Every Wednesday evening, a group of recovering alcoholics and addicts gather at a small community yoga studio in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. They begin their weekly meeting with a Metta meditation, and then recite the basic tenets of the ways in which mindfulness can alleviate unnecessary suffering. All are welcome here, but this group is no anomaly. “Refuge Recovery” is one of over 300 programs around the world, founded by the author and Buddhist teacher, Noah Levine.
By the time he was 16 years old, Noah’s short life was already riddled by addiction, violence and crime. He abused drugs like crack and heroin, drank alcohol daily, was in and out of multiple juvenile institutions, and attempted to end his life more than once. A year later when he found himself at his lowest point, it was his father, Stephen Levine, a renowned meditation teacher himself, who was finally able to encourage his desperate son to begin a mindfulness practice in an effort to alleviate his suffering.
“I grew up around all these wonderful meditation teachers, Ram Dass and Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, but I had my own suffering and so I rejected it,” Noah said. He explained how he would mask his anger and pain with drugs and alcohol, which, in hindsight, only caused him more suffering. What he needed was a permanent solution.
Noah created the meditation center, Against the Stream, and the Refuge Recovery program, on the principle that through non-theistic Buddhist teachings that cultivate compassion and wisdom, treating addiction is possible; that we have the power to liberate ourselves from our own suffering. Now at 46 and father of two, Noah has been sober for 29 years strong, dedicating his life in service of countless others who’ve fallen down the path of addiction. Wanderlust recently spoke with Noah over the phone from his treatment center in Hollywood to learn more about Western Buddhism, and discuss the ways in which the teachings of the Buddha can be applied to a path of abstinence.
The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation.
WL: How do you define American Buddhism?
NL: I don’t think that I can say there’s one ‘American Buddhism.’ There’s Tibetan, Japanese, Thai, Burmese—all these different traditions and lineages. There’s Buddhism that is very much still in the Asian tradition, and then there’s American traditions like mine, Against the Stream, that’s influenced and inspired by many of the Asian traditions, but isn’t following along in a religious structure. It’s really about the commentary of the Buddha that goes back thousands of years, and looking at it like, how do we actually apply this rather than just reproduce it?
How did Buddhist practices help your recovery where AA could not?
Mindfulness practices gave me the understanding that I didn’t have to obey my mind. That through my own meditative effort and action I could change my relationship to my mind, which was giving me bad advice: to take drugs and drink alcohol and commit crimes.
I found in Buddhism a practical, non-theistic, humanist psychology that was empowering. It gave me tools and practices to teach me how to forgive myself and others; to develop wisdom and compassion in meditation and renounce delusion. The twelve steps were a bit too theistic and Judeo-Christian in the core concepts: that only a higher power could restore me to sanity. That didn’t make sense to me since I was kind of atheist-minded or agnostic. What I did find in the 12-step program was community, and a lot of my suffering was a disconnect from healthy relationships. I created Refuge Recovery to provide my students and my community with the Buddha’s teachings of how to recover from addiction using non-theistic Buddhist spirituality. I was not only breaking my addiction to substances, but I was breaking the addiction to obeying my mind, which has allowed me to maintain abstinence from drugs and alcohol over the years.
So you don’t practice Buddhism as a religion?
The definition of religion is kind of a philosophy: a moral code, a way of living our life based on a belief system. I live my life based on an ethical renunciation of violence and dishonesty, so I am happy to call myself a Buddhist. At the same time, I have kind of a bad taste in my mouth about religion in general because of the corruption; the patriarchal power structure that’s created. Even in Buddhism, some of the religion is in direct contradiction from what the Buddha taught, like equality. I’m not a religious scholar, but that’s my sense that the core teachings of many religions often get lost in the religious structure. But Buddhism is something that I practice—it’s not a blind faith.
The Buddha described the path to awakening as one of rebellion — how did that resonate with you?
I had a sense from a very young age that there was something wrong with this world—all of the greed, hatred and ignorance, racism, sexism and homophobia. So my early life was rebelling against the status quo of the false promises of happiness through material things. I saw the similarities between my punk rock rebellion and my Buddhist practice, and when I found that the Buddha had said, ‘this path to awakening goes against the stream,’ against greed, against hatred, against delusion—that just resonated with the belief I already had. Punk rock was really good about pointing out the problems, but not good about getting around to the solution! Buddhism is focused on the solution: how do we end suffering for ourselves and for others?
Do you consider yourself an awakened person?
I would define ‘awake’ as seeing clearly, free from delusion; seeing reality and responding wisely. It’s being free from a sort of in-born self-centeredness, and responding with compassion to pain and with non-attached appreciation to pleasure. There’s moments that I can do that, that we can all do that—but I wouldn’t call myself an awakened person all of the time. Any time we’re meeting pain with hatred, we’re not awake—we’ve gone back into the delusion, and that hatred isn’t going to do anything except for make it worse. There are also moments of meeting pleasure with craving or clinging, and that’s not going to do anything except for create more suffering for ourselves. I would say that in my 30 years of meditation, my suffering has decreased by 90 percent, and that I’m 90 percent more awake now than I was as a teenage drug addict. But there’s still that percentage, that 10 percent of the time when I’m not fully awake, and I’m not responding in the ideal awakened, compassionate, non-clinging kind of way; that I still have work to do on that level.
Will there always be something that the mind wants to attach itself to?
The Buddha’s teaching is that eventually we can come to the state of nirvana where we are able to see clearly and respond wisely all of the time. There won’t be any more suffering because there is no more clinging, no more craving, no more aversion—just compassion and love and wisdom. This is the Buddhist path of being awakened all the time.
Is sobriety integral to recovering from addiction, or is moderation possible?
I tend toward the abstinence-based view—and this comes from the Buddhist view— that if you want to be awake, then why would you put anything into your body that is going to put you to sleep? From a Buddhist perspective, whether you’re an addict or non-addict, there’s an encouragement toward living in reality as it is, free from recreational substance use, or moderation or anything. You’re just saying, I’m going to live mindfully in the reality of the human condition and not put substances into it that are going to block my ability to be mindful.
What about Ayahuasca or other plant medicine ceremonies?
I would classify a sacred hallucinogen ceremony in a different category than recreational drug use. If you want to see reality clearly you should do that through your own effort, through your own mindfulness, through your own investigation. You don’t actually need any kind of plant medicine hallucinogen to do that. I think that the feeling is that it’s some kind of shortcut, and personally I’m skeptical of shortcuts; I think that you have to do the hard work. I remember Ram Dass talking about LSD as a sacred thing and it might open your doors to perception of reality, but then you have to use meditation to walk back through that door. Having a glimpse from a ceremonial experience through plant medicine doesn’t actually allow you to ingrate that reality into your day-to-day life.
Describe the difference between necessary and unnecessary suffering.
There are levels of physical suffering, and there is a difference between the suffering of greedy ambition, and the reality of poverty. There is suffering because there is actually a lack of basic necessity, and that is a reality for many millions of people on this planet. I would define unnecessary suffering as meeting pain with hatred, rather than developing compassion for the unpleasant circumstance we’re in, and meeting pleasure with a clinging, and a craving for life to be more pleasant. Now that’s much easier when the basic needs are being met versus when there’s not enough food; that’s a different kind of pain. And pain is not the cause of suffering, pain is the natural unavoidable reality that all of us have no matter what our life circumstances may be. But when we talk about unnecessary suffering we talk about the suffering we create on top of that pain, by meeting it with anger and fear, judgment and hatred. Likewise with pleasure, we create unnecessary suffering when we get attached to impermanent people, places, things, and experiences that are constantly changing. And then we turn that pleasure into sorrow.
Looking back at your life, was your pain and suffering necessary? Do you have any regrets?
I could just say yes, it was all necessary, it all happened and it all formed the person that I am, but I don’t agree with that kind of statement about ‘no regrets’—I believe in having a healthy sense of remorse. So I can actually look at my life and have quite a bit of regret for all of the ways that I hurt myself and others, but I meet that regret with compassion, with forgiveness, with this understanding of the pain I was in. I think that human beings should absolutely regret it when they cause harm. I do feel a sense of gratitude that I suffered so much so young that I was desperate enough to dedicate the rest of my life to spiritual practice and service, because it really turned me around and I’ve been able to help so many thousands of other people do the same.
Andrea Rice is a writer and yoga teacher in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, NY Yoga + Life, SONIMA, mindbodygreen and other online publications. Connect with Andrea on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and her website.1
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