Finding Refuge

Being a natural born shit disturber I’m attracted to a bit of controversy and then I like to see if I can depower opposition by adding a potentially neutral element or perhaps a point of view yet unseen by oppositions too focused on their point to pull into a wide-angle.


I find it interesting that anyone could find Buddhism or Buddhist perspectives as threatening but the birth of Refuge Recovery has brought to light some feelings of either rebellion or protection of our current standard for group recovery –that is of course AA. In either room there seems to be a great deal of caution around speaking openly about feelings of the ‘other’ group. My feelings are such that wherever you are in seeking guidance in this mad journey and it’s working for you, then that’s the place to be. I have a difficult time with folks who want to bash AA because they feel God is being shoved down their necks. Maybe with valid reasons to hold resentment against theistic motives however, if approached with a good attitude, you’ll see that Bill W. did all he could with what he had, in the era he had it to open the doors to all who were willing to try anything above what they had failed at to get this thing called a higher power. So we see people come in to Refuge saying things like “Thank God (no pun intended) there’s an alternative to AA” while the die-hard old timers boast that there’s only one way and anything else is a distraction from a proven program and a slippery slope to destruction. I love the Refuge program but I must first credit the 12 steps and AA for  saving my life. Our founder and author of the Refuge Recovery program, Noah Levine, would have to (and does) agree as well.

The only requirement for AA membership is the desire to stop drinking is a solid founding principal but the underlying directive in most, if not all suggestions of a successful program is developing a willingness to recognize something other, something more powerful, bigger, smarter than YOU to accomplish the ultimate task of surviving addiction. This I think is pretty solid. One of the greatest psychologists of our era C.G Jung wrote “I have treated many hundreds of patients – many of those in their second half of life, that is to say over 35, there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.” What he’s saying to me here is that the phenomenon of this internal, psychological shift is pinnacle to the potential of success in recovery from addiction and restoration of sanity.

The word religion here is troubling to us, I believe mainly because of current language and culture. That and the countless examples of unspeakable controversy and hypocrisy run ramped in the religious sect in recent years. We have become accustom to saying or hearing “Spiritual not Religious”. Semantics maybe, but plenty of studies have shown a heavy majority of addicts have low levels of spiritual (or religious) connection and often lack purpose or meaning in life. The ancient expression Spititus contra spiritum is quoted in Jung’s letter to Bill W., where he points out that the word in Latin is used to describe “both the highest religious experience and the most depraving poison.”

Again, my intention here is to depower these terms and the labels hanging from them, however deep rooted, and allow the big picture to reveal itself. That this shift out of our mind’s untrained focus allows for limitless expansion of our views to discover the resources available. Be it outward faith that a great, universal entity has the answers outlined beyond our vision or control (Faith in God). Or, that of deeper inward focus on natural law, karma and observance of our reaction and attitude toward our surroundings, misguided instinctual behavior and recognition of the effects memory and anticipation have on our ability to embrace the present’s perfection. (Buddhism)

Prayer for example, is a tremendous asset in building positive affirmation, attitude and hope in general. But the word prayer guides many of us to the child who was told to get on their knees to beg for their soul to be taken by God in the event they die in their sleep. Holy shit! prayorelseCan we just know that cause and effect of positive concentration is overall valuable? That Vipassana meditation doesn’t require a shaved head and orange robes? We’re simply looking within instead of asking Google what our minds are doing. This is where I have, and have suggested to others re-writing a suggested prayer, provided the intention is pure. This isn’t my idea; Buddha drove home the importance of direct experience, go see for yourself, “seek no external refuge” and Bill W. writes “Logic is great stuff. We liked it. We still like it. It is not by chance we were given the power to reason, to examine the evidence of our senses and to draw conclusions. That is one of man’s magnificent attributes. We agnostically inclined would not feel satisfied with a proposal which does not lend itself to interpretation.”

This shift is attainable; I believe for everyone if willing and open to individual interpretation. Here’s a great real-world story of a German student who was completely out of hope and contemplating suicide; the psychiatrist he was working with was out of ideas and finally pleaded with him to see a Yogi whom the doctor had studied under before the student went ahead and made the ultimate sacrifice. The student agreed and was encouraged to do whatever the Yogi suggested. When he reached the Yogi, he explained his situation and asked to be taught the Yogic practices. “Will we begin with some deep breathing?” “No.” “Then I will learn contemplative meditation and chanting Mantras?” “No, I won’t bother you with that.” “Alright then I’ll learn yogic positions…” “Not a chance.’ “Well if you’re not going to teach me any of these things, what good are you?” Smiling, the Yogi said “I want you to go buy a high quality camera, and lots of film. Then spend the next six months photographing nature and developing the film. I’ll see you again in six months.” IMG_3133Reluctantly at first, he began to take pictures of things he found interesting in nature and developing the film. In this time he had found that beauty exists in life and that he was a part of it. Having found beauty, he no longer wanted to end his life. He took a proactive measure in discovering his capabilities to shift focus.


Why was taking pictures and not something like playing music or aerobic activity that saved this man?

Maybe because it was the act of noticing things that were already there but had stopped noticing them, then framing these things, working to develop the pictures and hold in his hand the contribution he’d made to his awareness, grasping beauty in commonplace and his attachment to it. In that, the beauty of natural things may fade but the memory, if collected properly has a distinct value that can be held on to and accessed readily. Music may have this potential but in that expression we create and give away immediately, expecting external response for gratification or validation of its beauty and value whereas these photographs gave evidence of his own personal recognition of beauty.

What is it about this particular scenario that relates to the importance of someone new in recovery developing a spiritual connection?

It may not be all-encompassing, I’m using the assumption of an individual lacking in any religious or spiritual gravity, going along with Jung’s statement. This is not to say that a priest, rabbi or monk is immune to the grasp of alcoholism or any other destructive addiction. They may just require an alternative shift. This particular scenario may be helpful to learn if one can’t flee from feeling as though something magnanimous and invisible should be comprehended in order to change their view.

What does an addict have to offer another addict that couldn’t be administered by a scholar in the field of psychology specializing in controlled substance abuse?

Direct experience… period. I certainly don’t advocate gaining this experience by extensive field research if you have the desire to work with addicts and aren’t afflicted with this disease yourself. However I personally feel, as does the founder of the most widely accepted and successful recovery program on the world (AA) that it wasn’t valid until the message came from a fellow warrior of the battleground itself. The philosophy of the wounded healer carries a lot of weight with me. I once heard it said that trying to teach the uninflected the experience of addiction is that of baptizing a cat. That the intention may be all there, but what you’ll have is a soggy, pissed off cat that can’t figure out why the hell you just dunked him.

Is the sponsor/sponsee relationship anything like an apprenticeship? In that the end result is the ability to go out and help others get sober?

Yes and no. In apprenticeship if I would teach you to nail a sheet of plywood a certain way and expect you to nail that sheet of plywood a certain way. There are reasons for this that go into structural integrity, aesthetics, etc. Whereas I believe in a mentorship or sponsorship; you need to leave the door open for the sponsee to individually interpret how to enter.doorclip I like the AA model of “joining us on the broad highway.” I’ve had a fair amount of time studying the bible and Christianity at large where it is proudly stated the way to heaven is through a narrow gate. One must “accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior…” That doesn’t sit well with me. I believe this path is very wide, and even paved. Any higher power will do. Just a little willingness will get you into the merge lane. And yes, the student should go out and help others along whenever ready, open and honestly to the point where he or she is in the program. I don’t feel there is an end-result or graduation from an apprenticeship, that recovery is progressive just as the disease itself. The fresh perspective a newcomer is just as valuable as the experience of an old timer.

How does an alcoholic/addict strengthen his own sobriety by helping another alcoholic/addict?

I want to try and answer this question by sharing what I know about brain function. In that when we receive information, whether hearing it or seeing it like reading in a book, it gets interpreted and filed away into a certain part of our brain, ready to be utilized and put into action when signaled. But then when this information is extracted, then verbalized and/or written we suddenly allow that information into several other parts of the mind. It was put into physical motion, cycled out of our mouths and back in through our ears or drawn from a pen to paper for our eyes to see. What amplifies this and seems to galvanize it, at least for me, is seeing the lights go on in an individual’s otherwise dark room when received. This is a human experience, perhaps igniting the ego and creating emotions and all sorts of micro-neurochemical responses that essentially tell us yes, good, proceed… and as a witness to this we become much like the German student looking at his photographs. I’d like to believe that our natural tendency is to help others in distress. In fact if there are only a few reasons for existence, one may be to help others, and in return cultivating good karma. Through helping another through our own malady, our own suffering we gain a sense of purpose for having had gone through that pain. And don’t we all want that?

Is there any hope for a fellow who staunchly opposes any idea of a high power (restoring them to sanity)?

Maybe, but I doubt it and very difficult to explain to anyone who refuses to see an undeniable, binary equation. I’ve heard it said that the (12 step) program is ‘a simple program for stupid people’ and that all too often we’re too smart for our own good. Aside from white-knuckling abstinence or simply going without and suffering any replacement for the whole that was created by eliminating the drug, cheating yourself out of invaluable life lessons offered by the program, compliance is required. Understanding that no one else can do it for you, Seeing the equation should be simple as this: (1) If you believe and have most likely proven repeatedly that alcohol or drugs has outsmarted and overpowered you and your ability to manage or restore normality and (2) believe the restoration to sanity is possible, than what’s missing? One plus one can only equal two if there are two ones. Yes I’m powerless but I believe I can restore myself to sanity doesn’t math-out. But don’t take my word for it, some of the world’s greatest philosophers and psychologists may still be scratching their heads today trying to paint the picture of this vital yet intangible element if they hadn’t run out of time and words.


For an individual who has a clear concept of their higher power or God who is a member of AA, and choses to participate in a Buddhist perspective on recovery such as Refuge Recovery, what is akin to their higher power in that setting? godcartoon

I may either need more information on this individual or dismiss the question on the basis of in-necessity. If a person wishes to believe in one supreme being who created and rules the universe and they feel confident in releasing their lives and will to this imaginary man floating in the clouds guiding them to be kind-hearted, loving, generous and sober beings, all the power to them. Let the Dharma rest in those who seek truth and freedom in mortality. It might be what separates religion from philosophy or faith from practice. The difference from “Let go let God” to ‘look within’ for the truth of your own direct experience with the Dharma, the natural law.

Thanks for reading.

I currently facilitate Refuge Recovery meetings in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay California and am actively involved in Alcoholics Anonymous working with recovering addicts. I am a student and teacher of 12-step recovery and dharma philosophy.