I’m seated on two pillows stacked on top of one another. Both are stiff, yet strangely comfortable. One is to soften the ground, the other to help with posture. A bright glow of orange fills the space around me as positive energy pushes its way into my consciousness. It’s the first time I’ve felt this warmth in a long time. My eyes close and I hear the tummy to my right start to rumble. My thoughts drift easily towards external distractions. When I begin to notice and observe this, I am able to recenter focus onto my breathing.
I'm attending a meeting at Refuge Recovery Group, a Buddhist meditation program for people struggling with addiction, and I'm there for a reason: I gave up drinking for my last semester in college.
My relationship with alcohol has been no short trip. Growing up in Lawrence, I spent a large chunk of my youth staggering in and out of bars on Mass Street and seeing my favorite music acts, with only glimmers of memory from the shows. Casual drinking didn’t exist for me.
My experience is far from uncommon. According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the latest data available, there are 19.7 million American adults 12 and older who struggle with a substance use disorder. I don't identify with monotheistic religious approaches to recovery, so I decided a Buddhist approach would suit me better than Alcoholics Anonymous.
Mindfulness-based treatments for addiction, like Refuge Recovery, have been growing in popularity in recent years. A National Institute of Health survey reported that U.S. adults who say they used meditation or yoga in the last 12 months tripled between 2012 and 2017, from 4.1 to 14.2 percent.
Meditation is a mental and physical exercise. You carve out time, sit down and actually practice it. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a state of mind that’s characterized by being non-judgmental, non-reactive, centered on the present and aware of one's own cognition, emotions, sensations and perceptions. The benefits of both are are widely reported and include reduced anxiety, improved cognition, lower levels of distraction and more physical satisfaction.
Refuge Recovery's mission is to use meditation and mindfulness to treat addiction, whether it be to sugar, sex, shopping, drugs, gambling, alcohol, love, relationships or anything else. During the hour-long weekly meeting, the group practices a 20-minute meditation session, a 15-minute reading from “Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovery From Addiction” — a book written by the program’s founder, Noah Levine — and ends with 15 minutes of discussion about the attendees' struggles and successes.
Lawrence’s group facilitator, Keith, 51, has struggled with addiction since he was in junior high. He had a strong lineage of addictive behavior, and he knew his life was spinning out of control when he picked up hard drugs. He watched as his personal life ripped at the seams. Initially, he tried Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I went twice and both times I just left and got high,” Keith said.
Without a plan of recovery that worked for him, it felt impossible to stay clean. Finally, Keith decided it was time to make a radical change. To do this, he visited a month-long addiction retreat center in Thailand.
“It changed my life,” he said. The experience cost him the same amount of money as checking into a treatment center in Kansas would. Everything was organic, they grew their own food, had exercise facilities, meditation breaks, silent breakfasts and yoga every morning. Every day was structured. When he got back, Keith knew he had to find a way to keep up his practice and routine. His plan included meditation, a sangha (Buddhist community) and staying healthy.
His downfall came when he “took a job for the money,” he said. It was stressful and chaotic.
“All of my structure fell apart. I got separated from my sangha, I stopped meditating, I stopped exercising, I stopped my yoga, I lost contact with my recovery friends,” he said. After about six months, Keith relapsed.
Determined to get better, he quit his job and restarted the plan. Now, seven months into sobriety, he said he feels strong and confident.
“Meditation allows me to practice recognizing what’s going on with my mind and my emotions and my body. When I am in active addiction, I am completely disconnected with all those things, and they’re all leading me around like they have a chain connected to me,” he said.
Keith compares the practice of turning attention back to your breathing to exercising a muscle. Instead of letting your brain wander around in anxious thoughts, you learn to choose not to indulge them.
Refuge Recovery Group meets every Tuesday night from 7-8 p.m. at The Lawrence Zen Center, located on 1423 New York St. It is free to join and donations are always welcome.