Walt Opie and Dalila Bothwell are co-leading IMS’s newly-created Insight Recovery Sangha. This monthly online sangha is for anyone (self-identified) who is working with strong cravings or addictions. The program centers around craving, how it causes suffering, and how cultivating insight into the nature of craving can greatly ease suffering. It aims to develop a community of people who share personal experience and insight around recovery, though it is not based on any specific recovery program. The meetings include dharma talks related to Buddhist teachings and recovery, meditation, and sharing in community.
Walt Opie is a graduate of IMS’s Teacher Training Program and Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leaders program. He teaches at centers around the US, including Sacramento Insight Meditation, Cambridge Insight Meditation, New York Insight Meditation, Spirit Rock, and IMS. He has been leading sitting groups for people in recovery for many years and has served as a volunteer teacher in several California prisons. Walt has been in recovery for more than three decades. For more information on Walt, please visit his website.
Dalila Bothwell is a graduate of Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leaders program. She is a meditation coach and mentor with Ten Percent Happier and Sounds True’s Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach and their Power of Awareness program. For nearly a decade, she led practice groups and served as a director for New York Insight Meditation Center. Dalila has been in recovery for more than 15 years. For more information on Dalila, please visit her website.
Here, Walt and Dalila speak with IMS Staff Writer Raquel Baetz about how the Insight Recovery Sangha came into being, the importance of sangha for anyone working with strong cravings or addictions, and their hopes for this community.
How did the idea for a recovery sangha come into being?
Walt: I led a half-day program with IMS Online called Freedom from Craving and there was a lot of passionate interest in the topic. People had a lot of questions and it felt like there was a huge need there. We followed that up with a weekend retreat on the same topic which was also well attended. And then most recently, I led an online program with Dr. Jud Brewer, author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love—Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits, and that was well received, too.
People suffering with addictions or strong cravings of whatever kind—and I’m one of them—tend to need ongoing support. Having programs every now and then started to feel like it wasn’t enough to fully support this community. An ongoing monthly sangha made sense and doing it online makes it accessible to many more people, including those in the general recovery community.
How did you come to be involved with the Insight Recovery Sangha?
Dalila: When I left New York, IMS Guiding Teacher DaRa Williams asked me to be administrative support for the IMS Teacher Training Program, which is how I met Walt. And then last summer, I was on retreat at Spirit Rock with DaRa, Joseph Goldstein, Kamala Masters, Nakawe Cuebas Berrios, and Walt. That’s when he told me about the idea for the recovery sangha and here we are.
How do recovery and the Dharma work together?
Walt: I’ve been in recovery from alcohol and drugs for 35 years, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have cravings anymore. I don’t crave those things anymore, but I have other cravings, for example, for sugar. There’s always something. It’s like my system is built for craving, and if it’s not going to have one thing, it’s going to want something else. So, I have to keep working on it. And for me, mindfulness and meditation have been so helpful in quelling these cravings and giving me powerful tools to work with them. But I need constant reminders—like we all do.
Dalila: With 12-Step programs, there’s a lot of talk about God and a higher power. And many people don’t resonate with that language. It’s suggested that we find a God or higher power of our own understanding. For me, finding a way to a higher power—which is really a way out of myself that’s loving and caring—was through the Dharma. Having those teachings of the Buddha available as part of my higher power makeup was—and is—invaluable.
For me, it’s about opening folks’ minds up for exploration, “What does this all mean?” Recovery and the Dharma are complementary paths. The Dharma allowed me to have more spaciousness and discernment about what was important for me and my recovery. For me, both my recovery and my Dharma practices are about liberation and freedom.
Why is community important for people dealing with strong cravings or addictions?
Walt: We all benefit from having sangha or regular community. With this community, it’s people working with the same types of issues, so we can relate to each other. We can share wisdom and compassion because we understand the suffering that fellow participants may be experiencing. Plus, cravings don’t just go away. We talk about uprooting craving, but that doesn’t happen until you experience full enlightenment. In the meantime, we’re stuck working with cravings in different ways.
Dalila: Community is so big because we can’t do anything alone. We live in this very individualistic society and culture. This bootstrap culture; pull yourself up. But we don’t just pop out of nowhere. We need models to demonstrate what to do and not to do. Models who speak the same language and are headed in the same direction. I need folks who can model radical honesty and vulnerability. When we are in community, we have that feedback of how to be human and that’s valuable information.
In sangha, I get to practice being honest with someone other than myself. We need other human beings to offer validation, correction, or feedback.
Who is this sangha appropriate for?
Dalila: It’s for anyone who wants to investigate the craving in their life. Sandra Weinberg [from New York Insight Meditation Center’s Buddha & Bill W. Sangha] talks about one of her teachers talking about our addiction to me, myself, and I. It’s the attachment, the craving to self. That attachment to me, myself, and I can play out through substance abuse or codependency, or it could play out through being attached to our mobile devices or shutting down emotionally. This sangha is for anyone who wants to investigate those cravings.
I think most of the people will be in recovery of some sort, but it’s not a 12-Step sangha. It’s for people who have noticed that profound craving in our lives can create profound suffering.
Walt: Generally, it’s for people already in recovery from some type of addiction or addictive behavior. It’s also for people who are curious about moving in that direction. And it’s for people who may not identify as being addicted to something, but who may feel as though craving is out of control in their lives and are trying to figure out how to come to terms with it.
We want people to self-identify. We’re not going to exclude anybody. We’re all human. And as some teachers say, we’re all addicted to thinking. So, people can come with a lot of different cravings or addictions that they are working with.
What are your hopes for this program?
Dalila: I’m hopeful that there’s connection in the community and a little bit more freedom in people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be a profound Hallelujah moment, but maybe some small “ah has” that will stick with folks or maybe plant some seeds around liberation, ease, and freedom.
Walt: I hope that we can build a supportive, caring community of folks who can benefit from focusing on this topic. And a respectful community of folks who allow everyone to be fully themselves. We may feel when we’re in a regular sangha that there’s a part of us that’s not fully included in certain ways, maybe because the issue we might be dealing with isn’t necessarily relevant to everybody there, and everybody there may not fully understand our suffering. So, we really want to build a community of people who have suffered in similar ways and can relate to each other in supporting one another.
Is there anything else that you’d like people to know?
Walt: I used to lead a group that was inspired by the work of Kevin Griffin, author of One Breath at a Time, Buddhism and the 12 Steps. So that had been my focus for a while. And anybody from the 12-Step world would be most welcome in this sangha. But, at the same time, we’re not going to specifically spend a lot of time addressing the 12 Steps. We really want this sangha to be open to people beyond the 12-Step recovery world, but any experience with the 12 Steps would also be welcome.
The only thing I would caution people about is that we could get into some serious topics. For example, we may talk about life and death because it really is that way for me and for many people.