3 Adventure Therapies for Addiction That Promote Spiritual Growth
By Megan Repass, MS, LADAC-II, CCM, EAGALA-C, Director of Adventure and Equine Therapy at The Ranch
Ana was in treatment for drug addiction and working on her tendency toward morbid rumination. Obsessive thought overwhelmed her, making it almost impossible for her to get out of her own head. But as someone who’d spent much of her life in the city, Ana didn’t find outdoor activities appealing. She hated bugs and she didn’t even feel comfortable with the smell of fresh air because it was so unfamiliar.
And then Ana walked the labyrinth.
She stepped mindfully and slowly, allowing herself to feel the earth with each step. Navigating the many unexpected turns forced Ana to focus on the task at hand, interrupting the thought patterns that had held her mind hostage. When Ana found her way to the center of the labyrinth, she imagined her pain being released into the earth. She then turned around and walked out the same way she came in, embracing a renewed attitude about the outdoors and a powerful sense of hope.
Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is just one of the ways adventure therapy brings about personal transformation. What makes programming at The Ranch different from typical adventure therapy is that not only are clients offered outdoor adventures like high ropes, canoeing and hiking, but they can also take part in adventures of a spiritual nature. The goal is to help clients release the things that stand in the way of their health and to remove the barriers that keep them from their authentic self.
A deep thread of spirituality is woven throughout the programs here, but it is especially prevalent in the sweat lodge, medicine wheel and labyrinth experiences. These are time-honored traditions for healing that have also been found to be helpful in addiction treatment.
1. Sweat Lodge
The sweat lodge at The Ranch is led by professionals who are experienced in the Lakota tradition and are able to provide a safe and therapeutic environment. Our lodge looks like a round hut or turtle shell on the outside, but head inside and you’ll find a spiritual sauna. During the course of a sacred ceremony, the facilitator leads participants in speaking of their burdens and pain, and in declaring what they would like to release. Water is then poured onto heated rocks in the center of the lodge to create steam. The experience is a form of purification and offers a way for clients to release whatever they need to release ― shame, guilt, regret or any negative emotion.
How it helps therapeutically: People feel an intrinsic change through letting go emotionally, literally sweating out impurities from the body and emerging with a sense of renewal. Studies show a sweat lodge ceremony can restore a balance of spiritual, emotional, mental and physical well-being. The sweat lodge ceremony may also help participants increase their connection to each other, the earth and their higher power, which aids in building trust and a sense of belonging.
2. Medicine Wheel
This Native American tradition has been used to enhance health and celebrate cycles of life for centuries. It may be depicted in images and art, but it is often a physical construct. At The Ranch, we have a beautiful medicine wheel adjacent to one of our many horse pastures, amid a field of wildflowers. Large stones are laid out in circular fashion and also branch out from the four directions (east, south, west and north), converging in the middle with the center stone. From a bird’s-eye view, it resembles a wheel with four spokes. Each area has a unique meaning and feel.
A client enters from the east and walks in a clockwise direction, moving from one quadrant to the next. They may stop and sit at certain points to connect with the earth. For some, it is a form of prayer or moving meditation. This experience gives clients a chance to connect with nature and spirituality and to honor the feelings and insights that arise. The experience may include such themes as seasons of the year or stages of life ― childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
How it helps therapeutically: The medicine wheel is especially helpful for those who find it difficult to sit inside a room and meditate, but who can flourish outdoors. It gets them out of the ordinary setting, which can promote growth. Changing the environment to one that is more connected to the earth can also help them become better grounded.
Labyrinths date back to ancient cultures as well as the European Roman Catholic churches of the Middle Ages. The structure looks like a maze but has a winding path that leads to the center. It’s often considered a metaphor for the path we walk in life, but the metaphor of recovery in a labyrinth is absolutely central due to the fact that the way people go in is the same way they come out — and they do get out. It is often walked with an intention in mind. For example, someone may have the intention to let something go or bring something new into their lives. Like the medicine wheel, the labyrinth is a place for deep reflection and can be a form of meditation or prayer. Because it’s meant to be walked slowly and mindfully, it helps people connect to their bodies so they can feel what they need to feel, both joy and sorrow.
How it helps therapeutically: Walking the labyrinth helps people examine problems. It also helps them feel more grounded while enhancing emotional and spiritual growth. People with morbid rumination — those who get stuck in a loop of thoughts — find that walking slowly while focusing on each turn and movement interrupts their repetitive thinking.
These culturally based programs are known to assist indigenous and native people, but their appeal and effectiveness can be felt by anyone who fully immerses themselves in these traditions. They offer a non-religious view of spirituality that is meant to empower people to find their own personal connection to a higher power, free of judgment.