Meetings

Voices from the Sangha: Chris Kavanaugh

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by Chris Kavanaugh

Throughout my recovery, I have encountered many variations of the question: I know this is an abstinence-based program, but why can’t I take drugs that aren’t really addictive, like marijuana, or mushrooms, or peyote, or acid, or ecstasy, or ayahuasca, or ibogaine, etc. I’ve also seen this question answered in a variety of ways. Most commonly, it is met with a warning like the one found on page 28 of Refuge Recovery:

“Most addicts find that their addictive behaviors continue on with the new substances without a full renunciation of all recreational mood and mind-altering substances. It’s the phenomenon of switching addictions. It is more common than not.”

Okay, fair enough. But what if my intention is to use a substance to advance my spiritual awakening? If I’m trying to be more mindful, doesn’t that make it okay?

I believe that in 2018, this question needs to be taken quite seriously. The use of psychedelics to treat addiction is very much in vogue. Respected physicians like Dr. Gabor Maté can be found running ayahuasca sessions to treat trauma. Others are using ibogaine claiming that it can arrest opiate withdrawal symptoms, while giving some patients a welcome new perspective on their self-defeating patterns. LSD is now the topic of serious scientific research for the first time since the 1970s. Microdosing of hallucinogens (the ingestion of very small doses to bring about minor enhancement of creativity and focus, for example) is now one of the hottest drug fads going. And of course, the legalization of marijuana in many parts of the country has so raised awareness of the drug’s medicinal benefits that for many it has become like a health food.

I have never seen this question handled more skillfully than by Diana Winston in her book “Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens,” published in 2003. For those of you who don’t know, Diana’s a long-time member of the Dharma Punx/ATS community. I spoke with Diana and got her permission to quote from her book in this article.

After introducing this topic in a section titled “Psychedelics,” she acknowledged that taking drugs to find meaning is not the same as partying. She points out that many, especially during the 60’s, had profound and deeply meaningful consciousness-expanding psychedelic drug experiences. Then she says:

“In broad terms, all of these are spiritual experiences, and many who had such experiences were eager to find ways to incorporate them into their ordinary life. A number of downsides made trying to recreate or deepen these experiences through continued drug use impractical. For some, further drug exploration often proved, over time, to be too taxing on their body. Others discovered they had no guarantee of what the next drug experience might be—transcendent or horrifying. There has never been a reliable means to control the experience. Others were eventually frustrated that they could sometimes access seemingly spiritual realms, but the insights did not seem to last. So, quite a few set out to India or other exotic places. They went in search of gurus who could show them how to access the spiritual realm and its true and lasting wisdom without using drugs.

One of my teachers, Ajahn Amaro, has offered us an analogy for how psychedelic drugs can affect our minds. If you want to clear up a plugged sink, he says, you can use a plunger or some Drano and, with some persistence and a little effort, you will ultimately get the dirt and hair-balls out. Or you can take a sledgehammer and smash the whole sink open to get the hairballs out. Drugs are a bit like the sledgehammer. If you want to open your mind, you can do so slowly with meditation. Or you can blow your mind, full blast. It is up to you. You may have to pick up the pieces and glue them back together in order to wash dishes again.

Most spiritual seekers who have used drugs have had similar experiences. They discovered that drugs could give them a glimpse of something extraordinary, but once the drugs stop working, they were back where they started. Personal transformation requires work, and most people will not find it in a pill or tab. Waking up is a lifetime proposal. Waking up takes (and actually develops) persistence, effort, acceptance–all wonderful spiritual qualities. Waking up is joyful work. A daily spiritual practice deepens our wisdom, understanding, ability to connect, and to have compassion and empathy for others. Real spiritual practice is a way of life, and for many, meditation experiences will result in depths of understanding far greater than any ever attained through drug use.

The more we open to our spiritual life, the more we see how valuable our mind and body are. We want to protect and take care of them. They are the means by which we wake up. They are what wakes up.”

Diana’s answer is perfect for her audience; teenagers who may be thinking about doing psychedelics. But there are other issues at stake when this question is posed by an addict. We drug addicts have to face the fact that our own minds have tried to kill us. Our very survival requires that we set a crystal-clear boundary of intention (I will not drink or use) and then reinforce that intention in every possible way. The first action our program recommends, The First Truth Inventory, is all about setting our intention to be abstinent. Even though I have been abstinent from drugs and alcohol for many years, I still am constantly making choices that reset that intention. Each time I choose to go to a meeting, or to work with other addicts, or to write this article, for example, I am reinforcing the neural pathways which keep me in recovery.

Refuge Recovery is a culture that is fundamentally about waking up. This philosophy gives us a pretty simple guide for measuring our actions. Will this help me to be more awake, or will it make my awakening more challenging? For me, when I consider that question and look at all the available evidence, I can’t say a drug like ayahuasca won’t benefit me in some way, but I also must acknowledge that it may erode my intention and set me up for relapse. What I can say for sure is that for me, the risks seem to far outweigh any potential reward.

Diana ended her discussion of this topic with these two powerful paragraphs:

“Drug use can be a doorway that gives a small taste of our potential, of our creative or visionary nature, or of the spiritual realm, but ultimately, drugs are limited in their potential for awakening. As the saying goes: “Drugs can get us high but they cannot get us free.” True freedom is not dependent on the use of a substance.

Finally, the proof is in the results. Most of us know friends or classmates who have taken drugs and had profound experiences, but when they returned to normal consciousness they could barely remember any details of their experience. They weren’t changed in any lasting way, and the drug experience is just a vague memory. The proof of real change is in how we live our lives.”

Diana Winston is now the Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. She also coauthored the book “Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.” Several of her Dharma talks can be found on the Against the Stream website.

Voices From the Sangha: Kris Rhoeling

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Tell me a little about yourself?

I’m a 51 year old, anarcho-queer. I am also fully professed Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, Sister Sonata Innocent, since 2009. Over the decades, my paid work as alternated between working in human rights (torture, prisons…and all the ‘isms & phobias) and human services (HIV, addiction, severe & persistent mental health issues). I grew up in Indiana and took off at 20 years old to find adventure in Orlando, Atlanta & Seattle before finding myself “back home again in Indiana.” Currently, I work as a Recovery Coach for people with co-occurring disorders. I take refuge in my communities who are connected through and around Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism and Social Justice.

Share a little about your recovery process and what led you to Refuge.

I consider myself as being in recovery from acute and chronic mental health disorders sine 2006 (PTSD, generalized anxiety, and clinical depression) I’ve been in recovery for addictive behaviors with several programs: codependency 2012, alcohol 2013, tobacco 2014. I’m still working towards a better life with food, money and video screens.

I’ve been a member of Buddhist Sangha since 2004 (Shambhala 2004-2011, Insight & Dharmata 2011-Present, Refuge Recovery 2014-Present). Though I have not always attended, I have identified as a Unitarian Universalist since 1990. (The question remains: am I a UU Buddhist or a Buddhist UU?)

I found my way to AA in 2013 because I wanted to attend a new meditation meeting in town. I came to understand that I was in a lot of internal pain – so much that it was life threatened from suicidal ideation and self-harm several times in my life. I also realized that I needed help outside of myself. I needed a long term, community of people who were in the same or a similar boat as I was / am. Therapists and psychiatrists are very helpful, some are even spiritual and Buddhist based. But they are not a long term community.

In 2014, I started Googling “Buddhist Recovery” I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, or what was missing in my 12 step community. As it turns out, now that I have been with RR for a few years I realize that two big factors were the prayers and the inventories. For me, rather than offering relief or a sense of letting go, the “Serenity Prayer” and the “Our Father” elicited craving, clinging and contraction (“Gimmie serenity “ Gimmie Forgiveness”).

What part does Refuge Recovery play in your own recovery?

In 2015, I started an online meeting. I have had excellent experiences with online meetings in a variety of programs. Refuge Recovery has followed suit. I have wonderful friends who live thousands of miles away from me. But with technology, they are with me daily. I talk with my sponsor who lives in town as much as I talk with mentor who lives in the Bay Area in Northern California. My phone cannot really tell the difference.

At first, I took the recommendation of committing to 6 months, whether or not someone else showed up. It became a time for me to engage in my own practice. Then someone else committed to showing up with me for 6 months. After that, our meetings grew. I made a commitment to myself that I would not start a meeting in my area until there was at least one other person who was interested in co-leading. After a couple of years, that has finally happened. I love my local meeting. It has not replaced my Online and long distance sangha. Indeed, I don’t think the local meeting would be possible without my having that connection to the larger fellowship through those meetings.

For the first year, those of us on the phone just kind of listened to each other’s inventory questions. That was helpful. And in 2015, I was able to attend the RR National Conference in LA. I found a mentor who is deeply connected to the community and to the practice. My work with the inventory has transformed. Now, it is my main practice. The actual writing is only a few minutes. My engagement with the inventories is an exploration of themes like Understanding, Intention and Wise Action. Sitting with the meditation and then talking about my list and about my experiences with my mentor expands my awareness, my love and my insight even more.

How does Refuge Recovery support your recovery challenges?

My challenge has been dedicating to a daily practice. Even though one part of my brain listened to my teachers and was somewhat accepting about what constituted practice, another part of my mind still held a very narrow, limited view of what was “real practice.” Even though I had my doubts that I really belonged or that I was “really practicing,” I continued to listen to Dharma Talks and with online meetings, expanded the number of times I actually sat in meditation each week. I do not feel relief from sitting by myself, I still often feel an increase in anxiety, so it’s been challenging for me to approach it all on my own without some external structure. But with the book, the Dharma Talks and the Guided meditations, I have the option to connect every day.

This year, I still have experienced hardships and challenges. Yet, I actually feel happy these days. When I start to feel guilt and shame in the morning about some task I failed to complete the day before – instead of grasping for serenity, I spontaneously start to soften my belly, wish myself genuine love and kindness and begin to appreciate the joy I’ve experienced in the past day. The result is both a sense of love for myself (a new feeling!) and I start to see that any challenge is just one aspect of a reality that is limitless. …and then both motivation and creative ideas start to flow….. Okay, so not every day, but many more than before.

What’s your favorite part of the book?

At this time, I have three go-to chapters that seem to apply to every challenge I face: Understanding, Intention and Breaking the Addiction. Every challenge seems to be based in the foundations of clear understanding and a loving intention. The chapter entitled “Breaking the Addiction” seems to be full of promises and hope. I now use readings from those chapters to end any RR meeting I am facilitating.

If I attend a Refuge Recovery meeting in your area, what can I expect?

I am one of the facilitators for online meetings. You can expect much the same as you would any other RR meeting with a few additions: The format is basically the same: Opening readings, meditation followed by a reading from the book and a discussion of a topic. The difference is that we get to connect with others in recovery from around the US, and sometimes the World. Participants have had experience ranging from early recovery to decades of abstinence and sobriety. Participants have been from every major region in the US and a few countries around the world (Bali and Australia are the furthest).

Give us some examples of what you’re working on within your sangha (fellowship, service, organizational structure practice, etc…).

Noble Truth Inventory Meeting

I’m not sure if my intention was to just wrap my brain around the inventory or to delay starting it. Either way, with the support of my mentor and others, I have created a study guide for the first truth inventory. Now that it is somewhat settled, I have found it very helpful….but maybe that’s because it’s wired for my brain. If you’re looking for any kind of extra support (not homework – support) around working with inventory questions, feel free to check it out. It’s linked here: https://sites.google.com/view/refugerecoverylive/noble-truth-inventory

I’m also active with the Refuge Recovery Live District of the Region XII. Previously, we were simply focused on ensuring that our meetings were covered for facilitation and making sure we had an online presence. Now, we are looking towards supporting one of our members to attend the annual meeting.

Anything else you’d like to add?

What I love about this community, about how this whole RR thing has been set up – is that is expansive – not too expansive – but enough – so that the person living in an area that is actively hostile towards Buddhism, or a treatment center, or like me just wants to get in more than one meeting per week – has a real and meaningful option to engage through online meetings. I was thrilled to hear from our fellow sangha member that the online meetings would be Region XII.

Voices from the Sangha: Hannah Joan

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by Hannah Joan, Syracuse, NY

We started in May 2017. The story of how we started began in September 2016 when I woke up in my car; not an unusual thing to happen to me seeing as I had an alcohol problem, but because I also had an eating disorder I was often drinking instead of eating.

That morning I woke up and said, “This is it.”

I wasn’t sure how to get better but I started practicing yoga every day and reading “Dharma Punx”. So much of Noah’s life was like mine, except I was raised in an abusive Baptist church household. The start of healing seemed to really happen when I connected my breath to my yoga poses. This turned into practicing my breath and feeling my body tone in meditation. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew I felt better and started to accept and sit with the fact that I was an alcoholic and needed to get control of my eating disorder or I would die.

September 2016 was the last time I drank. I went to an outpatient clinic for six months. The whole time I felt a call to share the experience I felt from staying aware of my breath and body tone. I could tell when I would get a craving or when I wanted to run away from what I was feeling, before the thought came to my mind.

I soon ordered “Refuge Recovery”, and was so overwhelmed with the need to share this crazy secret that had changed my life. I searched for places to start a meeting, stayed patient and continued growing in my practice. One day I got a message from a woman named Ashley, who was working at Prevention Network. She wanted to ask me about this Buddhist Path to Recovery I was living. We met, she loved it, and offered me space for free to start a meeting!

May 2017 was our first meeting. I never had expectations. I thought, “Even if it is just me sitting alone, I will do that.” However, this didn’t happen. That first meeting had six people in it and today we are now at 15 people every Sunday morning. I do not pride myself that these beautiful people are finding their true selves. I am just loving them along the way.

The practice of mindfulness and non-attachment has transformed my life and I love seeing the light in others faces when they experience this freedom too. I was a punk drunk, anorexic, angry, suicidal, fighter most of my life. I truly am thankful for the whole community around the world involved in Refuge Recovery. Syracuse has a very bad heroin scene and it’s not getting better, so I am blessed to be able to offer something else. I couldn’t go to church for AA because I shut down when I went inside one, ptsd and anxiety blocked any sort of positivity that aa could have brought me.

So, we meet every Sunday morning at 10am, at 906 Spencer St, Syracuse, NY. I am also planning on starting a second meeting very soon. It’s truly amazing how all of this happened and it’s humbling to be able to share after years of anger.

Voices from the Sangha: Cassie Lee

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An interview with the creator of the Refuge Recovery Starter Kit

Cassie Lee is the creator of the Refuge Recovery New Meeting Starter Kits. She agreed to sit down with Sangha Spotlight to discuss recovery, kits, and the appropriate weather for dinosaurs.

Tell me a little about yourself?

I’m 35, I currently live in Las Vegas but originally from Detroit. I’ve been a vegetarian for 24 years. I’m happiest on a scenic drive somewhere remote with the windows down and a mixtape on blast. I love animals- especially my 10-year-old woof named Luca. I do photo gigs for families and businesses as a side hustle. Currently, I have the pleasure living with my older brother, his wife, and their son Andrew- who is 3 years old and my best friend. Living with them has allowed me to see exactly what kind of family I would love to have of my own in the future. Read more

Voices from the Sangha: Marjorie Redmond

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An interview with a Detroit mover and shaker

Tell me a little about yourself? (age, location, occupation, hobbies, etc..)

As I start to answer I recognize a familiar story, about how my story doesn’t fit, how I don’t fit, how as an old timer in recovery I’m barely relevant to the younger people who are finding refuge in Refuge Recovery. The good news is that because of Refuge and a meditation practice I move from the virtual reality that lives in my head to a real reality that lives somewhere in the heart/mind/gut of my life.

Read more