The Road to Enlightenment: A Revealing Interview With Noah Levine (Part II)
This is the second part of an interview with Noah Levine – a Buddhist teacher, author and counselor. He created a Buddhist approach to addiction recovery called Refuge Recovery. Noah is also the founding teacher of Against the Stream, a Buddhist Meditation Society.
Q: What prompted your leap from a dedicated meditation practice to new recovery practice?
Noah: My teachers encouraged me to teach. At that time, Kevin Griffin and I had started to do a little Buddhism and 12-Step teaching together. I questioned, am I going to be a recovery Buddhist or am I just going to be a Buddhist teacher? I made the early decision that I don’t want to exclude people who aren’t at their dharma doorway. When I started teaching Against the Stream, it was for everyone who has dissatisfaction, and who are seeking freedom. As it turned out, more than half of my community were recovering addicts.
My first book, Dharma Punks, is my story of addiction and recovery and how Buddhism was essential to that. I realized that so many people in my community are trying to find their way with Buddhism as a recovery path and what we really need is an actual format, organization, and peer led support – so that people aren’t dependent on a teacher.
The 12-Step model is brilliant in that respect – being of service to each other and accountability to other recovering people. We were breaking free from that Buddhist hierarchy of needing the teacher. That inspired me to create a peer led Buddhist oriented recovery process.
Q: Anything different from a 12-Step recovery can sometimes be considered controversial. You summarized this beautifully in an interview as a theistic versus a non-theistic approach. How would you describe Refuge Recovery and its accessibility for atheists or those opposed to the theistic language in recovery programs?
Noah: I would describe it as a humanist psychology. It is a mindfulness-based intervention; a developing of emotional intelligence and positive emotions through the practices of forgiveness, compassion, love and kindness; and developing the wisdom to see the impermanent nature of craving. Also, the impermanent nature of all thoughts, feelings, and sensations – through an investigation of meditative discipline. The whole process is like a humanist psychology and is not a theistic mystical intervention. It’s rational and is based on the neuroscience and psychology of how human beings work. It’s an action-based transformation.
Q: You said in your interview with Tommy Rosen that there is a misconception that you need God to recover?
Noah: I think that the 12-Step guys were brilliant. They saw a spiritual solution and realized that you can’t stink your way out of alcoholism – there’s actually some sort of spiritual practice. Also, they were Christians, so that’s all they knew. And yet they were so open-minded about their spiritual beliefs – they said higher power as you understand him. They included prayer and meditation in the steps. But they didn’t really understand that there was a non-theistic meditative discipline that was transformative.
We found a quote by Dr. Bob – one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous – that said the only equivalent to the 12-Steps is the Buddhist four noble truth and eightfold path, which add up to 12! These are the 12 things that need to be done to end suffering.
Q: That forms the basis of Refuge Program of Recovery?
Noah: Yes, Buddhist teachings. It’s the core of what Refuge Recovery is: the four noble truths and the eightfold path.
Q: In the preamble of Refuge Recovery meetings, it states that the intention of the group is to ‘explore Buddhist perspectives on recovery and that it is meant to be a support for recovery, not a substitute for a dedicated practice; spiritual growth and recovery require individual effort.’ What does that mean?
Noah: Going to meetings is not enough; this is a place to support investigation and study. There’s a meditation in the meeting, but recovery is a full life practice. The eightfold path is about how we speak, how we relate to money, how we relate to sexuality, how we look at our whole life. Our life becomes a mindfulness practice and that is not just sitting in a meeting for an hour and talking about it. It’s not a substitute for the effort, the intention, and the practice of making wisdom and compassion your life’s path.
Q: You said a recovering person can attend 12-Step meetings and Refuge Recovery. What would you recommend to those who feel that 12-Step meetings are not for them? Can they solely attend Refuge?
Noah: Yes. Half the Refuge Recovery community is just doing Refuge and is no longer doing 12-Steps. Half is doing both. We also have a lot of Refuge Recovery members who are very happily 12-Step oriented – maybe even theistic, believe in God and love the 12-Steps – but they never really learned meditation there.
They’re coming to Refuge to learn self-forgiveness and mindfulness and some of the things that the 12-Steps don’t teach you. So it’s a very mixed community; there are Buddhist atheists who believe this is the only thing that makes sense to them; there’s the open-minded agnostics who feel Buddhism makes sense to them, but so do the 12-Steps; and then there’s theists who believe in God, but are very happy to finally learn some good meditation instruction.
Q: You said that the cause of suffering is referred to in Buddhism as an unquenchable thirst. How would you say that craving arises in addicts, as opposed to non-addicts?
Noah: That’s the question! The inventory in the second noble truth is really aimed at identifying in our lives: attachment issues, developmental traumas, or acute traumas that (perhaps) led to our ordinary craving becoming addictive behavior and addictive craving. Certainly everyone has cravings for pleasure, but not everyone has the disregard for consequences that leads to sticking needles in our arms and drinking alcoholically.
Q: Is there anything else about Refuge Recovery that you’d like to mention?
Noah: There are a couple of the things that we’re experimenting with. Not introducing ourselves in meetings as addicts – instead introducing ourselves by our first names – breaking some of that identification with the addiction and acknowledging that we are people who are recovering and we’re here.
Also, there no set tradition around celebrating abstinent time, although some meetings are doing that and it’s become the group decision on whether or not they want to. The 12-Steps have a strong tradition to celebrate time. Refuge hasn’t really taken a stance on that. I personally have mixed feelings about it. There is a hierarchy that gets created and this can create shame when they relapse – they feel like they lost their time and have to introduce themselves as a newcomer, so they don’t want to return. We’re trying to avoid some of those pitfalls.
Q: You’ve created a not-for-profit treatment center. How do you see that aspect of Refuge developing over the next five years, and what is the model of accessibility?
Noah: We’re focusing on outpatient treatment primarily. We have sober living and detox. Everywhere I go, people say they need a Refuge Outpatient, so I feel like it’s a service imperative to grow the business and make Refuge Recovery treatment grow.
Some people are fine with meetings, but others need the support of a case manager, psychotherapist, groups, and professional addiction treatment. Eden Danzinger has trained all of our clinicians in EMDR, which is mindful-based trauma treatment. I feel passionate about this treatment center and I want to see it expand and be accessible in more places around the country – maybe around the world.
Q: How do people access it? Is it on a sliding scale? It is insured? Is it scholarship?
Noah: It’s insurance and sliding scale. It’s very expensive to run a treatment center and to pay psychotherapists. There’s not a way to do it for free. Insurance will pay – if people have it. The problem is that so many people don’t have insurance – or they don’t have good insurance. That becomes a bigger healthcare accessibility issue in our country.
Q: Are there scholarships available for people that can’t afford it? Are there any options?
Noah: There are, yes.
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