Filed in Books & Media

Dharma Drunks

Two new Buddhist takes on how to stay sober


  Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction
Noah Levine
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.

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hthlll's picture

There is no single approach to addiction/recovery that works for for every one. These two books on recovery/addiction are greatly needed. The more "fingers pointing at" recovery is a benefit for us all.

seannyob's picture

The Buddha's mandate of free inquiry is clear: AA's is dubious at best, and its groups, however chaotic and disorganized, are nothing but a popular New Religious Movement for the radical right which advocate a particular brand of protestant Christianity under the auspices of the cure for a particular brand of suffering.

There are two immediate problems.

The first, of course, is that any discussion of AA's version of "recovery" should come with a necessary caveat: it is impossible to argue with near complete failure.

The utter ineffectiveness of 12 step programs alone should be a more than adequate argument for Buddhist thinkers, assuming they are inclined to be the sort of people who regularly question the premises of the thought systems which they encounter (I have met many Buddhists, but next to none who are not philosophers). The recidivism rate of addicts both within and without are famously the same, and linger about 95%. Once this realization is accepted, as it must be for people who are concerned with scientific progress, then the required groupthink, the inability to leave without harassment, the insistence on a particular type of religiosity all come disturbingly into focus. AA won't help you get sober, but it sure will help you find a particular kind of Jesus.

The second problem is that when we take refuge we concede that all suffering is, at its root, the same. All suffering is caused by desire, not drink; for me, and those like me, we call ourselves Buddhists, there is no caveat to the First Truth.

Buddha's path, then, the Eightfold Path, is the one that leads to true liberation from suffering. It matters not if that suffering is existential or if it is physical. No mediocre writer from 1940s America, however much success he had in stopping drinking, should be compared even momentarily to the Buddha, the very notion of the idea is utter nonsense.

The only step process you need is contained in the sutras.

Anyone who tells you different has an agenda. Anyone who has spent any time at all in or around 12 step programs will gladly concede that those people have massive agendas, which are often to get people into the "rooms" (pews) and to get them thinking like they're supposed to be thinking, which is almost entirely like a badly educated Southern Baptist charlatan. Keep in mind they're selling snake oil: the "only way" to get "sober" is to "work the steps." Never mind that people who do "work the steps" rarely get sober, and if they do happen to get sober, they actually only do so at the same rates as they do outside the program on their own.

And certainly never mind that, according to the thought system of AA, the addict is actually to blame for their disease. Shall my parents apologize to me for the inconvenience of their old age, or their cancer? My wife for her lupus? If alcoholism is truly a disease, then why would the afflicted need to apologize? Disease afflicts all people, I fail to see why it requires apology. Do other mental disorders, which have aberrant behavior as their symptoms, require apology? PTSD? Depression? Of course they do not.

The truth about how and why human beings consume intoxicants is far more nuanced and far more complicated than anything that AA has on offer, and was, it seems to me, of little interest to the Buddha. I think that this is likely because alcoholism is nothing but an aspect of omnipresent suffering. Cease, and take the middle path. If you do not, then perhaps that is your karma, but cessation and the middle way are not roads that ever close. No further wisdom is needed. No additional four steps. The logic yet holds. The wheel of law turns for all people, all the same.

Brenjer's picture

You don't know what you're talking about concerning AA. You're only expressing your opinion about something you obviously have no real experience with. And it's terrible the harm your words have, could, & will do to vulnerable minds looking for answers. You may have been "around" AA, but again, it's obvious that you've not ever been "in" it; there's a world of difference. Check yourself.

seannyob's picture

Based upon what, your personal experience?
Wouldn't that be...your opinion?

zenqi's picture

Having attended a thousand 12-step meetings to help me overcome addictions, I have other thoughts about the classic 12 step approach. There are aspects of the AA model and standard practice that bothered me years before I began practicing the teachings of the Buddha.

One of the most common is the constant affirmation that one is an addict. ("Hi, my name is __________ and I am an alcoholic/addict/codependent/etc.") At first, this was crucial for me to extinguish denial and admit that I had a problem, reminding me that I could slip at any moment. But eventually, there came a time where all of the very hard work and progress that I made in my recovery had changed the causes and conditions of my intentions, actions and dispositions. The blind motivations for addictive behavior had been exposed and would never be able to function the same.

The Buddha's entire path is one which focuses on the three characteristics of all experience: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self. Eventually, he leads us to an experiential knowing of the conditioned arising of everything. He was absolutely crystal clear in the folly of a fixed self. If I cling to a definition of self, I limit possibility. If I cling to and constantly reinforce that I am an addict and powerless, I have severely narrowed my field of vision and cannot see out of the box I have made. Add into that my alleged powerlessness and my dependence on a power outside of my self and I have created beliefs which will be insurmountable hindrances to the cessation of dukkha.

The Buddha was completely thorough in laying out the path to recovery from the very sources of addiction. The classic 12-step model has helped millions from the behaviors of addictions but have not solved the problem that drives suffering.

Hooray to a new generation of help for mankind and beyond.

Kesho's picture

Having not read any of Levine's books and having read AA's Big Book I am impressed with the author's summary of Levine's application and adaption of Buddhist principles such as NO GOD Head to the potential for recovery for addicts and alcoholics. This is truly helpful for those in AA who have had a hard time getting "the God thing" and want some action to take, Buddhist Awakening" that grounds them quickly as they JUST SIT. No apology is needed when one can't get the God thing...when Buddhist principles work.

paul6316's picture

Thank you for the hilariously insensitive and inappropriate title for this review. It's the first time I've ever laughed out loud at anything in Tricycle.

EE-waterfall's picture

It's actually not surprising that Buddhism is finally being surfaced as a possible psychological subtext of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although it is not well-publicized outside of AA (and not really even within), Bill Wilson and the 12-step program was part the 20th-century (alternative) psychological lineage of William James, Carl Jung, and Aldous Huxley -- one centered on a personal spiritual/mystical experience as the gateway to understanding the self.

As Mark Epstein points out in his classic, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from A Buddhist Perspective, "[William] James was impressed with the psychological sophistication of Buddhism and predicted that it would be a major influence on Western psychology...James understood something that subsequent generations of more psychoanalytical influenced commenters did not: the essential *psychological* dimension of the Buddhist spiritual experience. Far from being a mystical retreat from the complexities of mental and emotional experience the Buddhist approach requires that *all* of the psyche be subject to meditative awareness."

Bill Wilson certainly understood this as well. John McPeake writes, "What often surprises otherwise knowledgeable individuals, however, is Bill Wilson’s claim that he regarded William James as a “founder” of A.A. (1957) and that the [Varieties of Religious Experience] was one of a small number of books consulted early and often by the people who founded A.A. William James is cited in the text of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of only two outside sources cited, Carl Jung is the other...Bill was aware that another Oxford Group friend of Ebby’s, also an alcoholic, had been told by no lesser an expert than C.J. Jung that he was a hopeless alcoholic and only a vital spiritual experience would alleviate his disorder. "
http://www.dubgrp.com/content/william-james-bill-wilson-and-development-...

The development of the 12-steps should certainly be viewed as a close historical adjunct to the entry of Buddhism into 20th century Western thought and it's wonderful to see the parallels of addiction recovery and Buddhism being more fully explored in the 21st century.

Christie Bates's picture

The idea this review puts forward, that having people examine the effects of addiction at the beginning of their recovery process is somehow counter to 12-step practice, is mistaken from a couple of angles. To begin with the statement itself, it's actually not uncommon to have people do written First Steps to gain clarity re powerlessness and unmanageability. That's common in 12-step communities and in treatment centers based on the 12 Steps. Maybe more important to question, though, is this idea that "thinking hard" is a goal and that beginners in recovery are not capable of it. Newcomers caught up in addiction do little else but think, which is a sustaining condition of this nightmare: What they don't do is see. Whether the initial inventory of effects is undertaken written or orally, in the name of a First Step or the First Noble Truth, the point is to see what is happening, to come out of the delusion that addiction is working, desirable, or pleasurable. "To see clearly is to let go."