Viewing Addiction Through the Spiritual Lens

Recovery Unscripted banner image for episode 16

Episode #16 | April 19, 2017

Featured Guest: TJ Woodward

My guest today is TJ Woodward, an inspirational author and spiritual care counselor with the Foundations San Francisco outpatient program. For this interview, he joined me at the Innovations in Recovery conference in San Diego to describe the vision behind his new book Conscious Recovery: Viewing Addiction Through the Spiritual Lens. Also, he shares how his journey toward awakened living has helped him return to a place of connection with his essential self.

Podcast Transcript

David Condos: Hi, and welcome to this episode of Recovery Unscripted, a podcast powered by Foundations Recovery Network. I’m David Condos. Today, I’m excited to bring you the first of several great conversations I recorded live at the Innovations in Recovery conference in San Diego. First up is T.J. Woodward, inspirational author and spiritual care counselor with the Foundations San Francisco outpatient program. He explains the vision behind his new book called Conscious Recovery: Viewing Addiction Through the Spiritual Lens and he also shares how living an awakened life has helped him return to a place of connection with his essential self. All right, here’s T.J.


David: I’m here with T.J. Woodward. Thank you for being with us.

T.J Woodward: Thank you so much, David, I’m delighted to be here, always wonderful to be in conversation about recovery.

David: On that note, let’s start with you telling us a little bit about your personal journey to where you are today.

T.J: I’ve been reflecting a lot this last few days on my passion for this work and it really comes from my own experience of my own addiction early in my life that really precedes that. And that is I had the experience of coming into this world with absolute awe and curiosity about life and I remember being incredibly happy, incredibly present. I remember those experiences of being young and feeling really connected with myself in the world and then something happened around age seven for me and I had an actual physical sensation of closing down and shutting off. From that moment, until age 13 or 14 when I discovered drugs and alcohol, I lived in a state of disconnection, a state of separation, a state of very deep pain actually, those years in my life from age seven to 14–

David: So young.

T.J: Yes, so young, and really I remember making really big life decisions at age seven that the world wasn’t safe, that I wasn’t good enough. The foundation of my work is helping people to recognize that there is still that essential self underneath all of this that is whole and perfect, that is still in awe of the world.

David: As you traveled your own recovery journey, what led you to be with Foundations San Francisco and could you describe a little bit about your current role there?

T.J: I was fortunate enough to get sober, I guess pretty young, age 20. I wasn’t quite 21 yet, so I guess I’m in that ‘never had a legal drink’ crowd, and my journey in recovery really brought me to so many different levels in so many different places. About 10 years ago, I started working in the addiction treatment field, working first for foundations in 2008 and being really incredibly grateful for the depth of work that Foundations does. The spiritual aspect to addiction is what to me is at the root of both addiction and recovery, so when we opened our program three and a half years ago and I had the opportunity to implement a spiritual care program I was absolutely delighted.

David: Was there anything in particular that led you to be interested in spirituality? How did that start?

T.J: It really started with my sobriety. Nine months into my sobriety I met a woman that changed my life, her name was Mary Helen, probably the most enlightened person, certainly at that point, I had ever met. She was that person that still had that awe and wonder and curiosity about life like a small child really, that began my journey looking at addiction and recovery through this spiritual lens. This lens of wholeness and perfection, a recognition that essentially underneath all of my– speaking in my own experience, my own insane behavior, all those reasons, those ways I was trying to reach outside of myself to try to fix something that felt broken within. That really was the beginning for me of my own spiritual journey.

Dave: And so that led you to Foundations San Francisco, like you said. For those who aren’t familiar, could you say a little bit about the philosophy and approach to treatment at that outpatient center?

T.J: What I love about Foundations is we really do recognize the need for holistic integrated treatment, a lot of programs say, “Yes, we’re holistic, we’re integrated.” And what I love about Foundations is I really feel like we’re really actually walking that talk. In other words, we really are treating each person as an individual and offering specific treatment to them. I find that a lot of programs and even the treatment industry, in general, focuses a lot on behavior without really getting down to some of the root causes of addiction. In my experience with Foundations, every person I’ve ever met that works for Foundations seems to have a commitment to getting down to some of these root causes and really helping people not just change behavior but having a more fundamental shift into a new way of being and seeing the world.


David: Another thing that you do in addition to your work with Foundations San Francisco is Awakened Living which is a spiritual community in San Francisco right?

T.J: Yes.

David: Could you tell us first just what the term “awakened living” means to you?

T.J: What I mean by living an awakened life really is what we talked about in the beginning which is that sense of on wonder and presence. I find a lot of spirituality really looking outside of ourselves and looking toward something like, how can I obtain something? And to me, living the awakened life is simply returning to that place of inner spaciousness that plays an absolute oneness and a connection with source.

David: Could you describe a little bit more about what that community is and what the mission is there?

T.J: Our mission very simply is to assist with the evolution of consciousness and to really help people awaken to a deeper truth of who and what they are. I have really exciting news at Awakened Living, we’re moving to Oakland, we’re going to be now seven days a week offering classes, workshops, interactive groups and then, of course, our big Sunday morning celebration. The other exciting news is that Reverend Michael Beckwith, he founded Agape in 1986 in Los Angeles, he reached out to us, invited us to now be part of the Agape Movement. We’re really grateful that beginning this month, actually, our first Sunday will be April 23rd and we’re going to be now part of the Agape Association of Communities, so incredibly grateful for that.

David: Yes, nice. Another thing I wanted to talk about is your new book. It’s called Conscious Recovery: Viewing Addiction Through the Spiritual Lens. I guess just start by telling us what does it mean to view addiction and recovery through that spiritual lens?

T.J: Thank you. In my years of working in this field, I recognize that there are different aspects to all of life. The Buddhists call it the four rooms: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. And working in this field I recognized that we really focus quite a lot on those other three rooms, the physical aspect, brain chemistry, etcetera. The mental, the emotional– and so what I’m writing from in this book Conscious Recovery is through that lens of spirituality, what does it mean to have an addiction and then how do we use spirituality as a way to break free, break the cycle of addiction. And again, the endgame for all of this is for us to live a more connected more love-filled life.


David: Something you touched on briefly is the root causes. What are some of those root causes of addiction and how can treatment professionals move on from just treating the symptoms, like you said, to really addressing those underlying issues?

T.J: This is where I get really excited. This is to me the core of the work that I do at Foundations, and my private practice, and at Awakened Living is a recognition that underneath all of the addictive behavior, as I’ve said, is a whole and perfect person. Before I talk about the root causes, I want to share a story because I think stories can be really powerful because their experience. This is not so much an opinion but in experience I remember working at Altamira when Foundations owned it in 2009 and I remember one day I woke up and I thought, “What if rather than seeing our clients as an addiction or as a mental health diagnosis, I looked for that place within them that was unharmed and unharmable?”

Really, it was an experiment for me because I was meeting with clients and I thought, “Rather than seeing them as their behavior or their diagnosis, what if I were to look through that and see something more essential?” And I remember the power of that and what came through that, it was these transformations that happened simply by me witnessing down through that lens. What I’ve come up with are the three root causes and that is toxic shame, unresolved trauma, and spiritual disconnection. When we talk about spiritual disconnection, I’m not really talking about disconnection from God although that is part of it, I’m talking about a disconnection from that essential self that you and I have been talking about.

David: Could you dive into each of those a little bit more like the toxic shame?

T.J: Absolutely, I want to start actually with unresolved trauma because when we think of trauma on a broader scale or the spectrum of trauma, I think most people can identify certain things as traumatic experiences. Going to war, being in a car accident, loss of a parent, or direct physical mental emotional or spiritual abuse. We recognize those as traumatic experiences but what about the idea that us even coming into this world as a spiritual being and then being taught all these things about the world, about competition, about fear, about separation, that’s fundamentally a traumatic experience?

Don Miguel Ruiz in his book The Four Agreements calls it the domestication of the human. And I really love that term because when we domesticate a horse, for example, we call it breaking their spirit. And it goes back to my own experience of being so connected with myself. If we look at a child under four or five, they really are very present with what’s happening, they’re going to be absolutely in their feelings. Trauma is living in this world that teaches us something other than that fundamental truth of who and what we are.

David: And, yes, when you’re born into it with that truth, like you just described, and then you’re taught that what you feel is wrong, this is how the world is, and then there’s this dissonance, right?

T.J: Absolutely. Well said. Because there’s an innate knowing, within each of us, of this way of being that is much more loving and much more peaceful in the world. And then we come into the world– and I recognize, this as a lot from my own experience, that shutting down experience that I had at age seven because the world felt too brutal, too hostile. And that traumatic experience caused me to fragment or separate from the truth of who I am. And to me, that is fundamentally one of the root causes of addiction.

David: Yes. And then toxic shame was another one, could you describe that a little bit?

T.J: One of the preeminent shame experts was John Bradshaw, I was really following him in the ’80s when I was early in recovery. And he was one of the first people talking about shame being at the root of addiction. I mean, of note, it’s important to distinguish the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is a sense that I’ve done something wrong. Shame is a belief or an idea that I am fundamentally wrong or broken in some way. The way we treat those are incredibly different, right? The way we work with guilt is, “I stole $500 from your Dave, and I’m really sorry about that, I’m going to give you $100 a month the next five months, and I’ll be finished, and we’re going to be fine. I’m going to feel better.” With shame, it’s something very different.

David: Yes, not that simple.

T.J: It’s not that simple, right. Because shame is, “I stole $500, I can’t believe I did that, I’m broken in some way, I’m damaged, there’s something wrong with me.” And in working with clients over the years, coming out of an addiction or addictive behavior, it seems that something that drives addictive behavior is what I call core false beliefs. Usually, ‘I am’ or ‘I am not’. “I’m not good enough, I’m not worthy, I can never amount to anything, I don’t deserve it.”

And because of that, because of those core false beliefs, then we develop strategies to work with that. Those strategies are usually something outside of ourselves, we’re trying to fix something that feels broken within. And as we know, it’s never going to get fixed externally, this is about us really finding a space and a place to unlearn some of those beliefs and ideas that we’ve gathered about ourselves, that then create the addictive lifestyle.

David: I wanted to touch on the core false beliefs because I saw that was something that you talked about when you presented about conscious recovery. Could you say a little bit more about that and what role that plays in addiction?

T.J: Let’s take this for example. If I’m walking around with the belief ‘I’m not lovable,’ in the outer realm I’m going to be trying to grab anything or anyone outside of myself to try to feel loved, right? The way I frame it is, it’s like I’m walking around with my umbilical cord in my hand trying to plug in somewhere and get fed. But because I have the core false belief that I’m not lovable, what kind of relationships am I going to be in? I’m going to choose a partner from an unconscious level to confirm the false belief?

That’s why when I talk about treating symptoms, it doesn’t really get down to the root. The root is a place and a space for us to be able to explore and examine these core beliefs and recognize that they’re actually not the truth of who we are. And Carl Jung says it this way, “If it’s trapped or living in the unconscious, it’s running our life and we call it fate.” It’s only when we bring it into conscious awareness that we recognize we can begin to choose.

David: I guess what you’re saying is people come to accept these core false beliefs as the way it is and then they say, “Oh, I can’t change that, so I’ll just adjust accordingly.” But that doesn’t do it.

T.J: Yes, and of course, we know that it’s not conscious, but at the core, this unconscious has those old beliefs, and usually they come quite early in our lives. If I’m walking around with this core false belief, I’m going to develop strategies to try to cope with that. We call them coping mechanisms but I’ve actually reframed it I call them brilliant strategies, because they were actually quite brilliant at the time. They brought us connection, they brought us peace.

One of the most brilliant strategies for many people is drugs and alcohol. Because it does numb out or bring relief from that psychic pain, that spiritual pain. But as we know, it doesn’t work long-term, so they come into treatment, they come into a counselor’s office and then it’s like, “Now what?” Because we’ve actually taken away the person’s solution. When we shift it from a problem to a solution that no longer works, it’s an opening to really view it quite differently.

David: Yes. And getting back to spirituality, could you describe some spiritual practices and principles that you’ve seen can help break the cycle of addiction?

T.J: I want to talk about a couple of different things. One spiritual practice that has really changed my life, and I call it, living in the question. The mind really wants answers. And we’re trained from a very, very early age that there’s a right and a wrong answer to everything. And if we can just get the right answer our entire educational system is based on that.

David: Well, you’re rewarded for the right answer.

T.J: Rewarded for the right answer, right? And we walk around thinking we need to learn how to be right about everything. And that creates separation, that creates judgment, that creates duality. Living in the question is a practice where we ask ourselves open-ended questions. For example, in the core false belief conversation what I do in a group at Foundations is we identify a core false belief and then I have people sit together and answer a few questions. Question number one: “When did I first start believing this?” — “How do I feel when I believe this thought?” — “What would it take for me to be free from this?” And just exploring, simply exploring those three questions, opens us up to the possibility that it’s not the truth of who we are. That’s one spiritual practice that has really changed my life and I’ve seen it change the lives of people that I work with.

David: It breaks it down and makes it seem like maybe that core false belief, or that problem is not this insurmountable, hopeless situation that it can definitely seem.

T.J: Absolutely. And the key is for someone to say, “That’s what I have, it’s not who I am.” And the power of language is incredibly important. That’s another spiritual practice: “How am I talking about myself?” — “How am I talking about this particular issue?” If I hear myself saying, “I’m never going to get through this,” or “I can’t recover,” or “I’m this way because of my family” — changing that language is another powerful spiritual practice. We can change it to, “I’m willing to expand my belief or my understanding of this. I’m willing to try a new way of being and seeing the world.”

David: Being in recovery yourself, as you mentioned, how do you feel that that has shaped your perspective as you go about helping other people start their own journeys?

T.J: When I came into recovery in 1986, I felt incredibly broken. I had a lot of shame, I had a lot of unresolved trauma, and I had this spiritual disconnection. And what I did with that is I thought if I could just fix things on the outside I would be okay. I was incredibly rigid, I had very much a dogmatic position around recovery. And I realize, in retrospect, that was really my own fear and my own separation from this essential self.

And so, over the course of the last 30 years of recovery, recovery has become less prescriptive for me. In other words, it’s not, “I feel this, so let me figure out a way to fix that.” My own journey over the last 30 years, I think that has been fundamental for me in the way that I see and work with patients.

David: All right, well, I think we’ll wrap up with this final question. You’ve devoted a lot of your life to the community of recovery and now to the treatment, why would you say helping people find recovery is important to you?

T.J: Well, I really love this question because this is something that I have been sitting with a lot over the last few months. There were events in my life that happened when I was about 20 years sober, 40 years old, where I had forgotten the deeper truth of who and what I am. And I had one more time began to look outside of myself. In this case, it was through a successful business, and the perfect partner, and the perfect car, and that house on the hill. And I had lost touch with this more essential beingness if you will.

And I had the calling to go into ministry and into spiritual work and my entire life collapsed. And it ended up being the most challenging and painful period of my life and I was literally horizontal on the sofa depressed, 20 years sober, thinking, “I don’t know how I’m going to even go on.” And it was in that experience, in that experience of leaning into that pain, there was a moment when I crossed through some sort of threshold and I realized there was no turning back. That the rest of my life, however long I’m blessed to be here on the planet, was going to be about assisting in creating a space for a shift in consciousness. Whether that’s addiction, spirituality, in any way that I possibly can.

I guess what I’m really saying, David, is that this is a deep calling in my life. My own experiences of my own darkness and my own light have made me I think uniquely able to be a presence for someone else. It’s really my life’s calling now to assist people in their own awakening.

David: Awesome, thank you for sharing all that TJ, it’s been a pleasure having you on.

TJ: Thank you so much, David, always wonderful being in this conversation.

David: Thanks again to TJ for joining us. If you’d like to talk with someone about the holistic addiction treatment provided at Foundations San Francisco and all the Foundations residential and outpatient programs please call anytime at 855-823-2141. Now I’m happy to welcome Will Hart back to the show. As you may recall Will joins us each month to give us an update from the Life Challenge community, which is the aftercare support network for those who’ve gone through Foundations treatment programs and anyone else up for accepting the challenge of living life in recovery. Last month’s challenge was to go out and do something to stay inspired and Will’s back to share the new challenge for this month. Welcome, Will.

Will Hart: Thanks, man, how are you doing today?

David: Doing great, how are you?

Will: I’m good, happy to be here.

David: What new challenge do you have for us this month?

Will: This month we’re going to do something a little different than the last couple. We’re actually going to challenge you to complete a seven-day eCourse online. It’s from TJ Woodward.

David: Yes, and we just heard from him on the podcast episode, of course. Yes, that’s great to tie that in.

Will: Yes. In the seven-day eCourse, TJ will introduce to his powerful five steps to continuously creating your life. From an unconscious existence to a dynamic life filled with love, connection, and purpose.

David: Nice. Where can people find this?

Will: You can find out more on or on our website

David: Awesome. This is something that people can go through and just learn a little bit more about what TJ was explaining with living an awakened life.

Will: Yes absolutely. It’s all videos, you just sign up, real simple. Put your email address in and you’ll start getting them.

David: All right, perfect, Will, that sounds like a great challenge for this month.

Will: Yes, thank you very much.

David: Thanks, Will.

Will: Bye.

David: This has been the Recovery Unscripted Podcast. Today we’ve heard from TJ Woodward, spiritual care counselor at Foundations San Francisco. For more about TJ’s work visit As always, thank you for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast please pass it along to someone else who might enjoy it as well, and meet me right back here next week for our new episode. See you next time.

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