Recovery Dharma: A Buddhist Path to Recovery

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Anya Lukianov
psychotherapist, clinical social worker

Recovery Dharma is a non-profit organization that uses traditional Buddhist teachings, which we know as Dharma, to overcome addiction through meditation, self-inquiry, wisdom, and compassion. Recovery Dharma encourages full abstinence and renunciation from all recreational mind and mood-altering substances. For those with process addictions such as food, technology, gambling, sex, pornography, of course, complete abstinence may not be possible. 

“Support in navigating the program of Recovery Dharma is available through mentors who have experience in the program, who have a period of renunciation or sobriety under their belt. They are matched specifically with newcomers who are struggling with any specific addiction.

“It is important to take a look at what substance abuse treatment opportunities are available. For many individuals, there is detoxification, which of course is limited to several days. There are inpatient rehabilitation centers, outpatient rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and medication-assisted treatment. It is critical to focus on aftercare. In general, about 75%-80% of individuals who do not remain connected to a sober support community will tend to relapse and struggle greatly with maintaining long-term recovery.

“Recovery Dharma is based and centered on the idea that meditation on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path—most importantly, the support of sangha (community) in our meetings—can foster a journey towards long-term recovery.

“The Four Noble Truths tell us that in life there is suffering. The cause of suffering is craving. The cessation of suffering comes with the cessation of craving. The Eightfold Path leads from such suffering. This includes: wise understanding, wise intention, wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood, wise effort, wise concentration, and wise mindfulness. 

“Why meditation? To pray is to ask and give thanks. To meditate is to listen. It is quieting the mind and calming the body long enough to receive the guidance for which we pray.  There are numerous meditations that focus on gratitude, compassion, and loving kindness.

“Meditation is also an excellent tool for down-regulating the nervous system, especially for those who have survived trauma. Meditation has been proven to be helpful with various medical conditions, stress, burnout, anxiety and depression, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, improved focus, emotional regulation, and perspective.  

“The prevalence of trauma in addiction is astounding. The co-occurring ranks as high as 90%. As a result, trauma-informed care is critical in combating substance abuse disorder. This is one of the greatest differences between Recovery Dharma and many other community sober support programs. Our literature is trauma-informed because we understand the prevalence between trauma and addiction. 

“Non-identification as an addict or alcoholic is something we practice in order to reduce shame and stigma.  In our meetings, it does not matter if you have a substance abuse disorder. It does not matter if you have a process addiction. It does not matter if you show up with a codependency issue. We simply introduce ourselves by our name and our preferred gender pronoun.

“We also provide regular overdose prevention and Naloxone training. We have regularly planned social leisure programming for our in-person and online meetings. And most critically, we are open to people of all faiths and walks of life. Our program does not require belief in a God or higher power. A spiritual program has to be developed by the individual. No one should be stressed into believing something that they are not open to at a particular time.

“We do not ask anybody to give up participation in any other meeting, recovery program, or spiritual practice. Many of us actually combine traditional 12-step or other recovery programs with our Recovery Dharma program. 

“We are easily found on RecoveryDharma.org. This will take you to our major website, which covers national and international programs. We are an international program with an international board and founder that provides us with the support that we need and the resources that we need, whether you’re in the United States or not. 

Faith and spirituality are complicated. As a survivor of religious abuse, it was extremely difficult for me to conform to a 12-step program for quite some time. Eventually it saved my life, but mindfulness and meditation and turning more towards Buddhist practices was critical. Without this option, I do not believe I would still be standing here today.”       

(This presentation has been edited for length.) 

“Saving Lives…by Any Means Necessary”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Rev. Dr. Luis Barrios
Holyrood Church/Iglesia Santa Cruz in the Upper West Side, NYC

“I’m a pastor, that’s my passion. And I’m a community organizer.  I was born in Puerto Rico. I grew up there. My father was a doctor. The church was the biggest shock absorber to keep me going. My biggest passion for harm reduction comes from having this traumatic experience as a priest to bury six of my brothers with HIV and drugs-related issues. I still miss them. That is one of the things that keeps me going. In every single person that uses drugs, I see my brothers’ faces. 

“In 1990, I was the person in charge of the Saint Ann’s crime and harm reduction [program].  That’s when I found Joyce Rivera. A lot of snow, winter, oh god, and I’m passing by. I know all the drug dealers in our community. So, there is this young lady, pregnant, in a car, the trunk of the car is open, and she is giving out something. So, I went there, and I say, young lady, what are you doing here? You’re freezing here. Of course, she can’t close her coat because she’s pregnant. She’s nine months pregnant, okay?

“I see the needles, and the condoms, and everything there. I came out with a stupid question: ‘So what are you doing giving out these things here in this weather and in this place?’ She slapped my face: ‘Because you do not allow me to be inside the church to do it.’ So next day, she was inside. That’s how we started to work together at St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction. It has been 30 years and we are still growing. 

“My brothers and St. Ann’s gave a whole shape to my theology.  When I went to divinity school, I had no idea about saving souls. I still have a problem. But I know God knows how to do that. So I’m going to give that to God.  My biggest responsibility is about saving lives.

“By any means necessary. That’s the whole point. I’m going to save your life. I need to keep you going because I never know when you will want to make some drastic changes. And if you don’t, I will demand exactly what I demand from people who do not use drugs. You have to be responsible.  

“In my pastoral theology, harm reduction is a set of practical strategies to reduce any damage that is going to touch God’s creation.  Starting with Genesis Ch. 1, v. 26, we were created in the image of God. If I manage to see that you are the image of God, I’m going to have a different angle to build a relationship with you. We need to learn how to connect and reconnect with people. The connection with people always reconnects me to God. You are my way to God because you are the image of God. You deserve serious respect.

“Harm reduction is part of the course that I teach at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I’m a human rights activist. We need to understand that people who use drugs have human rights.  Some people in communities of faith say we do not deal with politics. One of my favorite leaders in this field is [Archbishop] Desmond Tutu, who says there is nothing more political than to say that the church is not supposed to deal with politics.  We are always dealing with politics. The only question is what kind of politics we are going to deal with. I want to deal with the politics of the body. These bodies are the image of God.”                   

 (This presentation has been edited for clarity and length.)

African-American, Latinx Clergy Speak on Cannabis Legalization in Connecticut

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp CT, Marijuana Legalization

Rev. Edwin Perez speaks at clergy press conference calling for cannabis legalization at the state capitol in Hartford Connecticut on February 18th. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

On February 18, African-American and Latinx clergy held a press conference on the Capitol steps in Hartford, Connecticut in support of legalization of adult-use cannabis. The Rev. Tommie Jackson, Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Stamford,  presided. Speakers included: Rev. Edwin Perez (shown here), United Church of Christ, Hartford; Rev. Charlie L. Stallworth, East End Baptist Tabernacle Church in Bridgeport; Rev. Stephen Camp, Faith Congregational Church in Hartford; and Rev. Alexander Sharp, Clergy for a New Drug Policy. If successful, Connecticut would become the 12th state to approve cannabis legalization and the second to do legislatively rather than by ballot initiative.

Rev. Stallworth:
“For many years, members of many congregations and communities across our state have been negatively impacted by marijuana prohibition. This year, our governor and lawmakers in Hartford are finally working on a solution. It’s time that we all stand together to end this failed policy and move forward in a way that will lift our communities up and allow our state to move forward.

“One of the key features of the regulated system being discussed by lawmakers is that cannabis will be produced and sold by legitimate taxpaying businesses instead of by drug cartels and criminals. Regulation will also free up resources so that police can focus on more serious crimes and also help improve police-community relationships, and instead of continuing to fuel organized crime, the money spent on cannabis in our state can and should be used to help revitalize communities that have been disproportionately harmed by enforcement of laws against cannabis.

“To be clear, I do not recommend the recreational use of cannabis any more than I would recommend the recreational use of alcohol. We know that both of these substances can be abused, and adults who choose to use them should be expected to take responsibility for their actions. However, it’s clear that our state’s current policy of prohibition is failing everyone, especially our young people. And I also think that we as community leaders need to stand up and demand that those folks most directly harmed by this failed policy be involved in developing solutions. A new policy that is aimed at reducing harms rather than foolishly seeking to eliminate all cannabis use. Thank you.

Rev. Perez:
“I remember in 2018 in New Haven in the month of August, seeing bodies drop on the green. Looking out to buy marijuana and getting something else that was unregulated, something else that isn’t natural marijuana. What we’re not doing here is telling people to use marijuana, but what we are saying is that we need to control what people are setting out to get. We need to control how people seek out what they’re trying to look for instead of getting what they did not bargain for. We cannot regulate what is illegal, but what is legal we can regulate. 

“We’ve known that forbidding substances does not help, but instead creates negative issues and problems across racial divides. Our Latinx community, our black and brown communities, are suffering much more, are four to seven times more likely to get arrested for just possessing marijuana, according to the ACLU in 2010. Forbidding a substance doesn’t work. You can ask any of these clergy about the story of the Garden of Eden, but allowing people to make educated choices and allowing people to be shown mercy and dignity is the way to go.”

Rev. Camp:
“I stand before you to say that I’m tired of our young, black and brown children, young men and women, having their lives disrupted when we can regulate cannabis, when we can make it available so it doesn’t penalize their lives. I don’t see in the scripture where this prohibition makes any sense. It should be the people understanding that they have to be responsible. And so we need to help people to be responsible, but prohibition is not the way. I applaud this effort and support it and it is my hope that this state will move into the new century and support a new way.”

Rev. Sharp:
“We’ve heard a lot about regulation this morning, and I’d like to say one small thing that’s so obvious, we overlook it. Critics of what we’re trying to do here today say, “The marijuana, the cannabis today, isn’t what our grandparents used. It isn’t what our parents used. It’s so much stronger today.” If that’s true, what we ought to do is regulate so that we can control, and people know what they’re getting. I’ve been working around the country but I can report from Illinois, which is my home state, that we became the 11th state, and we fervently hope that Connecticut will be the 12th, to legalize cannabis for adult use.

“What we’ve done and what you have the opportunity to do here, what we’ve done in Illinois, is build social justice and social equity into the program. I know you have parts of the bill that are calling for that. We have done that in Illinois. I can tell you that it’s possible. It will work. We’ve set aside 25% of the revenues from cannabis sales to be spent in communities that were ravaged by the War on Drugs. We are creating opportunities for minority businesses to get into the cannabis industry, and one very important thing that I’m seeing happen already is that our community colleges are now offering courses in cultivation and growing. It’s providing training opportunities for kids that very recently were in back alleys selling unregulated marijuana to people who certainly don’t need it.

“I urge you to follow the lead of 11 other states that have done this. Godspeed. We wish you well.”

Unitarians Support Legal Marijuana in New Jersey

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp NJ, Unitarian Universalist Perspectives

On December 12, 2019, Rev. Rob Gregson, Executive Director of UU FaithAction New Jersey, appeared before the New Jersey Senate Commerce Committee on the proposed ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for adult use. We provide his testimony here. 

Since 2015 when my predecessor, Rev. Craig Hirschberg, gave what we believe was the first denominational testimony in favor of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey, Unitarian Universalists of Faith Action New Jersey has consistently supported the safe, regulated, socially just legalization position.  

While Unitarian Universalists in general, and UU FaithAction in particular, would have been happier with a legislative solution rather than a ballot question, on balance we agree that from an ethical and justice perspective, it is better to have ballot legalization than continue with the current system which largely allows people who look like me [white] and live in suburban neighborhoods like mine to escape being caught up in the criminal justice system for smoking or healing.  Black and brown residents of more urban or poorer neighborhoods don’t have that same luxury.

The only broadly compelling reason we, as a faith-raised body, decided to take a stand for marijuana legalization is because it would end the ill-conceived and horribly racially biased “War on Drugs.”  

Looking forward I hope you will support future legislation like the expungement bill currently before the Legislature that attempts to make some small reparations—and I use that word advisedly and deliberately—aimed to address the grossly unethical place we may find ourselves in if and when the ballot is successful:  well-heeled, largely white business men and women begin making dollars hand-over-fist only weeks after others have been fined or even imprisoned for the same exact act.  

When reparation, or legislation—or come up with a more palatable word if you like—comes before you over the next few years, I hope you will take these disparities very, very seriously. 

Rev. Erich Kussman: A Journey from Prison to Pulpit

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Faith Perspectives

Shortly after high school, Erich Kussman, now a Lutheran pastor, was incarcerated for 10 years in the New Jersey prison system.  A chaplain spotted his talents and upon his release helped him gain admission to Princeton Theological Seminary. He now serves as rector of St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in downtown Trenton, New Jersey. Last week we spoke to Rev.Kussman about his extraordinary life.  

Tell me about your background and how you connected with Princeton Theological Seminary.

Eric:  I served 10 years, six months, and 14 days. I was in a prison called Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility.  I was working for the chaplain’s office, and the chaplain’s name is the Reverend Emmanuel Bourjolly. He took me under his wing back in 2004.  He used to call me his son. He’s like, “You’re going to go to the school I went to.” I was like, “What school was that?” And he goes, “Princeton.” I laughed in his face.  He tracked me down when I got out, and he found out I was graduating with my undergraduate degree from Pillar College in Newark, New Jersey. He showed up to the graduation and asked, “Are you ready?”

People get incarcerated that grow up in poverty, made single-parent homes, and eating government cheese and powdered milk. I remember those days. It took somebody outside of my situation to show me that there was life on the other side. There’s something else.

What was it like when you got to Seminary?

It was a little difficult because it’s Princeton Seminary. You’ve got people from all over the globe. I’m this scrappy little kid that grew up in the inner city of Plainfield and here we go. But I was able to hang in there.

Tell us about your church.   

The church is St. Bartholomew’s Lutheran Church in Trenton, New Jersey. I’ve been here since July of 2019, so six months in. And what we do here is we try to provide for the needs of our neighbors in the community. We run a food bank. We do a lot of advocacy. We run a group for people returning home from prison. We do regular Sunday services and we try to be very active in our community.

It’s an integrated church, a very diverse congregation. About probably 70–80% of the people that attend here are living in the poverty line.

We have some homeless members. We try to find them housing and stuff like that.

What do you do for returning citizens, people coming back from prison?

We try to find them housing. We offer counseling sessions one night a week in a group so everybody can talk and discuss their problems. We try to find ways and avenues for job training. We are linked to a program that helps people if they have overdue fines and help them get their driver’s licenses back.

How did you get involved with the cannabis legislation? 

There are 32,000 people a year that get arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey and it costs $140 million. That’s absurd and wasteful, and you’re criminalizing people. Probably 50% or 70% of the people I was incarcerated with had to deal with some kind of drugs. But they were all African American or Latino. If these individuals, these people, these human beings lived not in impoverished neighborhoods, they lived in the suburbs, they would have been going to maybe a drug treatment program or gotten a slap on the wrist. But because of the color of their skin and their nationalities, they get incarcerated and thrown in a cage. 

When you have a drug conviction on your record, it’s hard to get employment. They look at that. No jobs.  They don’t want to hire you.

Is that true with arrests as well as convictions?

Eric:  I’ve learned that with their federal database and state databases, when they run your name it’s not just convictions that come up, but also arrests, whether you’re guilty or not.

When marijuana legalization happens, what do we do next to push back the war on drugs?

We’ve got to continue to advocate and help legislators see through different lenses. The “lock ’em up” mentality is draconian. It tries to separate people as good or bad without looking at the humanity within them. Criminalization persecutes those that the Gospel tells me I need to speak up for.  As Martin Luther King told us, “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Are there effective drug treatment programs for those who need them? 

I haven’t done a lot of research into it.  There are some good programs and a lot of bad ones.  But there is another burden—impoverished people can’t afford treatment. Their insurance doesn’t cover it. If you are assigned court-mandated treatment, what’s that next step? They’re going to incarcerate you.