Buddhist teacher Noah Levine’s punk rocker past, social advocacy, and straight-talking, subversive books like Dharma Punx and Against the Stream have earned him an avid following among the young and disaffected. Now he can add a subset of Buddhists who, like Noah, are in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. A fan of the Twelve Step program but not of its God-centered rhetoric, Noah put together an alternative, Refuge Recovery. Firmly grounded in the four noble truths and the eightfold path, Refuge draws on the best of Buddhism and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In his newest book, Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction, Noah sets out the program’s principles and practices, which emphasize meditation and self-awareness.

Noah Levine recently spoke with Tricycle contributing editor Joan Duncan Oliver:

The Twelve Step recovery program has been pretty successful since 1935. Why did you think there was a need for a new approach, for Refuge Recovery? For the last 26 years, I’ve participated in Twelve Step programs, and I’ve benefitted so much. There are some really solid principles around honesty, humility, and making amends. And the best part is the community, the peer-support of others in recovery. But the Twelve Steps were never a very good fit for me because of the Judeo-Christian language. They ask you to believe in a higher power—in “God as you understand Him,” a male creator deity. That never resonated with me. Buddhism spoke to my heart, and the nontheistic underpinning of awakening through our own deliberate efforts made much more sense to me. For a long time I did both: the Twelve Steps for my recovery support and Buddhism for my spiritual practice. But at some point, I thought, why do we continue to translate this theistic view through this nontheistic Buddhist lens? Buddhism has everything we need to treat addiction. In some ways the core teaching of the Buddha is about ending our addiction to pleasure, which creates suffering. I’ve been using Buddhism for my recovery all these years, and I’ve been teaching Buddhism, so about six years ago, I started creating Refuge Recovery.

Related: Recovery Summit Attracts Buddhist Leaders 

Your own story of addiction, recovery, and Buddhism is pretty inspirational. I started drinking and smoking pot when I was about 7 years old. By the time I was 11 I was taking hallucinogens. At 12 and 13, I was doing cocaine and smoking on a daily basis. I started getting arrested in junior high school and was sent to Twelve Step meetings and drug counseling. That was my introduction to recovery. But it wasn’t until a few years later, after being strung out on crack and heroin and drinking alcoholically, that I was incarcerated and began to seek treatment. That’s also when I started meditating.

How did you get started on meditation? I was 17, in Juvenile Hall and looking at seven years in prison. On the phone with my father [Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine] I said, “I’m in deep trouble here, and I need some help.” He said, “Well, how about I teach you how to meditate?” My attitude was, I could use some real help—like how about a lawyer? But he shared with me that his meditation practice had come from his own troubled past: he had been a heroine addict and had seen awakening as the solution to addiction, or at least to the suffering in his life. So he gave me simple meditation instructions, and I went back to my cell and started meditating.

I had a powerful experience with meditation right from the beginning. Up to that point I had never realized that I didn’t have to pay attention to and believe my mind, that I could ignore it and just focus on the breath. I realized that meditation was a powerful tool that in the long run would teach me how to train my mind and transform my relationship to it.

Was that when you started practicing seriously? After about two-and-a-half months in Juvenile Hall I was put into a group home. I continued meditating, but I was a tough guy, a punk rocker, and meditating was the antithesis of my image. So I meditated in secret. When I got out of the group home, I got into a motorcycle gang. Though I was drug-free I continued my life of crime for a few years. Then, after getting in trouble for vandalism, in 1990 I attended my first meditation retreat with Jack Kornfield. That was when I realized that the dharma was my only hope, my only refuge. Nothing else had worked—the drugs, the attention, the money, the gang. So at that retreat I decided, “Okay, I am a meditator. And I’m going to actually try to get enlightened. I’m going to go for it.”

The Twelve Step program promises that if you stop drinking and drugging and follow the steps, you’ll get sobriety and a happier life. In Refuge Recovery you state:  “The practice of these principles, which begins with accepting the reality of our addiction, will bring us to an enlightened state, an experience of wisdom and compassion and forgiveness and love for ourselves and everyone else.” Are you saying that the Refuge Recovery program promises complete realization if you commit to it fully? Absolutely. This is Buddhism, and Buddhism teaches the potential for awakening. And in order to awaken, there has to be some suffering that inspires us to practice. The suffering of addiction is a great inspiration to lead us to the practice of awakening. The Twelve Step program is saying we can help you become normal—a worker among workers, a man among men, that sort of thing. That’s a bit like early psychology, when Freud said that the best psychology can do is transform neurotic suffering into ordinary suffering. So while some recovery perspectives say we can transform the suffering of addiction into ordinary suffering, what Buddhism is saying—and Refuge Recovery is teaching—is that we can take the suffering of addiction and turn it into a path that ends not just the suffering of addiction but all human suffering, through Buddhist awakening practices.

In Twelve Step circles, complete abstinence is essential for recovery. But there are alternative methods that claim you don’t need to maintain abstinence—what’s important is developing self-control. Where does Refuge Recovery stand? Abstinence is absolutely a view I hold. I believe that real addicts and alcoholics cannot gain balance, which is treated only by abstinence. And beyond that, like the Buddha I believe that in order to come to a spiritual awakening, abstinence is necessary. When the media and the Western medical community talk about finding balance with recreational intoxication, they are not taking into consideration what Buddhism was taking into consideration, which is the necessity of maintaining mindfulness and the fact that you cannot be intoxicated and mindful at the same time. Whether you are an addict or not, if you care about awakening, if you want to develop wisdom and compassion, then a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle is what the Buddha taught.

Related: The Fifth Precept 

You’ve called the Buddha a “spiritual revolutionary.” How does that fit with Refuge Recovery? There are so many levels to this anti-greed, anti-hatred, anti-delusion teaching that says, in this world that’s filled with confusion, let’s be unconfused. In a world filled with hatred and greed, let’s be generous and loving and forgiving. The teachings are revolutionary on a societal level, but there’s also an internal revolution, because craving that creates addiction comes from inside, from the human survival instinct that craves pleasure and hates pain, and that left to its own devices will turn us into addicts. What Refuge Recovery and the Buddha’s teachings offer is an internal tool to go against greed, to practice renunciation, to not satisfy the cravings that arise.

Are you saying that addicts are just like everyone else? I think the seeds of addiction, the craving for pleasure, are in everyone. That’s one of the reasons why in the beginning of Refuge Recovery we do two very long, in-depth personal inventories that allow us to identify some of the factors in our life that led to alcoholism or addiction. Everyone craves pleasure, but not everyone drinks alcoholically or uses drugs with a total disregard for the consequences. What we think this really deep work will do is take away the denial and ensure recovery. The inventories are very difficult. But the Buddha says, “If you really want awakening, I’m going to ask a lot of you.” Refuge Recovery is not an easy process. We first ask you to get really uncomfortable, to turn toward the suffering in order to get through it.

Who’s Refuge Recovery aimed at? There are people who have been sober for 20 years in Twelve Steps and found that something was missing for them, and then they found Buddhism and that was the missing piece. And there are also brand-new people who have never meditated before, who got sober and started the Refuge program, which ensured their sobriety. I think Refuge Recovery fits well for people who are already Buddhist, and it fits well for people who need recovery and are agnostic or atheist. And I think it will also fit well for people who love the Twelve Steps and maybe even believe in God but are looking to learn more about meditation. Like all Buddhism, Refuge Recovery isn’t telling you that you can’t believe what you believe. It’s just offering you some practical tools to develop wisdom and compassion.

If I attend a Refuge Recovery meeting, what can I expect? As with the Twelve Step program, the first thing in Refuge Recovery is community. The meetings are peer led. You come in, and you’re met by a bunch of kind and generous recovering people—other addicts and alcoholics who are there to help you. And we offer meditation instruction right from the beginning.

Is group participation essential or could someone recover by doing the practices and meditations in the book on their own? Ultimately, I think community is very important and necessary. People shouldn’t try to go into deep meditative states without any support or guidance. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the Buddha had no teacher, no community, and he woke up based on his own direct experience. There is something to be trusted in the human capacity for transformation. But community, the sangha, is ideal.

The Twelve Step program has a 79-year track record. How do you know Refuge Recovery is going to work? When I started this, I was certain it was going to work for people who are already sober to bring them to the next level of their recovery, but I wanted to make sure it was going to work for people who were brand new, who were just detoxing. So for a year I worked in a drug and alcohol treatment center where people were coming off the street, still in active addiction and going through detox. I began teaching them meditation and the Refuge principles right from the beginning. Many of these people had been through lots of different treatment centers in the past; some were brand new. But in the outtake interview after treatment, 80 percent of them said that Refuge Recovery was the most important thing they had gotten from the treatment process. It resonated, it was practical, and they walked away from treatment after a month or so really knowing how to practice mindfulness and self-forgiveness and lovingkindness and compassion. They felt like they had a foundation.

Find a Refuge Recovery meeting near you.

[This story was first published in 2014]