Dharma Gets Punked
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Noah Levine was a rebellious youth whose drug use began in pre-adolescence, and ended in a padded detoxification cell in juvenile prison eleven years later. Having seen the uselessness of drugs and violence, Levine now uses that energy and the practice of Buddhism to remain clean and sober, and teaches others the value of Buddhist meditation techniques in recovery. I sat down with Noah at Against the Stream, his multi-purpose Buddhist meditation center in Hollywood, CA, and asked him how the methods he teaches, detailed in his new book, Refuge Recovery, relate to 12-step programs, and the goals of recovery.
Your new book, Refuge Recovery came out June 10th, which is AA Founders Day. Was this on purpose?
That was the publisher’s idea. At first, I had sort of mixed feelings, but then I thought this is very auspicious. This is great that this other way to treat alcohol and addiction is coming out. And I feel like Refuge is a lineage from the twelve steps. I don’t feel at all adversarial. I’ve been in twelve-step recovery for twenty-six years now. It’s been very important to me, and Buddhism has been equally important to me. I’m happy that this Buddhist offering is going to be out there for people. And some people are going to find it life-saving and life-changing. And some people are going to say, “I’m happy with the twelve steps and I not sure why Noah is doing this, that they are perfect as they are.” Yes, it is perfect for some people, but it’s not perfect for everyone, and we know that. And having another offering out there, a Buddhist perspective on recovery, I’m confident is going to be useful for the broader community.
In the book the Twelve and Twelve, Bill later tries to explain the eleventh step, but my sense is that he didn’t quite get it.
Let’s be clear – you are not saying that people have to believe a certain way, or belong to a specific faith, to achieve recovery.
My feeling is that there’s room for anyone to believe anything that they want to believe, that they do believe, and still benefit from practicing meditation, and the Buddhist form of meditation.
So, are you saying that a person can benefit from Buddhist meditation even if they do not believe in Buddhism?
Exactly. You need not be a Buddhist to benefit from the Buddhist form of meditation. Buddhism is not about theology. The Buddha was famous for, when asked questions about theism, saying, “I only teach what causes suffering for humans, and what ends suffering." I only teach a very practical path that craving and addiction cause suffering. Non-attachment, abstinence, compassion, mindfulness, and ethical ways of life end suffering.
When asked about god, when asked about creation, he said, “I don’t teach that. I don’t speculate on these kinds of things,” meaning that it’s not necessary. You don’t have to believe anything in order to get enlightened. I’m fairly atheist in my own views. I don’t have a higher power. But what I know is that the power of meditation practice is much bigger than myself. When I’m left to my own device without a path, without a teaching, without a practice, I’m a mess. When I practice, when I put the power of mindfulness, the power of compassion, the power for forgiveness, the power of generosity and service and kindness, when I put those to work in my life, my life just gets better and better and better. So, there’s room for anybody to believe anything. You can believe in God and practice Buddhism, or you cannot believe in God and practice Buddhism.
These are sound principals, and I don’t think that Refuge is asking people to become Buddhists any more than the 12 steps are asking people to be Christian. In the 12-step program, they skirted saying “this is Christian recovery” by being open minded about it, but we all know that it is Christian recovery. I did not feel comfortable pretending that what I was presenting wasn’t Buddhism, because it absolutely was.
What I am presenting is Buddhist philosophy as a practice to heal and recover from addiction. I am not saying you have to become a Buddhist. I’m saying, "Use these principals to recover."
What inspired you to write Refuge Recovery?
To be honest, I was hesitant to do a recovery book. In the beginning of my teaching, I made a decision not to be a recovery Buddhist guy, but to be just a Buddhist guy who’s in recovery.
I was sitting back and hoping that somebody would create Buddhist recovery. There are a bunch of good 12-step and recovery books that were put out that say, “Here’s a Buddhist way to understand the theistic 12-step perspective." And there have been a couple of things that say, "Here are some Buddhist ideas about addiction." But nobody was stepping forward and saying, "Here’s a Buddhist recovery program," which I think is what’s necessary. I feel strongly that the 12 steps have it right, which is the fellowship, the community. Peer-based support is going to be necessary for recovery. So when I thought about doing Buddhist recovery, I thought this can’t just be another book about it. This has to create a movement. This has to create a program. This has to create a practical thing for addicts to apply to their lives, and in order to do that, there has to be a community. There have to be meetings, there has to be meditation, and there has to be support for it to happen.
Since no one else seemed to be doing it, and I was willing to do it, even though a little hesitant, I’ve been working on this program for about six years. About six years ago, I started Buddhist recovery meetings here in Los Angeles. I wrote the original, and I asked if I’m going to do this, what makes sense? And what makes more sense to me when I look at the Buddhist teachings is the core teaching of the Buddha, which are the four noble truths and the eightfold path. So, I created Refuge Recovery based on the four noble truths and the eightfold path. I have been editing and getting feedback from the community about what’s working and what’s not working.
In the beginning, we had facilitators teaching the class. At some point we said, no, this has to be peer-based. We can’t have experts or it’s not reproducible. And so we turned it over to the community and had guided meditations done by scripts rather than by people who know what they’re doing. I got inspired. At some point, I said I’m willing to do this. This is a need. I believe that this is a need. So many people fall through the cracks because they don’t believe in god and they go to 12 step programs and are told that they have to.
Do you ever use music in your meditation?
I don’t. Our formal meditation practice is done without any paraphernalia, such as music or incense or anything like that. It’s just being with what it is. Now, if you’re meditating at home and the neighbor’s stereo is on, music is going to be part of your meditation. If you live in New York City, the ambient sounds of the city are going to be part of your meditation. If you go and meditate in the forest, the noise of the forest is going to be a part of it. But we don’t put on any sort of soothing meditative support like music. That having been said, that’s for a formal meditating practice. But when you are not doing your formal meditation and you are listening to your music, you can bring a quality of mindfulness, a meditative awareness, to the music that you’re listening to. And so you’re not using music for meditation, but if you’re listening to music, absolutely, meditate too.
12-step programs say that we can’t do it alone. Yet, you teach independence as important to recovery. So, are you saying that we must depend on independence?
One of the ways enlightenment is talked about in Buddhism is that you become independent, independence where you’re free. You’re no longer dependent on anyone or anything because you’ve developed the wisdom and the compassion from within. So, what we are saying is that you are dependent on spiritual practice to attain independence.
Please be specific – on what must I depend to attain independence?
When one becomes independent, it doesn’t mean they go off into a cave and enjoy their enlightenment. It means they spend the rest of their lives helping others, being of service. The Buddha is this person who did his practice; he did his intense meditative practice. He came to an awakening, and rather than say, “This is great. I’m enlightened,” he spent the rest of his life teaching, being socially active, politically active, breaking down some of the sexist and racist norms of the culture of his time. That independence becomes totally interconnected, and becomes a compassioned action for the welfare of all living beings.
Is this a short-term process, or is it a life-long endeavor?
In order to recover, you’re going to have to meditate for the rest of your life. You’re going to have to do counter-intuitive actions, like being generous even when you’re feeling selfish, like forgiving even when you’re feeling hateful.
How do your efforts and insights apply in a practical way to the efforts of treatment centers to help people overcome addiction?
Every treatment center says, “We’ll teach you mindfulness,” or, “We’ll do cognitive behavioral therapy.” But very few have qualified meditation teachers who really know the more in-depth ways to teach people about forgiveness or about compassion. I’m committed to making that a part of the marketplace, as well as a cost-free meeting support group, and to come and get professional help by me, or by people who are trained by me.
Are you opening your own centers in addition to encouraging treatment centers to incorporate meditative practices?
Yes, it made sense to me that as well as doing Refuge Recovery as a peer-based, non-authoritative program, where people can start their own meetings and have a peer-based support group, to also offer some professional help and a treatment where people can actually come and learn in-depth and do a 30-, 60- or 90-day out-patient program, to really learn about Refuge Recovery and how to apply it, and how to use these Buddhist principles as part of their recovery. We’ve opened Blvd here in Los Angeles with plans to open in San Francisco and New York next, and with plans that over the next five to 10 years, if these things are successful, it opens all over the country and we’re able to offer something that isn’t offered anywhere else.
If one of your students came to you and asked, “Should I meditate 10 minutes a day or once a week for one hour?” what would you suggest?
Both. I suggest sitting for 10 minutes a day, six days a week, and then doing a longer meditation at least once a week. That is why people go to meditation groups. Daily maintenance is very important, but longer periods in the meditation are important too, because at 10 minutes you’re just relaxing a little. Something like 20 or 30 minutes is when you start to have transformation insights. So, a longer period is ideal.
When you get tattoos, do you have a meditation or a mantra to deal with that?
I do. Mindfulness is my main practice, which also has a component of compassion in it. Mindfulness, the first foundation, is about being present with what you’re feeling, with what’s happening in your body. The second is identifying what is the tone. Is it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? When I’m getting tattooed, it’s very unpleasant. It’s very painful to get tattooed. My practice is, as much as possible, to be present with it and to relax into it, to soften. The body tenses when there’s pain as a survival instinct. That actually makes it hurt worse because we’re meeting it with aversion and we hate pain. I find in my life, especially when I’m getting tattooed, that if I soften, if I relax into it, you feel it all but it actually hurts less, if you’re softening to it and trying to meet it with a compassionate, friendly relationship rather than meeting it with tension and hatred.
Do you ever practice being a witness to it? Do you ever leave your body as an observer?
No, not really. If something like that did happen, maybe I’d be okay with it. But so much of what the Buddha was teaching is about embodiment. This sort of disconnecting or leaving your body isn’t suggested. The whole Buddhist path is about embodiment, of living fully in this body, not taking it so personal, but not disassociating from It, not leaving it, of knowing that this is the body, this is the form, and my job is to relate to this form with wisdom. In order to do that, I have to be fully present, here, in it.
The eleventh step in AA talks about “sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God.” What do you think they meant by meditation, and how does that differ from Buddhist meditation?
I don’t know exactly what they meant, and I get the sense that they didn’t exactly know what they meant either. In the book The Twelve and Twelve, Bill later tries to explain the eleventh step, but my sense is that he didn’t quite get it. He talked about guided visualizations, or imagining yourself in some relaxing place, or the St. Francis prayer as a meditation that you’re reflecting on this surrender to God. That is very different than what I’m practicing, what Buddhism is teaching.
If the eleventh step said, "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve your conscious contact," period, if it ended there, then it would be very much in line with Buddhism. Because that’s what we’re trying to do, improve our consciousness, or connectedness with our own experience in contact with others. But because it goes on to say asking only for knowledge of God’s will for you and the power to carry that out, then it changes the whole meaning and the whole game of meditation. It becomes very theistic, it becomes mystical, it becomes very much about grace and some sort of external thing happening to you and guidance from outside of yourself. Buddhism is teaching us that you have that wisdom within, that you can learn to trust your own hearts and mind. Even the addict, even the alcoholic, is through meditation developing consciousness, insight, wisdom that is trustworthy, and [realizing] that it’s not about saying, “I can’t trust my own mind,” but rather "I’ve meditated to the point where I’ve trained my mind, and my mind, even my alcoholic addict mind, has become an ally, has become something that has wisdom and has compassion and generosity and has forgiven. This is improving my conscious contact rather than with something I can’t quite put my finger on."
What books have you revisited, or which books do you read for your own education, inspiration, and what novels do you look at?
I continue to revisit some of the Beat poets, like Kerouac. I will re-read Dharma Bums or On the Road. I’ll read Jack Kornfield’s works. He’s been one of my core teachers. I really love Stephen Batchelor’s books. He’s written on being a Buddhist atheist and Buddhism without beliefs.
I also like the more technical translations of early Buddhist literature. There‘s a Buddhist monk coming out of Germany by the name Bhikkhu Anālayo who’s written a couple of interesting books on looking at the early mindfulness teachings, the early Buddhist teachings. I’ve been inspired by that. For a long time that’s all I read was spiritual literature. The last few years I’ve enjoyed starting to read some fiction and some novels. I like it especially if there is a Buddhist message in it. There are a couple of authors. One is John Burdett. He writes the Bangkok 8 series and there are maybe five or six books about this Buddhist detective in Thailand, and there are these Theravada Thai Buddhists murder mystery detective series and I enjoy that. And there’s an author by the name of Eliot Pattison, who has done a similar thing, but with Tibetan Buddhism, and there are Tibetan monks throughout this story. Once in a while, I read just to read. I’ve read all of the five books of Game of Thrones, which was fun.
Leonard Buschel is a certified California substance abuse counselor, the founder of Writers in Treatment and the director of the REEL Recovery Film Festival. He last wrote about the never ending argument against anonymity in AA.
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