Dharma Punx

06.16.14

The Buddhist Punk Reforming Drug Rehab

Noah Levine is a heavily tattooed, formerly incarcerated addict. Now sober, he’s trying to reform drug rehab through Buddhism and punk music.

Every Sunday morning, about 15 addicts push through a nondescript metal door in an industrial area of Berkeley, Calif., and enter 924 Gilman Street. Inside, the ceiling is tall and like the walls, flat black. The surfaces are covered with abundant graffiti, political stickers, as well as fliers old and new, advertising punk shows. And you’re likely to see stickers that read, “No Gods, No Masters.”

Called “Gilman” by locals, the club opened in 1986, and is one of the longest running independent music venues in the United States. Featuring all-ages shows, this underground music mecca cultivated the careers of bands like Green Day, NOFX, and Rancid, until they signed to major labels and were no longer welcome at this volunteer-run and alcohol-free venue.

On Sunday mornings, there’s no band. For the past year, Gilman has been home to a motley crew of misfits ranging from teenagers to seniors, interested in recovery from addiction of all kinds.

The Refuge Recovery meeting starts at 10 a.m. Sitting on graffitied, beaten-to-death folding chairs and couches that a former organizer calls “disgusting,” there’s no getting around the smell: an olfactory footprint that’s the culmination of decades of sweaty mosh pits as well as a hint of urine that may or may not be coming from the gender neutral bathrooms, which are next to massive, curbside blue recycle bins that look out of place indoors.

Refuge Recovery is a lot like an AA meeting minus mentions of Him, God, or a higher Power. Instead of 12 steps, there’s a focus on Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, the  Eightfold Path, and community—what Buddhists call “sangha.” These meetings are the brainchild of Noah Levine, a Buddhist instructor, author, and counselor in Los Angeles.

Much like how Jay Bakker, the son of Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, re-branded Christianity with a progressive and punk patina at the end of 2001 with his book Son of a Preacher Man, Levine, the son of Buddhist author Stephen Levine, put a punk spin on Buddhism with his 2004 book Dharma Punx. It started a small international movement, creating a small sect of Buddhism in the process.   

Levine is part of a larger movement of Buddhism-based recovery. A similar book, Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction, was published in March. And there are numerous Buddhism-based 12-step books. Levine’s newest book, Refuge Recovery, came out on Tuesday—the 79th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Levine had been in and around AA for more than a decade when he began merging Buddhism with the 12-step teachings. Eventually he asked himself and his sober community, “Why are we still doing 12-step stuff? Why don’t we look at the Buddhist teachings on healing addiction?”

“I was hoping someone else would do it, but no one seemed to be doing it,” he said. “So about five or six years ago I said, ‘I’m going to do it’ and created the first draft of applying the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism to a process of treating addiction.”

While lecturing nationally and internationally, he created a framework for meetings and, eventually, training meeting facilitators. There are now regular Refuge Recovery meetings in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Hollywood, Santa Cruz, Nashville, and Oklahoma City.

The original concept hasn’t changed much: recovery by way of the Four Noble Truths, which are all about suffering: the reality of it, its origin, the cessation of it, and, finally, the true path to cessation—the Eight-Fold Path.

But there was one problem: Community is not discussed explicitly in the Four Noble Truths.  

“A central part of recovery is having a community. One of the factors of the Eight-Fold path is wise communication. Traditionally, that’s really about how we communicate,” Levine explained. “But, I said, ‘Here’s a place we can put in community because communication is about community.’ So, I edited the third factor of the Eight-Fold Path—instead of just being about speech and communication, to being about communication and community. And participating and supporting each other in the process of recovery.”

***

With neck tattoos and full sleeves, Levine looks more like Danny Trejo than the Dalai Lama. Fond of Motörhead T-shirts, Dickies, Vans, and chain wallets, Levine would look right at home on the stage of 924 Gilman.

But as a kid—a middle child and product of divorce—Noah was unhappy. Being raised by Buddhists almost led to his early demise by his own hand, thanks to the fact that he thought about suicide regularly and was surrounded by adults who believed in reincarnation. That combination made him wonder if suicide could offer a fresh start.

Then he discovered drugs, and started smoking weed and drinking at 7 years old. By 10, he was taking LSD. He admits that drugs may have saved his life early on because they offered respite from the sadness.

As his “doors of perception” were being blown wide open, he found Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols. The rebelliousness of music spoke to this child of hippies and Levine had found his subculture. He still tips his hat to the spiky-haired bass player on the regular: He often calls the young, pre-enlightened Siddhārtha Gautama aka the Buddha, “Sid.”

Levine discovered heroin and crack as a teen, dropped out of high school at 16, and by the age of by 17, he had a couple of felony arrests and a few stints in juvenile hall under his belt.  Strung-out and facing yet another charge, he was looking at the possibility of being tried as an adult and receiving a lengthy prison sentence. He reached out to his father for help, hoping for a lawyer. Levine got basic meditation instruction instead.

Underwhelmed, the incarcerated young addict had nothing but time on his hands, so he tried a breath meditation technique called anapanasati, and was surprised that it helped.

Levine ended up with a sympathetic judge and got out on probation. Two years later and sober, he was still acting out, facing 17 years for graffiti and vandalism. He’d tagged “Noahcore” and “8edge” (phonetically similar to his “straight-edge,” drug and alcohol-free lifestyle).

Again, he found a sympathetic judge and didn’t have to do prison time. After paying a hefty fine and serving 500 community service hours, he wholeheartedly pursued a spiritual path while staying connected to punk rock. Levine wrote about his life in his 2004 memoir, Dharma Punx, the book that started a worldwide movement sharing the same name.

Since then, Levine has published two more books, started two meditation centers in LA, and co-founded a nonprofit that serves incarcerated populations. There are Dharma Punx chapters all over the US, as well as abroad.

I met Levine when he opened his first center in Los Angeles in 2008. This being my first introduction to Buddhism, I was skeptical. I read the very polarized reviews of his first book on Amazon, which made him out to be the real deal or a fraud—there was no in-between.

Located in East Hollywood, the neighborhood was dodgy but slowly starting to change thanks to a bicycle repair co-op, small bike shop, and vegan restaurant. But, during these early days, vagrants would sometimes walk in off the street, often eye the donations that were in plain view, and occasionally disrupt the class.

Levine handled these disruptions with wisdom and compassion. It was the first time I witnessed his balanced mix of strength and kindness, or what could be dubbed his “Buddha nature.” I’ve studied with him on and off since then, and even dragged my mother to a weekend retreat at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in western Massachusetts last fall.

With neck tattoos and full sleeves, Levine looks more like Danny Trejo than the Dalai Lama.

She wasn’t put off by his semi-regular F-bombs, and didn’t notice when he took a hit from his nicotine vaporizer and making a joke about how he always wanted to smoke and teach at the same time. She even enjoyed a dance-based mindful movement class that kicked off with a Clash song.

Like me, she’d experienced him in person first. She hadn’t read any of his books, nor seen the documentary about him, Meditate and Destroy. All of these mediums give you a small glimpse of who he is. If you want to see who he really is, check him out in person or via podcast.

“Noah has a very pragmatic and very practical and down-to-earth approach to what we would call Buddhism or the dharma,” explained David Smith, a mindfulness and addiction educator in Nashville who also leads two Refuge Recovery sessions per week.

“He speaks to a wider range of people that would be normally introduced to Buddhism, because he does have an addiction background and he does have that street mentality that he reaches a wider audience. Still, people like my mom, who doesn’t have that background, love Noah,” Smith said.  

***

Refuge Recovery meetings start with a facilitator or secretary reading from a script: “My role is not authoritative. I am not an empowered Buddhist meditation teacher; I’m here to facilitate the group and lead our discussion.”

The readings that lay out the groundwork of the meeting continue for a few more minutes, before a guided meditation of 20 to 30 minutes.

“Meditation is the focal point as opposed to just being one of the steps,” said Justin Taylor, the former secretary of the Gilman Street meeting. Like many attending Refuge Recovery, Taylor had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings before discovering Refuge Recovery. He appreciated the non-theistic approach because it helps “guide yourself to finding yourself,” he said.

A reading follows the meditation. After the reading, the facilitator shares a recovery-based topic before opening the floor to a group share, where comments are limited to three to five minutes and specific to the evening’s topic. Most meetings end with a closing reading, mention of the importance of anonymity and confidentiality and its relationship to the meeting,  announcements, and information about the suggested donation—usually $5.

Refuge Recovery also has a brick-and mortar-element: an outpatient program opened at the end of April in West Hollywood and a sober living facility opened in Hollywood on May 22.

Last Friday, Mary Ann Gallo became one of the first graduates of the Refuge Recovery outpatient program at the Blvd Center in Los Angeles. The seven-week program required her to visit the Blvd Center five days a week for five hours a day, where there are three, 60-minute group sessions per day, one meditation period, a break for lunch, regular check-ins with a case worker, drug testing, and “recovery supportive” yoga. Participants are also encouraged to attend 12-step programs (if that’s part of their recovery), Refuge Recovery meetings, or classes at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.

Gallo tried outpatient treatment one time before, nine years ago at Cedar Sinai. The theist approach to 12-steps put her off.

“The part where I would give up control to a higher power didn’t make sense to me. I knew that if this was going to happen, I needed to do it for myself  and I needed the tools… In the Buddhist approach, I saw the tools and the way I could take control of it myself,” said Gallo.

As someone who previously battled addiction privately, Gallo didn’t have a sober community. This “sangha” is critical to Refuge Recovery and Gallo admits was paramount.  

A few weeks ago, Levine gave her an early copy of the book. She told him, “If this had been around years ago, I would’ve gotten sober a lot sooner because it was exactly what I was looking for… I was on Amazon searching. I put in the search words, ‘Buddhism [and] addiction,’ ‘Buddhism [and] recovery’ and everything that was out at that time was how to view the 12-steps through a Buddhist lens. And Refuge Recovery doesn’t ask you to do that.”

What are the next steps and goals for this nascent movement? “I don’t really know,” Levine said. “I want it to be a very organic movement. I think it will be what people want it to be as people get interested in it. I think people will start meetings all over the country.”

He continued, “There is some infrastructure being built. In the long run, I’d like to see there be a residential treatment for Refuge. But, on a lot of levels, it’s going to be peer-led support groups that people start and run on their own volition.”

Kinda like Gilman Street.