I’ve been involved for over twenty years in the movement to bring mindfulness meditation and other Buddhist practices into the therapeutic process, so I was excited to learn about a new self-help addiction treatment program which is growing rapidly. Refuge Recovery describes itself as “a mindfulness-based addiction recovery community that practices and utilizes Buddhist philosophy as the foundation of the recovery process. Drawing inspiration from the core teachings of the Four Noble Truths, emphasis is placed on both knowledge and empathy as a means for overcoming addiction and its causes.” In the four years of its existence, Refuge Recovery meetings have sprouted up all over the country and beyond, and there are currently five meetings per week in San Francisco.
This program was developed by Noah Levine, who is probably best known for his book, Dharma Punx, which chronicles his personal spiritual journey and struggles with addiction.
In Refuge Recovery, Levine describes the underlying principles of the program. All of our suffering, he writes, has its roots “in the natural human tendency to crave for life to be more pleasurable and less painful than it actually is.” We’re all more or less in contention with the way things are, and the inevitable consequence is that we suffer. The addict is only “an extreme manifestation of the normal human condition. It is not a lack of morality or any deep character flaw that creates addiction; it is almost always just a lot of pain and a lack of tolerance or compassion for this pain that get us stuck in the repetitive and habitual patterns” that constitute our addictions. Addicts try to eliminate pain and to live in a state of constant pleasure, but this is doomed to fail, because all experiences are impermanent. “When we get strung out on impermanent experiences….we are always left with the stress and grief of loss since our intoxication can never last.”
Addicts suffer from a basic delusion – that their addictions will bring them happiness, or at least relief, despite the fact that their addictive strategies only create more unhappiness. No tool is more effective in helping us awaken from this ignorance than meditation. When we take time daily just to be with our experience as it arises, we begin to develop a calm abiding in the present moment, which enables us to let go of the tendency to run from our pains and to cling desperately to our pleasures. In the Refuge Recovery program, all meetings include a twenty-minute period of meditation.
Refuge Recovery has much in common with Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs. It is an abstinence-based (not a harm reduction) program. As in AA, fellowship with a community of other people in recovery is an important part of the process, as is an honest and thorough process of self-examination. There is no one designated leader: each group is peer-led, with rotating leadership and democratic decision-making. Not surprisingly, then, many people in twelve-step programs also feel at home in Refuge Recovery meetings. One difference that will be important to some is that Refuge Recovery is based on a non-theistic understanding of spirituality. The program doesn’t involve depending on God or any higher power to attain sobriety; rather, the faith component is the trust that anyone who practices the program and avails herself or himself of support from others has all the inner spiritual resources they need to overcome addiction.
Refuge Recovery is a new program, and is no doubt still evolving and experiencing its growing pains. But it is an approach that some people who are struggling with addiction may find beneficial. Anyone who is interested can find more information at refugerecovery.org.