Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Buddhist Recovery Network Conference

The Buddhist Recovery Network Inaugural Conference

The dry season is over in Northern California as a huge storm has hit us bringing car accidents, wet dogs, and a much needed drenching to the parched earth. I’m back in my office, with a view of the rain after a long weekend in Los Angeles at the Inaugural Conference of the Buddhist Recovery Network.

Two years ago the Network was just an idea—really it’s still just an idea, but now more people know about it and believe in it. We are creating a hub for those interested in connecting Buddhism with recovery from addiction. This includes people like me who are sober and into Buddhism, but also people like Alan Marlatt, an addiction researcher who studies the effects of mindfulness for relapse prevention—and who is also a longtime Buddhist practitioner himself.

The conference covered a wide range of topics, and what I found interesting about it is that it wasn’t aimed at just one audience. Most of the conferences I’ve spoken at were directed at therapists, counselors, or doctors—one professional group or another. The BRN conference had something for those folks, including Dr. Marlatt’s presentation on Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, and his colleague Kathy Lustyk’s workshop on addiction and the brain. But we also had deep Dharma teachings from Santikaro, a well-known former Theravadan Buddhist monk who spoke on “addiction to self.”

Noah Levine presented his ideas for a Buddhist-oriented recovery program, non-12 Step and non-theistic. This work-in-progress set off a rich discussion in which Noah asked for help in developing something innovative and yet grounded in traditional Dharma teachings—“The Four Noble Truths of Addiction.”

We met Thich Dao Quang, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who works as a counselor in a treatment center for women in Baton Rouge, LA. Thay, as he’s called, is a remarkable person—someone steeped in the Buddhist tradition who has studied Western psychology and can as easily discuss attachment theory as help you let go of your attachments. His gentle and humble demeanor is linked to a broad-ranging intelligence, and, perhaps most surprising, a skillful presentation style that many public speakers would envy. As an immigrant, his efforts to learn, not only to speak English, but to speak it clearly and fluently are impressive. In some ways, he epitomizes what the Buddhist Recovery Network is trying to do. As Western Buddhists, it’s vital that we have a clear connection to authentic Asian Buddhism, and Thay gives us that.

The presentations were great, but ultimately the purpose of the conference was to bring us all together, to get us working towards making this a vital service organization. The last two days, this started to take form as small groups began work on various projects. The one that got the most attention was a group that seeks to help people start Buddhist recovery support groups. Many of these are already in existence in various forms throughout the country and beyond. But we all recognize that there is a much greater need for groups than there is access to them. We recognize that a fundamental tool of recovery is what the psychologists call “social support,” what AA calls “fellowship,” and what Buddhism calls “sangha.” Every town in the U.S. has dozens if not hundreds of AA meetings—and other 12 Step groups. Right now there are just a few dozen Buddhist recovery meetings all together. If we are going to become a widespread support organization, we recognize that the development of grassroots groups will be our core function. To this end a large committee was formed at the conference to look at how to support this happening. The initial focus is on creating a meeting “kit,” which would give individuals the basic tools and format they’d need to start a group—perhaps some readings, a CD of guided meditations, some suggestions for running a group, and other things. Will this work? Is this even wise? We don’t know. Buddhism is a historically hierarchical religion; 12 Step groups are historically non-hierarchical. Trying to blend the two is tricky. There is also talk of a training curriculum being developed for leaders and facilitators of groups.

This is just one of the shoals we’ll be navigating as the BRN moves forward. We are just an idea, and we don’t even know if it’s a good one. Our belief is that if we move forward with an intention of service and mindfulness that beneficial results will follow.

May all beings be free from the suffering caused by addictive behaviors.
To learn more, go to www.buddhistrecovery.org.