Interview with Noah Levine, Founder and Author of Refuge Recovery
From Meditation to Music....
The unconventional tatted up, punk Buddhist, Noah Levine, founder of the non theistic recovery and meditation program called Refuge Recovery and author of the book of the same name met with me over face time and we spent nearly an hour chatting about topics from meditation to music.
Noah Levine, is the founder and author of Dharma Punx and the newer program of the two, Refuge Recovery. He is a special blend of punk rock, tattoos and Buddhism that combined is a unique flavour in the world of recovery, meditation and personal growth. I found him to be a fun, down to earth, knowledgeable, educated, well spoken, 'regular guy'. A dude I can imagine hanging out with at a gig, a music festival or dare I say it....a bar. The conversation flowed and we seemed to have an easy enjoyable chat, more like a casual hang, than an interview. We could've talked about a bunch more topics, though I tried to keep it to mainly the topics of recovery and meditation. And of course I brought in a little music to the convo as this is The Music Soup! And this is how it went:
TMS: I know you came from a family with meditation, as your father was a poet and a Buddhist meditation guy. What do you think your life would've been like without meditation? How much do you meditate now and what was it like as a kid being around it and/or meditating as a kid?
Noah: My recovery has been so dependent on meditation I'm not sure if I would've been able to maintain abstinence without my meditation practice, so it's easy to think of the jails, institutions and death that would've come without recovery in my life... so probably pretty miserable without the meditation practice. And I have a regular daily meditation practice. I didn't really meditate when I was a kid. My father took the tact of modeling it but not pushing it on his children. And so it wasn't really until I was a strung out drug addict teenager, and incarcerated that I became desperate enough to try meditation and started to get involved.
TMS: In Refuge you talk a lot about unattached appreciation and impermenance. These phrases can apply to so many things in life. And regarding relationships, I've heard you say that they are messy and painful and cause suffering and they have a beginning, a middle, and an end...Sounds like a pretty bleak mindset around relationships. Do you not believe that there can be a "till death do us part"?
Noah: Well, could be. Not unconditionally. If the right conditions are present for that long term 'till death' relationship...sure, I believe in that and I have a little bit of a romantic hope if the conditions are correct. But I dont think there should be unconditional relationships where we tolerate abuse, neglect or mistreatment. So it's unrealistic that we should say we'll stay together forever no matter what when there's dishonesty, betrayal or harm being caused. Then it's unhealthy and of course you don't want to stay. You want to leave relationships like that. But it's possible that relationships can be healthy and long term.
TMS: I'm having trouble getting my head round this unattached appreciation thing. Does that mean we should never get close to anyone? Never open our hearts?
Noah: Unattached appreciation is just not controlling the other person. Non attachment is foreign to all of us. When there is disruptions in our childhood by our caregivers, that tendency to cling becomes neurotic. It's the second noble truth. Everyone clings. The cause of human suffering is craving and clinging. It's normal. Not neurotic, it's not your fault. But sometimes our childhood wounds create not knowing non attached connection. Because theres no where in Buddhism or RR saying be detached and separate. We're saying be connectedly attached without clinging. (He motioned interlacing the fingers as clinging and manipulation, as opposed to being connectedly attached without controlling - showing his palms touching facing each other and pressed together). Our partner is always changing. And if we grasp, they don't like it. It's impermanence. But when we are not attached and connected, and they have their space to change and grow and have their feelings, thoughts and moods, and we do...we are not detaching...we are connected. Loving and embracing non attachment. This is the skill that mindfulness and Buddhism offers us. It's natural it's normal. Non attachment is radical. Skill and wisdom that we have to develop through our meditation practice is something we have to hone. It takes years and years, probably decades of medititaion practice to re wire that tendency. On some level, meditation re-wires that shit in our brain. That's what neuroscience would say. Its re-wiring your neuro-pathways. Buddhism may take a spiritual take on it, uncovering an innate wisdom within you.
TMS: I've been to many in person and online AA meetings and quite frankly some, have been a bit scary. Super hardcore. I find RR a gentler, warmer more friendly program.
Noah: We focus more on wisdom and compassion and not just abstinence and not this view on people as powerless or defective and only god can restore you to sanity. We don't have any of those beliefs. Yes, you've become an addict and yes you're gonna have to establish and maintain abstinence. But the path is one of personal experience and power from the developing through meditation and also the sangha, the community involvement, the friendships, the service work we do...all those principles that leads to a transformation, a healing of recovery. It's all your effort that's doing it. It's not a magical deity thats creating those changes for us. It's your effort that is doing it, it's based on our own actions and efforts.
TMS: In old school AA the sponsors would tell their newly sober sponsees to quit all people places and things. Is that something you encourage in RR?
Noah: No, it's probably situational. Not 100% of the time and its not a black and white suggestion. I think it's probably more cultural. I don't think it's in AA Big Book or text. It doesn't say you need to change all people places things. It says, you need to stop drinking. It's probably personal to different sponsorship lineages. Varies from sponsor to sponsor. This was the whole thing when Alanon started, they didn't tell the alcoholics you need to leave your wife that's enabling you. Nor did they tell the wives to leave their alcoholics. They said figure it out. You should be able to heal and recover together. I dont think that is true in 12-step or RR. Its situational. Yes, the harmful abusive relationships you're gonna need to have boundaries with them. Or the partner who is addicted and using, yes you will want to leave that person while you're getting sober. You're probably not gonna want to hang out in the dope house. There's lots of alcoholics that find that after some time they can go to the concerts or nightclubs or whatever. It's not like that have to avoid that forever.
TMS: I had a sponsor in Alanon. She told me that if I didn't beleive in a god, she couldn't sponsor me. I was so desperate to get help, I wanted to believe, and I'd do anything she asked of me. So, for about a month or two, I did what she said, I dropped to my knees and 'prayed' to a god. Turned out to be more, 'her god' cause i just wasn't feeling it. I tried. I simply couldn't be inauthentic with myself. I couldn't believe in my core that this is what I had to do to heal. So, eventually I left that sponsor and all but one of my Alanon meetings, and went fully into the RR program. I'm now doing my inventories and I've been able to let go of a past that wasn't serving me. I know from hearing shares, that some people are so desperate not to relapse that they may do anything their sponsor tells them to do. I've heard AA old timers say that if their sponsor asked them to stand on their head for 18 hours a day, they would have in their early sobriety. Until they felt strong enough to change their path, which they did, eventually.
Noah: One of the core differences is a theistic world view. That human beings are powerless and sinful, defective vs humanist psychology which says we have a lot of power to change what we have in our lives and we need to train our mind to do that consistently and that's where a meditation practice based intervention comes in. You're training your mind. And your heart too. The mind heart connection, are not so separate in the Buddhist view.
I've been doing 12-step, and I'll continue to do 12-step. I'm not completely separate from that community that I've been involved with for 34 years. I still participate there. But the Judaeo Christian theistic world that they propose never made sense to me and Buddhism always made sense to me. Which is a non theistic spiritual path to awakening. The 12-steps have that open, find your own way, your own definition of god, all of that stuff...They're really clear with what needs to happen is an awakening...and that is what Buddhism has, an awakening. They, (12-step) were pretty sure that it would be a power of god in your life...Buddhism says you wake up to see impermanence, an awakening to see the compassion for our pain, our non attachment for pleasure...this is what leads to freedom from suffering. Not blind faith in a deity or some sort of higher power.
TMS: Were you born in a Jewish family?
Noah: Yes and no, my father was Jewish but didn't practice it. By the time I was born he was a Buddhist and Hindu. The Jew Bu. I dont know if you're aware of this Cheryl, all the main Buddhists teachers in America are Jewish. Ram Dass, Stephen Levine, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Cornfield, Sharon Saltzberg, they're all Jews! There's a book called, The Jew and the Lotus all about the Jews that became Buddhists.
TMS: Apparentley 12-step is said to have only 5% success rate. Is RR too young to find out the success rate?
Noah: First of all, I dont think those stats are reliable. I think it's a Harvard study somewhere that may have studied 500 alcoholics somewhere and came up with those numbers. They also dont say how many go to treatment centers or have returned to treatment centers. Or if they got a call a years later to find out if they're still in recovery. It does seem rather low. I'd like to say yes we have a higher success rate but I dont know. What I do know is that very few people are gonna follow through on a path of awakening, on a path of renunciation, on a path of compassion and forgiveness. Who meditate regularity, who practice kindness and generosity in this world that's run by greed, attachment, aversion and intoxication, practicing even just abstinence. What is success? Is it just abstinece? Abstinence doesn't equal happiness. We can say the same thing in RR or Buddhism...how many people stay abstinent long term, how many continue a meditation practice, forgive themselves and everyone else and come into a loving attitude? The potential is here for all of us. Those who follow through are the minority for sure.
TMS: I go to many types of meetings, both process addiction meetings and substance, and they're all usually mixed anyway in Refuge...but the themes differ. Do you envision putting in more process addiction meetings into RR?
Noah: I dont suggest any meetings. The community comes up with them. I sit back and support what the community wants. So if the community wants more groups based in affinity, codependency, or family issues, sex addiction, food addictions...i will support all of those. I will help encourage and support it. RR World Services - what I run, doesn't start any meetings. All we do is go with the suggestions from the community. Someone in the community has to step forward and say 'I want to do this" and we say, yes...lets do it!
TMS: We can chat for hours about all this, I'm afraid, but lets get to the music part of this chat, as this is mainly a music magazine. You know I'm a punk rocker, and a music junkie...I know you're a punk too. So tell me what music do you listen to? Tell me about the music that moves you.
Noah: Yesterday I was on a motorcycle ride with friends, I listened to The Ramones on the way, and then on the way back I put on a post punk, a band called, Helmut. Hardcore, heavy slow rock. Check out Helmut. I still listen to 1977 punk rock and early 80s punk. I also listen to Rap, 80s 90s, modern hip hop. And I'm a lifelong fan of Jamaican 60s - 70s music ska, punk ska crossover. Operation Ivy , Rancid...all those bands, from The Clash really...Those are my three realms, punk, rap and reggae.
TMS: Where are you from?
Noah: I'm from Santa Cruz. Grew up in Santa Cruz. Moved to SF in the mid 90s, lived in NYC and now I've been in LA for almost 18 years.
TMS: Anything you want to add?
Noah: "Everyone is welcome in Refuge Recovery. If you have issues with the 12-step language you may find this language fits better, like with you Cheryl, RR seems to fit you better. And if you love 12-step but you've never really learned how to meditate, and you haven't learned how to forgive yourself and just making amends doesn't just lead to full forgiveness, and you want to learn about compassion, forgiveness and mercy, welcome to Refuge. You may also love RR. Welcome to 12-step people that want to come and check out deepening their 11th step. Refuge Recovery Buddhism offers really good 11th step instructions! Where the 12-step programs suggests meditation but they never really do it. Just know that you're welcome here. Even if you have a HP. And even if you believe the Judeo Christian belief world view of humans being powerless and full of defects of character. All of that may make sense to you. You are all still welcome. Even if we have a little different perspective on humaity than Judeo Christian views. Buddhist view is that everything you're looking for is here in your own heart, you have to uncover it through your own efforts."
TMS: There was more conversation, as I said I think we could've chatted for hours, but basically to conclude....Refuge Recovery welcomes ALL. If you're in a 12-step program, or if you're not. If you simply want to better your life with meditation and community. If you want to work on healing childhood trauma, everyone is welcome in Refuge Recovery. Whether you have an addiction to substances, people, food, sex, gambling, codependency, spending. Whatever. You are all welcome to try out Refuge Recovery. Its as easy as turning on your computer or your phone and going to RR website, copying the meeting ID, go to Zoom and click on 'join'. You can simply listen or you can participate - your choice. Many people have come from 12-step and other groups. Many people, like me and Noah, continue going to both. Whatever suits your needs Refuge can be your refuge for spiritual healing, personal growth, community, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, kindness, learning about self and others, and it's a wonderful place to learn a magical meditation practice. 💜
I am so grateful to Noah and Refuge Recovery. Thank you. And much appreciation to all of those beautiful faces I see daily on my computer screen at the meetings on Zoom, With boatloads of gratitude, Cheryl and The Music Soup 🙏🏻 🎵