The Words Of My Imperfect Teacher

The first time I met Noah Levine, I thanked him for saving my life. And I meant it; in the weeks after experiencing the consequences of my past actions – I had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman 13 years prior, something I did not recall but responsibility for which I accepted – I had become sober, but I was floundering with how to deal with my new reality. I was shamed, my life as I knew it was over, and I didn’t know how to live with myself. As is common for the newly sober I threw myself into sobriety memoirs; I wanted to read about other people’s hard bottoms and see that they had survived and maybe even flourished afterwards. One of those books I read was Dharma Punx, Noah’s story of being a young drug addict and alcoholic who got sober and got into Buddhist meditation.

The first time I ever meditated it was based on the instructions that Noah wrote in that book. I sat on my couch and focused on my breath, counting each one, starting over if I got distracted. I couldn’t get past four that first time (today I can sometimes get to ten. Don’t set goals in your meditation would be my advice. Just do the thing). I picked up Noah’s other books – Heart of the Revolution, which presented spiritual awakening as a form of guerrilla warfare against a corrupt and degenerate society, and Against the Stream, which really explained the Buddha’s teachings as a form of radical countercultural protest. These things spoke to me deeply.

More than that, Noah spoke to me. So many meditation gurus give off the feeling that they were born calm, or maybe that their big problem was that they were TOO accommodating, TOO kind. Noah, on the other hand, grew up in the SoCal hardcore scene. He fought and he moshed, and he hung out with street kids and committed crimes. When he cleaned up he didn’t exactly leave that world behind – he showed that you could do a silent meditation retreat and then drive home listening to Youth of Today.

I needed that. Anger festers within me; self-pity constantly threatens to turn into rage. I listen to Jack Kornfield talk and I love what he has to say, but when he recounts being a child and spending his time looking at flowers in the field I am like “Get the fuck out of here.” I needed a teacher with rougher edges, whose experiences were coming from a place of darkness, who proved that that energy could be transformed into something positive. Noah gave me that.

A few months after reading his books I discovered that Noah’s meditation society, Against the Stream, had a center not far from my home. I could walk there. And I did. I attended classes and meditation sits regularly. I sat with all the teachers at ATS, many of them who are great purveyors of the dharma and whose talks and guidance helped deepen my practice and my spirituality. I attended a silent retreat with ATS, spending four days in the desert not speaking, not reading, not listening to music, not checking my phone, just meditating. It was astonishing and difficult and life-changing.

I eventually got to sit with Noah. I loved hearing him talk. I think of teachers as translators – they take their understanding of the subject and translate it into a language others can hear. Noah spoke about the dharma in a way I could hear; what’s more, he was able to take concepts that I might have otherwise found wishy-washy or sentimental or hokey and explained them in ways that penetrated this thick, aversive skull of mine.

Meditation and Buddhism, more than anything else in the past two years, have been the things that have saved me. I am alive today because of them. Recovery has been powerful, and therapy is vital for me, but I bring my Buddhism into both. I use Buddhist concepts and thinking all day long; I work four part-time jobs, two of them minimum wage customer service jobs, and I find that the wisdom of Buddhist practice enables me to not only deal with these jobs but to actually LIKE them. I consider many people my teacher, but Noah Levine was my real teacher, and even today I think about things he has written or said when I face difficulty.

I say ‘even today’ because the past six months has seen the slow decline and fall of Noah Levine. Earlier this year it became public that there had been claims of sexual misconduct filed against Noah with the ATS teacher council. He stepped down from his position as an investigation went on, but he kept teaching at Refuge Recovery, the drug treatment center he had founded.

I faded away from ATS in the wake of the scandal, not because I was upset with Noah or the group (although there were plenty who were upset at one, the other or both) but because with my own history I found the whole situation triggering. I felt like I had contaminated another space, had ruined things for other people once again. This was delusional thinking, but even when I understood that intellectually the emotional aspect of it remained. So I was away from ATS when the whole thing crashed down; the group has shuttered and closed its centers, and the teachers have spread out into Los Angeles to make their own way. It all happened on the tenth anniversary of the founding of Against the Stream.

The Noah saga has been slow-moving, and it took a turn this week. We knew that Noah had been accused of vague sexual misconduct, but we didn’t know what it was. As a teacher his standards are higher than ours; sleeping with a student, even consensually, would be a violation. Was that the case here? Nobody knew until Jezebel, which has been covering the story for a while, was leaked the internal investigation.

Noah was accused of raping a woman he met on a dating app, and of being inappropriately aggressive with others. Read the full Jezebel recounting here. These are bad accusations; the usual Buddhist non-judgmental term ‘unskillful’ doesn’t really cover it. Noah’s behavior, even through the most forgiving lens, was unacceptable and wrong. Maybe worse? His reactions to the accusations.

It has been disappointing to see how Noah has handled himself in the wake of all this. I won’t get into detail, as I don’t want to misrepresent anything he has said, but you can read all about it at Jezebel. The takeaway is that Noah’s reactions have not been focused on healing or repair, but rather on shifting blame or avoiding it altogether. Let’s say that the accusations are all false, just for the sake of argument. Even in this situation, Noah had an opportunity to not only create healing with people who are clearly hurting, he was offered an opportunity to understand what his own role in this situation was. He had an opportunity to explore his own masculinity and how it has been informed by a corrupt society, his own issues with sexuality, his own anger and his own blindspots. Instead he gave dharma talks about forgiving his accusers and he sent out an email where he talked about how the ATS teachers betrayed him – a move that would have sucked if he was just a dude in accounting, let alone a spiritual leader.

So what am I supposed to do? It is true that Noah Levine’s work saved my life (I leave it up to you to decide if that was a good thing), but it’s also true that Noah Levine is a deeply flawed man who has not been living by the teachings he gives. The modern reaction, I think, is to throw the teachings away; to get rid of the books and maybe performatively burn the t-shirt. Noah has committed the worst sin of all, he has been proven to be imperfect and to not live up to his own words. He should be, in 2018 terms, fully canceled.

Yet I won’t do that. In fact I see that what Noah is doing now is offering a great teaching to all who want to learn; he is demonstrating the fallibility of all people, reminding us that no one is perfect and that if we place all of our faith in a human being, that faith will eventually be betrayed. He is reminding us that no matter how many hours we have on the cushion, how many years sober, how many wise teachings we give, we are still susceptible to bad behavior. We can still go astray, no matter what. He is showing us that there is no end goal to all this work, that no matter how much we improve we will always have further to go, and that enlightenment isn’t behind a one-way door. We can always slide back out of it.

Noah has hurt a lot of people. Against the Stream and Refuge Recovery are full of sober addicts and addicts struggling for sobriety; the scandal has likely impacted many people in ways that hurt their sobriety. But at the same time I try to hold Noah in compassion because he’s also an addict and an alcoholic, and I know how hard maintaining his sobriety could be at this time. I try to hold a space for compassion because he is suffering very badly as well. I have been where he is. I have let people down. I have been confronted with my own worst acts. He is giving me an opportunity to practice.

Here’s the thing: what I learned from Noah Levine is no less true just because Noah Levine is a person who has done bad things or, at the very least, responded very badly to accusations. Knowing the truth and teaching the truth are different from living the truth. Living the truth is the hard part, and it’s the part where we need to be the most compassionate towards ourselves and each other. To throw away wisdom or to ignore good teachings just because they came from an imperfect teacher only hurts me in the end.

So I choose instead to look at all of this ugliness, all this unskillfulness, all this sadness and hurt and anger as opportunities to learn more advanced lessons. To better understand that nothing is permanent, not even our safe spaces, to learn that no one is perfect, even our teachers, and to better internalize the fact that this path is not straight, and is not always headed in what we think is the right direction. There are curves and turns and switchbacks and sometimes it seems to be going totally the wrong way, but in the end it gets us where we need to be.

But most of all this is a reminder that there is the truth and there are teachers, and we must never get the two confused. We must always take the truth and test it for ourselves, always see what actually works, not just what we are told works. At the very end of his life the Buddha, who had spent the previous 40 years teaching, gave his final thoughts on teachers:

Be a light unto yourself; betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.”

Learn from those who have something to teach you, positive or negative, but don’t become attached to them or invest your progress in them. And when they fail you, learn from that. I hope that my own failures have been instructive to others. 

I hope that the women Noah has harmed can find peace and safety. I hope that Noah can find peace and safety. I am thankful to him for all the things he has taught me.