Buddhist groups offer another path to sobriety

John Keilman
Chicago Tribune

Chicago –

At first glance, the basement gathering in downtown west suburban Woodstock seemed just like one of the 12-step meetings that take place thousands of times a day across America. Ten people dealing with alcoholism, drug addiction and other issues sat on stackable chairs and talked about how they were trying to keep their lives together.

But when the participants closed their eyes to meditate, it was clear that this was something different.

“Imagine covering the world with ... positive thoughts,” said Bhikkhuni Vimala, a Buddhist nun wrapped in the maroon robe of Woodstock’s Blue Lotus Temple. “Send compassion to north and south, east and west.”

Such astral contemplations are the hallmark of Refuge Recovery, a self-help program that uses Buddhist teachings to guide adherents toward sobriety. It’s one of several recovery movements undergirded by the philosophy, and some who have tried it say it has helped in ways traditional programs have not.

“For me, meditation and being able to learn about other religions has brought me to a greater understanding of spirituality and made me a better person,” said a 31-year-old attendee named Matt, who has struggled with heroin and other addictions.

The classic 12-step model of sobriety, in which addiction is banished by a spiritual awakening, was introduced in the 1930s, but in recent years it has been subjected to steady criticism. A psychiatrist concluded that no more than 8 percent of people who try the program maintain their sobriety for longer than one year, while a comparative analysis of treatment programs found that Alcoholics Anonymous was only the 38th most effective method for people with drinking problems.

A hunger for alternatives has led to new approaches such as SMART Recovery, which aims to use rational thinking instead of a higher power to conquer substance abuse. Buddhist philosophy keeps the spirituality, but takes it in a different direction.

“Feeding an addiction is like scratching an itch,” said Peter McLaughlin, who for several years has led a group called Heart of Recovery at Chicago’s Shambhala Meditation Center. “The practice of meditation might slow us down enough that we actually don’t need to do that. We see it, we experience it, we feel the pain of the wound, but we don’t immediately start scratching away at it.”

Meditation techniques separated from the context of Buddhism are catching on, too. Researchers have looked at a practice called “mindfulness meditation” — in which people focus without judgment on their thoughts and emotions — and concluded that it can be an effective way to prevent relapse.

Refuge Recovery is a relatively new program, created seven years ago by Noah Levine, a Buddhist teacher and author from California who was unfulfilled by what he regarded as the 12 steps’ Judeo-Christian slant. Levine said he does not see Refuge Recovery as a challenger to 12-step meetings — many participate in both programs — but rather an approach for people looking for another path.

His program aims to cultivate that attitude through meditation, which takes up a portion of each Refuge Recovery meeting.

Some say the techniques are starting to bleed over into more traditional programs.

“I’m very active in the 12-step world, and I hear very regularly about meditation,” said participant Tyler Lewke “I did not hear that 10 years ago.”