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Meditation for Recovery: Program Adapts Buddhist Practice to Fight Addiction

  • Larry Lowndes, the assistant director of the Second Wind Foundation, stands in a room used for meditation and mindfulness groups for people with addiction-related issues, which he brought to the Upper Valley Turning Point. Photographed on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, at the Upper Valley Turning Point in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, September 04, 2017

It’s 9 on a Tuesday morning, and Larry Lowndes is setting out the cushions.

The lights are off and the ceiling fan turns gently overhead, making the room feel distant from the brighter, louder world outside. One by one, people slip off their shoes, shuffle through the door and find a seat. Everyone introduce themselves by first name, starting with Lowndes, and everybody echoes it back — “Hi, Larry” — because this is a group for recovering addicts.

Lowndes is the assistant director of the Second Wind Foundation, which operates an addiction recovery center in Wilder that serves as a space for a number of recovery groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step meetings. But Lowndes has recently introduced a new, less conventional program at Turning Point: Refuge Recovery, a peer-to-peer, mindfulness-based recovery group, grounded in Buddhist principles.

Some of the participants in the group have been practicing meditation, and sobriety, for decades; others are new to both. Their testimonies, as well as insights from experts in related fields, suggest that the Buddhist-based practices of mindfulness and meditation hold real promise as “another tool in your toolbox of recovery,” as Lowndes put it.

The Refuge Recovery program was devised by Noah Levine, a tattooed, gold-toothed, punk-loving Buddhist from Santa Cruz who turned to meditation after his drug addiction landed him in a padded room at 17.

When Lowndes learned about Refuge Recovery a few months ago, he was immediately excited — he himself is a practicing Buddhist, who has been using meditation to help with his own recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction for the past 30 years. Lowndes knew firsthand that Levine’s experience was not an isolated one. He thinks the group offers a good alternative to traditional recovery programs that, while helpful for many people, also can be alienating for others.

“Some people’s metaphysical beliefs don’t line up with a higher power,” said Lowdnes, who also started a recovery group for agnostics and atheists at Turning Point several years ago. Refuge Recovery is non-theistic, meaning that while it draws from Buddhist philosophy, there is no religious component.

“And — this is important — there’s no one in charge,” he added. “It’s just one person in recovery helping another.”

The group meets for an hour twice a week: Tuesdays at 9 a.m., and Fridays at 5:30 p.m. Lowndes estimated that an average of 12 people attend each meeting, though Friday’s group is usually a bit better attended, and skews younger.

Once everyone has introduced themselves, a volunteer from the group reads aloud the Four Tasks of Refuge Recovery, adapted from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: “Addiction creates suffering. The cause of addiction is repetitive craving. Recovery is possible. The path to recovery is available.”

A volunteer then facilitates a 20-minute mindfulness exercise, guided by a laminated script that offers suggestions for what to say and when to say it. Afterward, group members read a passage aloud from Levine’s book, Refuge Recovery. A 20-minute group discussion follows, during which members of the group share their thoughts about the day’s exercise and reading, or talk about how their recovery is going.

Because of the stigma surrounding addiction, and because anonymity is a main tenet of the Refuge Recovery program, most of the participants interviewed for this story have agreed to share their first names only.

One of those people is Mike, a recovering alcoholic who started drinking in eighth grade.

“The very first time, I drank to get drunk,” he said in an interview after one of Tuesday’s meetings. “Not for the camaraderie of it, but for the effect it had on me.” He drank until he passed out and his friends carried him home, where, “oh boy, I was sicker than a dog.”

This became a pattern: He’d drink until he was sick, or unconscious, and he’d drink like this every day.

“Talk about an acute cellular need,” he said.

Now 64, he’s been sober 30 years, and going to AA for 29. He said the meetings have been useful in their way, but learning how to practice meditation and mindfulness was a “game-changer,” he said. “The single biggest event in my recovery.”

A former nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Mike described himself as a “science-based person.” He’d joined AA because he needed it, and because “there’s some good stuff in there,” but he couldn’t help but get “hung up on all the God words.”

He first started meditating when things “hit the fan” at work. He was finding it harder to take care of patients and fill out paperwork, and eventually was accused of diverting drugs — a charge he vehemently denied. He ended up getting sent to a neurologist, where he found out the reason for his cognitive impairments: He was in the early stages of Huntington’s disease, a fatal genetic disorder that destroys brain cells and affects movement, cognition and mood.

During this ordeal, rather than relapsing, “it came to me to meditate,” Mike said. “Instead of feeling like the victim, instead of feeling anger, I found that if I was just able to be for a couple of minutes, it put things more in perspective.”

Lowndes said this is what speaks to him about the practice, too.

“Mindfulness is not about controlling your thoughts,” he said. “It’s about realizing ‘my thoughts don’t control me,’ and learning to sit with discomfort, rather than reacting to it.”

Of course, meditation and mindfulness stem from an ancient tradition that has only recently worked their way into mainstream Western culture. Reiko Ohnuma, a religious studies professor at Dartmouth College who specializes in South Asian Buddhism, wrote in a recent email exchange that while she generally has no problem with secular applications of Buddhism, or even with white Americans practicing Buddhism per se, what bothers her is when people conflate meditation and mindfulness with the “true essence” of Buddhism.

In fact, many Asian Americans continue to take part in the rituals and modes of worship that have characterized Eastern Buddhism, but many Americanized versions of Buddhism treat these traditions as “inessential” to the practice, and as “cultural baggage” that Asian Americans should shed in order to better assimilate into Western society, she wrote.

Though Levine is a practicing Buddhist, and Refuge Recovery is based in Buddhist principles, the group itself is explicitly non-theistic. Ohnuma believes this to be an important distinction.

“I think it’s great if the principles behind Buddhist meditation can help people overcome addiction,” she wrote. “It’s a secular application of Buddhist principles that really makes sense to me (i.e., coming to see that cravings are ephemeral and learning to experience their rise and fall in a detached manner, etc.).”

For John, who asked to have his first name changed in this story because of his potential future employers’ views on addiction, these insights have helped shape the last few years of life.

John, who primarily struggled with heroin addiction and alcohol, has been sober for three years. “Fighting the battle for much longer,” he added with a dry laugh.

Ten years ago when John, now 30, was in jail, he came across a copy of Dharma Punx, Levine’s first book, which chronicles his experience using meditation and Buddhist principles to overcome addiction. It resonated with John: He, like Levine, was incarcerated, addicted and in great psychological pain and he, like Levine in Dharma Punx, was skeptical that meditation could help him find peace of mind.

And so he, like Levine, gave it a try. Though John hit some potholes on his road to sobriety, he said Refuge Recovery has been “absolutely essential” in getting to where he is now.

He said mindfulness was especially helpful when he was trying to figure out how to spend his days, now that they didn’t revolve around using.

“Being an addict is a 24/7 job,” he said. After getting sober, “you don’t know what to do with all the emptiness. Suddenly you have all this time, all the time in the world, to think about everything you don’t want to think about. And it’s easy to fall into really bad emotional states.”

Learning how to recognize this discomfort as fleeting “keeps you from going into full-blown panic mode,” John said, adding that this tendency to fill the void with overthinking is part of why so many addicts suffer from low self-worth, and feel they don’t deserve to find happiness.

Levine’s work has helped John come to the conclusion that “the fact that you exist gives you the right to be happy,” and that one way to move toward happiness is simply “to learn how to be a good person.”

Like Mike, he bristled at some of the religious overtones of traditional 12-step programs. And he’s no stranger to those, either: When John was growing up, his father was in recovery and would bring John along to his meetings.

“I remember sitting there as a kid and just thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is so boring,’ ” he said. “Maybe that’s why I didn’t get that much out of it later.”

Noting that most of the AA programs he’s been to tend to be attended by older folks, Refuge Recovery has a “more universal appeal” because it’s explicitly non-authoritative and non-theistic, and because, as John put it, “someone has to say it: It’s more hip.”

It may be hip, but Levine was not the first American to suggest that Buddhist practices could help people dealing with addiction.

The notion reaches back to the 1970s and ’80s, when the MIT-trained scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, which was pretty much what it sounds like. Though he’d studied meditation with some well-known monks, including the Buddhist leader and activist Thich Nhat Hanh, Kabat-Zinn’s program removed mindfulness from its historical and cultural roots.

Instead, he began studying it from a purely clinical perspective. An offshoot of that program, called mindfulness-based relapse prevention or MBRP, sprouted up at the University of Washington soon thereafter. MBRP is now an established research niche.

A phone interview with Hedy Kober, who runs the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Lab at Yale and conducts research on meditation and substance use disorders, helped shed some light on how and why these Buddhist-based practices can help people like John, Mark and Lowndes.

In part, it’s because of the way meditation acts on areas of brain involved with one of the most common reasons for relapse: stress and craving.

Researchers have found that people who’d completed an eight-week program in mindfulness-based stress reduction also underwent physical changes in their brains. The amygdala, a part of the brain that plays an important role in regulating fear and anxiety, got smaller — a change that correlates with reduced stress levels. Other areas of the brain, such as those involved in cognition, emotional regulation and empathy, thickened over the course of the program.

And craving is closely tied to the parts of the brain involved in reward-seeking. Mindfulness exercises have been shown to reduce activity in some of these areas, thereby helping to mitigate the cravings that drive so many addictive tendencies.

“(Being mindful) teaches you to notice your craving without judging yourself and going into the whole ‘oh my god this is so bad,’ and makes it easier not to act on that feeling,” she said. “You recognize that the feeling rises, rises, but eventually it falls if you just let it be.”

This has proven invaluable for Judi, who is new to sobriety and has gone to a few Refuge Recovery meetings at Turning Point so far.

She got sober in April. She’s been primarily an alcoholic for 45 of her 60 years, but “I’ve gotten into every other drug, too,” except for heroin, she said.

She’s been “in and out” of AA for years. “But all that God stuff made me put up a block. I never was religious. I felt like it was missing something for me.”

In these past few months, though, she’s realized that a higher power doesn’t have to be a god. One of her higher powers is nature. The other one is love: Part of why she stopped drinking in April was because she knew it was time to put down her 17-year-old dog.

“My drinking buddy,” she said. “I knew I needed to be sober for that. If not, I knew I would go over the deep end.”

It was also in April, while she was staying in a rehab facility in southern New Hampshire, that a teacher introduced her to meditation and mindfulness. It was hard at first, but with a bit of practice, it led to an epiphany.

“I saw myself in the mountains, in the Alps, like in The Sound of Music,” she said. She heard the song Edelweiss. “I started crying for the first time in 20 years.”

She realized that because she had always suffered from low self-worth, she hadn’t felt comfortable expressing her emotions since childhood. She’s working on it, though: The other weekend she stood up for herself at work when her coworkers were harassing her, and she was surprised at how empowering it was to feel compassion for herself.

Now, every morning, she sits quietly for 15 or 20 minutes.

“It helps. Sometimes I just wake up in a crap mood, and it’s only the thing that calms me down before all the commotion starts up in my head,” she said.

Though she enjoys meditating on her own, she likes coming to Refuge Recovery for the social aspect of the meetings. She’d been so used to isolating herself that she’d forgotten people could be accepting, and not mean, she said.

“This time around, I’m really learning how to find ‘me’ again, and I’m learning how to let go — not let God, but just let life happen, on life’s terms.”

Upper Valley Turning Point in Wilder holds Refuge Recovery meetings Tuesdays from 9 to 10 a.m. and Fridays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Meetings are open to anyone with an interest in recovery from addiction. For more information about Refuge Recovery, visit refugerecovery.org.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.