Treatment & Recovery

Recovery from Addiction: The Role of Spirituality and the Planet Earth

Bruce Alexander

Presented (In shortened form) to A Community Aware, 

Longhouse Church

Vancouver, September 10 2013

Late in the 19th century, a young Harvard scholar named William James, dreamed that brain science could cure the psychological pain and suffering that he saw all around him, including his own (Richardson, 2007). More broadly, he envisioned brain science as the basis of a new, scientific approach to the entire field of psychology (James, 1890/1950). William James was not alone in these dreams, but was one of a scattered fraternity of brilliant European and American researchers who pursued similar visons (Boring, 1950; E. Taylor, 2011). 

William James was much more than a physiological psychologist, however. He was also a member of a brilliantly intellectual, but conflicted family; an encompassing, classical scholar who read the great philosophers in Latin, German, and French; a modern, pragmatic philosopher; and a man of deep personal friendships and universal compassion. His whole family was fervently opposed to slavery and two of his brothers risked their lives to fight it in the American Civil War (Richardson, 2007).

Pragmatic and plainspoken, William James seemed to be the quintessential nineteenth century American scholar, at least until the Spanish American war in 1898, after which felt compelled to publicly denounce his own country’s imperial land-grabs and slaughters in Cuba and the Philippines(Richardson, 2007). For example, James spoke contemptuously of the "Hotchkiss gun" (James, 1902/2002, p. 72). The Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon, as it was more formally known, was a precursor to the modern machine gun that could fire up to 68 heavy rounds a minute. It was a weapon of mass destruction in the Indian wars against Sitting Bull and in the Spanish-American war against the Spanish troops and Philippine insurgents.

James also felt that he had to resist his father’s overpowering religious dogmatism.

Torn by political and personal contradictions, William James was incapacitated by depression and despair for much of his life, and spend great amounts of time and energy on his periodic recoveries. By the end of his life, William James had come to believe that he had found the best cure to “the sick soul”. However, he did not find it in brain research, as he had expected, but in spirituality.

James published his spiritual insights in The Varieties of Religious Experience (James, 1902/1990). This religious line of thought did not make him popular with the other brain scientists and medical psychologists of his day, but it made him extremely popular with other anguished human beings, including one who we now know as Bill W.

Through direct observation and omnivorous reading, James saw that many suffering people -- a large proportion of whom could be labelled as alcoholic, addicted, and/or dislocated -- had found peace and purpose in their lives by dramatic spiritual transformations or religious conversions that seemed to involve the direct presence and intervention of a higher power. The higher power could be the Christian God, or the god of any other religious tradition. James did not worry much about either proving the existence of God or about discovering the neurological basis of mystical experiences. As a pragmatist, he saw that profound spiritual and mystical experiences relieved suffering and opened up new lives for psychologically disabled people. That was what really mattered (James, 1907/1963; 1902/1990). 

James saw that reason and science were not sufficient by themselves to give us a full and nourishing picture of the universe. Each person's picture is built on a lifetime of experiences that they acquire painfully and consolidate intuitively. The received doctrines of formalized religions and sciences can only feel sufficient and satisfying when they fit with our individually acquired and consolidated intuitions (James, 1902/1990, pp. 73-74).

James did not think that everyone had to undergo a dramatic spiritual conversion to achieve well-being, because some people were naturally “healthy minded” from a young age and did not require radical transformation. But even for the healthy minded, well-being was based on spiritual awareness and fulfillment, in the broad way that he defined it.

The Varieties of Religious Experience is based on a collection of dramatic stories about individuals throughout history who had undergone extraordinary mystical experiences with profound impact. Although it is a book about religious inspiration, reading it is itself an experience that people still find uplifting today.  The Varieties cannot be summarized adequately, but needs to be read and re-read. My main point about James’ book tonight is: You should read it!

Another of James’ great insights in The Varieties was that the truths of spirituality changed over historical time. He saw that the religion of his era differed in important ways from that of his ancestors, including his father. He believed that different eras required different religious beliefs and practices because people’s needs changed under different historical circumstances. James wrote explicitly of the spirituality of “our generation”, knowing full well that early and later generations would have different spiritual needs and beliefs  (James, 1902/1990, pp. 73-74).

However, James' spiritual thinking, as expressed in The Varieties, has held up extremely well. The book is still in print today and widely read. Three decades after it was published, Bill W. had his “white light experience” in 1934. When Bill W. asked Dr. Silkworth if he had gone crazy. Dr. Silkworth was able to assure him that many very sane people have had similar experiences. Had Dr. Silkworth read William James ? I don’t know, but Bill W. avidly read The Varieties right after the white light experience and sometimes spoke of William James as a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous afterwards (McPeake, 2010). Thousands and thousands of AA members subsequently found William James’ ideas, as included in Bill W.’s writings, very up-to-date indeed. Twelve-step groups are still following essentially the same line of thought today, and still saving countless lives. 

However, The Varieties is now over a century old, and it needs updating for the 21st century, as James himself would surely have agreed (C. Taylor, 2002).The next section of this presentation explains a few of the many ideas that James uncovered that many people still find inspirational today. The following sections turn to newer spiritual ideas that are still emerging in the 21st century from  William James’ foundational insights in 1902.

James’ Enduring Insights of 1902

1. James showed that spiritual and religious experience is first of all healing. He suggested that all religions share the belief that “something is wrong about us as we naturally stand” and that “we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.” (James, 1902/1990, pp. 454). James provided historical examples of religion’s power to give people amazing strength, direction, and “zest” from the lives of the saints (James, 1902/1990, pp. 373-375). Bill W. and his followers have added thousands more examples since 1934.

2. Religion is not just personal, but also all-encompassing. It is a person’s “total reaction upon life”, that “curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence” (p. 39). Religion is not only a feeling, but an interpretation of the cosmos and some attempt, however inadequate, to put the interpretation into a creed and rituals that can be shared with others (James, 1902/1990,pp.  452-453).

3. James sees religious wisdom as also necessarily pluralistic. There is no excuse for any religious creed that condemns all others to Hell. All religions seem to broadly share goals of understanding, compassion, and peace. Different doctrines formulate their spiritual discoveries in different but compatible ways (James, 1902/1990, pp. 104-105). Why fight over doctrinal details when the different religions each function well in particular times and places for particular people? James was fully aware of Crusaders, Inquisitors,  Missionary Colonialists, and Jihadists, but he places their violent impulses outside of religion in its fullest sense.

4. James view of religion is progressive: Each of us is a divided self and the “evolution of character” is the process of bringing the different parts into a working conjunction that can serve our purposes and those of our society (James, 1902/1990, p.158). This unification is essentially a religious  experience that reconstructs the world that we experience and often (not necessarily) can also be seen as the dramatic rebirth of a sick soul (James, 1902/1990, p. 163).

5. James sees religion as other-directed. Religious and mystical insight comes to rest with a sense of oneness and care for other creatures and for human beings. One’s self ceases to be the center of the universe. Paradoxically, James noted, even one’s own personal salvation often loses its importance for some of the most devout Christians (James, 1902/1990, p. 199).

6. Many of the conversion experiences by which James sees the divided self united entail extraordinary mystical experience,  often of a mysterious “white light” and other extraordinary events, many of which are even more dramatic than Bill W’s. Here is one of the many variations of the white light experience that James quotes:

All at once the glory of God shone upon and round about me in a manner almost marvelous … A light perfectly ineffable shone in my soul, that almost prostrated me on the ground … This light seemed like the brightness of the sun in very direction . It was too intense for the eyes … I think that I knew something then, by actual experiences, of the light that prostrated Paul on the way to Damascus. It was surely a light such as I could not have endured long (James, 1902/1990, p. 232, quoting the Memoirs of C.G. Finney)

7. James sees some form of prayer or inner communion as essential to religion (James, 1902/1990, p. 435).

Although William James’ views of religious experience served his century brilliantly, the 21st century, is a different world, in many important ways. James had no intention of extracting the essence of the religion of his day and patenting it as the standard formula forever after. He expected that new interpretations would emerge, and they have.

James’ Insights – Transformed – for the 21st Century

People who grew up after World War II and have encountered the 21st century have had experiences that James did not share. Our generation (as opposed to William James’ generation in 1902) has seen the European nations that stood at the pinnacle of power and wisdom in 1902 destroy each other in the First and Second World Wars. We have seen the mighty British Empire and the substantial French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Belgian Empires reduced to nothing after World War II (Judt, 2005). We are seeing the enormous economies of advanced industrial society trembling on the edge of bankruptcy and chaos (Harvey, 2011). We are seening the world-wide spread of the dislocation that was earlier imposed on a relatively small proportion of the earth’s population by the rise of free market society (Alexander, 2010).We have also seen the shining hope for world democracy, the United States of America, gain complete military and economic control of the world after 1945 and then discredit itself as just another lying, plundering, murdering, torturing imperial horror story (Wolin, 2008; Hedges,  2009; Monbiot, 2013). Most dramatically of all perhaps, we have seen the oceans, forests, waters, air, and climate of the earth – which seemed like indestructible creations of an almighty God (or of Evolution) in 1902 – weakening and collapsing under continuous assault from an exploding human population unable to control its insatiable drives for consumption and power (McKibben, 2010).

James did not observe these new realities directly and he did not predict them. However, James did predict that every new era would develop newreligious and spiritual impulses closely tied to its own, contemporary experience. Our spiritual and scientific logic must always grow from our own generation’s reality, if it is to be valuable and true.

In what ways might religious experience be different today than it was for William James’s generation of 1902? To answer this, I have drawn on my own spiritual moments (which I will not attempt to describe tonight), and, more heavily, on spiritual experiences that  people have shared with me, and spiritual experiences that contemporary scholars have published. In other words, I have tried, in a small way, to employ the same methods that William James used so brilliantly in writing The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Mary Pipher

Like William James, Mary Pipher is keenly aware of the psychological suffering around her. She is a clinical psychologist, a best-selling author, a grandmother, and a self-described “true fan” of William James. 

Pipher first became famous with a book published in 1994 entitled, Reviving Ophelia. She argued there that the depressed and anorexic girls she was treating as a therapist were not crazy but were responding as best they could to a society that treated girls in contradictory and confusing ways. Among other problems, she spoke of the sexualization of popular entertainment and the pornification of the Internet as a source of confusion and despair for girls (Pipher, 1994). If these girls are to recover, their society must also recover and find ways to conceptualize gender and sexuality that are not unbearable for them. Soon afterwards, Pipher expanded this line of thought to boys as well and to families as a whole (Pipher, 1996).

Still later, Pipher saw that just as the pornification of the Internet dislocated and tormented girls and prompted them act in self-destructive ways, the destruction of the planet’s ecosystems tormented Pipher herself and her neighbours, prompting them to act in crazy ways. One of her short publications on this topic was entitled “Wake Up! Our world is dying and we’re all in denial” (Pipher, 2012). She published a new book on this topic a few years ago entitled The Green Boat (Pipher, 2013). 

Pipher showed that nobody can be psychologically healthy or spiritually fulfilled in a world that is unnecessarily destroying itself before their eyes. She states this central point with up-to-date directness, for example: “It is not mentally healthy to sit idly by and watch the human race destroy its mothership” (Pipher, 2013, p. 117).

The solution to this psychological paralysis, according to Pipher, begins with the conscious decisions by the growing number of people who can face the truth to awaken their neighbors, if only one at a time, to the necessity of action (Pipher, 2006). Pipher tells the story of the shutdown of a major pipeline project (Keystone XL) in her home state of Nebraska in the United States. This victory was brought about, in part, by a bourgeoning, democratically organized group of Nebraskans of which she was a founding member (Pipher, 2013). She describes in detail the series of specific actions that her group of Nebraskans carried out.

In addition to the ecological benefits, Pipher explores the psychological and spiritual benefits of social action to protect the planet on many levels. On a personal level, participating in local social action is a way of overcoming despair and depression. On an interpersonal level, it brings people together in like-minded groups that are socially nourishing. On a political level, local action by ever-increasing numbers of groups can eventually change those aspects of the world that are making us dislocated, depressed, and erratic in our behavior. On a spiritual level, social action nurtures the soul as well as the biosphere and promotes the highest levels of spiritual growth.

On all four levels, social action is an indispensable component in individual recovery. More and more people (including myself) are also coming to feel that individual recovery, spiritual fulfillment, and social action are inseparable in the 21st century.

Pipher describes some of the spiritual experiences that have energized her ecological activism in ways that are similar to – as well as subtly different from – the descriptions that James gives of mystical and spiritual experiences. Here is one of Piper’s descriptions:

Bliss and wonder are transcendent states, but there are many ways to transcend our ordinary consciousness. All of them involve being in the present moment and experiencing a connection to a world much more ancient and much larger than our little, limited selves.

In our moments of wholeness we can suddenly imbibe the heart-cracking beauty of it all. 

When I met Brad Kindler, he was a twenty-nine-year-old farmer who often wore a knit cap covering his hip-length straight brown hair. He worked at a community action program teaching people how to make their homes more energy efficient and giving workshops on permaculture, rain barrels, and composting. He was someone who could inhabit a moment and spot a miracle. He excelled at orchestrating bliss…

One day Brad was working in my garden … He called me over to where he had paused under a large Scotch pine. He told me to stand quietly and listen, When I did, I heard a sound like rustling dry leaves or popcorn popping or maybe a fire burning. It wasn’t loud but it was a sound that I had never heard before.

“I’ve been trying to figure this out and I think I’ve got it,” Brad said. “That is the sound of the sap rising in the tree.” He explained that we had experienced such a cold, wet spring that the sap had not risen gradually over several weeks as it usually does. Then that day, on our first sunny hot day, the sap had exploded out of the ground and into the tree. We were hearing it move up into the branches. “Crackle, crackle.”

We stood for a long time listening to what was our first, and perhaps our only, experience of this amazing event. Brad had found us a miracle. (Pipher, 2013, pp. 192-193).

Pipher’s descriptions of mystical and spiritual experience are much more based in nature that James’, reflecting the turning of our generation’s minds, in the 21st century, to the fragile, all-important divinity of the natural world. Her descriptions of mystical experience are also more social than James’. In fact, they are planetary.

Pipher's broader social and planetary spiritualism may reflect one of the corners that our generation has turned since 1902. James lived in the US in the era of extreme, rugged individualism. He sought out the most extreme statements of individual mystical experience because he thought there was the most to learn about religion from them. It is also possible however, that at other times in history, the source of religion is usually not the anguished, heroic experiences of particular individuals, but the shared experiences of a larger number. It may be that Bill W’s white light experience was not as important to AA as the less spectacular experiences of success and failure that much larger numbers of individuals are able to share week after week in their meetings. It may also be that spiritual fulfillment today requires being awake to the urgent social and environmental crises that all of our planetary brothers and sisters face together.

The main message that I have tonight about Mary Pipher’s (2013) book is the same as my message about William James’ (1902) book: You should read it!

Gregory Wilson and Earth Recovery Groups

Gregory Wilson is a pastoral counselor, a Unitarian-Universalist minister,  and an organizer with the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth.  He is in recovery from alcohol addiction and says that “my recovery process has been my involvement in reflective meaning making processes over the past 30 years, which include psychotherapy, 12 step groups, and a variety of support groups, and culminating in building a healthy community.” He has studied William James.

One of Gregory Wilson’s missions is to organize “Earth Recovery Groups” which he describes as “designed to help people deal with the addictive process they are in and deal with the realization that the condition of the world is also a result of that same addictive process. And then recovery is about taking care of self and pushing back, in some way, against the oppressive forces manifesting addictive behaviours and life styles.” (Wilson, 2013).

Wilson sees the essence of spirituality and recovery as residing in the decision of a person to commit himself or herself to the recovery of the earth. As he puts it:

The heart of spirituality is in the decision making process of Jesus standing on the edge of Jerusalem and deciding to cross the line to enter Jerusalem, of the living room conversation in which that group of women [Suffragettes] finally said let's go to the White house, when Siddhartha saw the poverty and suffering and realized even as King [that] because of the power structures he would not be able to end suffering and poverty, he had to leave his power and wealth to find another way, create another story. It is the inner workings of making a decision to do what is right, moved by compassion and integrity for the other that is the heart of the mature spiritual life. Which moves us to feel the connection to all living beings including the earth (Wilson, 2013).

Like Mary Pipher, Gregory Wilson finds it hard to imagine psychological or physical health among people who are destroying their own planet:

In these recovery groups, "we must recover our vision … our ability to move out of the dream of being the chosen people … We need to begin to see the whole of this land, of this Earth and  that we are part of the whole.” Our health as humans is directly related to the health of this planet.

We need to come to the realization that “the planet Earth is a one-time project – there is no real second chance. We need to understand that the land's primordial powers have been debilitated and we must be involved in the future of bringing health to this planet in some comprehensive manner.” (Wilson, 2013. Interior quotes are from Thomas Berry, 2009).

Whereas William James and Bill W. focussed their attention on the relationship between individual people and God, more contemporary religious thinkers  believe that the crucial relationship now is between people and the sacred universe, especially the planet earth. They believe that it is the failure of that relationship the is the primary source of our current alienation, as well as of the the ecological crises that may destroy us (Berry, 2009, chap. 3; p. 104). As Gregory Wilson put it:

I do believe that anchoring the recovery in the larger context is helpful at the very beginning. Although my recovery is important it is not as important as the planet. The planet is the higher cause, gives meaning and purpose. [It]Can pull me out of my addiction. The love of life is the goal of recovery and is one of the promises. (Wilson, 2013, italics added)

Gregory Wilson summed this thinking up in a prayer, with the inspiration of Shyla Nelson (Burlington Free Press, 2012). The prayer seems quite different in its implications – and in its form as a prayer – from the Serenity Prayer, although it is meant to complement the Serentiy Prayer rather than replace it.


From our brokenness we gather. 

From our brokenness we heal

From our brokenness we speak

From our brokenness we listen

From our brokenness we change

From our brokenness we build community

From our brokenness we change the world


The Two Questions of the Hour:

1. If there were an “Earth Recovery Group,” in this area, might you be interested in learning more about it and possibly joining?

2. Why might this place, the Longhouse Church (full name: Longhouse Council of Native Ministry), be the perfect home for an Earth Recovery Group?

Post Script

After the presentation, much was said in response to these two questions. I was asked how I would answer them myself. Here are my answers:

First Question: I am very interested in joining an Earth Recovery Group(although I am not confident that I know how to start one.) I envision an Earth Recovery Group, or something along those lines, being essential to my own psychological well-being as well as to my making a contribution, in collaboration with millions of others, to the absolutely vital task of saving the world from human destruction.

 I imagine that something like an Earth Recovery Group might be essential to my own psychological health, as well as the well-being of the people to whom I addressed the presentation, many of whom are active members of one of various twelve-step groups. Some people in twelve-step groups are convinced that they have only enough energy to work on their own, individual recovery and the recovery of others in their group with similar problems. My fear, however, is that spiritual work that is only individual, or limited to a group that is recovering from a particular psychological problem, like alcoholism, is too narrow. I fear that it cannot succeed in either achieving full well-being for the individual or in changing the world for the better. My nightmare vision arises from the possibility (suggested to me by Brett Richardson) that serious work on the recovery of the earth cannot occur until the earth's ecology "bottoms out". But what if there is no coming back of a living system from that level of abuse?

Second Question: The Long House United Church is special because it has a long tradition of serving the urban aboriginal community and the walls are decorated in native art. In recent years, aboriginal people have taken leadership in combining ecological and spiritual concerns in effective political movements. In Canada, there is quite often an element of reflection on individual recovery as well and ecological and spiritual concerns in the meetings of inspiring groups like “Idle No More”. 

Our group, A Community Aware, has a history of association with aboriginal issues, although that aspect of our work has been dormant for the last few years. Perhaps we cannot afford for it to be dormant any longer! Perhaps this church is where that important re-connection can be made. 


Alexander, B.K. (2010). The globalization of addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Berry, T. (2009). The sacred universe: Earth, spirituality, and religion in the twenty-first century. New York: Columbia University Press.

Boring, E.G. (1950). A history of experimental psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Appleton Century-Crofts.

Burlington Free Press (August 2012). Vermont soprano uses her voice to heal the earth. Retrieved Sept. 10 2013

Harvey, D. (2011). The enigma of capital and the crises of capitalism. London, UK: 

Hedges, C. (2009). Empire of illusion: The end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle. New York: Nation Books.

James, W. (1890/1950). The principles of psychology. New York: Dover. (Original work published 1890)

James, W. (1902/1990). The varieties of religious experience. Vintage Books Edition. (Original work published in 1902).

James, W. (1907/1963). Pragmatism and other essays. New York: Washington Square Press. (Original work published 1907).

Judt, T. (2005). Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945. New York, NY: Penguin.

McKibben, B. (2010). Eaarth: Making a life on a tough new planet. Toronto: Knopf.

McPeake, J.D. (2010). William James, Bill Wilson, and the development of Alcoholics Anonymous. Retrieved 28 August 2010 from The Dublin Group

Monbiot, G. (2013, 9 September). Obama’s rogue state tramples over every law it demands others uphold. The Guardian, Retrieved September 9 2913 from

Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York: Ballantine.

Pipher, M. (1996). The shelter of each other: Rebuilding our families. New York: Ballantine. 

Pipher, M. (2012, October 21). Wake up! Our world is dying and we're all in denial. Retrieved October 21, 2012, from

Pipher, M. (2013). The Green Boat: Reviving ourselves in our capsized culture. New York: Riverhead Books.

Richardson, R.D. (2007). William James: In the maelstrom of American modernism. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.

Taylor, C. (2002). Varieties of religion today: William James Revisited. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, E. (2011). The mystery of personality: A history of psychodynamic theories. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Wilson, G. (2013). Notes from speech delivered at Our Children, Climate Faith Conference August 16, 17 at Strafford, Vermont, USA. Conference site:

Wolin, S. (2008). Democracy, Inc.: Managed democracy and the specter of  inverted totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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