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.
Amanda: What is the connection between Punk and Buddhism?
Noah: Buddhism’s first noble truth is acknowledging the suffering in the world and the core dissatisfaction with life, the status quo and the world. Punk rock is also founded upon this exact same principal. It’s a dissatisfaction of the status quo or the material world. [The] status quo of modern music in the late 70’s when Punk really was created. It was very much a reaction to stadium rock and roll and bad folk music. It was a dissatisfactory quality that punk was born out of and it continues to be fueled by angst, fueled by dissatisfaction, injustice and seeing clearly. I feel that much of punk rock is a fierce voice of wisdom and a fierce critique of life, of the world. Buddhism also has a pretty vehement critique of the material world and has a deep encouragement for a spiritual solution. Buddhism gets around the solution in a very wise way. Punk often stays in the realm of critique.
Amanda: Does meditating ever feel like being high?
Noah: There are altered states that get created in mediation, for sure. There’s the simple relaxation that can happen in mediation that feels like being high. There’s different kinds of meditative experience that feels like being high. There are experiences that get very concentrated and those concentration states can feel very blissful, very pleasurable, a real altered state. Mindfulness in itself can feel a bit like being high. It can feel very pleasurable. When you practice non attachment and you’re not suffering, you’re not creating so much stress for yourself. That in itself feels sort of like a good buzzed, a good stoned, a good sedative. Creating an altered is not the point of meditation. Getting high feels like a side effect of mediation. It’s not the point of mediation. The point is actually living in reality and for the most part getting high is escaping reality. What Buddhism is really teaching us is how to live in the world, in reality, in a wise and compassionate way.
Amanda: How can meditation and other Buddhist principals help everyone who is suffering, which is everyone in the whole world, because we all suffer?
Noah: People generally are suffering in three ways: because they’re attached to something. Controlling, clinging, craving is a huge source of suffering for people. A core part of what Buddhism teaches us is how to let go, how to let be, how to live in harmony with impermanence and how not to be so attached. Non-attachment is not just something we can choose to do, but through mindfulness meditation, we learn how to let go. So, that’s something that would tremendously benefit everyone. The other way people suffer a lot is around their relationship to pain, hatred of pain, aversion to pain. Resistance, denial, depression around pain. So, another core tenant of Buddhism is compassion and how do we change our relationship to have tolerance for it and ultimately, how to develop compassion and care. And the third way is through mediation and Buddhist practice. We can break our self-centeredness, self-obsession, “self-cherishedness” and taking everything that happens in our minds personally. [We] believe that we are our thoughts, believing that we are our bodies. Meditation will break that and change our relationship to our mind. Rather than thinking we are our mind, we can get a relationship with it and be able to have more of a discernment of what are wise thoughts, wise judgment, vs. discernments. So Buddhism will also break self-centeredness and self-cherishing in a good way, that will lead to less suffering about what is arising the mind.
Amanda Lauren: Do you think a lot of people who grew up in a Judeo-Christian tradition, but as adults are unattached to those religions, are attracted to Buddhism? Can you practice both? What about the Buddhist Atheists?
Noah: Because Buddhism has no theism in it. It’s not necessarily an atheist approach, but it’s a non-theistic approach. It’s an approach to spiritual awakening, psychological health, healing, that doesn’t petition a God or a higher power or any sort of theistic supernatural powers. People who do believe in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God of Abraham mono theistic world view can still practice mindfulness, non-attachment, compassion and breaking self-centeredness without letting go of their belief in God. It can fit very well for the Judeo-Christian conditioning and for those who grew up and felt disconnected or disbelieving or felt more like an atheist. The western monotheism never made sense to them then, but at some point they might have changed their views. Buddhism creates a container for health, wellness and awakening that has nothing to do with God. It fits really for both the theist and non-theist. And Buddhism on some level, because it’s not theistic, is perfect for atheists.
Amanda: You have been sober for 25 years. How does Buddhism support recovery from addiction?
Noah: For the last five or six years here in Los Angeles, I’ve been developing a purely Buddhist approach to addiction and recovery. There is the twelve step program, based in Judeo-Christian philosophy of petitioning God or a higher power for help in recovery. That is very useful to addicts, but there is a lot of people, a lot of Buddhist minded people that find the language of the twelve steps to be off-putting. What if we just take a Buddhist view on what it means to be an addict, an alcoholic, a food addict, a sex addict or co-dependent? It became really obvious to me and I’m sure to many other people that the core teachings of Buddhism align perfectly with recovery. The first noble truth, admit that we are denying, admit that we are suffering from addiction. Admitting that addiction is a major cause of suffering in our lives. The second noble truth, which is looking at the cause of suffering, is repetitive craving. That repetitive craving for pleasure or for pain to go away is an extreme one in the addict. It’s a craving for drugs, for alcohol, for food, for sex for money, for whatever it is, however it’s manifested. And looking at what is underlying the cravings. Some of it is just born in the natural human survival instinct. [For Example], I want pleasure, I don’t want pain. In the addict, it’s usually some trauma, some pain that’s making it a more extreme craving. The third noble truth explains that there is a solution, that nirvana, enlightenment, spiritual “awakenment” can end the suffering, that craving, the cause of suffering.
We’ve created [a program] called Refuge Recovery. We’ve had meetings here in Los Angeles for about six years. It’s been incredibly successful, both for the people in the twelve step recovery processes that want to learn more about Meditation. Buddhism offers that. And for the people who don’t find a home in the twelve step programs, who want to take a Buddhist approach to addiction and recovery. The book contains a comprehensive guide to healing which includes Buddhist principals, guided meditations, how to find Buddhist meetings, how to start your own meetings. It will come out in May 2014.
You can find out more about Noah and Against the Stream at www.againsthestream.org
Amanda Lauren is an actress, writer and Bu-Jew living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared on Xo Jane, Salon, Psychology Today, Huffington Post and After Party Chat, among others. Please follow her on Twitter @amandalauren and on Tumblr http://amandalauren212.tumblr.com/