Dharma Punk: How One Angry Young Man’s “Rock Bottom” Journey Turned into a Mindfulness Movement

noah LevineFor many (most?) people, the pain of existence requires some form of escape: for some, it’s food, for others, drugs or alcohol; for still others, it’s obsessive work or other obsessive behaviors and actions. But for all, these are attempts at escaping something that cannot be escaped–only accepted and “observed” as conditions of the world. For many, hitting “rock” bottom is the reason for changing, for attempting to improve themselves and trying something different. That was the case for me, and it was, as I found out, the case for a group of punks in California some years back. One of these self-described “punks” turned toward meditation and mindfulness (specifically, Buddhism) after he’d hit rock bottom and had nowhere to go, is Noah Levine. Today, as an author, and a teacher (who was himself taught by well-known Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield), he’s started a mindfulness movement among the angry, the marginalized, and the fraught among today’s youth, known as the Dharma Punx. There’s even a documentary called Meditate and Destroy about Noah and his movement’s adherents (available on Netflix, but also full-length version on YouTube–see end of this post). But this all came at a great price. As Noah’s father, Stephen Levine, well-known author (Guided Meditations, Explorations and Healings) and meditation expert:

“At our edge is when we come up against that which is no longer safe, but it’s fascinating because at our edge comes expansion; accompanied by fear. Most growth–certain aspects of most growth  have some fear accompanying them. Because we have been told throughout out life that whatever you do, don’t feel bad…So we don’t know how to feel bad. And when we feel bad, we don’t know what to do.”

“When people hit rock bottom, when people know that they’re suffering; recognize that they’re suffering, that is one of the greatest moments in their lives; one of the most painful, but one of the most momentous, that the ship is turning. The bigger the ship, the more our karma, the slower the ship turns. But it’s turning. And when we say, when people say, enlightenment, forget enlightenment, are you facing in the right direction?”

Resistance to Acceptance and a Dislike for the “Hippie” Stereotype. Like so many young people today, Noah sought escape through the usual routes (known among punks, at least): alcohol, drugs, violence. For Noah, meditation and Buddhism were a “sell out’s” way out. Meditation was just a mystical, strange world inhabited by hippies and religious freaks. As Noah explains:

“I had so much resistance, so much association with meditation as being for hippies, or for some weird  mystical, or worse, some kind of religious, dogmatic brainwashing. [I] had a lot of resistance, but also had an inkling of willingness.” [editor’s note: this stigma is one of the key reasons for continued resistance to mindfulness and meditation.]

As Noah’s  behavior continued to lead him down a dark path of arrests, violence, drug abuse, and the very real possibility of incarceration, he was caught in a cycle of loneliness and self-destructive loathing. When Noah finally hit rock bottom (attempting to kill himself while in detention) he was faced with a choice: die or change. During one of his detentions, his father, Stephen, called him and gave him some basic instruction on meditation.

Let’s Hear it for Cocaine… For Noah, his conversation with his father and the liberating release (“respite” from his chaotic thoughts, as he puts it) was a revelation–and it probably helped save his life. It’s a bit of an oversimplification (you’ll have to watch the movie ;)) but Noah gave up his old destructive patterns of behavior and engaged earnestly in meditation, mindfulness, and the practice of Buddhism–an empowering change that didn’t end the pain of existence, but enabled him to approach life in a way that reduced his suffering. But it took a deep dive to the bottom of the ocean to reach the conclusion that change had to come from within.

“As crazy as it is…crack cocaine is directly responsible for me trying meditation and teaching it and the whole Dharma Punx movement.”

…and Jack Kornfield. That might be true, but it’s also no auspicious that Noah’s father was one of the progenitors of the mindfulness movement in the United States (it definitely helps to be connected with enlightened folks!) In fact, Jack Kornfield, who (along with Stephen Levine and many others helped inspire Buddhist teachings in the west) helped teach Buddhism to Noah at the highly regarded Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California, which Jack co-founded.

Dharma Punx. The results of Noah’s journey have spread like ripples in a still pond after a (punk?) rock is tossed in the middle. There are “Dhama Punx” meditation groups throughout the United States, and the movie highlights the real-world changes that people are experiencing.

Dharma Punk Quote Noah Levine’s book, Dharma Punx, inspired meditation groups through the country–from California to New York. Noah has inspired a disaffected, angry demographic with hope and tools that resulted from a story of human struggle and personal triumph == and a simple truth: meditation, compassion, and awareness work. From the Dharma Punx website:

As with many self-destructive kids, Noah Levine’s search for meaning led him first to punk rock, drugs, drinking, and dissatisfaction. But the search didn’t end there. Having clearly seen the uselessness of drugs and violence, Noah looked for positive ways to channel his rebellion against what he saw as the lies of society.

Fueled by his anger and so much injustice and suffering, Levine now uses that energy and the practice of Buddhism to awaken his natural wisdom and compassion.

Meditate and Destroy: The Movie. This is a fascinating documentary about the journey of Noah Levine, an young angry man struggling with his own demons and constantly in trouble with the law, and how he found redemption through meditation and the practice of Buddhism. Here’s the full movie on YouTube:

About Stephen Levine. Here’s a brief summary of Stephen Levine, Noah’s father and one of the early pioneers who brought Buddhism to the West.

Stephen Levine (born 17 July 1937) is an American poet, author and teacher best known for his work on death and dying. He is one of a generation of pioneering teachers who, along with Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, have made the teachings of Theravada Buddhism more widely available to students in the West. Like the writings of his colleague and close friend, Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert), Stephen’s work is also flavoured by the devotional practices and teachings (also known as Bhakti Yoga) of the Hindu Guru Neem Karoli Baba. This aspect of his teaching may be considered one way in which his work differs from that of the more purely Buddhist oriented teachers named above. Since Buddhism is largely considered a non-theistic faith, his allusions in his teachings to a creator, which he variously terms God, The Beloved, The One and ‘Uugghh’, further distinguish his work from that of other contemporary Buddhist writers. (source)

Yours in mental hygiene,

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 The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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