Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist-Based Recovery Group

Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist-Based Recovery Group

As I waited on the porch of the house in West Philadelphia for anyone to arrive for the meeting, I’d have to admit I was skeptical about a Buddhist based recovery group. How do Buddhism and recovery go together?

Eventually, about ten people arrive and we go into the house. We assemble in chairs, a few people sitting on meditation cushions. The secretary of the group reads a preamble, which I find out later is the introduction to the book Refuge Recovery by Noah Levine, the founder of the fellowship.

What Happens in the Meeting?

The preamble says that Refuge Recovery is “a practice, a process, a set of tools, a treatment, and a path to healing addiction and the suffering caused by addiction.” It discusses the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, the ancient Indian wisdom teacher from whose works sprung the worldwide spiritual practices of Buddhism. These are the basis for the program of Refuge Recovery.

The meeting begins with twenty minutes of meditation. The first part is guided by a leader, then there is silence. Meditation is one of the central practices of Buddhism and Refuge Recovery: the quieting of the mind so as to begin to see the world as it really is.

Next comes a reading from the Refuge Recovery text. Then we go around the circle and share a reflection on the reading and how it relates to our journey away from addiction. The sharing is focused solely on the present and the topic at hand: there are no drunk-a-logs, and participants identify themselves by name only, not by labels like “addict” or “alcoholic.”

The meeting ends with a closing meditation, and we put away our chairs and cushions. I leave feeling peaceful. I decide that I will be back.

Mission and Beliefs of the Program

Refuge Recovery is an abstinence-based program. It is peer-led, meaning that no one is a Buddhist teacher or official authority; like the 12-Step fellowships, authority rests in the group. In many ways, the structure resembles that of 12-Step recovery, in that each group is independent and leadership is rotating. However, Refuge Recovery is a non-theistic approach, and no one is required to find or believe in a Higher Power. The power to recover is said to rest within each individual, given that he or she is willing to do the work of following the path of recovery.

The basic text states Four Truths of Recovery:

  • Addiction causes suffering.
  • The cause of addiction is repetitive craving.
  • Recovery is possible.
  • The path to recovery is available.

Members are instructed to follow an “Eight-Fold Path to Recovery,” based on the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism. These are not Steps, rather they are to be practiced at all times, throughout one’s life. The Path focuses on abstinence from all mind-altering substances and process addictions, conscious intention to live in a way that does not harm self or others, and participating in community, service, and meditation.

The Role of Meditation

Mediation is a cornerstone of the Refuge Recovery program. Members commit to sitting in meditation to learn how to be aware in the present moment, discern the causes of addiction and the suffering it leads to, and practice loving kindness and forgiveness.

Meditation can be a challenge for some members. The tradition of sitting in silence is alien to most Westerners. “You have to be able to deal with silence,” says H, a member of Philadelphia’s Refuge Recovery chapter. “I have had a hard time not saying anything for twenty minutes.”

The processes of Refuge Recovery share with the 12-Steps a focus on identifying the damage caused to self and others by addiction. Both the First and Second Truth of Recovery contain an “Inventory,” in which participants are asked a detailed set of questions to first identify the suffering caused by addiction, and then the causes behind addiction. Members are encouraged to share their inventories with a mentor, trusted friend or Buddhist teacher. Members are also encouraged to find someone with more experience in the recovery community to act as a mentor, much like a sponsor.

Refuge Recovery sets out a detailed plan for the stages of recovery, beginning at the first month and continuing another fifteen years to life. Over the stages, the amount of time a participant is instructed to meditate increases, starting small and gradually increasing to twenty minutes then forty-five minutes per day. Members are encouraged to attend silent meditation retreats of increasing lengths as their years of abstinence and practice grow. They are also instructed to go through an amends process, not unlike that of the 12-Steps.

Input From Members of Philadelphia Refuge Recovery

I asked members of the Philadelphia Refuge Recovery group what they are drawn to in the practice.

“It’s a good triad,” said K, a veteran of several different kinds of recovery groups. “A led meditation, a reading, sharing. I like having a different topic every week, and that it can’t be derailed by one person talking the whole time.”

H, a member with fourteen years of sobriety accomplished mostly without the help of a formal fellowship, joined the Philadelphia chapter about a year ago. “At the core of recovery, there are some really hard existential questions,” he says. “This practice addresses the existential aspect of recovery.”

“I like that it’s non-dogmatic,” said M. “The guided mediation is helpful if you have a hard time meditating by yourself. I like that nothing is expected of you, there’s no pressure. No one is asking, ‘Which step are you on?’”

S, the founder and secretary of the Philadelphia chapter, explained how he founded a meeting. “I got sober in Oakland, California and had been attending Against the Stream [a Buddhist meditation group also founded by Noah Levine] sits. I found the Refuge Recovery program very approachable. I moved back to the East Coast and there was a meeting, but it folded. I missed it, so I was motivated to start a new one. Refuge makes it easy to start a meeting. Everything you need is in the book or on the website. The meeting started small, but is growing steadily.”

Find a Refuge Meeting Near You

Refuge Recovery is an international organization with meetings ranging as far as Guatemala and Finland. It is based in Los Angeles, California.  Meeting listings and other information can be found on the Refuge Recovery website.

I found Refuge Recovery an excellent place for community, structure and support in recovery. For those who are drawn to meditation or just want to try it out, or for those who don’t care for AA’s Higher Power concept, and are interested in existential questions going beyond just staying away from the next drug or drink, Refuge Recovery is worth investigating. I will be adding it to my personal set of long-term recovery practices.




Images Courtesy of iStock

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