Noah Levine offers hope to at-risk youth and people battling addiction. He bases his work on the view that there’s nothing more radical than the Buddha’s original teachings.
First, Noah Levine took a comb and tried to slit his wrists with it. When that failed to kill him, he smashed his head over and over again into the concrete walls of his cell.
Levine was just seventeen years old, but as far as he was concerned he had nothing left to live for. There had only ever been one thing that made him feel connected to this world—the punk rock scene. In its loud, combative music he’d found an outlet for his seething rage, and among other troubled young punks he’d found a sense of belonging.
Over time, though, he’d forgotten about his dream of anarchy and revolution and traded in his mohawk for a crack pipe. These days all he did was take drugs, steal, lie, and fight, and even the homeless gutter punks with their pet rats shunned him as a junkie. He had reached rock bottom.
Levine had been in juvenile hall many times before, but this was different.
When Levine woke up in a padded cell, everything hurt. His wrists were raw, his head was bruised and bloody, and he was going through forced withdrawal. For hours, he cried and yelled at the guards, and then he went quiet.
Levine had been in juvenile hall many times before, but this was different. For the first time, he saw where he was and didn’t blame anyone else—not the cops or society, not his teachers or family. He saw that he was the one hurting himself and others and that he was living the consequences. In the cell’s dim fluorescent lighting, death had seemed like the only way out of his suffering. Now he felt like even more of a loser—not only had he failed at life, he’d failed to kill himself.
A wary guard roused Levine. “Your dad’s on the phone,” he said. “You can take the call, but I have to go with you.”
Into the receiver, Levine ranted about his fear and regret, and in response his father made the same suggestion he always did: Meditate. That might alleviate some of the pain. Noah’s father was Stephen Levine, an influential spiritual teacher and author who had helped make Theravada Buddhism more available in the West.
All his life, Noah had rejected his father’s “hippie shit,” but this time he said he’d give it a try. So back in his cell, on a hard plastic bed, he attempted to follow the breath. He inhaled. He exhaled. And it did help. Here and there, even if it was just for a second, he was able to feel better and forget that he was locked up.
Almost ten years later, Levine was back at the very same juvenile hall, but this time he wasn’t a prisoner. He was teaching meditation to incarcerated youth. Grateful for the practice that had turned his life around, he wanted to share it with others.
“It was an amazing full circle to go back into that place of suffering for me,” he says. “I caused so much harm to so many people for so long, and that’s why I ended up in jail. Going back to be of service to that suffering population felt like a purification of past unwholesome actions. A lot of the teaching I’ve done has been healing for me and integral to my own path.”
Today, at forty-five, Levine is a fully empowered Buddhist teacher, a dharma heir of the leading Insight Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield. He’s a bestselling author (Dharma Punx, Against the Stream, The Heart of the Revolution, Refuge Recovery) and inspiration for several thriving communities of meditators. As someone in his straight-talking world might put it, he gets shit done.
Levine is the founding teacher of Against the Stream, an international Buddhist community with a political bent and edgier feel that attracts a diverse crowd. It has active centers in Los Angeles and San Francisco and more than twenty affiliated groups across North America.
He is also the founder of Refuge Recovery Centers, a professional mindfulness-based addiction treatment center, and a related but separate nonprofit organization, also called Refuge Recovery. And he’s the director and cofounder of Mind Body Awareness Project, a nonprofit organization that serves at-risk and incarcerated youth.
Noah brought twelve-step full disclosure into his teaching. If he was angry, he didn’t pretend that he was serene. He brought whatever mood he was in into the presentation.
Levine is a well-established and respected Buddhist leader, but in the straight-laced, boomer-dominated landscape of American dharma, he definitely stands out.
Josh Korda remembers driving to a rap gig in Brooklyn with his friend and teacher Noah Levine. Levine had an old muscle car without seat belts, and he was going thirty or forty miles an hour over the speed limit and weaving through traffic. As they were going over the Manhattan Bridge, Korda nervously imagined them careening over the edge and into the water. Levine looked at him and smiled. “Right about now,” he said, “I bet you wished you believed in rebirth.”
From the first time Korda heard Levine teach, he knew that Levine wasn’t like any other Buddhist teacher he’d ever encountered. In Korda’s previous experience, Buddhist teachers all had an “element of emotion blunting,” he says. “It was like they confused equanimity with emotionlessness and they were without any real big personality. Noah, on the other hand, brought twelve-step full disclosure into his teaching. If he was angry, he didn’t just suddenly pretend that he was serene. He brought whatever mood he was in into the presentation and fully disclosed his own foibles.
“A lot of Buddhist teachers say, ‘You should do this, you should do that,’ and they present themselves as if they were on the other side of some kind of spiritual ravine. Noah disclosed his past issues with drugs and alcohol and of being in trouble with the law. His full disclosure hooked me because I had never heard it before.”
With his shaved head and nearly complete bodysuit of spiritual tattoos, Levine is true to his punk rock roots—even as he goes beyond them.
“Buddhism and punk are both founded on dissatisfaction,” he explains. “The Buddha’s first noble truth acknowledges the suffering in life. Punk rock comes from that same place of seeing the suffering in the world and reacting to it. But punk rock gets stuck in the first noble truth. It rarely gets around to the second noble truth—seeing the causes of suffering—or to the third and fourth noble truths of seeing that there’s actually a solution, a path. So the beginning place of Buddhism and punk rock is, I believe, the same. But Buddhism is a very practical path that offers a solution to suffering, and punk often doesn’t have much of one.”
Levine appreciates that Buddhism and punk have the same spirit of rebellion. “Buddhism is about rebelling against greed, hatred, and delusion,” he says. Greed, hatred, and delusion are so common—so mainstream—that most people just mindlessly float in their poison. The path to awakening is subtle and difficult and totally contrary to our shortsighted addiction to pleasure and aversion to pain. So taking up the path is the most radical thing we can do. It is, as the Buddha put it, going against the stream.
In 2004, Levine started a meditation group in New York City that became known as Dharma Punx. Josh Korda was thrilled. Over the years, he had attended a lot of Buddhist centers, but he’d never been able to connect with the people he met there. They were not “his tribe,” he says, and they made him feel as if he “had walked into a convention of therapists from the Upper West Side.”
Dharma Punx was the perfect fit. In those early days, about 75 percent of the people who came to the meetings were in recovery, and most of them were young and left-wing—punks, vegans, anarchists. When Levine moved to Los Angeles in 2005, he named Korda the community’s guiding teacher, and Dharma Punx NYC has flourished under his leadership. Besides the twentysomethings, there’s a solid contingent of people in their sixties and seventies, and sitting between the punks are people wearing office-appropriate attire.
Buddhism and punk are both founded on dissatisfaction.
The name Dharma Punx caught on and other groups have adopted it, but when Levine started a new dharma community in California, he wanted a name that could be embraced by people outside the punk world. Borrowing from the words of the Buddha, he called his new community Against the Stream.
When asked to characterize his teaching style, Levine says it’s straightforward Theravada Buddhism, made accessible for twenty-first-century Americans.
“I believe it’s important for teachers to translate the dharma into the idiom of the people they’re speaking to,” says Levine. “So I do my best to speak to Westerners without a lot of the dogmatic overlays that we sometimes get from Buddhism or to use too much Pali or Sanskrit. I try to translate the dharma into practical, applicable teachings and practices.
“I have a tendency toward irreverence and skepticism,” Levine adds. “I encourage everyone to question the dharma—to not take it on blind faith but to develop verified faith or confidence based on their own direct experience.”
Josh Korda remembers another speed-demon adventure with Levine. In 2015, they were teaching at Joshua Retreat Center in California. One night they went out for dinner and then—driving back through the desert—Levine’s foot got heavy and the speedometer leapt up to well over ninety miles per hour.
When Levine’s mobile rang, he didn’t ease off. It was his kids on FaceTime, and they were crying because their mother wouldn’t give them ice cream. Levine tried to placate them as Dave Smith, another Against the Stream teacher who was driving his own muscle car at an even more awesome velocity, passed them. Levine and Smith made like they were going to drag race.
“I was like Woody Allen,” Korda says. “I was this neurotic guy from the Lower East Side, and I was with these guys from Los Angeles drag racing through the night.”
Tyson Annicharico has been in and out of recovery for the past fifteen years. “Everybody that goes to AA has their complaints about it—AA is this, AA is that. Well,” he says, “Noah actually did something about it.”
What he did was come up with an alternative to the twelve steps—a Buddhist-based path to healing addiction that he calls Refuge Recovery and lays out in his book by the same name. But Levine won’t take the credit. As he sees it, it was the Buddha who designed Refuge Recovery. He just labeled it addiction treatment.
Levine is well aware there are groups integrating Buddhism into twelve-step work. But, he asserts, “The twelve steps themselves are never Buddhist based—they’re always Christian. So people take that Judeo-Christian theistic philosophy and integrate Buddhist teachings into it. This works for a lot of people, and it’s beautiful on some level. But for me, I don’t need to translate Christianity through a Buddhist lens. Buddhism itself is totally applicable to recovery work.”
At the core of Refuge Recovery are the four noble truths. “The first truth of Refuge Recovery is the truth of suffering—the suffering of addiction, as well as all of the other suffering in life,” says Levine.
“The second truth is that all suffering has the same roots of craving, but for the addict there are often some other factors that have made the normal human craving more extreme.
“The third truth is that recovery—awakening—is possible. And the fourth truth is the eightfold path of how we are going to treat our addiction.”
In classic Buddhism, the eightfold path is a set of instructions for ending suffering and achieving enlightenment: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These steps, however, are not linear. They are all intimately connected to each other, and the path unfolds differently for different people.
“Refuge Recovery is classic Buddhism,” says Levine. “It’s not linear. Although mindfulness is the seventh factor, mindfulness becomes the foundation for the rest of the path.
“So we get people starting a meditation practice right from the beginning. Then through mindfulness you gain understanding of karma and personal responsibility. You begin to change your intentions from negative and self-serving to kind, compassionate, and generous. You begin to be more careful with your communication, more careful with your sexuality and your relationship to money. You begin to have insights into impermanence, and unsatisfactory-ness, and the impersonal nature of things.”
In short, Levine concludes, “the program is laid out just like every Buddhist path: here’s what the Buddha taught and this is how we can apply it. It unfolds in its own way.”
Refuge Recovery is a nonprofit organization offering Buddhist teachings and meditation to anyone seeking recovery from addiction. Currently, there are a couple of hundred groups around the world and—though they are connected philosophically—each group is autonomous. Anyone who has abstained from drugs and alcohol for a minimum of six months can start a group, but there are no leaders. The groups are peer led. In the same way that AA has sponsors, Refuge Recovery has mentors.
Meditation is always practiced at the meetings, which are free to attend. Sometimes there is a speaker who shares their experience with addiction, and other times the participants discuss different parts of the Refuge Recovery path. “Everyone is welcome,” says Levine. “It’s about the community of recovering addicts getting together and supporting each other in the process of recovery.”
In 2014, a licensed state-of-the-art addiction-treatment facility opened its doors in Los Angeles. As Levine describes it, the Refuge Recovery Centers’ detox center is a beautiful six-bedroom home where clients are made as comfortable as possible while they go through the hard, painful work of detoxing. They are offered tasty, healthy food and instruction in meditation and yoga. They’re supported by psychiatrists and case managers.
Once clients have completed detox, they move to the intensive outpatient facility, a twelve-bedroom apartment complex that’s located a half a block from L.A.’s Against the Stream center. The program runs five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes meditation and various psychotherapeutic techniques. In a nutshell, says Levine, the program is about “really looking at our suffering and how to respond to it more wisely and heal it.”
Tyson Annicharico was in treatment at Refuge Recovery Centers for six months and is now sober. In his experience, the traditional twelve-step model is useful for establishing sobriety, but Refuge Recovery is a more realistic option for sustaining it.
“At Refuge Recovery they tell you that you already have the ability inside of you to get and stay sober,” says Annicharico. “But at AA, they tell you that you don’t. They tell you that it’s outside of you—it’s an external source, a higher power that will give you the strength and ability to stay sober.
“For me, thinking there’s always something outside of me that can fix me is what got me addicted to drugs in the first place. So I was really attracted to Refuge Recovery saying that you already have what you need. You just need to foster it and let it grow. That’s what meditation does for me. It helps me find my ability to cope with the world and my emotions.”
The doors of Refuge Recovery Centers are never locked.
Because of meditation, continues Annicharico, “I have space between my thoughts and my actions. I didn’t have that space before. I would have a thought or an emotion and I would react to it immediately. Now, for the first time in my life, I can have a thought and I don’t have to chase it. I don’t have to let it overwhelm me. That’s a skill that I was taught at Refuge Recovery.”
The doors of Refuge Recovery Centers are never locked, so clients can walk out if they want to. A few do leave, but the vast majority stay. According to Shannon Fowler, the centers’ director of admissions and business development, Levine himself is often the reason people stay the course.
“He’s a great resource at redirecting clients when they are in the midst of a craving that feels too strong and unmanageable,” Fowler says. “He’ll walk into the room, never having met one of the clients before, and in five minutes he’ll have them inspired to continue doing the hard work we’re asking them to do. He has a wonderful ability to get them to see the possibility of their own recovery.”
How does Levine do it? “I wish we could figure it out and bottle it up,” says Fowler, “but I think it’s his ability to hold a compassionate response to whatever the clients are experiencing. He is present and responds with skillfulness and an open heart. The clients—or any individual—can’t help but have an authentic connection to that availability.”
Noah Levine knows how to talk to at-risk youth so they can relate, even if that got him into trouble a couple of times. “Mindfulness is like rolling a joint,” he told incarcerated youth.
“Yeah, I know what that’s like,” one of the kids said. “I’m trying to get the seeds and the stems out and I’m trying not to break the paper. That’s the only time I’m really paying attention.”
“Well, do that with your breath,” Levine would tell them.
The guards didn’t appreciate the analogy, but the kids totally got it.
In 1999, Levine was working on his master’s degree in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. He invited some of his classmates to teach meditation with him at “the juvy,” and they were inspired to found Mind Body Awareness Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching mindfulness to incarcerated youth. In time, MBA Project expanded its mission to provide programming to at-risk youth in schools and communities.
Vinny Ferraro, the guiding teacher of Against the Stream San Francisco, has been involved with MBA Project almost since the beginning. “Most programs in institutions are subpar,” he says. “They’re government-mandated, just-say-no Reagan bullshit. They’re mandated by people who have no idea what it’s like to sit on the other side of the desk and be talked at.”
Ferraro remembers when he was locked up. “People would come in screaming at me, talking about what I did and why I needed to change. I was like, you have no idea about my life experience.”
MBA Project instructors take a different tack. They ask kids questions about themselves and get them to tap into their own wisdom. When kids have been through homelessness, drug addiction, and incarceration, says Ferraro, “It’s our duty to help them cultivate any shred of dignity or self-respect they’ve got. So let’s start there. Stand at the door of the unit and welcome them in, look them in the eye, get to know their names, build a relationship with them.”
Levine’s tattoos are reminders “to be ethical and kind, compassionate, generous, and mindful. To live with integrity.”
What’s critical, Ferraro continues, “is saying, ‘I see you, man, and even though we’ve been through a lot of shit, that ain’t all of who we are. But that makes us survivors, and we can transform that into something powerful. Let’s get into alchemy here. Instead of hiding what happened to us and leaving it shrouded in shame, let’s claim that shit and then stand up on top of it.’”
When they practice mindfulness, the kids learn that they don’t have to give up control and take the bait just because somebody else isn’t happy. Ferraro offers this example: “Somebody says something about my mother. If I smack him, I’ll just get time tacked onto my bid. But what if I flashed my basic goodness instead of flashing my fists?” Maybe, says Ferraro, that would remind this other guy of who he really is—that he too is basically good.
According to statistically validated measures, youths who complete MBA Project’s ten modules experience a 31.7 percent increase in self-regulation of and a 24.1 percent increase in school attachment. They experience decreases of 33.2 percent in stress, 20.1 percent in impulsiveness, and 28.4 percent in violent conflict.
“MBA Project gives kids a choice in neighborhoods where they don’t have choices,” says Ferraro. “In my neighborhood, my choice was whether I was going to become a crackhead or a dope fiend. My whole family was dope fiends, so I went crack. At MBA Project, we’re giving kids some different options.”
In Buddhism, there are five precepts: abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and consuming intoxicants. The last is interpreted in different ways, and Noah Levine finds it perplexing that many Buddhists take a more lenient approach to the fifth precept.
“Everybody agrees that the first four precepts are about abstaining,” he says, “but then somehow we get to the fifth precept and people start saying, ‘Oh, no, this doesn’t mean abstinence. This means moderation.’ Are we going to start saying, ‘It’s okay to kill in moderation’ and ‘It’s okay to steal in moderation’ as long as you’re balanced about it? The Buddha was quite clear about abstinence as the foundation for the ability to be mindful.”
For many dharma practitioners, Levine’s approach to intoxicants and the dharma in general is hardline—even old-fashioned. And maybe to them his point of view sits oddly with his many innovations, his rebellious streak, his punk styling. But Levine doesn’t see any contradiction. “I’ve always been interested in going right to the roots of what Siddhartha Gautama taught and how to apply it,” he says.
One thing Siddhartha had no beef with—as far as we know—was tattoos. At the end of our interview, Levine describes his: There’s the huge Buddha on his stomach, “a Buddha belly,” which is flanked by two dragons. There’s the Tibetan laughing skull and eternal knot on his biceps. And then there’s his back wholly covered in the wheel of existence held in the mouth of Mara.
For Levine, his tattoos are reminders. “You look down at your arm,” he says, “and you’re like, oh yeah, Buddha! They’re a reminder to be ethical and kind, compassionate, generous, and mindful. To live with integrity.”
One of these days soon, says Levine, he’s going to get his thighs inked. At that point, his bodysuit will be complete. He will be covered in reminders.