Seventeen years old, sitting in juvenile hall, Noah Levine, tries and fails twice to commit suicide. A troubled kid, who rebelled to the extreme, became a punk pre-teen and a severely drug addicted and violent teenage criminal who was on the verge of doing time in prison. However, he was already a prisoner in his own mind, serving a life sentence. In a pivotal moment of desperation, Noah calls his father, renowned mediation and Dharma teacher, Stephen Levine, who gives him simple meditation instructions. Meditation can’t change his past, or his current circumstances, but it can change his present state of mind. And ultimately, learning how to meditate changed Noah’s future. He gets sober, travels all over the world and ultimately finds his true calling as a spiritual teacher and psychologist.
In 2008, Noah founded Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in Los Angeles. ATS offers a variety of programs, teaching meditation and the Dharma by Noah and other known western Dharma teachers. The crowd at ATS consists of punks, drunks, skaters, people in recovery and enough white yuppies to almost make the place hipster. No matter who you are, you can find your place in the sangha(community). But, ATS isn’t about being cool or trendy, it’s about real spirituality tailored to the modern world. It’s about finding Buddhist solutions to first and not so first world problems.
Rather intimidating, Noah Levine is a sight and presence to behold. He is covered neck to feet in so many tattoos, even he has lost track. His head is completely shaved and wears a uniform of punk rock t-shirts and shorts. He looks like the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley. But if you’re stuck in your own emotional, mental or spiritual dark alley, Noah will help stop you from holding yourself hostage.
In his Dharma talks, Noah uses the word fuck a lot. He doesn’t shy away from mentioning his own shortcomings and carnal thoughts about sex, drugs, crime, gambling, relationships and his very un-Buddha like past. Part of the appeal of Noah is that he isn’t exactly a monk. He may be 25 years sober, but he is still addicted to nicotine. A former vegan, Noah now eats meat. One of my primary introductions to the world of Noah Levine, was after a Dharma talk when he announced the annual ATS Silent Auction Fundraiser. His personal contribution to the auction was a class about using mindfulness techniques to succeed in Texas Hold ‘Em poker. He laughed and said, “This is so wrong.” In my eyes, it was so right.
When I sat down to interview him, Noah calmly puffed on an e-cig and was slightly less intimidating one-to-one than when he is when “on the cushion.”
Amanda: How did you start Against the Stream?
Noah: In 2003, my first book “Dharma Punx” came out and at that point I was already teaching meditation groups for a few years. I was in San Francisco at that time teaching a large meditation group and around 2004 I decided to move to New York City. I started a couple of big meditation groups there. I wrote my second book “Against the Stream,” around that time. When I moved to LA in 2006, I started to teach meditation groups here. The groups in New York [and] San Francisco were very popular. Somebody gave us a large donation and said we’d like to have a large meditation center in Los Angeles, so we started a nonprofit. We called the non-profit Against the Stream Buddhist Mediation Society. We opened one center in East Hollywood and we opened a second center on the Westside in Santa Monica. We are in the process of opening a center in San Francisco and in New York City.
Amanda: What is the meaning of the term Against the Stream?
Noah: Against The Stream is taken directly from the teachings of the Buddha. It translates literally to going against the stream, against greed, against hatred, against delusion, against clinging, against aversion, against self-centeredness, and that is the path that will lead to happiness, freedom, liberation, and awakening.
Amanda: What is the value of community in terms of furthering individual practice?
Noah: Having a safe place to be able to learn how to meditate, to learn spiritual principals, to have a place to practice them. To have a community that feels supportive, for people like minded. My sense is that a good community is somewhere where people are getting real, and hopefully also being kind, but not being fake all the time. This is one of my problems personally with a lot of spiritual communities is where everybody is just sort of full of shit. They’re wearing this mask and say “I’m so happy and spiritual.” Well, if you are so happy and spiritual, why are you here? Because the rest of us are coming here because we’re unhappy, because we’re suffering and because we’re seeking some answers, some solutions and some tools. A big part of community is [being] in a place where I can be real. Can I talk about my resentments? Can I talk about my fears? Can I talk about my anxiety? Can I talk about how hard it is to be human? So, I really do my best to foster a community that’s not some bullshit, fake spiritual scene.