Since the book Refuge Recovery came out June 10th, I have fielded several inquiries from people in different cities about how to start a Refuge Recovery group. If you are interested in starting one, there is a detailed suggested meeting format that is very helpful in one of the appendixes in the back of the book Refuge Recovery, appropriately titled Format for Refuge Recovery Meetings. However, when starting a group there are many other considerations besides meeting format. So it makes sense to offer our brief history to those interested in following suit.
I first discovered Against The Stream (ATS) on iTunes. There are over 400 ATS talks online and I highly recommend them. So I stopped by ATS in Hollywood while on vacation in February of 2013 and visited with one of the instructors (Joseph Rogers). We talked a lot about how to carry the message of Buddhism (the Dharma) to recovering alcoholics and addicts since I have been in recovery for over 30 years. Joseph told me that my questions were timely because this was the topic of the book that Noah was currently writing. He predicted that the book would be out in about 6 months.
A year passed and no book. By this time I had learned that a small weekly discussion meeting of Buddhists in recovery had formed at a lay Buddhist organization in Oklahoma City and I began attending. I had issues with this group’s approach which made me uncomfortable promoting it to friends in recovery who I suspected would otherwise be interested. I was hopeful that these problems might be corrected over time and I really wanted to know more about how we could benefit from ATS’s experience. So I fired off an email that reached Mary Stancavage, the Director of ATS. In response, she told me that the book was coming out in June and she sent me the aforementioned appendix from the unpublished manuscript of Refuge Recovery.
It then became clear to me exactly what Noah Levine and ATS was trying to accomplish, and I took the appendix to my local Buddhist recovery meeting and suggested that we consider transforming ourselves into a Refuge Recovery group. A couple of members shared my enthusiasm and a couple of others were strongly opposed to the idea. Rather than fight about it, it made sense for us to leave and establish the Refuge Recovery group elsewhere.
Refuge Recovery groups follow the peer-led model first established by Alcoholics Anonymous and its many 12-step sister programs. It is helpful to have a basic understanding of this time-tested organizational structure when starting an R.R. group. So here is a brief overview of the A.A. group structure:
Alcoholics Anonymous is simultaneously one of the largest and the least visible non-profit organizations in America. In the U.S and Canada there are roughly 70,000 A.A. groups and 1.4 million members, so the average size group is around 20 members. A.A. has no central authority, minimal organization, and a handful of traditions instead of laws. Each group functions independently except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole. All of the essential group work is done by group members, with each member entitled to do their service in the way they think is best within the spirit of the traditions. This means that the group functions as a democracy with all plans for group action approved by the majority voice. No single individual is appointed to act for the group or for A.A. as a whole. In the words of one observer, “A.A. is the world’s largest functioning anarchy, and on the whole it performs astonishingly well.” (“The Drunk’s Club” by Clancy Martin, Harper’s, Jan. 2011)
In A.A.’s own words: “Each group is as unique as a thumbprint, and approaches to carry the message of sobriety vary not just from group to group but from region to region. Acting autonomously, each group charts its own course.” (“The A.A. Group, Where It All Begins” p. 16)
This is also the intent of Refuge Recovery and the book says this: “We hope that as the program grows, new formats and styles of meetings will be created.” (Refuge Recovery, p. 227) So your group is not only free to create any format or style of Refuge Recovery meeting you like, you are actually being encouraged to innovate.
That said, a few words of advice: as early as possible try to function as a group, rather than as an individual. In other words, delay decisions, such as where to meet, how long your meetings will be, what the initial format will be, and focus instead on getting other people involved so you can make these decisions as a group. Doing this helps to insure that the other members of the group feel that they have a stake in it (i.e., it is their group and not just a meeting they occasionally attend). Also, if you make all the important early decisions alone, as the group grows, they are likely to expect you to do all the required service work to keep it going, and this is a recipe for you to burn out on the whole business.
Our small founding group looked at a variety of possible locations to host our meetings and then we decided to ask the owner of a meditation center called Innerspace if we could meet there each week. We selected this location because it is a hub for many in the Buddhist community in Oklahoma City and it is not associated with a particular Buddhist brand. In fact, five different meditation groups meet there throughout the week from five different Buddhist traditions.
This decision was fortuitous because the many ways that Innerspace could help spread the word about our group had never been considered in our deliberations. Once we were put on their schedule, Innerspace sent out an email announcement to everyone on their mailing list and they distributed flyers to the people who attended classes there throughout the week. Here is the text of our first flyer (remember that the intended audience is Buddhist practitioners):
“Refuge Recovery OKC is part of a worldwide community of people who are using the practices of mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness and generosity to heal the pain and suffering that addiction has caused in our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Refuge Recovery is a peer-led practice, a process, a set of tools, a treatment, and a path to healing addiction and the suffering caused by addiction.
Refuge Recovery began as part of Noah Levine’s Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, in Los Angeles in 2008. Noah is a renowned author and lecturer who struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction in his youth. He wrote Dharma Punx, Against the Stream, The Heart of the Revolution, and most recently Refuge Recovery, to be released June 10, 2014. Noah was also the focus of a 2007 feature film documentary titled Meditate and Destroy.
The weekly meeting of Refuge Recovery OKC is held on Wednesdays at 8:00pm at Innerspace, 2201 NW I-44 Service Rd., Oklahoma City, OK 73112, beginning April 30, 2014. This meeting is open to all forms of recovery. There is no requirement for attendance and we welcome all those who are seeking freedom from addiction. We will explore how Dharma practice can deepen this process.”
Internet and social media has also been an important way that we have spread the word about our group. Having our meeting listed on the Refuge Recovery website has brought in a few members, but the best tool we have used so far has been Facebook. Several of us have many friends in recovery and we have promoted our group to those we believe to be receptive by the use of a Facebook secret group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/rrokc/). The way that works is once you establish a secret Facebook group, you can invite any friends you think might be interested to join. If they accept, they will receive any announcements you post in the group on their Facebook feed. There is a line between promoting and spamming that you don’t want to cross, so you should be very selective before using this particular tool. One really cool way to do that is to search Facebook for “Buddhist” and then go to that page. Facebook will then show you a list of your friends who have identified themselves as Buddhist or who have liked Buddhist related pages.
Since the book came out, we have created a new flyer for posting at 12-step recovery meetings, clubhouses and outpatient treatment centers. For this audience we rewrote the first paragraph of our original flyer. It now reads:
“Refuge Recovery OKC is a peer-led, weekly group-meeting gathered in the spirit of investigation of a Buddhist approach to recovery from addiction of all kinds. All are welcome. We invite you to join us and to find out for yourself if a Buddhist perspective is valuable to your process of recovery. This group is meant to be a support for recovery, not as a substitute for your dedicated practice.”
It is too early to report on how well this has been received.
Peer led groups live or die based on how well they address the needs of the members. It is essential, especially early on, that the group frequently asks the members how well it is doing in this regard. Our group now conducts a business meeting monthly. We look back on our meeting format from the past month and discuss ways it might be improved. Each month since we started, we have made changes to the format. Currently we spend 15 minutes on meditation (using the guides in the book), 15 minutes of book study, followed by 30 minutes of individual sharing.
Since it began in April, our meeting attendance has grown. We started with 5 or 6 people. We now average around 15. I think we are off to a good start and I am very optimistic about our group’s future. I hope this information has been helpful and good luck with your new group. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions. I look forward to meeting you one day on the path.