The Early History of Refuge Recovery

Joseph Rogers (L), Gary Sanders (R) 2017

Joseph Rogers (L), Gary Sanders (R) 2017

By Joseph Rogers, Director of Spiritual Care and Community at Refuge Recovery Centers

The beginnings of Refuge Recovery can be traced to the Buddhism & Recovery conference held in Los Angeles at the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society (ATS). It was here that Alan Marlatt, a researcher from the University of Washington, presented his findings on the impact of mindful meditation for clients in outpatient addiction treatment.  His pioneering study showed that while mindfulness meditation improved the chances of clients reaching the 90-day recovery mark, if these clients stopped meditating post-treatment, their recovery rates returned to baseline.  However, those clients who continued to meditate in supportive communities saw a continued higher rate of recovery post-treatment.

Alan believed that there needed to be a national network of meditation groups that supported the wave of clients who would soon be using mindfulness as an integral part of their recovery, something like a Buddhist-based 12-step program but with mindfulness meditation.

Atheist Buddhist

The conference ended in a “debate” between Kevin Griffin, author of One Breath at a Time, and Noah Levine, founder of ATS, on the necessity of having a higher power for the recovery process. In many ways this conversation confirmed what many of us who used meditation as the cornerstone of our recovery were thinking, “can we practice Buddhist meditation and stay a part of 12-step recovery?”  Shortly after the conference I remember Noah and I walking down Melrose toward the Against the Stream center when he asked me, “You don’t really believe in this whole God thing do you?” I admitted that I didn’t and that Buddhist meditation had helped me in many ways that AA hadn’t, especially since I had never had the privilege of going to rehab. The early Refuge Recovery culture was more atheist and certainly antithetical to the core orientation of 12-step: that addicts and alcoholics were powerless and needed to rely upon the Abrahamic God for our well-being.

Inviting Meditation Into the Eleventh Step

Soon after this brief conversation, Noah led a 5-week course at the Santa Monica Against the Stream center on what a Buddhist-based recovery program might look like.  We knew that certain things had worked for many of us in 12-step programs: inventory, service to others, and amends. And we saw those things reflected with greater clarity in Buddhism: investigation of suffering, Sangha, and the heart practices. We knew from experience that the 11th step AA practice (“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with a power greater than ourselves”) was heavy on the prayer but lacking on the meditation piece. So, we meditated together and discussed how practice had been a resource for our recovery.  Primarily we wrote about the inventory and within those 5 weeks we completed the 1st and 2nd Truth inventories as a group.  Inventory has always been front and center in the Refuge process.

Writing Inventories Based on Dukkha (Suffering)

These inventories, of which I wrote the original drafts, were based on the teachings of the Buddha from the Pali canon.

Here is what was printed on the first draft of the 1st truth inventory “Write an in-depth and detailed inventory of the suffering (dukkha) you have experienced in association with your addiction(s)” explaining the 1st noble truth of dukkha:

“The first noble truth states that we must understand dukkha. Dukkha is very often translated as suffering, which is the word we will use most commonly in our inventory process. But it is also often translated as stress, anxiety, anguish, dissatisfaction, misery, pain, and emotional hurt. In truth, there is no single English word that represents all of the nuances of meaning for dukkha.

Often the first truth is translated as “life is suffering.” Experience seems to indicate otherwise, which may be why Buddhism the religion is often viewed as a nihilistic philosophy. This view of the first truth also seems more dogmatic, an object of faith, rather than an idea to be investigated and understood. Dharma practice asks us not to believe in, but to understand the truth of our suffering. It is through the process of understanding, acknowledging, and admitting suffering that we can begin to transform our relationship with dukkha, and begin to find liberation from it.

On the path of recovery, we must understand that addiction is suffering, and accept all the ways that it has caused suffering in our lives. Only then can we begin to find freedom from addiction.
 This is what the historical Buddha said about suffering, “Now what, friends, is the noble truth of dukkha? Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha.” So this gives us a good reference point to begin looking at the truth of the suffering that addiction has brought to our lives.”

The Second Truth Inventory

And this is the text from the 2nd truth inventory, “Investigate, analyze and share the inventory with your mentor or teacher and come to understand the cause of your addiction(s)/suffering” as it appeared in that original group The Four Truths of

Recovery Investigation:

Action- Investigate, analyze and share the inventory with your mentor or teacher and come to understand the cause of your addiction(s)/suffering.

Once we have come to understand the truth of suffering, the second noble truth asks us to understand its source so that we may let it go.  It seems evident, if we are to let go, that we must understand what we are letting go of.  Clearly, we have seen that our addiction is suffering, and that substances must be renounced if we wish to cease suffering, but what is the root of our addiction?  The second noble truth says that the cause of our suffering, our addiction, is selfish craving for life to be more pleasant and less difficult than it is.  What we must let go of is this expectation that life is going to be different than it is right now.  That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t seek to change our circumstances for our safety, or seek to better ourselves.  However, we need to understand that our craving for and attachment to unending satisfaction is fruitless; in our search for constant pleasure, we create more pain, more difficulties, more stress, and more suffering for ourselves.

There is another option: letting go, letting be, putting down our craving, all with mindfulness and compassion. This is the way to freedom and the path of wisdom.

We must look at our craving to understand what we think is going to make us happy, and learn to recognize this craving when it arises so that we may learn to mindfully relate to it.  We must look at our part in the birth of our suffering.

Dharma practice identifies three types of craving: sensual craving, craving for existence, and craving for self-annihilation.  Where applicable, examine how these types of craving arise in your life, particularly considering the suffering you described in your inventory and how these cravings are at their root.

The First Refuge Recovery Groups

Soon after this class series Enrique Collazo, Gary Sanders, and I started groups number 1 & 2 of Refuge Recovery – the Thursday night meeting at ATS Santa Monica and the Tuesday night meeting at the Melrose ATS center.  It was clear to us that if we were going to deepen and broaden what we had started that groups were essential.  “Sangha is the whole of the practice,” after all.  As no one knew what Refuge Recovery was and often lacked understanding of basic principles, the facilitators would give a short dharma (teachings) talk each week before we would open up the group to sharing.  This was our model for the first few years before the book Refuge Recovery came out.

An Extended Eleventh Step?

New members would often want to complain about their experience in 12-step, which we discouraged, and there was often debate after the meetings about the whole God thing.  I remember feeling at that time that we should take a strong atheist stand, but Enrique wisely reminded me that the Buddha himself avoided that debate as it leads to a “thicket of views” rather than the ending of suffering.  We came to understand that Refuge Recovery was a place for some people to practice an extended 11th step and for others it was their complete recovery program.  Our goal has always been to spread the practice of meditation to as many addicts as possible, to end the suffering of addiction, not to divide or create conflict.

Three Years and Growing

Whenever I have the chance to speak with someone who has attended a Refuge Recovery meeting in another city (that, like, isn’t LA), I feel a bit like Edward Norton running into Meatloaf in Fight Club, when he realizes that this thing he started has gone beyond being just his thing.

“Wait, you’re in Refuge Recovery, too?”

Mostly I feel this way because I sat for so long in empty rooms at 5 minutes to 6pm on a Saturday night wondering if anyone was gonna show up for this whole ‘Buddhism & Recovery’ thing that a couple of dharma punx started under the grandiose notion that we could somehow start a group that would be the community embodiment of the mindful recovery movement.  And now, with over 250 groups worldwide (and growing), I often think, “well how about that.”

Contact Us

Refuge Recovery Centers is a mindfulness-based addiction treatment program that utilizes Buddhist philosophy as the cornerstone of our curriculum. Located in East Hollywood, California we provide detoxification, residential, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient levels of care as well as sober living. Our entire course of treatment has been designed to help engage the addicted person on multiple psychodynamic levels. For more information on our programs, call 323-207-0276.

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