, first published in “The Gifts of Imperfection.”

Non-theistic approaches for improving spiritual health

“Strictly speaking, spatial boundaries exist only in naïve observation, and all boundaries are ultimately dynamic.” Ludwig von Bertalanffy

Consider the idea that the boundary between yourself and another person is illusory. There is constant exchange between individuals, and our actions affect one another. One way to think of this is that we are all in the same boat, and what is good for the group is also good for the individual.

“In our ordinary lives we exist as individuals. We want to satisfy our individual desires. We pursue our individual goals. But sometimes something happens that triggers a phase change. Individuals unite into a team, a movement or a nation, which is far more than the sum of its parts.” 
Jonathan Haidt

Many believe that a sense of connection, expressed as compassion and empathy, is the way to a spiritual life. One way to start is to be kind to yourself, then extend that kindness to others.

“Being full of affection for one’s goofy, self-centered, cranky, annoying self is home. It’s where world peace begins…Earth is forgiveness school. It begins with forgiving yourself, and then you might as well start at the dinner table. That way you can do this work in comfortable pants.” Anne Lammot, from her TED talk, “12 truths I learned from life and writing.”

Another more surprising approach is to increase your awareness of your body. In her TED talk, “Reconnecting with compassion,” Krista Tippet describes an observation made by Matthew Sanford, who teaches yoga though he is paralyzed from the waist down.

“He has yet to experience someone who became more aware of their body, in all its frailty and its grace, without, at the same time, becoming more compassionate towards all of life.” Krista Tippet

In addition to body awareness, engaging in synchronized movements, breath, or vocalizations with a group of people, such as while practicing yoga or tai chi, choreographed dance, or singing in a choir, gives people a feeling of connection. See these research articles (5, 6) and this news article (7) for examples of the synchronized movement phenomenon.

United in our suffering

Frankl believed that we can find meaning in suffering by turning one’s suffering into an opportunity for achievement — for digging deep, finding a motivating meaning to life, and carrying on. He describes this as a “single and unique task” that each individual must endure alone.

Contrast this to the words of George Saunders, who writes about how we are connected through suffering in this excerpt from his novel “Lincoln in the Bardo”:

“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.
It was the nature of things.
Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true.
At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end; the many loses we must experience on the way to that end.
We must try to see one another in this way.
As suffering limited beings-
Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.
His sympathy extended to all in this instant, blundering in its strict logic, across all divides.”
― George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

By recognizing that suffering is a shared human experience, we may feel more compassion for others.

Value orientation

To find meaning, it helps to know what you value. Personally, I started with this one quote for inspiration.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard

There is something very powerful about considering how to make a single day well-lived, in contrast to mulling over long-term goals. Phrased as a question, what activities make for a good day?

I found that I have a very short list of things that I value experiencing within any given day. No surprise, half of my list included giving of myself to others. Since creating my list, I have tried to engage in at least one of those activities every day.

It has been three years now, and this approach has turned into a constant practice. I engage in nearly all of the activities on my list every day, and I am now able to go to sleep at night without that anxiety-producing empty feeling. The best thing about this practice is that I feel I am living in a sincere way. I feel fully engaged with what I am doing, because (most of the time) I am acting in harmony with my sense of self, my spirit.

This approach is also what led me to decide to quit drinking alcohol. With my values in mind, it was easier to recognize the opportunity cost of my daily drinking habit. If you are curious whether or not your own drinking habits are cause for concern, take a look at the National Institutes of Health guidelines. I have also been told by my doctors that any more than 7 drinks a week (for women, it is >14 drinks a week for men) is considered problem drinking and can lead to alcoholism (also called alcohol use disorder).

Alcohol is so addictive because it can make someone feel a false sense of wholeness that disappears once the alcohol is out of the system. For example, here is an excerpt from my own journal.

I love the dreamy, floating feeling that drinking provides. It makes me feel introspective. It makes me feel like I am gaining access to some deeper wisdom hidden below my agitated surface consciousness. I drink to give myself over to my emotions, to embrace them, to give up control. I feel relief. I feel like myself. After 14 months sober, I relapsed. These were my reflections on that occasion

To overcome the use of alcohol as a medication for the spiritual malady, you must find an activity that makes you feel at least as good as alcohol to replace it with. It might be swimming, or dancing, or meditation, or talking with a good friend. Whatever works for you. Then when you feel an urge to drink, (and you have wisely removed all the alcohol from your house), you can engage in that activity instead.

During my first six months sober I read and re-read “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking,” by Olivia Laing. It was a revelation and source of comfort. I felt a sense of community and shared experience with Laing and the writers she presented. The following quote is from writer John Cheever, who recovered from alcoholism late in life, responding to being asked if he felt godlike at the typewriter. I think it is a great description of an authentic feeling of wholeness.

“No, I’ve never felt godlike. No, the sense is of one’s total usefulness. We all have a power of control, it’s part of our lives: we have it in love, in work that we love doing. It’s a sense of ecstasy, simple as that. The sense is that ‘this is my usefulness, and I can do it all the way through.’ It always leaves you feeling great. In short, you’ve made sense of your life.” John Cheever, from “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking,” by Olivia Laing.

So stop pushing so hard against meaning. Let your values drive your choices and actions. Do something that makes you feel useful. Let your connection to others flood in and fill you up. Give your spirit a home in your body, and then let it expand in free exchange with the spirits of others. The next time you lift a glass, consider this toast: “To a day well-lived. May it last a lifetime.”


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