Noah Levine’s memoir Dharma Punx is a compelling, flawed look at one man’s journey from a wild youth to a grounded adulthood, informed by a love of two seemingly dichotomous things: punk rock and meditation. Though the writing is at times overly simplistic – or simply uninteresting – there is an undeniable swell of emotion that gives Levine’s words the gravity merited by the situations he finds himself in. Whether he’s talking about his experiences on the streets of the Bay Area, in Juvenile Hall, or at a Tibetan monastery, it’s obvious that Levine cares about making the reader understand his emotional state and his decisions. This authorial decision is what allows the memoir to stand out as a compelling written work.
Levine begins his story with an account of a turbulent childhood largely spent in Santa Cruz, California. While the first chapter begins in medias res, when Levine is already imprisoned in a padded cell after a suicide attempt, the real start of Levine’s story comes with a similarly dark revelation: he was already contemplating suicide at age five, fantasizing about plunging a steak knife into his stomach while hiding from his abusive stepfather. Though he doesn’t go through with it, just knowing “that [he] had the option, that [he] could always get out of this life” if things got too dire, propels him onto a path of slow, confident self-destruction. (Levine 6) Levine was smoking pot by age eight, tripping on mushrooms at age ten, and having sex shortly after entering middle school. In the midst of this, Levine discovers the Sex Pistols, and an obsession with punk rock sets in nearly immediately. After attending a punk show at the famous Club Culture, he’s really hooked, and works putting up show fliers to get free admission to future shows and watch his idols perform live. Yet, as Levine gets drawn more and more into the world of punk, his self-destructive tendencies only increase. He gets arrested multiple times for possession and fighting and starts drinking to the point where he’s stealing alcohol just so he can stay inebriated as long as possible. Despite concern from both of his parents, at age sixteen, Levine emancipates himself and begins to really live by his own rules. The only problem: Levine doesn’t have a ton of rules governing his life to begin with.
The next several chapters – where Levine describes his life hanging around with his other street punk friends – are the most harrowing in the entire book. Once Levine starts smoking crack with his friends, things go off the rails for him. He lives his life constantly on the run, drunk and homeless, looking for his next fix. After doing time in Juvenile Hall for braining someone with his skateboard, he starts doing heroin, and finds himself breaking into houses and stealing to get the money for his next high. Eventually, after getting caught stealing a car stereo from an off-duty cop, he is sent back to Juvie. After a suicide attempt, Levine is finally forced to come to grips with the string of bad decisions he’s been making for much of his life, accepting that he’s been the cause of his own problems. I enjoyed these chapters the most. His vivid depictions of thievery and drug abuse, while difficult to swallow at times, are immensely important to this phase of Levine’s life, especially once he sees error of his ways in that padded cell from Chapter One. His realization that “[he] was in jail because of [his] own actions, not because of anyone else’s…this was what happened to drug addict thieves,” is as sobering for the reader as it is for Levine, and it comes as a great relief when he decides to finally follow his father’s advice and begin practicing mindfulness meditation (Levine 60).
Levine makes a concerted effort to change after his last stint in the Hall. Priority one is getting sober – though he isn’t initially a fan of the twelve-step programs recommended to him by his peers – and eventually Levine discovers the Straight Edge lifestyle, whose anti-drug beliefs are just what he needs. He begins working with a sponsor, adding prayer and meditation to his daily life, and begins attending meditation retreats. From here on out, the memoir is a tale of self-discovery and healing. Levine goes from being a dumb, cocky kid who only cares about how he gets high as fast as he can, to be a rational, responsible adult with the capability to erase his old, destructive habits. He’s able to make this transition by really throwing himself into his recovery, working to help his fellow addicts manage their sobriety. He embraces the twelve steps, spends several months making amends and paying reparations, and becomes interested in Eastern philosophies of meditation, as explored in the Maitri Upanishad.
This is where turbulence creeps back into Levine’s life. His primary spiritual teacher gets caught up in delusions of grandeur borne out of an abusive relationship, his celibacy pact is tested with his on-and-off girlfriend Lola, and a pilgrimage to Thailand and India in the hopes of becoming a monk only convinces Levine that such a lifestyle isn’t for him. After a devastating breakup with Lola, Levine is left despondent, but soon finds himself practicing a “year-to-live” philosophy promoted by his dad and stepmom. Living each day like he was going to be dead by the end of the year allows Levine to really take ownership of his desire to grow spiritually, and he fills that year with meditation retreats, a more successful pilgrimage to the Far East, and reconnecting with his friends and family on a level deeper than he ever had before. In this final stretch of the book, Levine is able to find a way to merge his meditation practice with his love of punk music, setting up meditation groups and working with at-risk teens to help them get off the path he was on all those years ago. While this section of the memoir is clearly the most cathartic for Levine, as he’s finally able to implement the lessons he’s learned over his years of recovery in his own way, it’s a part I found myself having difficulty connecting with. This is no fault of Levine’s; it’s the simple fact that reading about living on the edge is less compelling than living on stable ground. But Levine does his best to engage the reader and express the profound impact his spiritual practices have had on his life, and for this, he certainly can’t be faulted.
Dharma Punx is not a perfect book by any means, but it is an interesting read. Levine’s story is well-told, and even during the repetitive parts, it’s hard to put the book down and take a break from his journey to enlightenment. Levine is a compelling case for the importance of spirituality and positivity in a fulfilled life. We don’t have to plumb the dark depths of our soul the way Levine had to in order to obtain happiness – we just need to stay mindful, focus, and breathe.
Levine, N. (2004). Dharma punx: A memoir. New York: Harper One.