The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Escaping from the prison of his mind

by Kestrel Slocombe
December 31, 2013
Tue, 12/31/2013 - 15:55 -- Kestrel Slocombe

This excerpt is from CNN’s “Five moments that changed their lives” by Moni BasuJohn BlakeDaniel BurkeWayne Drash and Jessica Ravitz.


Noah Levine woke up in a padded cell, his forehead bloody and bruised, his wrists raw from his latest suicide attempt. The previous day, he had literally beaten his head against the wall of the observation cell at Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall in California.

Noah Levine was going nowhere fast, but a phone call from his father set him on a new path.

For the past seven years, Levine had snorted, smoked, huffed, scarfed and drank every intoxicant he could get his hands on, from engine cleaner to heroin -- anything to numb his raging mind. To pay for the drugs and booze, he had stolen money, assaulted people and burgled cars. He’d been in and out of juvie hall at least 10 times, by his estimate.

Now, after being caught stealing a car stereo, Levine was looking at a seven-year sentence. In the padded cell, his body racked by drug withdrawal, his mind terrified by the prospect of a long stint in prison, suicide seemed like the only way out. A guard who Levine knew all too well approached his cell and told him his father was on the phone from New Mexico. Shamed and embarrassed, Levine shuffled off to take the call.

Levine’s father, Stephen Levine, is a teacher of Buddhist and Indian meditation, well known and highly regarded for his work on grief and death. He listened to his son's raving for a while, then told his own story. He, too, had struggled with drug addiction, and he, too had served time for his sins, Stephen Levine told his son. But Buddhist meditation had turned his life around, he said.

He gave his son simple instructions: Focus all your attention on your breath. Count each inhalation and exhalation. Let go of the past and forget the future. Let your mind rest in the present. Stephen Levine had imparted this advice to thousands of seekers, but it was the first time he had offered it to his skeptical teenage son.

Noah Levine had never bought into the Buddhist thing. His parents had been heavy into meditation, and what had it gotten them? All he saw were broken marriages, drug addiction and suffering. Instead, Levine found community and purpose in the punk rock movement. Its anti-establishment anger fueled his own rage; its hatred of hippies and 1960s spirituality mirrored his own mistrust of his parents’ path.

Then again, sitting in the padded cell, Levine had nowhere else to turn, nowhere to go but inside his own mind. He lay on his narrow bed and started to count his breaths. “Right away, I was released from where my mind was trying to take me,” Levine said. "My mind wanted to take me to the future or the past. But when I paid attention to the present, I realized that my mind had a lot of bad advice for me."

The kind of bad advice that gets you locked up at age 17.

Over the next several months, Levine kept meditating, turned 18 and moved to a halfway house for troubled teens. Back out on the streets, Levine deepened his Buddhist practice, hooked up with a noted teacher and earned a degree in counseling. Some time later, Levine, now 42, went back to Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall, this time as a mindfulness teacher. Even then, he got into a bit of trouble. The staff was not thrilled by his choice of education examples. (Comparing mindfulness meditation with the concentration needed to roll a perfect joint is not their favorite metaphor.)

“But I’ve always felt like my life is my best teaching tool,” Levine said with a laugh.

Levine still considers himself a punk, but now he’s a “Dharma punk,” and one of the most prominent Buddhist teachers in the country. In addition to founding the Los Angeles-based Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, Levine has created a Buddhist-based drug and alcohol recovery program. Called “Refuge Recovery, the program integrates Buddhist teachings like the Four Noble Truths with modern psychology and meditation techniques. Levine said it’s an alternative to God-centered 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and puts a premium on living moment-by-moment, just as his father instructed some 25 years ago -- a piece of parental advice that Levine credits with saving his life.

-- Daniel Burke, CNN

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