Create. Write up a format. Think about what you want to offer, what’s missing from your regular meetings and what will keep you interested during slumps. Don’t try to “people please.” Just make an interesting meeting based on what you think would be beneficial. Be open to a group conscience. Use our format, modify it to suit your needs or create your own from scratch.
Locate. Find a centralized location and get a good deal on the rental agreement. Explain that you’re just starting out and it might take time for the meeting to catch on, particularly if it’s a new type of service.
Coordinate. Get people involved. Connect with local community groups to let them know about the new meeting. Don’t rely solely on your usual AA or NA groups. You may meet with some resistance. If you choose to make an announcement during regular meetings, be careful. You may be asked not to do that.
Promote. Don’t be afraid to send out a text announcement, keep an email list or Google group for your meeting. Use other forms of creating community to help people stay connected.
The How and Why
The types of meditation meetings that you’ll see around the country are mostly from the view of Buddhists in recovery. The way we set up our 12-Step Sangha meeting here in Portland is more like, “Meditation for Recovering People.” This keeps it open to anyone who may be interested and serves the greatest number of addicts. There are other ways to look at it, but I’ll give the reasons why we did it this way. Regardless what you decide, it’s definitely a step in the right direction to create some kind of mediation meeting. As you know, some with years of sobriety don’t know how to meditate or have limited experience.
It’s a good service for the recovery community to have this kind of meeting and to offer some simple, written instructions at the beginning of each meeting. Having them in the format keeps the teachers and pontificators off their soap boxes. It also lets those new to meditation have a fair shot at developing a new skill without feeling like they have to know what they’re doing.
The reason I started 12-Step Sangha was to focus on meditation as part of a recovery program, not as a substitute. I’ve included the format we’ve been using below, but in a simpler version. The idea was to use some Buddhist meditation techniques, but to keep the style, topics and sharing oriented to recovery. This is different than a Buddhist style group that allows recovering people. 12-Step Sangha is a 12-Step group that focuses on meditation for recovering people. While familiar, it breaks free from normal meeting rhetoric, which is very refreshing. It’s a very positive and supportive environment and many have shared how they can’t do this on their own.
You may choose to have a regular AA or NA type meeting, with a focus on meditation. That’s fine. But don’t be shocked when the standard sharing goes right into the mainstream groove and the meeting becomes just another meeting. With our format people who’ve been in recovery for years get into it and find it refreshing—although it takes some a bit of time to adjust.
The Topic Basket
I was surprised to find out that most of the attendees don’t choose topics from regular 12-Step literature. They bring their own books to donate to our “topic basket” which can be a stack of books or topics written on slips of paper. We use books. Most people pick Thich Nhat Hahn over anything else. Occasionally they grab something from a daily meditations book. But they almost never pick up the big book or the 12×12.
Time and Place
To get started, I went to the local Alano club and talked to the director about my idea. He’s a younger guy with a Master’s in Public Health, so is much more forward thinking than his predecessor. You might not be so fortunate, depending on where you live. Most of the Alano clubs around here are pretty traditional. I was stunned to find out that there were nine different 12-Step meetings going on at the time I was looking at having the meeting.
I picked a time that wouldn’t conflict with popular meetings. Consider something similar to increase participation, particularly if you’re in a small town. But I’ve lived in small towns, and was surprised at how many interesting, educated people I met. If you plan well, you’ll be more likely to get a great response.
Setting up a meeting is all about being willing to show up, take responsibility and make sure that the meeting is happening—no matter what. We call it a commitment for a reason. So pick a good time and a central location that people can find, with good parking. If you have no churches or Alano clubs or hospitals in your area, then you can have it at someone’s house. But work with someone who is very active in the 12-Step community. They’ll have connections, which will help you get the word out.
When I began 12-Step Sangha, I listed it in the AA directory. Technically, according to the literature on what defines a group, I felt that the meeting was within the guidelines. But old-timers disagreed, and pulled the meeting out of the guide. So we went from 30+ people to about 5-7 sometimes. When they yanked it from the schedule I figured, fine, we’re not stuck with the traditional rules. I put a notice on Craigslist and in bookshops and the online local entertainment magazine. I put up the occasional flyer in places where regular 12-Step meetings were held. But after a while, word of mouth spread through people who liked it. In our second year we have about 15 members on average.
I enjoyed the freedom of not being bound by the typical traditions, but still wanted to keep the meeting on track as recovery oriented. In my book, I make it clear that I’m not trying to reinvent the 12-Step wheel. I started 12-Step Sangha while I was still writing the book, so some of the ideas were pretty fresh at the time. The format works very well. Participants almost always keep it real. I’d say one or two times in 15 months somebody said something kooky, but it was because they came in late and didn’t hear the format where we emphasize that this is a recovery meeting, for people working a 12-Step program.
Keeping it from Getting Kooky
We set up the room with the lights low, a Buddha crystal on an LED turnstile, some flowers or a candle. To create a feeling of unity, we sit in a circle. If people come in late and sit outside the circle, we invite them to come in the circle with us.
When people share, they readily keep it about recovery. The format is clear in this regard. In the secretary announcements I usually let newer people know what the expectation is. We announce ourselves by first name, and do not disclose our particular addiction. This is so we can discuss addiction generally and without alienating anyone. Members enjoy the privacy. We tell people the meeting is open to anyone from any 12-Step program. This is a very welcome point. People don’t have to feel like they’re lurking at an AA meeting, for example, if they have food issues.
One reason I wrote the 12-Step Buddhist is because I’ve always been the token recovering guy in my Buddhist or other spiritual groups. You know how we addicts are. We tend to stand out, especially in Zen or Vipashyana style groups where the vibe is kind of subdued. The 12-Step Sangha meeting allows us to do a good, solid, quiet mediation practice, with other recovering people. It also gives us a forum to share in the style to which we’ve become accustomed over the years in 12-Step groups, but without having to watch our words as much. If we mention Buddha, nobody freaks out, although if we say the word “God”, Buddhists in the group may not like it. But we state during announcements that this isn’t a Buddhist group, or an AA, NA, OA, CA, GA, SAA or any other A group per se. It’s a little bit of both worlds.
In my book I explain why I feel this way and am confident to make such recommendations. But the main point is no secret: Buddhism in general and meditation in particular are supplements to, not substitutes for regular 12-Step work. But in the context of 12-Step Sangha, it’s the main focus and is integrated with the regular meeting process.
The first meditation period is five minutes long, with an emphasis on watching or counting the breaths. This goes until about 10 past the hour and helps get everyone settled. When late-comers arrive, it doesn’t disrupt the flow too much. After the five minutes session, the leader reads a topic and some short instructions on how to mediate on a topic. This kind of analytical meditation is pretty new to most people and hard for even those of us who’ve been around for a while. The leader reads a short topic, no more than a paragraph or two. Then we meditate for 20 minutes on the topic. If we can’t do that, we just focus on breathing. I was amazed to find that even people who are new to mediation can and do sit perfectly still and silent for 20 minutes. Occasionally someone gets squirmy and leaves.
Another thing that makes this format different is that the leader shares last. I did this by accident because I led the first meeting and it worked out so well that it stuck. The leader decides if it’s a circle, tag, volunteer or call-on style meeting. This gives them input on how the meeting will go. Listening to everyone share on the topic they have chosen is part of their meditation experience.
We use a nice sounding meditation bell for the beginning and end of the 5 and 20-minute meditations. I have a Radio Shack timer that I use to make sure the leader can rest easy without watching the clock. I sit next to the leader always because we normally space out a bit after the 20-minute session and it’s easy to get lost. So I gently remind them where we are, or that they share last, or that it’s time to ring the bell. We’ve often had leaders who’ve never been to the meeting. This can be fun, but you have to keep an eye on things.
For the closing prayer, we use a maitri or loving-kindness dedication, modified for addicts. This is a Buddhist principle, but isn’t so over-the-top to alienate anyone. Since people aren’t as familiar with this as they are the Serenity Prayer, it’s helpful to have laminated 3×5 cards place around the room. Alternately you could put one larger sign where everyone can see it.
We always invite everyone to go have sushi with us after the group. We typically have 7-10 members eating with us each week. This is a big part of recovery. We call it the meeting after the meeting. Be sure to find a good, cheap place to eat after your meeting. It really helps people feel connected.
12 STEP SANGHA (pronounced san-ga) MEETING FORMAT
Leader, please follow this format closely. Everything that you say is in italics.
1) Read the opening aloud
“Welcome to 12-Step Sangha, Meditation for Recovering People. The meeting is open to people with any addiction, from any 12-Step program. For the privacy of our members, we announce ourselves by first name only, without disclosing our particular addiction. Please take a flyer, which lists our website, 12stepsangha.com, and many good meditation resources.
My name is _______ (please don’t use an addiction identifier)
Step 11 says, We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with a Higher Power as we understood it, praying only for knowledge of our Higher Power’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
The format of this meeting is 5 minutes of breathing meditation, followed by a short reading of tonight’s topic. Then we sit silently to contemplate the topic until 7:30. I’ll ring the bell at the beginning and end of the meditation periods. At 7:30, I’ll reread the topic without commenting after secretary announcements. I will call on people to share on the topic, as it relates to recovery. The leader shares last.
During the meditation period we ask that everyone be quiet and still out of respect for the practice. If you need to leave, please do so silently. If there are questions, someone will talk with you after the meeting.”
2) Read the instructions aloud, then ring the bell to begin 5 minute breathing meditation.
“Instructions for breathing meditation. Please join me for 5 minutes of breathing meditation to focus the mind. For those who are new to meditation, here are some guidelines: Sit with your back straight, feet on the floor, eyes open but still, at about a 45 degree angle. Breathe naturally. Notice where the air enters your nose. Put your attention there. Count your breaths up to four and backwards down to one. If you lose your place, start back at one.”
Leader rings the bell to begin the 5-minute meditation.
7:05 – Ring the bell to end the 5-minute meditation.
3) Select and read a SHORT topic: one paragraph maximum. Choose from 12 Step literature, or from the Topic Basket. Please keep the topic short. Do not share until everyone else has shared.
Leader reads the topic, then reads this aloud:
“Now we’ll meditate silently on the topic until 7:30. Here are some guidelines. From a place of non-judgmental calmness, reflect on the topic. Be gentle with yourself. If you get lost, practice counting breaths again to become calm and focused.”
Leader rings the bell to begin the 20-minute topic meditation.
4) 7:30 – Turn it over to the secretary to pass the basket and make announcements.
5) Read the topic again, without commenting. Then read the following aloud:
“The leader shares last, after reflecting on everyone’s input. We share about our experience with the meditation on this topic, as it pertains to our recovery. You can pass or share for a few minutes. At 7:55, we’ll stop to let the leader share.”
Leader chooses how people will be called on, tagged, go around the circle, etc. At 7:55, you share.
6) 8:00: Lead the group in the closing dedication.
“We remain seated for the closing dedication, printed on the 3×5 cards. Please join me.
We dedicate the merits of this practice to all suffering addicts.
May everyone be free of suffering, and the causes of suffering.
May everyone enjoy happiness, and the causes of happiness.
Keep coming back, it works.”
How Many Buddhas Do You Rate This How-to?[ratings]