The Road to Enlightenment: A Revealing Interview With Noah Levine (Part I)
Noah Levine is the author of Dharma Punx, Against The Stream, The Heart of the Revolution and Refuge Recovery. He is also a Buddhist teacher and counselor.
Noah created a Buddhist approach to addiction recovery called Refuge Recovery, a program that includes peer-lead meetings as well as a professional treatment center. He is the founding teacher of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, with centers in Los Angeles and San Francisco and over 20 affiliated groups around North America. He teaches meditation classes, workshops and retreats internationally. Noah holds a Master’s degree in counseling psychology and lives in Los Angeles.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him for Recovery.org. This is part one of his fascinating journey into recovery, Buddhism, the 12-steps and Refuge Recovery.
Interview With Noah Levine (Part I)
Q: In your interview with Tommy Rosen, you said that you started using at seven years old because drugs and alcohol were accessible at home – you saw them as a solution to your suicidal tendencies and they numbed out your feelings of pain and angst. Tell me about those feelings and what you were trying to escape?
Noah: There was like an existential crisis. Like, what am I doing here? Where are my parents? I felt alone and emotionally abandoned. My parents divorced when I was very young. My mother was struggling with her own addiction and, although physically present, was dealing with two divorces and four children—and her own addiction. My father was a weekend dad. It was painful and I didn’t really want to exist. That, coupled with my parents being Eastern-oriented and believing in reincarnation, suicidal ideation wasn’t like lights out—it was start over.
Q: By 16, you progressed to smoking crack and shooting heroin on the streets. At 17, you had three felony arrests. In the summer of 1988, you were sitting in a juvenile hall cell, and you felt like you’d reached the end. Drunk, you described yourself as feeling scared and hopeless. You tried to commit suicide that night. The next morning you woke up and you reached a turning point, when your father came to see you. I really liked what you said about this moment: “We all sort of have a different doorway to dharma or spiritual practice. Suffering is a doorway. For me it was the suffering of addiction, violence, and crime which opened me at a young age – 17 years old. I was incarcerated, looking at the rest of my life in prison and thought, ‘Maybe I will try dad’s hippie meditation bullshit.’ Suffering opened me to the possibility of trying meditation.” Why do you think you had resisted your dad, and meditation, until then?
Noah: It just didn’t make any sense. I didn’t completely understand it. But my anger, angst, political orientation – sort of punk rock, anti-establishment, anarchist rebellion – wasn’t supported by that. Seeing my parents sit quietly in meditation and talk about compassion and love to me also really influenced the punk movement – where we were kind of looking at the hippies as a failed rebellion. If we were going succeed where the hippies failed it was through a violent revolution, not a peace and love drugged out sit-in.
I became desperate enough to realize that my form of rebellion was just causing more suffering for me and those around me and I saw my father as a happy, well-adjusted person. I knew it was clear that meditation had helped him and I knew I needed it to save my own life.
Q: You said that you’d discovered the power of meditation and that you could choose not to pay attention to your mind. Could you tell me about that power – particularly in relation to an addictive mind?
Noah: I talk about breaking the addiction to our minds because it’s really in the mind. Of course cravings are physical, but if the mind is saying ‘drink, use, overeat, gamble’ – whatever the addictive behavior is – it’s the mind that is telling us to do that.
Learning how to ignore the mind, to break our addiction to it, is key. One of the first steps in a concentration-based meditation practice – when people do mantras or even a strict mindfulness or breathing – is ignoring your mind and choosing to pay attention to something else. We start to wake up to consciousness and awareness. What we call mindfulness is separate from the contents and objects in the mind – the thoughts, plans, cravings, aversions, resentments, and fears. With good instruction, we can say: I’m not stopping those thoughts, but I can choose to not pay attention to them and to not obey them.
Breaking the addiction to the mind is a huge part of the recovery process, but it’s not an abstinent space because you have to think of your mind the way like a food addict would think about food. I can’t not eat. You can’t not think. I have to be able to have some discernment upon what food I can eat and what food I have to renounce. What kind of thought I can eat, and what kind of thought I have to set aside and ignore and break my identification with.
Q: When you were first sober, you had a resistance to the theistic language of 12-step programs and had a reactive use of meditation. Then getting into trouble motivated you to recommit to a 12-step program and you went on to visit a meditation retreat. It was then that you began what you describe as a “serious practice.” With that in mind, what advice would you give to a person in early recovery who is just beginning a meditation practice, and how early do you think it would be beneficial to start that?
Noah: It’s a key and necessary tool that needs to be applied right from the beginning. I have a treatment center – Refuge Recovery Treatment Center – and we have people in detox starting mindfulness practice, compassion and forgiveness meditations. We run a 90-day program and all the way through the treatment process people are meditating. Coming out at three months sober, they have a three-month foundation of meditation practice that they then carry through their recovery right from the beginning, rather than waiting.
Now, meditation is a field that is not a quick fix – it is a gradual developing of wisdom, compassion and forgiveness. The sooner you start, the better because this is going to be a process of years of retraining the heart and the mind, of breaking our addictions to the mind and having a wise relationship to it. And meeting ourselves and others with forgiveness takes a long time. If we procrastinate, then it’s just going take longer and longer to find the freedom…and to find the recovery that we seek.
My advice is start from the beginning. Start as soon as you can. I know a lot of people think – even in the treatment world – that brand new people can’t meditate. That is usually said by people who themselves – even with long-term recovery – never have a meditation practice. It is not people who meditate that say new people can’t meditate, it is people who don’t meditate.
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