There isn’t one road to recovery. For Dave Smith, his path took him into the rooms of a 12-step fellowship, onto a meditation cushion at an Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society retreat and now in front of the classroom as a Refuge Recovery facilitator.
Refuge Recovery is a Buddhist-based addiction treatment program developed by Buddhist teacher and addiction recovery counselor Noah Levine. When Smith read Levine’s memoir, Dharma Punx, just months after getting sober in 2003, a light bulb went off.
Now Smith, a long-time Buddhist practitioner and recovering addict, brings meditative interventions into jails and prisons to youth detention centers and addiction treatment facilities.
Next week, he’s headed to the second annual Refuge Recovery Conference June 24–26 in Los Angeles. Smith sat down with Renew to talk about the grassroots movement that changed his life, how meditation and mindfulness can help addicts heal and recover, and what people can expect from the conference — meditation, education and fun, of course!
Renew: Who are you and what do you do?
Dave Smith: I’m a Buddhist teacher with Against the Stream. I’m the executive director of Refuge Recovery, the nonprofit grassroots movement created to offer peer-led meetings as well as infrastructure and guidance for people to establish Refuge Recovery meetings.
Renew: What is your relationship to addiction and recovery?
DS: I’ve been clean for 13 years. I got sober in the 12 steps and integrated Buddhism into my recovery. There weren’t Buddhist recovery communities. Culturally, all we offer are 12-step communities, but not everybody can really jive or get into the philosophy of the 12 steps. It’s so God-based. When people hear the solution to recovery needs to be a higher power, a lot of people can’t get their heads behind that idea. If people are looking for a different solution to heal or overcome addiction, we don’t offer much.
Renew: When did you first get involved with Refuge Recovery?
DS: When I first got sober in 2003, I was sober for 60 days, and then I went to a three-month meditation retreat with Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. I sat for 90 days. After 90 days of meditating, I was pretty confused. Dharma Punx [a memoir by Noah Levine] had just come out. I was very inspired. So I got in touch with him. It was Noah who coerced me into doing the 12 steps. The first five years of knowing Noah was me dedicating my time to 12-step recovery.
When I started to work with him more closely, eight or nine years ago, there was an organization called the Buddhist Recovery Network, but it never really went anywhere. They did a conference that I went to, and that’s actually where I met Noah in person. He introduced the idea of Refuge Recovery at that conference, but he was calling it Buddhist Recovery. The light bulb went off in my head. I started working with him. I joined his training program, and we started working one-on-one. He became my teacher. I was also implementing his program into the work I was doing in addiction treatment center teaching mindfulness-based interventions. It was really holistic.
Renew: How would you explain Refuge Recovery to someone who has never heard of it?
DS: Refuge Recovery is a mindfulness-based program. The foundation of the practice is meditation. It’s fundamental to the whole program. It also rests on the idea that addiction is any behavior strategy we engage in in an attempt to avoid change or to control something. We’re using mindfulness and Buddhism to overcome that, to be able to come into contact with the present conditions, whether they’re painful or pleasant. We take refuge in our own ability. Addiction is a behavior, just like recovery is a behavior, just like Buddhism is a behavior. So it’s changing core beliefs and behaviors. It’s developing skills: learning how to meet pain with compassion and blame with forgiveness, learning how to get through life without checking out and engaging in destructive behaviors.
Renew: How is Refuge Recovery is an alternative to 12-step programs?
DS: First and foremost, we are not opposed to the 12 steps. We are very 12-step friendly. A lot of people who use Refuge Recovery also use the 12-step program. They're very compatible. There are a lot of similarities between the two. For those opposed to 12 steps, for whatever reason, we’re also an alternative. I mean that you can just use Refuge Recovery as a program to overcome addiction. We feel confident it’s enough. You might choose both. It’s up to the individual to choose the path that rights for them. We are very much in the spirit of inclusion.
The primary difference between Refuge Recovery and 12-step programs is in Buddhism, there is no God complex. The idea you have to find a higher power isn’t part of Refuge Recovery. In fact, we’re almost saying the opposite of that. Buddhism is not a religion. It’s a practical and applicable humanistic psychology that teaches us we all have the power to release suffering through our own efforts. You have to do the hard work yourself. You have the capacity to overcome addiction on your own, but you have to do the work. You have to train the mind to be mindful, aware, compassionate, forgiving, grateful. You have to put time into those skills.
Renew: How do meditation, mindfulness and other spiritual practices help addicts heal and recover?
DS: We need to be able to become mindful, meaning that we are able to self-monitor. It means that as I’m sitting in real time or present time, I’m able to observe the mind. It’s a present-time awareness that’s nonjudgmental and responsive. It allows me to see what’s happening.
The pleasure/pain dichotomy, that’s the nature of addiction. We want to you to liberate yourself from this. We have the capacity to hold pain and discomfort. We don’t have to react to it by eating a cookie or drinking a drink or looking at porn. Mindfulness allows us to inhabit the present moment without having to change or control it. It gives us the ability to be at ease with difficulty. Which is a really good skill to have.
As mindfulness becomes more available, we learn how to respond with more skill. If we’re in a lot of pain or fear or sadness, we learn to become kind to ourselves. We develop empathy. We learn how to feel the discomfort or the pain or the joy without reacting to it. It allows us to not engage in destructive behaviors.
All behaviors start as thoughts in the mind. The earlier we can catch them, then the easier it is to not do everything our mind tells us to do. Maybe I’m eating Ben & Jerry’s at 10 p.m. But if I notice I’m sad or lonely, I realize it’s OK to feel sad and lonely. I can tolerate that. I don’t need to fix it. That’s not a basic skill, though.
Renew: What should people expect from the upcoming Refuge Recovery conference?
DS: It’s an opportunity for people to feel connected to the whole. We’re going to discuss and vote on our Guiding Principles, sort of like the traditions in the 12 steps. We also have four pamphlets we’ve written. We’re doing education on mentorship; on process addiction, which is a way to address addictions where total abstinence isn’t an option, such as food or sex or technology; on the inventory process, which is where people look at the way addiction has created suffering in their lives; and also how to start and maintain a meeting if you live in, say, Boise, Idaho.
The second annual Refuge Recovery Conference takes place June 24–26, 2016, at 4300 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. The conference will open at 5 p.m. Friday, June 24, and will conclude at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 26. Online registration is $108.