Shambhala Sun | September 2014
A Refuge from Addiction
Taking refuge in the Buddha means taking
refuge from our suffering. NOAH LEVINE uses Buddhist principles and
meditation practices to help people take refuge from the terrible
suffering of substance abuse.
To End the Suffering: The Eightfold Path of Recovery
Active addiction is a kind of hell. It is like being a
hungry ghost, wandering through life in constant craving and suffering. Refuge
Recovery, a Buddhist-inspired approach to treating addiction, offers a plan to
end the suffering of addiction.
Refuge Recovery follows the traditional Buddhist system of
the four noble truths, which begin with four actions:
1. We take stock of all the suffering we have experienced
and caused as addicts.
2. We investigate the causes and conditions that lead to
addiction and begin the process of letting go.
3. We come to understand that recovery is possible and take
refuge in the path that leads to the end of addiction.
4. We engage in the process of the eightfold path that leads
The core philosophy of Refuge Recovery is based on
renunciation and abstinence. We believe that the recovery process truly begins
when renunciation is established and maintained.
We also understand that imperfection and humility are part of the process. Even
when we refrain from the primary drug or behavior, addiction at times manifests
in other behaviors. We are not holding perfection as the standard, but as the
goal. We believe in the human ability and potential for complete renunciation
of behaviors that cause harm. We understand that for many this is an ongoing
process of establishing and/or reestablishing renunciation.
Renunciation alone is not recovery, however. It is only the
beginning. Those who maintain abstinence but fail to examine the underlying
causes and conditions are not on the path to recovery. They are simply stopping
the surface manifestations of addiction, which will inevitably resurface in
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. In fact, all the factors need to be developed and
applied simultaneously. And to truly break free from addiction, the eight folds
of recovery must be constantly maintained.
This eightfold path leads to safety, to a refuge from
1. Understanding. We come to know that everything is
ruled by cause and effect. The four truths are an ongoing practice. In this
step, we gain insight into the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal
nature of life. Forgiveness is possible and necessary.
2. Intention. We renounce greed, hatred, and
delusion. We train our minds to meet all pain with compassion and all pleasure
with nonattached appreciation. We cultivate generous, kind, and compassionate
wishes for all living beings. We practice honesty and humility and live with
3. Communication/Community. We take refuge in the
community as a place to practice wise communication and to support others on
their paths. We practice being honest, wise, and careful with our
communications, asking for help from the community and allowing others to guide
us through the process. We practice openness, honesty, and humility about the
difficulties and successes we experience.
4. Action/Engagement. We purify our actions, letting
go of the behaviors that cause harm. The minimum commitment necessary for the
path toward recovery and freedom is renunciation of violence, of dishonesty, of
sexual misconduct, and of intoxication. Compassion, nonattached appreciation,
generosity, kindness, honesty, integrity, and service become our guiding
5. Livelihood/Service. We try to be of service to
others whenever possible, using our time, energy, and resources to help create
positive change. We work toward securing a source of income/livelihood that
causes no harm.
6. Effort/Energy. We commit to the daily disciplined
practices of meditation, yoga, exercise, wise actions, kindness, forgiveness,
generosity, compassion, appreciation, and the moment-to-moment mindfulness of
feelings, emotions, thoughts, and sensations. Through effort and energy we
develop the skillful means of knowing how to apply the appropriate meditation
or action to the given circumstance.
7. Mindfulness Meditations. We develop wisdom through
practicing formal mindfulness meditation. This leads to seeing clearly and
healing the root causes and conditions that lead to the suffering of addiction.
We practice present-time awareness in all aspects of our life. We take refuge
in the present.
8. Concentration Meditations. We develop the capacity
to focus the mind on a single object, such as the breath or a phrase, training
the mind through the practices of loving-kindness, compassion, and forgiveness
to focus on the positive qualities we seek to uncover. We utilize concentration
at times of temptation or craving in order to abstain from acting unwisely.
Addiction is the repetitive process of habitually
satisfying cravings to avoid, change, or control the seemingly unbearable
conditions of the present moment. This process of craving and indulgence
provides short-term relief but causes long-term harm. It is almost always a
source of suffering for both the addict and those who care about the addict.
Recovery is a process of healing the underlying
conditions that lead to addiction. It is establishing and maintaining the
practice of abstaining from satisfying the cravings for the substances and
behaviors that we have become addicted to. Recovery is also the ability to
inhabit the conditions of the present reality, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
Renunciation is the practice of abstaining from
A refuge is a safe place, a place of protection—a
place that we go to in times of need, a shelter. We are always taking refuge in
something. Drugs, alcohol, food, sex, money, or relationships with people have
been a refuge for many of us. Before addiction, such refuges provide temporary
feelings of comfort and safety. But at some point we crossed the line into
addiction. And the substances or behaviors that were once a refuge inevitably
became a dark and lonely repetitive cycle of searching for comfort as we
wandered through an empty life.
Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose: Recovery Practice
Recovery is an act of intentional redirection of our life’s
energy. This is where the intentional application of energy comes into play.
Everything we are talking about takes effort. None of these practices or
principles are easy to develop. We all have the energy necessary for this, but
only with wise and intentional use of that energy—that is, with effort—can we
master these liberating practices and avoid the habitual reactive tendencies
that create more addiction and suffering in our lives.
When it comes to training our minds and hearts in the path
of recovery, each of us must find the balance of applying the right amount of
effort: not so much that we get strained, not so little that we get spaced out.
Developing a balanced effort and energy in our spiritual life is key to our
The Buddha likened spiritual effort to the tuning of a
stringed instrument. If the strings are too tight, it doesn’t play correctly.
If the strings are too loose, it doesn’t sound right either. The path to
recovery and freedom takes great effort and fine-tuning.
Here are some suggested guidelines for developing a recovery
From the beginning: Start with the practice of
meditation right away. Meditation is the most important tool in supporting your
renunciation and beginning your recovery. Begin with simple breath awareness
concentration practice. After a week or so of renunciation/abstinence, begin to
alternate forgiveness meditation with breath practice every other day.
2 to 6 months: Meditate for twenty minutes daily. Go
to as many meetings and meditation groups as you can. Ask someone from the
recovery community to mentor you and call him or her regularly to check in
about your practice of the four truths. Complete your first truth and second
truth inventories. Perform weekly physical practices like yoga, dance, or other
exercises with mindfulness.
6 to 12 months: Increase your meditation
practice to thirty minutes a day, and begin expanding the mindfulness practice
to include forgiveness practice in your meditation for at least fifteen minutes
every other day until you have no more resentments. Attend a weekend retreat.
Begin making amends as part of the forgiveness process.
1 to 5 years: Begin daily meditation of
forty-five minutes in one sitting or split into one thirty-minute and one
fifteen-minute session. After the first year of renunciation/sobriety/abstinence,
begin practicing the four foundations of mindfulness and the heart practices of
loving-kindness, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity. Incorporate more and
more mindfulness and heart practice in daily life. Complete the amends process.
Attend a seven- to ten-day silent meditation retreat yearly. After completing a
retreat and finishing your amends, begin mentoring others. Do an annual
inventory on your recovery, looking at how you are currently engaging with the
four truths and the eightfold path. Where are the weak links? What needs more
attention and effort?
5 years to life: Stay involved, continue to practice,
and share your experience, time, and energy with the newer people. Include the
forgiveness practice in your meditation for at least fifteen minutes every
other day until you have no more resentments. Try to attend a longer retreat
that is one to three months in length. Continue to do an annual inventory on
your recovery, looking at how you are currently engaging with the four truths
and the eightfold path. Where are the weak links? What needs more attention and
Opening the Meeting: The Refuge Recovery Preamble
“Refuge Recovery is a community of people who are using the
practices of mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness, and generosity to heal the
pain and suffering that addiction has caused in our lives and the lives of our
loved ones. The path of practice that we follow is called the Four Truths of
“The Four Truths of Refuge Recovery is a Buddhist-oriented
path to recovery from addictions. It has proven successful with addicts and
alcoholics who have committed to the Buddhist path of meditation, generosity,
kindness, and renunciation.
“This is an approach to recovery that understands that ‘All
beings have the power and potential to free themselves from suffering.’
“We feel confident in the power of the Buddha’s teachings,
if applied, to relieve suffering of all kinds, including the suffering of
Diagnosed with the Human Condition: Mary’s Story
Formal Buddhist practice took the recovery program I had
developed through the 12 steps and my own experience and sharpened it to a
precision edge. Ideas that were partially formed before, such as staying in the
now and being with life as it unfolded, came into focus and were outlined and
delineated in such a way that I couldn’t imagine this practice not being a part
of recovery or of my life. These practices became tools to use to continue the
journey. I had been floundering for a few years, and now, finally, the path had
been opened. And the work was just beginning.
I have hit wall after wall in practice. Daily meditation and
extended periods on retreat have helped melt the barriers that
self-preservation built. For the first time, I started to look at the impact my
early years had on me, and, through meditation, I was able to sit and begin to
see how those experiences conditioned me in a way that I could not have seen
otherwise. I had spent my whole life in my head. I kept turning to food or
drugs or alcohol to keep the pain away. With meditation I allowed the feelings
to arise and learned to be quiet with them. For so many years I had listened to
the stories in my head, and although I knew they were false and I tried to
power my way through them, I couldn’t.
Occasionally I had breakthroughs where the experience moved
from the mind to the heart, but here were tools I could use specifically to address
my recovery. Not just recovery from my physical addictions, but tools to enable
me to heal at a deeper level. The walls I put in place began to dissolve with
the patient application of mindfulness. The willingness to look at what arose
inside, whether it matched the story in my head or not, was the effort the
Buddha talked about that was necessary for liberation.
The Buddha taught that we don’t get out of this life without
pain, but I had spent my whole life avoiding it. I was diagnosed with the human
condition and finally was able to turn and face the pain. The grasping for
something out there to fix me was never going to work. Turning inside to heal
is where the practice occurs. The first healing was internal. I learned it was
not self-indulgent to bring compassion to your own experience. In fact, it was
the answer. Not lame, but strong. Oh, who knew? Grief, anger, and shame saw the
light of day for the first time, and I welcomed them.
But this is not a practice that promises instant
gratification or permanent bliss. As I continue to live and breathe and stay
willing, mindfulness and effort allow more insights. I hit another wall a few
years later and found that the old ideas of self were still strong. They still
kept me from connecting with others. I went into therapy to help me clearly see
what was keeping me from other people. Another wall came down.
Nothing in my past has changed. Nothing about my story has
changed. What has changed is my ability to see the habitual patterns of
thinking that kept me suffering, dissatisfied or stressed, or off-kilter—or
however you want to translate dukkha. My perception of the facts is
ever-shifting. My ideas are dissolving. The practice requires a continual
effort to feel whatever arises in each moment. Continued focus on each moment
requires more and more subtlety and feeling of each moment. “What is this?”
becomes the question of the moment, every moment. And the new response is
kindness rather than a search for a way out of the present, however justified
it may seem at the moment. It’s okay to receive a diagnosis that reads, “Human
condition.” In fact, it’s the only response that allows the connection with
others I didn’t even know I was missing.
Today, I continue the work on the path and I continue to
uncover my heart’s true nature as I cultivate a mind-body connection that
responds to life with love and compassion. The judgmental and belittling voices
still show up, but I say hello and let them continue on their way. I now feel
ease and comfort while experiencing life as it unfolds, along with a deep
knowing that drinking or drugging or eating or anything will not fix what’s not
Adapted from Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to
Recovering from Addiction, by Noah Levine. © 2014 by Noah Levine. With permission
of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.