Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Noah Levine, founder of Refuge Recovery, a mindfulness-based addiction recovery community that practices and utilizes Buddhist philosophy as the foundation of the recovery process. We all know someone who is / has been / or will be affected by addiction (maybe it’s you?). The information presented in this discussion could change your life or the life of someone you love. The original interview was broadcast live to the Secular Buddhism FB page, and uploaded to our YouTube Channel.
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
Noah Rasheta: Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number 49. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and in this episode, I’m excited to share the audio of an interview I had with Noah Levine of Refuge Recovery. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Noah Levine, founder of Refuge Recovery, a mindfulness based addiction recovery community that practices and utilizes Buddhist philosophy as the foundation of the recovery process.
We all know someone who is, has been, or will be affected by addiction. It may even be you. The information presented in this discussion could change your life or the life of someone you love. The original interview was broadcast live to the Secular Buddhism Facebook page and uploaded to our YouTube channel. You can watch it at facebook.com/secularbuddhism. Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and at least right now the Secular Buddhism podcast live on Facebook.
Noah Levine: Can you share it live on my page at the same time?
Noah Rasheta: Let’s see. I think it only allows me to share to the pages I manage, but I have you tagged.
Noah Levine: That would be cool.
Noah Rasheta: I have you tagged so hopefully that will show up on your page.
Noah Levine: [inaudible 00:01:42]
Noah Rasheta: What was that?
Noah Levine: I said there’s probably a way for me to share it live from your page or something.
Noah Rasheta: There should be. Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll share the stream on … Do you want me to share it on the Refuge Recovery page?
Noah Levine: Sure. You could do it on Refuge, but I was thinking on the Noah Levine 108. That’s where most of the largest number of followers are.
Noah Rasheta: I’ll look for that real quick. I see that. I’ll share the link there. I posted that on your page.
Noah Levine: Cool.
Noah Rasheta: Great. This whole idea to interview you started as … I picked up a copy of your book, Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction, after a friend of mine was going through addiction and recovery, and dealing with the aftermath of it really spending time in prison. It got me interested in wanting to discuss the topic of addiction and recovery with him, but a mindfulness based approach, on a Buddhist based approach. I picked up your book and started reading it. The very first thing that happened as I started reading it was something that had happened a while back in my life, my wife and I went to marriage counseling many years ago.
I remember going through that thinking this content is incredible, why do couples wait until they need to hear this? It should be mandatory. If you’re going to get married, you’ve got to go to marriage counseling, pass this course and then you’re going to have all this incredible tools for how to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of marriage. I had this similar experience reading your book where I was thinking, “Wait a second, this isn’t necessarily for someone who’s already struggling with addiction, this should be for anyone because it helps you to understand the underlying causes of addiction which happened to be very similar or if not the same as the underlying causes of suffering.”
I decided, I want to talk to Noah, and maybe feature this book and feature your work on the podcast to my podcast listeners who are just interested in living more mindfully because this is exactly what that does. It helps you to, I think if anything preempt ever reaching that stage where you may encounter addiction. Certainly, there will be people listening to this who know of someone in the past, or in the present, or in the future who may struggle with addiction and recovery.
I thought it was good timing to have a conversation about it, so thank you for your time and for joining me to have this conversation. What I was hoping we can talk about first is maybe just a brief introduction about you, your story, what led you to create Refuge Recovery, and your story with what led you to mindfulness and Buddhism. Are you there?
Noah Levine: I am, but I’m missing you a little bit. Let me disappear for one moment, make sure I’m on the right Wi-Fi. Just one moment.
Noah Rasheta: Sounds good.
Noah Levine: I’m still here as you still have my audio. I just want to make sure I’m on the right Wi-Fi. It might help. Let’s get a better connection here. Can you still hear me?
Noah Rasheta: Yeah, and I see you now.
Noah Levine: Sorry to disappear. Let’s see. That should hopefully solve our connection problem. Let’s see.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. Thank you.
Noah Levine: Tell me the question again, and I’m happy to be on the show with you, and thanks for inviting me.
Noah Rasheta: Great. The question was I was hoping you’d share just a brief summary of your story, your background, what led you to Refuge Recovery, and what led you down the path of studying Buddhism and mindfulness in general?
Noah Levine: I was one of the, I think somewhat, rare cases where I was born into a western family, an American family of European descent who were already practicing Buddhism when I was born. My father had found what I called the dharma mindfulness Buddhism in the 1950’s and the 1960’s, and had really committed his life to meditation practice. Now, my dad, Stephen Levine who I’m sure you know, and many people know, and wrote all these wonderful books about mindfulness, and about death and dying, and bringing a mindful and a spiritual perspective to grief, and healing, and grieving.
I grew up with it. I was basically introduced to Buddhism from my early childhood but I dutifully rebelled against it and had my own trauma. My parents were divorced when I was very young and there was addiction in my family. Both my mother and my father had had addiction in their lives. My mother was still struggling with addiction and my father had … My father wasn’t somebody who would consider himself in recovery, but he had went from being a heroin addict to being a meditator.
He didn’t call it recovery because he’s still pot, or alcohol, or something like that, but he was able to get off of the core addiction that he had earlier in his life, really through meditation practice. Am I still there? I just got a message that I was disconnected.
Noah Rasheta: Yeah. You’re still here.
Noah Levine: By the time I was five years old, I was feeling suicidal. I was just like I want out, and I knew about death, and I knew about reincarnation. I was just in that pain and suffering that felt like, “Oh, I could just kill myself and start over,” at such a young age. Then I found drugs and alcohol, started drinking my parents’ booze, and smoking their weed, and eating their acid, and their mushrooms, and drugs saved my life. Drugs were the thing that allowed me to self-medicate, and get out of some of the pain, and existential angst, and suffering that I was experiencing in early childhood that so much so, I was suicidal.
Drugs and alcohol were a good time. I found punk rock in 1979, and I found this radical rebellious drug culture that made a lot more sense to me than mindfulness, than meditation. I had pain and I was meeting my pain with trying to avoid it. That worked for some time, and then it stopped working which happens for all addicts. Not only addicts, I think that this is actually our coping mechanisms only work for so long.
By the time I was a teenager, I wasn’t experimenting with drugs, I was addicted, and I was smoking crack, cocaine, and I was injecting heroin, and I was drinking alcoholically on a daily basis. I was in and out of institutions. I started getting locked up. I started getting sent to recovery stuff at about 13 because I get arrested a lot so they’d sent me to AA and say get your core card signed. I had some awareness that there were recovering addicts and alcoholics. Of course, I had awareness of Buddhists and these spiritual folks that my dad was hanging out with. Ram Dass was around, and Jack Cornfield, and Joseph Goldstein and all of these wonderful meditation teachers, but I didn’t feel like any of that applied to me.
Noah Rasheta: From what I was reading, something happens at some point. You were at prison at the time. Tell me about that pivotal moment where you shift and realized you’re ready to be done with this.
Noah Levine: Sure. In 1988, I was 17 years old. I had three felonies. I was looking at doing multiple years in prison, in a youth prison. There was a shift. I had a suicide attempt. I woke up in a padded cell. For the first time of my life, I took some responsibility. I realized that I was in that situation based on my own karma, my own actions. With that realization came both a ton of shame and guilt and remorse. A little bit of hopelessness but also a little bit of hope came from that taking responsibility.
If I got myself into this situation, maybe I can get myself out. Up to that time, I blamed everyone else so then taking some responsibility gave me some agency in creating some change. My father took the opportunity when I was talking to him on the telephone from my cell or from the phone and the institution to say, “Try meditating, try mindfulness. Go back to your room. Try to ignore your mind and pay attention to your breath. Just do simple breath awareness practice.”
He said, “It will give you some relief from all of this fear of the future around regret from the past.” He said, “It will give you some relief. It’s worth trying.” I was desperate enough that I said, “Okay.” I went and I sat in my cell, and I started meditating. I started meditation practice that became the only thing that really made sense to me. I saw in meditation right from the beginning that this was an action that I could take. I wasn’t very good at it, it wasn’t a quick fix. It didn’t solve all of my problems but it gave me a tiny bit of relief, and it theoretically made sense to me that I was training my own attention, mindfulness of the breath and body, and getting some relief from the confusion in my mind, the addiction in my mind.
At the same time I started going to recovery. I started going to the 12-step meetings that were in the institutions and in there, what they were saying was the solution, a Judeo-Christian philosophy that God was going to remove from me that a higher power was going to restore me to sanity and remove my alcoholic craving. That didn’t make sense to me. I was an atheist. What they were saying didn’t made sense but the meditation made sense.
What I found in recovery was I found community. I found all of these wonderful people who are just suffering like me, addicts and that were there to help and were just volunteering to show up and saying, “You can recover.” The 12-step community has been so integral, so important, so key to my recovery because when I started … When I got out of jail and I started going to Buddhist meditation retreats, the Buddhists weren’t really my people.
The Buddhist were dad’s friends. The recovering addicts, those were my people, the alcoholics, those were my hommies. For a long time, I had this Buddhist based practice and view but my community was the 12-step recovery community.
Noah Rasheta: That’s where you start to develop the Refuge Recovery program. Is that right?
Noah Levine: For the first 15 years, I practiced Buddhism. I participated in 12 steps. I began teaching Buddhism. My teachers, Jack Cornfield, Venerable Ajahn Amaro, my father, Stephen Levine started encouraging me to teach. I started going back into the juvenile halls and the prisons, community groups, teaching mindfulness and loving kindness and forgiveness, and teaching meditation. I didn’t do recovery based meditation. I said this is for everyone.
Everyone has some suffering, not just us addicts, everyone has it. I want to make this available to everyone. I don’t want to exclude someone like you that doesn’t identify as a recovering addict from my meditation community. I don’t want to say, this is only if you’ve become a junkie or an alcoholic. For the first 15 years of teaching, I’ve been teaching for over 20 years now, I didn’t do recovery stuff really.
I did Buddhism for everyone, but because my first book, Dharma Punx was about my addiction and recovery and Buddhist practice. Half of the people that showed up to sit with me were in recovery and half weren’t. Eventually about 10 years ago, it seemed like, “I should create something.” There’s a bunch of cool stuff that’s been done around Buddhism and the 12 steps. Kevin Griffin and Darren Littlejohn, a handful of other people who’ve done this kind of cool stuff around like here’s a Buddhist way to look at the 12 steps which I thought was a great resource but it always left me feel a little bit like why do we have to keep trying to understand a Judeo-Christian worldview through a non-theistic Buddhist worldview.
Noah Rasheta: Sure.
Noah Levine: Why do we have to keep trying to make these things that don’t really fit, fit. They fit in some ways and they don’t fit in other ways. Believe in God or not believe. It doesn’t totally fit. Then that’s when I said, “Nobody else seems to be doing it. My community is asking for it,” which had become thousands of people, my centers in San Francisco, in New York, in Los Angeles, in Nashville, in Boston, and just all of these communities that were hungry for it. That’s when I created Refuge Recovery which three years ago when Refuge Recovery book came out, there was about 10 Buddhist recovery meetings in our lineage. Now, there’s over 300.
Noah Rasheta: Wow.
Noah Levine: As soon as the book was out there, people were just like, “Yes. This was what I was looking for. This makes more sense to me or it just helps me understand the 12 steps.” There’s a lot of people who were like, “Well, I love the 12 steps but I never really learned how to meditate so now Refuge Recovery is an opportunity to really learn some deep meditation practices.
Noah Rasheta: One thing I love about the way you formatted the book is it not only introduces you to these concepts and helps you understand why they work but it gives you the outline of, “If you don’t have a group close by, this is how you can format these meetings yourself. You do this and you do that. It teaches the meditation. I think it’s really useful for someone who may not have a group that they can attend.
Noah Levine: Yeah.
Noah Rasheta: Refuge Recovery is pretty big now. Tell us a little bit about how this works because you have an actual center where people could go to get clean but there are also communities like local groups that get together. What’s the difference between the two?
Noah Levine: There’s the professional treatment center. It’s called Refuge recovery treatment centers and detox, residential, sober living for people that want to come to a professional treatment with psychotherapy and trauma resolution and physicians and medicine management, all of that. That’s available. It’s insurance reimbursed. We just have one center so far in Los Angeles. I felt like it was my responsibility of I was going to say, “Here’s a recovery path.” I knew so many people who are going to want to use it for treatment to actually provide a really good professional treatment model with it. We’re doing that and people can find that information on refugerecoverytreatmentcenters.com or refugerecovery.com, but then the other side of it is I really wanted was, I think the 12 step model of peer-led addicts helping each other alcoholics helping each other is brilliant.
We created a format for this is how we can do a peer-led meeting with a guided meditation in each meeting that’s not led by a meditation teacher but by a script. Here’s the mindfulness instructions, here’s the forgiveness instructions, the love and kindness and it’s just read by somebody, read slowly by somebody in the meeting so that every meeting has a meditation practice with the instructions.
Noah Rasheta: I like that because it allows anybody to led that. Let’s talk really quickly about some of the key differences or similarities between a program like Refuge Recovery versus, let’s say, AA, the 12-step program or any other program like that?
Noah Levine: There’s so much in common and there’s some key differences. Let’s point to the common first like community is key. Peer support, accountability, compassion and service, helping each other, tolerating each other, key. Showing up and having commitments to say, “I’m going to be here, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do my inventories, I’m going to look at myself, and my resentments, and the suffering, and the cause of suffering.” There’s all of these commonalities. The core difference between a Buddhist perspective and a theistic perspective is that the 12 steps are ascribing to a monotheistic worldview that human beings are powerless, that there’s a grace or a blessing or a cursing from God that is affecting us, that there’s a higher power that is actually in control of human beings.
Buddhism has a non-theistic worldview that understands karma, that believes in responsibility, that believes in the human ability to free themselves from the suffering of addiction through their own actions and their own efforts. Some of the 12-step view is that human beings can’t do that only God can do that. Only God can restore you to sanity, only a higher power can remove the craving for alcohol or drugs or whatever it is. There’s some differences there.
Do you assign that recovery to an external power, greater than yourself or do you assign that meaning to one’s own actions, and the human ability to heal, to recover, to awaken? Buddhism takes that much more of a humanist psychology view than a Judeo-Christian theistic view.
Noah Rasheta: Which obviously is very suitable for someone with that worldview. I want to discuss now a couple of the things that really stood out to me in your book. I love the book. I feel like it does a great job of presenting the basic Buddhist philosophy. Just summarizing this, again, for listeners. From the Buddhist perspective, there’s this idea that there’s life as it is, reality and then there’s life as we think it should be which the story or the narrative. Sometimes they don’t match up.
When we encounter this, we have this sense of discomfort, something is wrong, I need this to match this. That’s not the problem. Up until this point, that’s all okay. The problem becomes that with the discomfort, I’m not comfortable with the discomfort, so I’m going to start doing something about it. That’s where we often get into trouble, the discomfort of being with the expectation of reality not meeting reality.
I start to do things like self-meditate like you talked about. On the extreme end, we’re talking about addictive behavior, drugs, alcohol, that it could be on a less extreme case similar patterns that I’m on Facebook all day. It could be anything on that spectrum but ultimately, it’s rooted in the fact that I’m simply not comfortable with the discomfort that my expected reality isn’t matching reality. Would that be a fair assessment?
Noah Levine: I like it. I mean I feel like that is … I like the way that you’re saying that. Yes, I think it’s fair. As you know, what the Buddha talks about as Tanha, craving. Craving for reality it to be more pleasant, less painful but I like the way you’re talking about just expectations. I like that.
Noah Rasheta: From the Buddhist perspective, we talked about the moment we want life to be other than it is, we’re going to experience suffering and that’s natural. You talked about this in your book how the desire versus craving and you say that there’s a difference between the two because craving is the thought and feeling that says, “I have to have it. I cannot be happy without it.” Desire is simply recognizing I want it but I’ll be fine with or without it.
This is what I was alluding to with the underlying cause of suffering being that we want things to be other than they are. That’s not the problem, it’s taking it a step further that our inability to allow ourselves to just be in that space of discomfort at times so we start to do something about it and often times that’s what gets us into trouble. You talked about how our relationship to craving, it’s not craving itself that’s the problem because that’s natural, and I like how you worded this. The problem lies in our addiction to satisfying our craving because that’s different than there’s craving and there’s the addiction to satisfying the craving. Talk to me a little bit about that, that thought process there.
Noah Levine: I mean I just think that this is so key because without mindfulness, without some introspection, some self-awareness, we believe that we have to satisfy our cravings and we take it all so personal but you do a bit of mindfulness, you start observing your mind and your emotions and your sensations. You start to see how impersonal this human craving machine that we live in is. Then you start to say like, “Oh, no. Of course there’s craving. That’s just what this biological imperative is here is craving.”
When you step back from it and you actually get an understanding of it, then you say, “Craving again. No big deal, I don’t have to satisfy it. I’m no longer addicted to it or so identified with thinking that I have to obey my mind. The mindfulness really does that. It really shifts our relationship to our minds and you realize, a lot of my thoughts are untrustworthy. A lot of my cravings are based in confusion, based in ignorance, are lying to me and saying if you do this, you’ll be happy. Then you do it over and over and you realize, “Yeah, it doesn’t work. I tried satisfying all of my cravings. It made my life worst, not better.” There’s that shift from taking it personal and obeying it to starting to have some renunciation in that end, but also not judging the fact that we are craving beings.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. I like to say this when I’m teaching mindfulness that we’re not trying to change our feelings, we’re not trying to change our thoughts, we’re trying to understand the relationship we have with our feelings because our problem isn’t the feeling, it’s the clinging to a certain feeling or the aversion of this other feeling. I want more happiness, I want less sadness. That’s ultimately what’s getting us in trouble, not necessarily the feeling itself.
You addressed that, I think very well in your book. One aspect of this that in your book reminded me of the Stanford, marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification. This is the experiment where children were offered the choice between a small reward immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period of approximately 15 minutes.
In all of the follow up studies, this is where it gets interesting. The researchers found that the children who were able to wait longer for the preferred reward had better life outcomes like SAT scores, educational attainment and just other life measures. What that indicates to me again is what mindfulness has helped me to understand is our ability to be with something patiently for a moment, especially discomfort. What I see over and over when I’m teaching mindfulness workshops is people who are experiencing some form of suffering, who are unable to be with the suffering, complicate it.
Pema Chodron says like … I’m paraphrasing it, but often the worst of our situations are the ones give ourselves. A lot of the suffering that we experience is self-inflicted. I think that’s where mindfulness really kicks in here. Then something that you talked about in your book that I wanted to address here, you said what does awakening or enlightenment look like … No, this is me asking you, what does awakening or enlightenment look like to you? How would you describe it?
Noah Levine: To be awake, seems to mean to see reality clearly. When you’re seeing reality clearly, you’re understanding that everything is impermanent. Everything is constantly changing, every thought, every feeling, every sensation, every person that this law of impermanence when we’re awake or seeing that, we’re understanding it, and we’re living in harmony with it. Understanding that we’re seeing reality clearly that everything is perceived as pleasant or unpleasant, or neutral that there’s just a feeling tone to every sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, environment.
Noah Rasheta: Thought.
Noah Levine: And thought. Yeah, what happens in the mind and that our relationships to that pleasant or unpleasant perception is the cause of our ease or our suffering. When we’re awake, we know as you were pointing to before, it’s nit what’s happening, it’s how we relate to what’s happening. When we’re awake, we understand that everything is impermanent and that our response is going to be how we’re relating to it. It’s going to be the cause of our happiness around happiness.
Maybe the third thing that I will say is we’re also awake to how impersonal so much of what we’re experience is there’s not a solid separate entity that we can say, “This is I, this is me, this is mine.” What we have taken birth into is a human condition, has craving mind and body, and is not our fault, and it’s not who we are. It’s not personal. Really to be awake, in the simple way is to see clearly, and respond appropriately. The appropriate response in suffering.
That would be my working definition of what it means to be enlightened or awake. Then there’s the question of, also, to recover. What are we recovering to? We’re recovering to this ability to see clearly and to be at ease in the midst of joy or sorrow. To not satisfy our addictive cravings and to see that they’re impermanent and that they arise and they pass. That they’re calling for compassion, that they’re calling for forgiveness.
Noah Rasheta: True.
Noah Levine: Then there’s a question of is this awakening permanent or are they little moments of awakening throughout our meditative life. Now, of course the Buddhist said eventually, you can come to Nirvana, a permanent state of not suffering where you will end the cycle of rebirth and you will be free from suffering forever. That’s the highest level. Then I think there’s the practical level that we’re working with which is like in this moment could I see more clearly, could I respond more wisely? Am I clinging to something that I could let go off? Am I resisting something that I could accept that is impermanent even if it’s painful, even if it’s a painful emotion and I accept this, be with it, let it come through, let it pass through rather than damming it up.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. I think that’s where this concept of suffering is natural but we start to suffer because we’re suffering and we’re compounding … This is where it becomes unnecessary suffering and I think this is what I like about the mindfulness approach in general but especially the Refuge Recovery approach with addiction, I see in people who are struggling with addiction the sense of … You described it earlier, there’s a period of guilt, of feeling unworthy and this approach helps you to know, or I guess helps you to realize as Allan Watts says , “You’re under no obligation to be who you were five minutes ago.”
This idea of impermanence frees you. It gives you this sense of liberation to say, “Hey, at any given moment, I get to start over. This moment is the moment that matters. Everything in the past is done now. It’s over so I don’t have to hang on to that guilt, to that shame because I do have the ability to say, “Don’t judge me for who I was yesterday, I get to start over now with this new information and knowledge.”
I wrote down a quote from your book that I really like going back to this awakening and enlightenment. You said that, “Awakening within each of us is the experience of non-suffering. Not suffering can be considered blissful when compared to suffering but that does not mean, it is pleasurable all the time. We need to let go of our fantasy of unending pleasure and craving for the pain of free existence. That’s not the type of spiritual awakening that the Buddhist path offers.”
I like this because we’re going back to this … It’s this form of radical okayness. My friend, Christopher Leibow-Ross who runs the Salt Lake Buddhist fellowship who runs the Salt Lake Buddhist fellowship here. He talks about this concept of radical okayness. The first time I heard it, I just loved it because life can be radically okay, and that’s what you’re insinuating in this definition of enlightenment. It’s that realization that it can be okay and it can be okay that it’s not okay.
I can be with whatever the emotion is that I’m experiencing and that to me from a secular Buddhist standpoint really resonates with this idea of enlightenment. It’s that you become okay with reality as it is even if that means being okay that it’s not okay.
Noah Levine: I like it. Our definition of okay and not okay is, is it painful? It’s that maybe in a more traditional language talking about that okayness as equanimity. That equanimity of if it’s painful, I can still be at ease in the midst of pain. I don’t have to add anger and hatred and fear on top of it. It’s just pain. Also with joy, I don’t have to ruin joy by getting attached to it. I can let it arise and pass.
Noah Rasheta: I like that. You see this all the time. At least I see this all the time and I used to see this all the time in myself particularly with a negative emotions of being angry but then being angry that I was angry or being sad and now, I’m sad that I’m sad. At the time not realizing that a significant part of that discomfort or that suffering was the second layer.
Noah Levine: Absolutely.
Noah Rasheta: I have a couple of questions that people sent in and wanted me to ask you. I want to go through a couple of these real quick. One of them has to do with the TED Talk. Everything you know about addiction is wrong. Are you familiar with that video?
Noah Levine: I’m not.
Noah Rasheta: I watched it. One of the things I liked about it, kind of what he’s trying to get at is that the way we’ve looked at and tried to understand addiction may be completely wrong and what he gets at, at the end is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but it’s connection. It’s our inability to have connection that lead us down the path of addiction. I wanted to get your thoughts on that idea.
Noah Levine: It’s not a new concept that much of addiction is an attachment disorder and that addicts become pretty isolated even if they’re in a drug community, it’s still a fairly self-centered experience of being an addict and a lack of connection. I feel like this is addressed very well so I don’t know what his argument is against because I feel like it’s addressed very well in the 12 steps and also in Refuge Recovery that a huge part of the healing from addiction is the community, is being connected to fellowship, to Sanga, the accountability that I feel like that is pretty well understood, that part of the recovery is connection.
Noah Rasheta: I think that’s the argument he’s making that with that strong connection, you’re less likely to have problems with addiction.
Noah Levine: How to become an addict in the first place.
Noah Rasheta: Right.
Noah Levine: Of course, that’s true but that also feels self-evident of why … I mean, and this is part of the inventory process and refuge which is everyone has craving. Not everyone becomes addicts. There’s a 31 question inventory process in Refuge Recovery that says, “Let’s try to identify what sets us apart from normal craving and pushed us over into addictive behavior and addictive craving. That attachment stuff, the lack of connection obviously, yes, that’s for a lot of us, we felt isolated, we felt alone, we had low self-esteem, we felt separate, different from, so we started listening to punk rock and shooting heroin. Then we felt like we were part of something, and connected to something.
I’d have to watch it but I think it makes sense. Of course, it’s disconnection that’s part of the cause of addiction and it’s reconnection, that’s a huge part of recovery.
Noah Rasheta: Sure. I thought that one was interesting to bring up because the idea of connection and relationship to non-attachment from the Buddhist perspective we’re saying, but that’s also the problem, that way that we connect to our emotions or to our feelings that that’s the problem.
Noah Levine: I think that the difference, the way that I think about it is that, this is connection to my hands and whether that’s with another person connected or that’s being connected with yourself, with your feelings, with your part in mind, where you’re present and you’re embracing and you’re touching, but you also understand that it’s impermanent. There’s no grip on it. You’re connected to it. This is attachment.
This is when we’re clinging and you’re like you’re not letting this be impermanent. You’re clinging to it. It becomes co-dependency and it becomes sex addiction or however it manifests. Then sometimes, people hear the mindfulness of Buddhist stuff and they say, “Detachment. Let me just avoid that shit because that shit hurts.” Mindfulness is not about detachment, it’s about connected, non-attached connection to impermanent process. I think that is very key that it’s not attachment, it’s connection that we’re looking for and not clinging
Noah Rasheta: I love that. I think visualizing that with the hands, that makes so much sense. It’s not this and it’s not this.
Noah Levine: That’s right. For the people who are not going to see this, but are going to listen to the podcast, it’s not going to make as much sense.
Noah Rasheta: True. They won’t know what we’re doing with our hands. The next question, this is from Lucas in Canada. He says, “I like to ask about cannabis. I would like to know if Noah thinks it’s possible to consume in a responsible manner while following the path. Cannabis has been a part of my life for a long time now that I’m older, I’ve learned to consume without excess and I understand the relationship I have with the drug. I reflect it on the non attachment aspect of the practice and I know my habit doesn’t own me. I don’t define my happiness by it nor do I need it to be happy.”
“Most Buddhist I’ve talked to about this don’t agree with me, they see it as attachment and always conclude that it’s bad for my practice. I understand where they come from and I’m a bit conflicted on it so having the opinion of someone like Noah who knows a lot about addiction and follows the path would be very helpful.” What would you say to Lucas?
Noah Levine: I would say several different things. Partially, to Lucas, it depends on the level of motivation and attainment that you’re looking for in your Buddhist path. If you’re somewhat interested in … If you’re just using meditation as something to suffer a little bit less, and have a little bit less stress, and know yourself a little bit better, then I think that there’s probably a place to define a balanced relationship to intoxicants.
Also, Lucas, a lot of those people who are saying like, “Oh, no. Cannabis, there’s no place for it,” the Buddha would put pot and alcohol absolutely on the same category. Whether it’s a glass of wine or a bong hit, the Buddha would have the same attitude about any kind of recreational drug use whether it’s pot, or booze, or whatever it is.
Noah Rasheta: Just to clarify which is what view?
Noah Levine: Which is abstinence. In the precepts, in the early Buddhist teachings, the Buddha said, “If you want to come to awakening, you’re going to have to try to be mindful all of the time. Don’t put anything into your system that makes being mindful more difficult. Marijuana makes being mindful more difficult. Alcohol makes being mindful more difficult, and if you have too much weed or alcohol or even too much sugar or caffeine, if you overdo it, you’re going to become heedless to the point where you can’t pay attention at all.
In moderation maybe there’s a little bit of mindfulness but it’s a distorted mindfulness. The alcohol distorts your view, the marijuana distorts your view even if it makes … Sometimes when you’re high, you feel like, “Wait. No, I’m more present, not less.” Sometimes it feels like it’s increasing but still it’s distorting it, it’s not [unadulterated 00:46:44]. I want to say all of that. The traditional view of course is abstinence. That having been said, you mentioned Allan Watts earlier. I could name 20 well, accomplished, Buddhist who’ve written books, who smoke weed, who drink alcohol, who do not follow the fifth precept of the Buddha.
For 40 years, 50 years have been meditating and have clearly decreased the amount of suffering in their life and have dedicated their life to helping others. Then in some traditions, like in the Tibetan traditions or the Japanese traditions, they don’t even practice the fifth precept as abstinence. They say moderations is okay. I’m very clear that the Buddhist said abstinence but people have now changed that, reinterpreted that to say, moderation.
Lucas, there is a place, if you’re not an addict, if you’re really honest with yourself and it’s not addiction and it’s a recreational use of pleasure inducing substance whether that’s alcohol, or pot, or whatever it is, and you still are very serious about getting on the cushion and going on retreat, you will absolutely still make some progress. My sense is that if you get really serious about it, you might want to consider letting it go and saying, “I don’t need that. I’m just going to be in the place of trying to just deal with life, and see life, and enjoy life free from any kind of recreational use, but that’s a personal choice.
I had another friend, who came to me, he asked this question long time ago, 12, maybe 15 years ago and I said, “Just do this. You’re serious about meditation. Make your relationship to marijuana your meditation. Be really mindful when you’re crumbling up the buds and you’re rolling the joint or whatever you’re doing, bring mindfulness to it, and then when you smoke, really meditate with that experience. Watch how your mind changes, watch how your attitude changes. See what happens at the whole thing as a meditation practice.
He did that and he said after doing that for a month or so, he said, “I didn’t want to smoke pot anymore. I didn’t enjoy it when I mindful of it.” He said, “I didn’t want to do it anymore.” Then he stopped smoking pot and he hasn’t smoked pot in 15 years because when he really brought mindfulness to it, he saw, “Oh, no. I don’t like actually what this is doing to my mind. I want to stay awake.”
Noah Rasheta: I have a friend who likes to say, “The only thing I like to be high on is mindfulness.” We’ve got this question from Debbie in Texas. She says, “I would like to know how family members and friends can apply the teachings of the dharma to cope with another person’s addiction. Also, I’ve studied Buddhism and I recently become a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.” I see a lot of similarities in the two except of the strong reliance on the higher power for recovery which we already addressed. She said, “I’d love to hear Noah’s thought on this.”
Noah Levine: The way that Buddhism … It sounds like you already … The question already has some familiarity with it, but in Refuge, everyone comes together. We’re all looking at our craving, our clinging, our aversion. We’re all looking at the relational, the eightfold path, how am I communicating, how am I showing up in my actions, what are my intentions, my understanding, how much mindfulness, concentration. We’re looking at the eightfold path as the treatment for addiction, as the treatment for relating to our loved once who are addicts, as the path for all of life.
This is what the Buddha said for everyone, “Be mindful, learn to concentrate, put the effort into being careful with what we say and what we do, how we relate to money, and sexuality, and intoxicants, and to take that full responsibility for … One of the core things that I think has been most helpful for me and relationships to my loved ones who struggle with addiction is the equanimity practice and so maybe that’s where I’ll land this question which is love and kindness is the practice of saying, “May you be at ease, may you be happy, may you be free.”
Compassion is saying, “I care about your pain, I care about your suffering.” Appreciation is saying, I appreciate your happiness, your joy, I wish you well, I celebrate your happiness. Equanimity is saying, “Even though, I care about you, and I love you, and I appreciate you, I know you have your own karma.” Your happiness or your unhappiness depends on your actions, not how much I love you. Equanimity is that bigger step back practice and understands that I can’t control you no matter how much I love you. I can’t control your action, your karma, only you can do that for yourself.
I feel like in family, in relationship to our loved ones, that’s really the key, can I have compassion and equanimity? Can I have love and kindness, forgiveness and a poor sense of being at ease even when they are in the midst of addictive suffering?
Noah Rasheta: I like that. Thank you. Then this is a question from Glen in Australia. He says, “I’m living in Melbourne. I recently moved from New Zealand. I’ve been attending a 12-step meeting for 12 years. I have found the only Refuge Recovery meeting in Australia is here in Melbourne. I would like to start another meeting up here, but I’ve never done a guided meditation where I am the guide. Would it be okay to use an audio of someone else doing the guided meditation for example a recorded meditation of Noah Levine or Dave Smith?”
Noah Levine: My sense is that of course people are free to be creative and they could do that and I don’t think there’s any … There’s no rules against it. My sense is that one of the ways that it works with the format of having it peer-led. Glen if you start a meeting, you don’t have to lead the meditation, you just hand the script for the meditation instruction to someone else in the meeting. It’s actually better if the meetings don’t start to be like one person is leading the meditation all of the time because they take on an authority role that they’re not really supposed to have.
This is peer-led like everyone should be taking turns leading the meditation by reading the script and in that way, you’re actually part of and your co-guiding each other. It’s really hope that Refuge maintains that peer-led energy and that we guide each other. I also like this not only for the connection that it brings to the group but I also like it’s breaking the hierarchy of Buddhism where we’ve have these thousands of years of its patriarchal, hierarchal, only the meditation master is allowed to give the instructions and it’s just more religious hierarchy.
I personally don’t like it so much. I like the fact that we’re doing this very radical that I don’t think it’s ever been done in history which is saying that Buddhism peer-led rather than Buddhism with … It used to be the meditation master, now it’s like, “Are you certified in mindfulness, man?” It became this whole industry rather than here’s the teachings, apply them, apply them.
Noah Rasheta: Cool. I like that. Just to start wrapping things up, what message do you have for someone who’s maybe listening to this or watching this and they’re struggling with addiction, any kind of addiction whether it be pornography or with a substance. Where do they go? What’s their first step for this entire process towards recovery?
Noah Levine: Maybe the first step is admitting it. Admitting it, acknowledging it, accepting it, telling some people so much of addiction is the secrecy is the same as the isolation so becoming transparent, telling the therapist, telling the wife, the husband, the friends, the partner, get in, get out so that we can say that this is real. First truth of accepting the suffering that that addiction is spreading in our lives.
Then maybe the second thing is like can I find a meeting? Am I ready to go to treatment? Do I want to go to a detox or a residential treatment center? Am I ready to just go to meetings and get some peer support for it? Gathering some support and telling the truth, and taking the responsibility, and the intention to establish abstinence. I’m saying like, “Okay. I’m going to admit this and I’m going to stop.” Maybe relapse will be part of it. It often is, but I’m going to try to stop. I’m going to turn towards it rather than letting it keep pushing me downstream.
Noah Rasheta: Where do they go to learn more about Refuge Recovery?
Noah Levine: For the treatment center, it’s refugerecoverytreatmentcenters.com or just refugerecovery.com. For the meetings, it’s refugerecovery.org and that will take you to the meeting listings and there’s meetings all over. If there’s not a meeting in your area, start one, get the book, the book is available. Read the book, there’s a meeting format in the book, on the website, everything you need. Start a meeting. Invite your friends and may the revolution be with us.
Noah Rasheta: The book looks like this. It’s also available in audio format on audible.com. I would recommend that’s a great place to start to become familiar with how mindfulness can help you in this process, this addiction recovery process. I do want to emphasize to anyone listening who doesn’t have, isn’t struggling with addiction, to recognize to some degree we all have a core addiction, the addiction to craving the pleasant and avoiding the unpleasant which is the overall Buddhist view of what it is to understand the nature of reality and this can end up being the cause of a lot of our suffering for ourselves and others.
Anyone who’s listening or watching who just wants to understand mindfulness a little better, replace the idea of addiction with just the idea of suffering. If you’re experiencing suffering, this book is also instrumental and helpful to understand how do we break out of that cycle learning to become more aware of the relationship that we have with our life circumstances, with our thoughts, with our feelings or emotions and becoming more comfortable with the discomfort
Noah Levine: Probably my other books, for people who aren’t addicts that are just interested in mindfulness and Buddhism, Against the Stream or heart of the revolution are probably more appropriate for the people that are just looking at, “How do I apply this to my life?” Those books will also have the guided meditations and a more overall Buddhist perspective, not the specific addiction like Refuge has.
Noah Rasheta: Perfect. I wasn’t familiar with the other one. Against the Stream is one of them.
Noah Levine: Against the Stream and Heart of the Revolution.
Noah Rasheta: Heart of the Revolution.
Noah Levine: Against the Stream is an overview of the Buddhist teachings, mindfulness and the eightfold path. Heart of the Revolution is a deeper look into love and kindness, and compassion, and forgiveness. Brahma-viharas, the heart practices of the Buddha. Then my first book Dharma Punks is my memoir of how I was an addict and came to Buddhism and eventually became a teacher. That’s also an interesting book. I feel like Dharma Punks is a good book to give your friend who maybe is struggling with addiction but isn’t ready to admit it because then they can read it and they’d be like, “Oh wait. I’m just like this guy. He recovered and maybe I can recover too.”
Noah Rasheta: I enjoyed reading all of the stories of the various people and their specific journey in and out of addiction. I want to just wrap this up with echo in something that you emphasized and that I think in a lot of what you do maybe in everything that you do which is the idea that these teachings, the teachings of the Buddha are revolutionary in the sense that it’s a revolutionary act to go against the way that we currently exist, the way that we currently … What’s the word? We fuse with our thoughts and our emotions, and our labels and it’s a revolutionary act to become mindful of the nature of our own mind, the nature of reality and the benefits are incredible. Anybody who practices mindfulness will know that especially anyone who’s dealing with any kind of addiction. It could also have this radical change in their life because of these ideas and these concepts.
Noah, I want to thank you for coming on the show and for spending time sharing your insight and your wisdom about addiction and recovery. Hopefully anyone listening who would like to learn more, they can visit your website, refugerecovery.org. Check out one of your books and get on the path to liberation, liberation from that habitual reactivity that is causing you so much suffering for yourself and for others. Do you have any final thought or anything before we go, Noah?
Noah Levine: Maybe the only plug, I mean we talked about Refuge. Againstthestream.org will give information about my meditation retreats classes. We have centers in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Nashville, there’s groups all over the country, Seattle so people that are interested not for recovery stuff but just to do a meditation retreat. I have a seven-day retreat in October and Joshua Tree, such a great thing to just say, I’m going to take a week. I’m going to do a long retreat and that information will be at againstthestream.org.
Noah Rasheta: Awesome. Really quick, I also want to plug your podcast because a lot of people that listen to my podcast ask about what other podcast are out there to listen to? A lot of people who listen to mine recommend yours and they say, “I love the approach of Against the Stream and the way that they present a lot of psychology with Buddhist philosophy. Does that have its own website, your podcast?
Noah Levine: The podcast is in iTunes. Against the Stream on iTunes is where the podcast lives.
Noah Rasheta: Just search Against the Stream in iTunes and I assume any other podcast, software you’ll find that, and that’s another great podcast. Once again, Noah, thank you very much. I’m going to turn off the live portion of this now, so thank you everyone for listening. You guys have a great day.
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