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

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  1. Gabe g. March 4, 2019 at 9:22 pm - Reply

    Exactly where can I find the quote “spiritual not religious” in the big book or any other literature?

    Thank you!

  2. Jeb Barrett August 25, 2017 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    I know that I am not only a grateful, recovered member of Alcoholics Anonymous but also a broken record. I have only one story to tell, mine.

    Tomorrow I will celebrate 39 years of continuous sobriety because AA and the process Bill attempted to outline on pages 60 through 88 has taught me how to learn from my own and others experience, essentially teaching me how to use the brain evolution has given me. Essential to my accepting AA literature and others sharing has been two things: realizing that words are only symbols and the best definition of spiritual, at least for me is “nonmaterial,” which what my grandmother told me over 70 years ago when I asked her what the word meant.

    I have therefore learned that what is most important is the meanings I attach to words. (I, therefore, have a personal glossary of definitions.) I like very much the way Dr. Jung defined spirituality, as well as what Bill had to say about it in  Appendix II.the

    Likewise, in Step 12 of the 12 & 12, he says in part: “When a man or a woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being. He has been set on a path which tells him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered. In a very real sense he has been transformed, because he has laid hold of a source of strength which, in one way or another, he had hitherto denied himself. He finds himself in possession of a degree of honesty, tolerance, unselfishness, peace of mind, and love of which he had thought himself quite incapable. What he has received is a free gift, and yet usually, at least in some small part, he has made himself ready to receive it.

    “A.A.’s manner of making ready to receive this gift lies in the practice of the Twelve Steps in our program.”

    That has been my experience since attempting to follow the process daily has slowly helped me let go of the old idea that I need to forever look outside of myself for guidance, wisdom and power, rather than find and trust what I need within myself, my true, authentic and healthy self. In my Third Step prayer to the “Great Reality deep within” I ask for “relief from the bondage of self-defeating and self-limiting fears, thoughts, ideas, beliefs and behaviors, that I may better do what is best. ” Of course, I’m am talking to myself, basically saying “Your will be done.”  For me, there is nothing magical about this process. I have come to trust and rely on it every day. This is the Fourth Dimension of existence, which I had never imagined.

  3. Kit G August 25, 2017 at 6:52 pm - Reply

    I cannot identify who is spiritual and not religious in a line-up.

    As far as I am concerned I have been having and continue to have a so-called spiritual experience since conception and perhaps before then in the movement and collection of my dna. Of course I’ve been unaware of most of it but so what! The humility in that is so has everyone and everything else and to add the term spiritual to it is redundant, unnecessary and meaningless. IMO all of us seem to forget that sorrow, suffering, pain and all the other mundane or not so happy stuff is just as “spiritual” as the awe and wonder!

    As Mark C would say, “Spiritual? Piffle!”

  4. Andrew in DC August 22, 2017 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Very interesting subject of discussion.  A topic that’s troubled me since even before I was forced into the inevitable confrontation with my own “atheism.”

    In meetings, hearing so many people talking about their “spiritual condition,” it almost always seemed to me that it was completely confused with the person’s emotional condition.  I feel happy:  God loves me.  I feel unhappy:  God is punishing me.  I like the direction things are going:  I’m blessed. I don’t like the direction things are going:  I’m being tested.

    And it makes a certain sort of sense that people will tend to do that, whether AA encourages it or not.  God talk and mysticism usually seems to be some kind of coded language for topics that would be uncomfortable without some sort of rhetorical buffer.  It’s outrageous to insinuate yourself in the lifestyle choices of other people just on the basis of what you like and what you are comfortable with . . .  unless you project your opinions as the opinions of Sky Dad.  If you’re not sure what to say about someone’s imminent death, platitudes about Thor’s Will/discourses on imaginary after-life geographies are helpful.  Not knowing why some natural phenomenon keeps occurring can make you feel very small; feel bigger by inventing a mythic cast of characters a narrate a story about how a human-like agency is behind it all, which everybody can understand very easily.  And, of course, if your life sucks/is awesome, and you’re not sure which of your own actions/pre-conditions are responsible, blame/thank Casper The Friendly Ghost.

    And it’s not just the expressly-religious folks that are doing this either.  The “spiritual” set are doing something identical.  That New Age-y “universe” and “energy” talk serves the same purpose.  Know how videographers use a blurring effect to conceal people’s identities?  I can’t help but feel that something similar is happening through the vague visual references of New Age mysticism.  What is this “universe,” anyway? Well, it is all-powerful, and it’s all-knowing, and it’s floating around in some imaginary extra-solar geography.  It can simultaneously be defined as “Pure Love” but also as a force that could keep babies from being born with congenital birth defects if it wanted to, but for some reason it wants them born that way.  You can’t fool me, Wayne Dyer–“The Universe” is really just Sky Dad with his face blurred!

    So I just don’t feel that “spiritual” is any different from religion.  Even the use of that very word “spiritual”; it is a plain-as-day reference to the existence of souls. As soon as you pick the word up, an announcement might as well come over the virtual loudspeakers: “Now entering the fake world of imagination”/”Now leaving reality.”  If “spirit” means feelings, talk about feelings. If “spirit” means deep contemplation, there is no reason for resort to non-secular language.

    But I suppose it’s all fine if you find some comfort in all that stuff.  I think that it’s all less painful for people who’s relationship to the mystical is arms-length.  I probably find it destructive and negative because I wanted to, and tried to, believe in it seriously for so long.  Ultimately, when you’re really counting on something that doesn’t exist to be your salvation from suffering, your confrontation with reality is both inevitable and crushing.

    It’s much, much better for everyone to dispense with the magical thinking at the earliest possible time.   In my view anyway.

  5. Peter T. August 22, 2017 at 11:45 am - Reply

    Thanks, Don.  I really enjoyed and related to your sentiments.  I have no idea what spirituality is (or what being “spiritually fit” means either), it’s like an outside issue to me.  Even when thinking about it in terms of “connectedness” to others or the planet/universe, I still understand those phenomena as physical, something baked into our perception of the human experience, from millennia of evolution.

    Lately I’ve been taken to saying, when a definition is needed, that “spirituality is the invention of meaning, where none is evident.”  It seems to serve as an adequate umbrella.

  6. D. G. August 21, 2017 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    Glad to see Sam Harris’ Waking Up getting some more discussion (I mentioned it as being important to me for this very reason in an article last fall) Great podcast and article John and Don! And I have to say the comments section on this website is as good as it gets (thanks Joe, Bob, Thomas, Doris, John, hell everybody!)

    • Daniel August 21, 2017 at 2:05 pm Reply

      I believe i am on an inner journey ,a journey of the spirit so the word spiritual is very appropriate . Being a spiritual a spiritual person is a person who is loving, caring, open minded, being honest without being harsh and critical ,present,  otherwise the exact opposite of my character defects.I have seen a lot of religious people who are not spiritual and a lot of spiritual people who are not religious.

      Regarding statistics,our singleness of purpose is to get sober and to pass it along to the suffering alcoholic, not to increase the membership of AA and thats why we are here 82 years later.



  7. bob k August 20, 2017 at 3:09 pm - Reply

    In the real world, “Are you spiritual?” is a very simple question for me to answer. “No, I’m not.” Within AA, I have certainly had a personality change, and a change of attitude. Although I try to be open-minded about atheistic interpretations of spirituality, I just think it’s the wrong word. We need a new one. “Spirituality” comes with too much baggage. My real world answer is more honest.

    The all too often spewed “AA is spiritual, not religious” is thrown out with the intention of convincing listeners that AA is the furthest thing from religion. It isn’t. Religion, in the broad sense, is the brother of spirituality. Religion and spirituality are North and South Dakota, not the North Pole and the South Pole, at opposite ends of the world. The simple-minded thinking behind the vacuous expression is that religion = you have to go to church, while spirituality = you don’t.

    Recently, I was in a discussion at the Oshawa Intergroup office about the will of local members to delist a local freethinker group that has present at its meeting, a secular interpretation of AA’s 12 Steps. It’s like a lot of these defenders of the faith are clueless about what happened in Toronto, 30 miles away. Toronto ultimately spent about $50,000. defending the delisting of the groups, and the relisted them. Oshawa doesn’t have 5K, let alone 50.

    Our Whitby Freethinker meeting does nothing very unconventional, and there has been no motion to delist us. But it took us almost a year to get in the printed directory, because they “forgot” to add us. A clerical error, I suppose. Then about a year ago, we disappeared from an issue of the directory, before getting added back.

    I told the office manager that if anything similar happens in the future, we’ll let the Human Rights Commission sort it out. We are quite a ways from peace and harmony falling upon us. A lot of people still don’t get it. AA is not above the laws of the land.

  8. Dennis Thompson August 20, 2017 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    The spiritual condition I maintain, that gives me a daily reprieve, is the condition of humility. I access humility through actions. I act humbly, until I don’t know if I am humble, or if im just acting. At that point it’s “as if ” I am humble. I’m an atheist who has learned how to pray. All the bhuddists pray, and they don’t believe in god, so why can’t I? I’ve been doing this for 17 years, I’ve been clean for 32 years.  When I pray( in Japanese, which I do not speak( nam yo ho ren gay kay yo). I think of the joy of the universe. This works great for me, and I’ve explained it to some others, and it works for them. Thanks

    • RITA BURGESS August 21, 2017 at 5:10 pm Reply

      I love your mantram/atheist prayer. I use a Sanskrit mantra (and I definitely don’t speak Sanskrit). Saying either “Sa Ta Na Ma” or  “Rama Rama” while trying to remind myself to stay in the moment is very freeing. I am an atheist who believes good thoughts are every bit as useful as prayer, that spiritual is the word I use for life force, and minding my own business the secret to living peacefully with other AAs of all persuasions.

    • bob k August 20, 2017 at 3:12 pm Reply

      Well stated. Thanks.

  9. Eric H August 20, 2017 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the interesting essay. Reminds me of how I rewrite Tradition 2:

    “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority, a loving group conscience. Our leaders….”

    All too often the supernatural is just stuck in there; but whatever, not my problem.

  10. steve b August 20, 2017 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    I don’t use the word spirituality except in discussions like this because of its religious flavor and its lack of usefulness to me.

  11. life-j August 20, 2017 at 10:48 am - Reply

    I just read the writing above, did not listen to the podcast, but – I like the Sam Harris definition as quoted by Wes. I also like Dr. Jung’s down to earth explanation of spiritual experience, BB, p 27

    “They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them”.

    And yes, a new word or a few words spoken together to replace spirituality is badly needed. I would say John L’s is not so much an attempt as a dismissal of attempt, but anyway, it is difficult.

    The biggest problem here is that we use AA’s explanation universe at all. If we don’t let go of higher power, spiritual, and all the rest we’re forever going to be stuck trying to define concepts such as Sam Harris and Jung present them with irrational AA lingo.

  12. Ed S August 20, 2017 at 8:54 am - Reply

    Spirituality means supernatural.  Many people in AA make up their own definition, just like they make up definitions of higher power.  We could start using other words to describe us more accurately like moral, compassionate and empathetic.

  13. John S August 20, 2017 at 8:48 am - Reply

    I agree with you 100%. I am done with using the word and have been for some time. I can tolerate it in literature if it’s written in sort of a poetic way to get across a point, but I am even tired of that.

    Sometimes, I feel that religion ruins everything. Throwing in spirituality causes more confusion and less clarity. Why not just speak clearly about what we mean and what we do. The example you give about living a principled, spiritual life is a good example. Throwing “spiritual” in there does nothing at all to clarify the sentence. In fact, it clouds things up. Just live a principled life, that’s good enough.

    Thank you again Don. This is well-written and the podcast was a lot of fun.

  14. XBarbarian August 20, 2017 at 8:43 am - Reply

    thank you. I too, bristle at the “spiritual, not religious” deceit. and it is a deceit, as I see it.

    I have come to define spiritual awakening as: having looked within, exposed my true motivations and feelings, I began to remove the masks, the attitudes and behaviours poorly described as “character defects”, and occasionally, if you were to look into my eyes, you would see my “spirit”.. the essence of the authentic me, me unclouded with attachment and its resultant fears.

    moments of spiritually awakened, and I do see them as temporary, fleeting moments, as opposed to sustained permanent ways of being, look a lot like free to be me, unburdened with masks, deceits, obfuscations. completely unattached, to anything, and absolutely present, in the now.

    an alternative for me, is described as having something akin to a team spirit; enthusiasm, as opposed to fearful and cowering, for life. a willingness to meet the moment as it is.

  15. Joe C. August 20, 2017 at 8:41 am - Reply

    I feel a real hope for AA every time I hear this podcast. I listen to a lot of podcasts (AA and other). Most of them I enjoy even though they aren’t exactly aligned with my worldview all the time. So what; it’s about recovery from addiction and I always find something  of value.  Anyway, thanks to Don and John for a heartfelt discussion.

    John mentioned The “God” Word and his district; Don, district 10’s DCM (chair) has been directed to ask Area 83  (our Area) to vote on asking our Area delegate to request that GSO and the conference consider having USA/Canada adopt and make this British conference approved pamphlet available from GSO for groups and members that want it. So September’s Area Assemblies will be historical.

    For anyone coming to SOAAR from out of town, September 16th is the middle of Toronto International Film Festival. Book you accommodation now. Stay a few extra days, too.

    I prefer a definition of secular for the purposes of AA meetings to be “neither religious nor irreligious.” Anyone is welcome; it describes more about the format than the prerequisite for participation.

    Based in my observation, people reason from either a concrete (binary) or an abstract (artistic) premise and depending on which hemisphere we fall into, we are going to “go to town” on the word “spiritual” differently. Concrete thinkers are reductionists, want a universally agreed upon definition of the word and theists and non-theists will not have much luck finding consensus on that definition. The abstract thinkers won’t care so much what it means to others. Theists and atheist abstract thinkers can sing “Amazing Grace” together or talk about higher powers or inner resources or gut feelings without getting stalled by a need for uniformity of meaning.

    I’m embarrassed that I’ve gone on like a second speaker so I’ll just stop but it’s safe to say that today’s podcast got me thinking.

    • Don M August 20, 2017 at 5:43 pm Reply

      Thanks for listening Joe.

      Although, I agree some people are concrete and some are abstract, it is possible to have an entire conversation with one concrete person and another abstract person and neither is aware the other is using “spiritual” in a different context.

      For example, I love the energy and power of Southern Baptist music … not so much the message.    I were just say I love Southern Baptist music, most people would assume I am religious.  BTW: Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nigh Sweats (name just coincidental) have a song with very secular lyrics with the same energy and instrumentation

      I also appreciate the forum to have open discussions.  My sponsor likes to say: “we can disagree without being disagreeable”.  Thanks to John S. and this website for this safe forum to discuss these issues.

      I look forward to seeing you at SOAAR

    • Doris A August 20, 2017 at 4:27 pm Reply

      As always Joe C., I love reading your comments.

    • John S August 20, 2017 at 8:50 am Reply

      I swear you have got to be the nicest person on the planet. Thanks for listening and the kind words about the podcast.

  16. Thomas B. August 20, 2017 at 7:58 am - Reply

    Thanks John and Don for a most interesting podcast and discussion. I especially grok the interpretation of Don’s Mom of what spiritual not religious means,  “It means letting people do and believe what they want.”

    The longer I daily receive the gift of sobriety and the more certain I become of my path in secular AA, the more tolerant, loving and accepting I become of folks who ardently believe in the god of their understanding at traditional AA meetings I attend.

  17. John L. August 20, 2017 at 7:30 am - Reply

    “Whether I drop the adjective spiritual or substitute wah-wah-wah, I feel it does not significantly change the meaning of passage.”   Good point.  Why use a word that is so contradictory or meaningless?

    Consider some synonyms for “spiritual”: delusional, ignorant, intoxicated.  Are these desirable states of mind for recovering alcoholics?

    Then consider some antonyms for “spiritual”: material, physical, real, knowable.  I think these are desirable states of mind.

    And antonyms for “spirituality”?  I suggest rationality, reality, and sobriety.  If we want sobriety, we don’t want “spirituality.
    Full recovery from alcoholism is intellectual as well as physical.  We shouldn’t have to dumb ourselves down.

    • John S August 20, 2017 at 8:21 am Reply

      I was thinking about the Steps yesterday and in Step Two, I see it as “coming to understand  that I could change.” I am convinced that belief is totally immaterial to recovery. We need to focus on what we do, our actions and also what we think and understand.

      Thanks, Don. I enjoyed this essay and the conversation.

      • bob k August 20, 2017 at 3:16 pm Reply

        Step 2 = AA has helped millions of people. Maybe it can help me.


        • John S August 20, 2017 at 3:29 pm Reply

          Yep, that’s probably the best description of it that I’ve seen. It comports with my experience anyway.

  18. Bill P. August 20, 2017 at 7:19 am - Reply

    “The Tau that can be written is not the Eternal Tau…” Tau Te Ching circa 2400 B.C.E.

  19. Wes L August 20, 2017 at 6:27 am - Reply

    In that book Sam Harris offers one of the most meaningful  descriptions of spirituality that I have come across. (This is from memory, not directly from the book): “Spirituality is nothing more than the willingness to investigate the true nature of ones own mind.”

    Yet another reminder of Bill’s opinion: “So our troubles we think are of our own making”.

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