I’m only a third of the way through reading Noah Levine’s Refuge Recovery (2014 Harper Collins) but I’m already deeply impressed with his take on how to apply Buddhist principles and practices to recover from addiction. I have read nearly every book that’s been published on the subject of combining Buddhism and the 12 Steps or recovery from addiction. Most of them are commentaries on the 12 Steps from a Buddhist perspective. Often they include stories of the recovered addict’s journey from addiction through enlightenment. Some focus on bouts of relapse in 12 Step recovery and a subsequently deepened recovery through Buddhist practice. Some are focused on applying Buddhist principles and practices to daily maintenance of abstinence from addictive behaviour. Many of the authors propose ways that their books can be used in Buddhist recovery meetings and suggest formats for weekly meetings. I have participated in many of these meetings myself and have personally experienced the benefit of the method.
Eight Step Recovery by Valerie Mason John was the first, published just months before Refuge Recovery, to propose a program of recovery using Buddhist principles. Mason John’s book uses the Four Noble Truths and four additional steps to help people through the process from taking the last drink or drug through to a practice of daily recovery from addictive behaviour. Eight Step Recovery and Refuge Recovery use many of the same principles and practices but each book has a particular gift. Eight Step Recovery has an emotional tone and style of writing that is very touching and intuitive. We have often used passages from Mason John’s book in our weekly recovery group. People often say they “identify” with passages from her book; it has been very effective at provoking discussion.
But Refuge Recovery is even more completely thought out as a Buddhist “step book” and program of recovery. It has twelve “steps” or elements, which include the first Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhist recovery. There is no attempt to mimic the 12 Steps in terms of the description and order of actions one must take to recover. It is not a Buddhist interpretation of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather it proposes the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path as a complete path of recovery in its own right. The person desiring recovery begins by taking refuge in his own capacity for recovery (the Buddha), the program of recovery (the Dharma) and the group of recovering addicts (the Sangha). The first four chapters focus on the truth of suffering and the path to recovery. Each of the first four chapters requires the participant to write an inventory of the suffering caused to self and others by their addiction, resistance to impermanence, and attempts to control pleasure and pain. Chapters 5 through 14 cover the Eight-Fold Path and practices for meditation and contemplation. There is a huge emphasis on mediation, forgiveness and compassion practice, as one might expect.
The writing style of the book is very straightforward and concise. Chapters are mercifully short, a wise choice knowing the fragile attention span of most addicts early in recovery. The writing is forceful and convincing, but not as emotionally sympathetic as Mason John’s book or earlier books. Levine’s Refuge Recovery is written with a sense of serious urgency. It has a kind of toughness that could break through the thick crust of denial that shields the addict from the honest truth and possible recovery. His intent is to get befuddled addicts to see that they are causing their own intense suffering and that there is a way to end this suffering, so get with the program, dude. And the program that follows is extremely well-thought out, combining both reflection and practices that support recovery. It shows the wealth of knowledge that Levine has about recovery from addiction and how versed he is in foundational, Theravadan (sic: ‘hinayana’) Buddhism. Levine is also remarkably skilled in putting these two paths together. This is a program that you can follow from Page One, on Day One of your last drink or drug, right through to a stable daily practice of long-term recovery.
Refuge Recovery is the book and the program around which I would choose to structure a weekly Buddhist recovery group for addicts. But I would also include reading passages from Eight Step Recovery, and other Buddhist recovery books, to provide the emotional tone and identification that addicts need to connect with on an emotional level. I would also include reading passages from the traditional 12 Steps and Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, as there is tremendous wisdom in those books that was culled from decades of experience with recovering addicts.
I will update this review as I continue to read through Refuge Recovery, but I am already very excited about the prospect of using this book as a program for recovery for addicts who seek a Buddhist or non-theistic approach to recovery. I am ready to set up a Refuge Recovery group in my home town.