Refuge Recovery Groups in the US Use Mindfulness and Meditation to Fight Addiction

By BD Dipananda
Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-09-08 |
Noah Levine, creator of Refuge Recovery. From wanderlust.comNoah Levine, creator of Refuge Recovery. From

While many people have expressed concerns about fighting addiction with medication and counseling, Noah Levine, “a tattooed, gold-toothed, punk-loving Buddhist from Santa Cruz” and counterculture Buddhist teacher, has introduced an alternative approach to combating addiction that draws on the Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation. His approach, called Refuge Recovery, is gaining ground in the United States (and in other countries), with centers across the nation, albeit in a strictly non-theistic form. (Valley News)

Refuge Recovery provides people with a path to recovery that is based on some of the core Buddhist teachings. The Four Tasks of Refuge Recovery, the main tools of the method, echo the Four Noble Truths: 1. Addiction creates suffering. 2. The cause of addiction is repetitive craving. 3. Recovery is possible. 4. The path to recovery is available.* Refuge Recovery, however, is strictly non-theistic; it is only based on Buddhist thought, but has no religious component, so even non-Buddhists can join the groups.

As Larry Lowndes, a Buddhist practitioner and assistant director of the Second Wind Foundation (SWF), explains, Refuge Recovery is just “another tool in your toolbox of recovery.” (Valley News)  Lowndes used mindfulness to recover from his alcohol and a drug addition, and when he learned of the program developed by Noah Levine he was quick to start a Refuge Recovery Group in Vermont to help others with addiction problems.

According to Lowndes, the program offers a positive alternative to traditional recovery programs, which although helpful, can cause social isolation. The most important lesson he learned on his own mindful route to recovery was that “mindfulness is not about controlling your thoughts. It’s about realizing ‘my thoughts don’t control me,’ and learning to sit with discomfort, rather than reacting to it.” (Valley News)

The group sessions Lowndes leads usually consist of a 20-minute mindfulness meditation session, followed by a reading from Levine’s book, Refuge Recovery, and a 20-mintute group discussion, during which the participants share their motivations and experiences.

“The very first time, I drank to get drunk,” said group participant Mike, a former nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and a recovering alcoholic who started drinking in 8th grade. “Not for the camaraderie of it, but for the effect it had on me.” And this became a daily habit: “Like an acute cellular need.” He has been sober now for 30 years, but mentions that learning meditation and mindfulness was a “game-changer. . . . The single biggest event in my recovery.” (Valley News)

Judi, an alcoholic for 45 of her 60 years of life is a new member of the group in Vermont. Last April, she gave up her drinking habit when a teacher from southern New Hampshire introduced her to mindfulness and meditation. Now, every morning she meditates for 15–20 minutes. “It helps. Sometimes I just wake up in a crap mood, and it’s only the thing that calms me down before all the commotion starts up in my head.” (Valley News)

“I think it’s great if the principles behind Buddhist meditation can help people overcome addiction.  It’s a secular application of Buddhist principles that really makes sense to me (i.e., coming to see that cravings are ephemeral and learning to experience their rise and fall in a detached manner, etc.)” commented Reiko Ohnuma, religious studies professor at Dartmouth College, adding that it is important to note that while the groups draws on Buddhist principles of mindfulness and meditation, the group is explicitly non-theistic and that meditation or mindfulness does not equal the Buddhist faith. 

* The Four Tasks of Refuge Recovery:

1. Addiction creates suffering. We come to understand, acknowledge, admit, and accept all of the ways that our addictions or addictive behaviors have caused suffering in our lives. Write an in-depth and detailed inventory of the suffering you have experienced in association with your addictions.

2. Addiction is not all your fault. We come to understand that all forms of addiction have their roots in the natural human tendency to crave for life to be more pleasurable and less painful than it actually is. The addict is not at fault for the root causes and conditions that lead to addiction, only for the habitual reactive patterns that perpetuate it. Investigate, analyze, and share the inventory with your mentor or teacher and come to understand the nature of your addiction/suffering.

3. Recovery is possible. Freedom from the suffering caused by addiction is attainable, If we are ready and willing to take responsibility for our actions and to follow the eight-fold path. Take refuge in the community, practice, and potential of your own recovery. Study and apply the principles of the eight-fold path and eventually you will come to a verified faith in the path of recovery/awakening through the actions you take on the path.

4. The Eight-Fold Path to recovery. This is an abstinence-based path and philosophy; we believe the recovery process begins when abstinence begins. The eight factors or folds of the path are to be developed, experienced, and penetrated. This is not a linear path, it does not have to be taken in order, rather all of the factors will need to be developed and applied simultaneously. This is a guide to having a life free from addiction—the eight-fold recovery will have to be maintained through out one's life.

See more

Meditation for Recovery: Program Adapts Buddhist Practice to Fight Addiction  (Valley News)
New Refuge Recovery Groups in Seattle Offer a Buddhist-based Solution to Addiction (Northwest Dharma Association)
Refuge Recovery Groups for people dealing with addictive behavior (Observer)
Second Wind Foundation  

Refuge Recovery

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