On Monday night, about 20 people gathered in the quiet zendo of the Zen Center of Portland and settled themselves unto zafus and zabutons. Darren Littlejohn sat quietly and patiently at the front of the practice space and looked out at the faces gathered around him, eyes turned in his direction. It could’ve been any one of the thousands of sitting groups across the United States, but this group was different. In addition to being a Buddhist, Littlejohn is a recovering addict–and so were almost all of the people in attendance.
A few days later, I was sitting across from him at Bipartisan Cafe, a coffeeshop in southeast Portland. “I don’t consider myself a substance abuse counselor–I don’t have the training–but I consider myself in that field,” he said, taking a bite of his sandwich. Littlejohn’s been running his 12-Step Buddhist sitting group there since March of 2009, and it’s reaching a surprising number of people who want to learn how to use Buddhism and meditation to prevent relapse. With personal experience both in Buddhism and in the 12-step model, as well as an eerie memory for faces, Littlejohn seems uniquely poised to reach addicts who are looking for something a little different. Littlejohn used the 12-Step Buddhist approach in traditional addiction treatment settings for several years before taking it to the Zen Center, but he feels that running the group independently in the community is a better fit for him. His book, The 12-Step Buddhist, was published last year to wide acclaim.
Littlejohn likes Buddhism as an intervention because it’s customizable, saying that practicing Buddhism is not superior for relapse prevention than 12-step meetings–rather, it’s simply another way to assist recovery from addiction. For him, they both go together. “I don’t want to be one of the guys who practices meditation instead of going to meetings,” Littlejohn says. “If you can be an example of someone who goes on through suffering, you can create a strong movement. This is why I labor at this. If I can get one person on their own path, there’s no stopping them.”
With Buddhism as a tool for recovery, he says, “I feel freer to deal with people and meet them where they are.” He believes that people in recovery are uniquely qualified to help others into recovery. “You can’t fabricate the experience of waking up in your own puke. [If you haven’t been an addict yourself,] you can’t look at an addict and say, ‘Me too.’ ” Littlejohn believes that this applies to more than just issues of abuse; it’s also necessary in order to reach historically maginalized communities. “The majority of people I reach with this work are white, middle-aged, and predominantely female–not unlike the 12-step communities which I’ve been in my whole life,” Littlejohn said. Buddhism must grow on a grassroots level to reach other audiences, he says. “People from those populations are uniquely qualified to go back to deliver services to their communities,” he said.
His observation hints at a widely-known yet little-acknowledged truth: there is a lack of ethnic and racial diversity in the American Buddhist movement. A report on the subject by Harvard University’s Pluralism Project quotes bell hooks as saying, “when people of color are reluctant to enter predominantly White Buddhist settings it is not out of fear of some overt racist exclusion, it is usually in response to more subtle manifestations of white supremacy” (“Racial Diversity and Buddhism in the U.S,” 2006).
How does Buddhism–or addiction medicine, for that matter–reach a more diverse population? Littlejohn says he falls back on the universality of both Buddhism and the 12-step model of addictions treatment, as well. “I’m trying to introduce some concepts which can be used with any population, anywhere, regardless of criteria,” he says. “It’s not that the principles are flawed. In principle, the 12-steps are applicable to everyone, but we have a bit of tunnel-vision; ethnocentricity; groupthink mentality. I’m trying to open up the field so more people have the opportunity.”
“My general mission is to wake people up to what recovery is if they’re not in recovery, to wake people up to what Buddhism is if they’re not a Buddhist, and to help us all realize that we can all practice the dharma.”