Two new Buddhist takes on how to stay sober
Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction
HarperOne, June 2014
288 pp.; $16.99 cloth
Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha's Teachings to Overcome Addiction
Paramabandhu Groves and Valerie Mason-John Windhorse Publications, 2014
248 pp.; $18.95
Buddhist practitioners are skewing younger. Add to that growing concern about drug abuse in America, and it’s hardly surprising that the Buddhist recovery field is expanding. Back in 1993, Mel Ash, then a dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Korean Zen and the author of The Zen of Recovery, drew on Buddhist teachings to, as he put it, “provide some insight into alternative ways of approaching the spiritual aspects of the Twelve Step programs.” Over the past decade, other Buddhist teachers and authors—Kevin Griffin, Darren Littlejohn, and “Laura S.” among them—have recast AA’s Twelve Steps in Buddhist terms, integrating the two approaches as a way to treat addiction.
Now two more books are bringing a Buddhist perspective to recovery, but with a twist. Instead of searching for commonalities between the twelve steps and the dharma, these authors go straight to the Buddha’s teachings and practices as the basis for overcoming the suffering of addiction. The twelve steps hover in the background as ever-present, if shadowy informants—how could they not when the AA model is arguably the most successful self-help recovery method to date? But in both of these new books, recovery is grounded in the four noble truths and the eightfold path, without recourse to the twelve steps.
The titles are eerily similar—Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction and Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction—and both programs stress meditation practice. Beyond that, however, they’re refreshingly dissimilar.
Eight Step Recovery, published in March, is the more psychologically oriented of the two: the authors are addiction specialists as well as members of the Triratna Buddhist Order. Dr. Paramabandhu Groves, a psychiatrist for Britain’s National Health Service, developed the Mindfulness-Based Addiction Recovery course; Valerie Mason-John (dharma name, Vimalasara) is an author and performer who teaches MBAR and leads retreats. Their premise—“the Buddha was in recovery” from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification—is more recovery cant than buddhadharma, but it lets the authors pitch a tent large enough to cover compulsive behavior of every stripe. Though the eight steps of their program don’t conform precisely to the eightfold path, still the dharma is a constant in the mash-up of Buddhist-inspired teachings and practices, scriptural readings, first-person stories, and practical exercises. Information-heavy but very readable, Eight Step Recovery is a useful resource for Buddhists, addicts, and addiction experts alike.
Refuge Recovery, due out in June, is more overtly Buddhist, with a program set in the framework of the four noble truths and eightfold path. The author, Noah Levine, is a popular American dharma teacher whose coming-to-Buddha memoir, Dharma Punx, is a rallying point for disaffected Gen Xers and Millennials searching for a spiritual practice relevant to their lives. With this latest book, they can also follow Levine’s lead in recovery.
As addicts go, Levine is one of the lucky. He bottomed out at 17. It took him longer to stay sober, but whatever hit him the day he woke up in a padded cell in Juvenile Hall—grace, perhaps, or a moment of clarity—that and a meditation lesson from his father, dharma teacher Steven Levine, catalyzed his journey to Buddhism and eventual recovery.
Levine barely mentions his own story in Refuge Recovery, leaving it to readers to pick up Dharma Punx for details. Instead, he offers testimonials from eight men and women who are members of the Refuge Recovery community. Like the drunka-logs in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, their stories are meant to reassure struggling addicts that they’re not alone, and to demonstrate—in bootstrap, if-I-can-do-it-so-can-you prose—that recovery is possible. (Alas, none of the addicts in the book is as charismatic as Levine or has a tale as compelling.)
Refuge Recovery, as Levine explains it, “is a practice, a process, a set of tools, a treatment, and a path to healing addiction and the suffering caused by addiction.” A tall order. The Twelve Step program has more modest ambitions: “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety,” the AA literature states. Still, those who practice the steps diligently are promised more, not least “a new freedom and a new happiness.” Similarly, sincere followers of Refuge Recovery will be rewarded, Levine says, with a “lifelong sense of well-being and happiness.”
Levine doesn’t discount the Twelve Step program: he acknowledges that it helped him sober up. But eventually he hit the stumbling blocks that trip up many—notably, “God-talk” and a core belief that surrendering to a “Power greater than ourselves” is essential for staying sober. Most Buddhists in AA simply substitute “group of drunks” for God, or “other power” for Higher Power, or take a Zen position—language is a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon—and ignore the issue. But that sleight of hand seems not to have satisfied Levine. The overlay of theism in the twelve steps undercuts the Buddha’s teaching that we each hold the seeds of our own redemption. Faith in our innate wisdom, not in some higher force, empowers us to not only let go of suffering—in this case, addiction—but also undergo the daunting process of transformation. Refuge Recovery aims high: “The practice of these principles, which begins with the reality of our addiction, will bring us to an enlightened state.”
Levine’s program, like Buddhist practice, is above all experiential. The four truths of recovery are action steps. Accepting the First Truth—“Addiction Creates Suffering”—begins the process. These days we seem to view any display of wretched excess—too much tweeting?—as addiction, which probably makes it easier to acknowledge the Buddha’s first noble truth, that suffering is our ordinary, unenlightened lot. Similarly, the Second Truth of Recovery, “The Cause of Addiction is Repetitive Craving,” aligns with Buddhist teachings on the causes and conditions of our suffering. To work with the Third Truth of Recovery, “Recovering Is Possible,” Levine invites addicts to take refuge in “the potential of your own recovery/ awakening (buddha), [the] four truths (dharma), and the group of people you will surely meet and connect with as you begin to create and attend Refuge Recovery meetings (sangha).” The Fourth Truth, “The Path to Recovery,” brings the eightfold path into play, and the Buddha’s teachings on wisdom, ethics, and concentration become the vehicle for building a sober life. Levine tweaks the traditional factors slightly, placing more emphasis on community and service to others: classic ways to break an addict’s self-obsession.
Much of the material in Refuge Recovery, particularly the meditations, will be familiar to Levine’s followers, many of whom identify with his countercultural take on Buddhism. Here, however, he doesn’t lean as heavily on promoting the Buddha as a rebel, or beat the drum, as he did in Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Revolutionaries, for “a radical and subversive personal rebellion against the causes of suffering and confusion.” For recovering addicts, abstaining from their substance or compulsive behavior of choice is a radical change in itself—and personal rebellion enough.
Though there’s little in Refuge Recovery that a Twelve-Stepper might object to, one or two of the practices run counter to accepted AA wisdom. For example, the First Truth action step is to complete a personal inventory, a searching look at the misery and damage of addiction. The Second Truth calls for another inventory, this one examining the ways craving, pursuing pleasure, and avoiding pain have fed the addiction. Together, these exercises require answering 60 or so multipart questions—in writing. Detoxing can be a hair-raising process, however, and the average newly sober addict isn’t up to heavy thinking. There’s a reason AA places the personal inventory in the fourth step of recovery, rather than the first, and the inventory of harm done to others in the eighth. These emotional bloodlettings invariably dredge up the feelings that drove the addict to drink or drug in the first place. Having sober experience before meeting the demons helps prevent a relapse.
But discomfort is the point, perhaps. Refuge Recovery is clearly a program for leaning into pain, not away from it. Exercises like the inventory help an addict learn to face life’s inevitable challenges without retreating into the addiction. Still, it seems overly optimistic to expect a newbie to respond cogently and fully to an essay question like “Suffering is lying to hide your addiction. When did you start lying about your addiction? Was it blatant? Did you minimize your addiction or omit any details? Who have you lied to? And what is the extent of your dishonesty?” Even upbeat ruminations—“What would your life look like if you were free from the suffering that addiction has caused?"—can put undue pressure on someone still in the aftershocks of active addiction. Granted, Levine sends recovering addicts to the cushion from the start. Meditation is the foundation of Refuge Recovery, and there are 17 Buddhist practices in the book, keyed to different phases of recovery. Several of the community members whose stories appear in the book had an active meditation practice before they sobered up. Levine doesn’t tell us if that made self-examination less traumatic in the beginning.
Group support—sangha—is the classic container for successful recovery. Refuge Recovery is meant to be practiced in a group, and the appendix contains detailed instructions on leading a meeting. “For this program to be successful, we will need people to start meetings, to create new communities,” Levine says.
Applying Buddhist teachings to recovery is a worthy approach, but the question remains: can this program work for someone recovering on their own? If addiction is your problem, and you yearn to stop suffering but there’s no Refuge Recovery meeting handy (or you’re not up to starting one), it can’t hurt to try it.
Or you could give Eight Step Recovery a go.
Joan Duncan Oliver is a Tricycle contributing editor and the editor of Commit to Sit, an anthology of Tricycle articles. Her most recent book is The Meaning of Nice.