What is “Sangha?”

Sangha, loosely translated, means “community.” It is where Buddha and Dharma find their expression, where we’re supported in putting these principles into action. The traditional definition of sangha originally described monastic communities of ordained monks and nuns, but in many Buddhist traditions it has evolved to include the wider spiritual community; in Refuge Recovery, our sangha is our community of both Dharma practice and recovery.

The teachings of the Buddha clearly state, over and over again, that this is not just a solitary practice. In fact, the Buddha said “I don’t envision any other single factor like admirable friendship as doing so much for a monk in training.”

Most programs of recovery, including Refuge, stress the importance of going to meetings and working with other recovering addicts. This is often something we resist, and not without reason: some meetings are boring, some ask us to believe things that we feel are untrue, some are depressing or intimidating or unwelcoming for a lot of reasons. But it’s with the support of others that so many of us have found relief from the suffering and isolation brought on by our addictions. And it’s through being of service that we’ve been able to get out of our own heads and experience a more sustainable and wholesome joy than our addictions provided.

Many of us have found that there’s a quality to our meditations that’s different when practiced with a group. Particularly when we’re getting started, it can be easy to give up or space out after a few minutes. Practicing with others can often give us the motivation to stick with it long enough to start experiencing some of the benefits of practice. And through sharing our experience and listening to what others have to say, we can see how we’re not alone in a lot of our challenges. This can come as a welcome surprise after years of shame suffering and feeling like an outcast.

Many of us, having isolated ourselves habitually, have found that sharing silence at a Refuge Recovery meeting creates an atmosphere of trust and is a calming way to get used to being with others. No one is required to speak or participate in meetings, and passing is always an option when it comes time to share. There’s never any requirement to believe in anything, to identify yourself in any way, much less to become a Buddhist or serious practitioner. The wisdom and tools are available to everyone, wherever they are on their path.

But not every meeting is going to be a fit for every person. You may live in an area where there are several different options to choose from, or there may be only a single Refuge meeting near you, or none. Fortunately, there are also online meetings, many of which can be joined by phone. You can also start your own meeting, though this may be daunting for someone in early recovery. Members of nearby meetings or your Refuge regional representatives may be available to support you.

However you find them, we believe that there are “admirable friends” and a sangha out there for you. As the Buddha did, we invite you to try it out and to see for yourself if it works for you.

Isolation and Connection

“The opposite of addiction is connection.”- Johann Hari

Most of us were isolated as addicts. We destroyed relationships with our secrets, betrayals, and silence. We hurt people we loved and who loved us. We were so consumed by our addictions, we neglected the relationships in our lives. Our addictions became more important than our friends and family, and our obsessions drove people away. Our secrets and shame created a chasm between us and everyone in our lives.

Even in sobriety, when faced with well-meaning but insistent people telling us how to overcome our addictions, we kept to ourselves. It’s a habitual way of being in the world that a lot of us share, and we self-medicated or engaged in behaviors that helped us deal with the pain of separation. The relief was temporary, of course, often leaving us more lonely than before, yet we returned to it again and again. For many of us, it was the only way we knew to relieve the pain.

But without those substances and behaviors to soothe us, many of us were like raw, exposed nerves. Sometimes, the last place we wanted to be was in a room with strangers in a circle of chairs all facing each other, talking about how we can’t drink or use anymore. The paradox is that it’s in that kind of space, where we’re accepted as we are, that we can begin to let go of our reflex to hide.

Many of us lost the ability, if we ever had it, to form relationships without the social lubricant of alcohol or drugs. Sometimes that was because we dealt with rejection, trauma, or loss at an early age and became anxious and avoidant around others. Or maybe we just came from a small community (or a big family) and got sick of people nosing into our business. Whatever reasons we had to isolate, there reached a point where it stopped serving us. The substances and behaviors we used to protect ourselves began to harm ourselves and others. We drove people away to be safe, and as a result we became even more lonely.

All humans are driven from birth for close human contact. When we’re deprived of it and even begin to lose the ability to find it, we suffer and become vulnerable to addiction. The mindfulness techniques and insights that the Buddha taught are key to recovering this ability. But it’s not something we have to do alone. In fact, having people to help and support on the path is an integral part of the teachings. So it’s in this way that the solution and the way to the solution are actually one and the same.

A lot of us are perennial outsiders. We’ve felt—often with some justification—that we have been failed and abandoned by schools, by religious institutions or the government, and often by our own families. As a result, we came to mistrust the whole idea of organizations and groups, and we feel that we don’t belong. The double-bind there, of course, is that because we never allow anyone to get to know us, we cut off the possibility of ever belonging.

Sangha, in a very broad sense, means being willing to let other people in, to let them matter. In order to do that, we have to be willing for other people to let us in. When we can even entertain the possibility of that happening, there is the potential for us to move towards liberation. And the benefits are felt almost immediately.

Again: in the Buddhist tradition, it’s not just that we don’t have to do this work alone, it’s that we need the support of others on the path to waking up. In a famous story, the Buddha’s cousin and assistant Ananda came to visit him and remarked, “This is half of the holy life: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.” The Buddha disagreed, replying, “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”

The Buddha actually talked a lot about the value and the importance of having friends. In fact, through much of modern-day Buddhism, teachers are not spoken of as masters or as leaders, but as kalyāṇa-mitta, or “spiritual friends.” Not only were mMonks and nuns, of course, were encouraged to support each other and to help each other be more conscious, b. But the Buddha also spoke to “householders,” everyday folks who were not in a monastery but who lived out in the world, working jobs and getting into relationships like the rest of us.

In one of these discourses, called the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha talked to a young man named Sigala about the importance of “warm-hearted friends,” and described them in great detail. These kinds of friends have four qualities: they are “a helpmate,” they’re “the same in happiness and sorrow,” they “give good counsel,” and they “sympathize.” The Buddha went on: this kind of friend reveals their secrets, protects your secrets, does not forsake you in misfortune, restrains you from doing evil,  encourages you to do good, informs you of what you don’t know and points out the path to liberation. Similarly, in the “Mitta Sutta,” the Buddha talked about seven qualities of an “admirable friend,” of someone it’s beneficial to associate with. “He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you.”

There may, or may not, be one or more person in your sangha who has some of these qualities. However, you may find that the sangha as a whole has all of them.

When we come together to talk honestly about ourselves and what happened in our lives, something very powerful can happen. When we see people committing to be who they truly are, in all their imperfections and their longing to be free, our hearts naturally begin to open because their realness allows us to be more real. In their vulnerability, our spiritual friends give us the freedom to be vulnerable ourselves, and to speak our own truths. So our sangha becomes the place where we are supported and encouraged to stay on the path, even when it’s challenging or our progress seems stuck. Our spiritual friends are, without words, telling us that if we keep going, so will they.

And often, that makes all the difference.

Working with Others

For many of us in early recovery, asking for help feels almost impossible. But we have found, as difficult as it can be, that it can literally save our lives, and that with practice, it becomes easier.

However, asking for help is not just important just because it may get results. At times, in fact, it may not. Even with abundant help and support, things can still stand in our way. Sometimes, what we want from the world and from ourselves is just more than what’s available right then. However, even if asking for help may not always get us what we want, it will always help get us through. When we practice accepting help from people who are offering to help, we become just a little bit more open and a little less stuck. It’s the decision to ask, as much as the answer we receive, that can give us what we need to move forward.

Nevertheless, that decision is often a heavy lift for us. Many of us have done things during our active addictions that we’re not proud of. Some of the decisions we made in the past have far-reaching consequences that continue to impact our lives even after we got sober. We may have worn a mask of competence, or fearlessness, or blamelessness, and the fear of what might happen when we take the mask off may keep us from asking for help. We may be afraid that if we ask people in our lives for help with financial problems, legal trouble or any of those sorts of issues, we might lose them. We might worry that they will no longer love us once the mask is gone. There’s even the fear that there’s just nothing behind the mask, that we’re simply empty underneath.

We practice compassion for all beings, including ourselves, to see the truth beneath those fears: that there is a loving and lovable heart within all of us. We come to see clearly that the ones who love us feel more pain watching us struggle alone that they would if we let them in.  And, of course, by shutting people out and refusing to let them see our struggles, we’ll often bring about the loss and isolation that we were trying to avoid in the first place. So in the view of our own suffering and the pain we can cause to those closest to us, we can see that asking for help is not selfish: in fact, it is an act of the greatest compassion to ourselves and others.

Those who have felt the pain of addiction and isolation understand the fear and shame better than we might imagine. Through listening at meetings and sharing our own experiences, we begin to see how we’re not uniquely broken or flawed. And it’s often easier to ask for help from someone other than the people you’re closest with. Other than the people in your sangha, there may be counselors and other professionals in your community who can be a resource when you need someone with experience and a greater degree of objectivity. Some clinics and universities even offer community counseling on a sliding pay scale, so you may not have to eliminate that option just for financial reasons. And if you are able to make an appointment, know that some fear and reluctance is perfectly natural, and shouldn’t be a reason to cancel the session.

Of course, we know intellectually that our problems become easier to face when we have help, but emotionally we may still feel fear. Here again, it’s the decision to give it a try that may be more valuable than the outcome of the meeting itself. We learn that letting people in and being a little more vulnerable is not as frightening as we may have thought. In fact, we may often find that it’s less daunting than the idea of dealing with our problems all by ourselves.

When we make a practice of asking for help, we frequently find that it improves both the quantity and quality of our relationships in general. Even if you don’t become personally close with people in your sangha outside of meetings, you may find that you are able to connect with them on a deep level that could be something entirely new in your life. Even if you are seeking help from a clergyperson, a therapist, or some other sort of professional, notice how opening up to another person affects how much you trust them. Is there a deepening of respect and feeling of safety as your ability to be transparent grows? This confidence and security may also bring benefits to your other personal relationships. Try to notice these changes as they arise, and give yourself credit for taking steps that are often difficult.

It’s pretty common to worry that sharing your problems with people will cause them to look down on you, burden them with your baggage or even upset them in some way. And while we must be honest in acknowledging that may be a risk, we also know how much greater are the risks to ourselves and others in remaining isolated.

In general, there is a lot of truth in the cliché that burdens are lighter when they’re shared. Most of us have felt like an enormous weight has been removed from our shoulders when we made the choice to not be alone with our problems anymore. And as we experience that relief, we find that asking for help becomes easier and easier.

‘Dharma Buddies’

Many – if not most – Refuge Recovery meetings are focused on meditating together, reading literature and sharing. It’s important for there to be a place for newcomers to visit and learn about Refuge. Sometimes, though, those who have decided to pursue the program of recovery in earnest want more support on the path. This is where the idea of a “spiritual friend” or “Dharma buddy” comes in.

A Dharma buddy is anyone in the sangha who is acting as a mentor, support or merely a fellow traveler on the path. For some newcomers, it’s helpful to work with a single person who has been following the program for a year or more, in order to get direct support and to have someone to reach out to in times of difficulty. This relationship can look like traditional recovery sponsorship or it can be very different, depending on what those two people choose. Clear communication about expectations — from both parties — is absolutely crucial here. There are no strict rules, but those acting as mentors are strongly encouraged to work with their own mentor, and, ideally, to commit to the Precepts at least insofar as their mentorship is concerned.

There is also the option of Dharma-buddy groups, for those who are not seeking a personal mentor or where a person willing to take on such a commitment is not available. Groups are usually, but not always, made up of from five to ten people: not so small that it becomes claustrophobic, but not so large that it feels diffuse. Groups can decide for themselves what the right size is for them.

Dharma buddy groups, like Refuge meetings in general, typically have no leader as such, but instead pick rotating facilitators to help keep the group on track. Whenever possible, it’s better to have two or more facilitators in the rotation. The Refuge program is intentionally peer-led, and sharing facilitation duties is both a way to underscore this fundamental commitment as well as to give members the valuable and important opportunity to be of service. When more members are active and engaged in creating a safe and welcoming space for the work, the energy of the group becomes more dynamic.

Forming a group can be as simple as bringing it up at a meeting. Maybe your sangha has a Facebook group or other form of communication. When there is a critical mass of people interested in being Dharma buddies, you can meet and decide on a subject or a focus for your group, and where and how frequently you want to meet. The goal is to find something that fits how all the members want to work their process of recovery.

There are many groups that have formed to support each other in completing inventories on how their addictive behavior led to suffering. The inventory process is a powerful technique for  self-discovery and liberation, and like most things in this program, there is no one “right” way to do it. Some examples of inventory formats are available in Appendix _.

Other groups are centered around practicing together, perhaps incorporating longer durations of meditation or other practices such as walking meditation, exploring the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, or forgiveness meditation. Some groups may wish to study the Buddhist scriptures or listen to Dharma talks that can be streamed online.  There are as many options as there are potential groups.

Some Dharma buddy groups meet weekly, some every two weeks, some monthly. Try to find a good balance: meeting regularly enough to provide some continuity from one session to the next, but not creating too much of a burden on members’ lives. You may also want to decide on how much commitment you want to expect from members. Particularly if more intense self-work is taking place, groups may wish to discourage “drop-in” attendance.

There is also the question of whether the group wants to encourage any particular practice between meetings. For many groups, one of the goals is to make the path more present in their daily lives, as opposed to merely an activity they engage in once a week. Here, the intention is to be supportive of each other rather than to create an opportunity for negative self-judgment. Accountability is a powerful tool for growth and progress when used wisely and compassionately.

Facilitators in specific, and the members of the group in general, should feel that they are a part of the broader group of spiritual friends that is the sangha of Refuge Recovery. Many areas have intersangha groups that can be of support, as can the Refuge Recovery regional representatives and the various online groups. It’s strongly encouraged for at least one person in the group to have someone they can check in with about best practices and safety. Especially when we are working with difficult aspects of our pasts, holding safe space will require wisdom and compassion from all members.

At any time, in groups as well as in every aspect of our lives, the reminder is that when in doubt, we can be present and we can be kind.

Service and Generosity

As you begin to learn about Buddhism, you will soon notice that there are a lot of lists. One of the important ones is the list of the pāramitās or pāramis. Translating the Pali language of early Buddhism into English can be tricky, but usually the word “pāramitā” is interpreted to mean “perfection” or “having reached the opposite shore.” It’s a list of qualities of the awakened mind, practices that were considered so valuable that perfecting them was said to be the key to crossing over from the shore of suffering to the shore of enlightenment.

The very first practice on this list is dāna, or generosity. We often think of generosity in terms of money, and many groups use the word dāna to describe the donations that members give to help support the meeting. In the Buddhist tradition, though, dāna is any act of giving – not just money but also food, time, or our attention – without expecting anything in return. You may already be familiar with the emphasis that recovery programs put on service, which is perfectly in line with this ancient teaching. The merit of this practice has been central to  many religions and philosophies down through the centuries.

Generosity with our time, energy, and attention is not only of benefit to others on this path, though. As we become more generous, it also helps us loosen the grip of greed and attachment that caused so much of our suffering. From the first time we mindfully put a dollar in the offering bowl, we can start to feel the benefit of being generous without asking for thanks. In our meditation practice, we learn through direct experience how our bodies and our wealth are impermanent, and this insight makes us more willing to do good with them while we still have them. Sharing our experience at a meeting, or even simply meditating along with others and giving our silent encouragement and support, is an act of kindness that benefits both ourselves and our sangha.

Many of us have trained ourselves for years to be vigilant about being “taken advantage of” or “ripped off.” In some cases, this has certainly been justified, and there will always be times where we will need to set and maintain healthy boundaries. But as our practice deepens, we’re able to do so with an attitude of discernment and compassion. In the Buddhist teachings, generosity – like the other pāramitās – is not a commandment or a “you should,” or an unrealistic standard that people are expected to measure themselves by and find themselves falling short. It is, instead, a description of our true nature, of the open and loving hearts that have always been within us, but that have been covered up for so long that they were almost lost to us. The practice helps us to recover this original nature.

As we try more and more to be generous in our meeting and in our lives, we learn to trust our own innate kindness, and we build up confidence that we can give of ourselves to others and still be safe. We continually test what we think are our limitations, and grow in self-esteem, self-respect and well-being as we see these limitations as what they are: defensive strategies that may once have been necessary, but which have hardened into the handcuffs of habit. The voice of our attachments may say, “I don’t want to put my hard-earned money in that bowl,” or “Maybe I’ll do this act of service, but I’ll stop if people don’t show enough appreciation.” As we practice generosity, we see how these fears are transparent, how they have kept us “small.” We begin to realize that this practice is really about creating more space in our hearts and minds. As we notice our limits and allow ourselves to go beyond them, our heart-minds become more expansive, more spacious and composed. This brings us greater feelings of happiness and self-respect, and gives our practice more strength and flexibility to look at the conditions of our lives and our recovery.

We can see the benefits of such a practice when we think about the opposite of this openness, about times when our minds and hearts have been closed and protective. We felt on edge, uneasy, and we usually didn’t like ourselves very much. In that kind of a state, we had very few resources to deal with any discomfort or confusion. We were often thrown off balance by even small setbacks: the so-called “broken shoelace” that’s often discussed in recovery. Painful or difficult experiences often overwhelmed us and sent us running for the temporary relief of substances or behaviors.

As we get more comfortable with a generous, open heart, we experience more balance and ease. When something unpleasant arises, we don’t have to worry that it’s going to crush us or overpower us. We have a refuge we can increasingly rely on in times of trouble. And when a pleasant experience arises, we don’t cling to it as desperately, because we don’t actually need it to feel good about ourselves.

We also practice generosity to help others, to extend healing and happiness to all beings, to try in some small way to reduce the suffering in this world. What we learn as we continue to work with generosity is that the inner practice of recognizing the emptiness of our attachments and building up resilience is one and the same as the outer practice of giving and service.

This mix of emptiness and compassion is expressed in the teaching of what’s called bodhicitta, a Sanskrit word which can be translated into English as “awakening mind.” Bodhicitta is the intention to awaken to life in order to help others awaken to life. It’s a powerful knowing of the true nature of experience that grows out of the deep practice of compassion and awareness of the impermanence of all things. This realization is said to be so profound that it leads to a commitment to help everyone, everywhere, experience the same realization.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there are four Great Vows which express the seemingly paradoxical nature of bodhicitta:

Beings are numberless: may I free them all.

Reactions are endless: may I release them all.

Doors to experience are infinite: may I enter them all.

Ways of awakening are limitless: may I know them all.

Obviously, these are vows that can never be achieved: words such as numberless, endless, infinite and limitless point to the reality that this is a practice that must forever remain incomplete. And though it might seem overwhelming, almost ridiculous even to consider, there is also a certain freedom in such grandiose goals.

If the ways of awakening are indeed limitless, then we don’t need to feel any pressure or self-judgment if we don’t know them all! All we need to do, all we can do, is practice in this moment, and do the best we can to free ourselves and to support the liberation of all beings.

Starting a Meeting

If there is no meeting in your area, you may wish to start one yourself. This can be a rewarding act of service, though it can take a lot of energy at the start.

Before you begin, it will be helpful to tap into the combined experience of the millions who have formed similar peer-led recovery groups (and perhaps you yourself have some experience in other recovery communities). You can benefit greatly from researching and becoming with familiar with how other peer-led recovery programs operate and conduct themselves. You can also find and connect with other Refuge Recovery groups online (via Facebook, etc.). The appendix at the end of this book contains some examples of meeting format and structure, and has all you need to start and maintain a meeting. You may choose to explore for yourself what meeting formats will be best for your community.

If there are other Refuge Recovery meetings within traveling distance, it is a good idea to attend some of those meetings and reach out to those groups for support in your efforts. If you are in a 12-step recovery program, you might consider posting on a clubhouse bulletin board that you are looking for others to help start a Refuge Recovery meeting. Our members have also found social media—Facebook in particular—to be extremely useful in spreading the word about new meetings.

A nice, comfortable, safe, and easy-to-find location that is free of charge is ideal. There is a good chance you won’t find a place that meets all of your criteria, so just find one that best serves your needs.

Buddhist meditation centers, members’ offices (after hours), yoga studios, libraries, community centers, churches, hospitals, treatment centers, and even 12-step recovery clubhouses, are just some of the places where our members have successfully established Refuge Recovery meetings.

When it is time to announce your meeting, be sure to contact refugerecovery.org and let them know your meeting time and location. Many groups also create flyers or leaflets and post them at 12-step clubhouses, treatment and counseling centers, Buddhist temples, monasteries, meditation centers, coffee houses, and the like. Some have found that Buddhist organizations are more than happy to distribute information about Refuge Recovery groups to those on their mailing lists.

Some different sample meeting formats are provided in Appendix _. We also encourage you to innovate and explore alternative formats for your group, and to include all members in this vital process.

Refuge Recovery is, like most peer-led groups, governed democratically. Minor decisions are usually made with a simple majority vote. For more important decisions, consensus is often sought. Thus, for decisions about finances or changes to the meeting format, groups may seek what they call “substantial unanimity”—that is, even when the decisions aren’t unanimous, they are at least very close to it. This allows groups, to the greatest extent possible, to avoid controversy and division.

The role of those who facilitate Refuge Recovery meetings is non-authoritative. They do not act in the capacity of empowered Buddhist teachers. They simply facilitate and guide the running of the meeting. Group facilitators are peers in the community who generously offer their time and energy to enable meetings to take place. Facilitators should lead a group for no longer than six months at a time, at which point the community should find others to take on those roles and responsibilities. This will prevent any one individual from becoming the de facto “leader” of the community, while also providing others the opportunity to be of service.

In line with dāna pāramitā, groups collect monetary offerings to help support the local sangha, the larger Refuge community, and members’ own practice. Where rent is required, dāna can be used for that purpose, and funds can also help pay for bulk purchases of literature or other materials.

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