by Karen Spiak and Andrea Pientka
Josh Korda from DharmaPunx in New York City practices a unique mix of Buddhism and western psychology. He and his wife Kathy Cherry recently led a five day silent retreat here at New Life. Both of them have been clean and sober for many years. Josh and Kathy, who work on a donation only basis, have dedicated their lives to helping others battle their addictions or simply battle life itself. Kathy, a mindfulness and meditation teacher, is currently studying for her life coaching degree. Josh is a Buddhist teacher, writes for several Buddhist publications and personally mentors scores of spiritual practitioners every year. We sat down with them to talk about DharmaPunx, recovery, and what Buddhism has to do with cookbooks.
Hi Josh, Hi Kathy! It’s great to have you here! How does it feel for you to be at New Life and why did you choose to hold one of your retreats here?
Kathy Cherry: I am excited to be here. I really appreciate what Julien and the founder, Johan have done. I just think it’s a fascinating concept to bring people into community around mindfulness, recovery, buddhism, life coaching and all the different modalities here.
Josh Korda: I had been contacted originally by Vince Cullen quite a number of years ago, suggesting that New Life and Julien would be a wonderful connection, a natural fit. I did a series of talks on addiction and buddhism in 2010 or 2011 and that really spread. I have been clean and sober for 21 years and for two decades have been working with and mentoring addicts who are seeking recovery. New Life is not just about addicts and alcoholics, it’s about people who are wanting to make a change in life and that’s what I do.
What’s your story? How did the two of you meet?
Josh Korda: We met at a dance on the final day of 1999. Kathy was living in a different town at that time.
Kathy Cherry: I was living in upstate New York.
Josh Korda: And I was living in New York City. So the prospect of a romance seemed at first, unlikely. But we struck up a friendship.
Kathy Cherry: Then I got a job and Josh said ’Why don’t you stay with me while you are apartment hunting?’ And we sort of went from there.
“We were both tattooed, we were both punk rockers and both bald”
What ties the two of you together?
Josh Korda: You start out with an emotional connection, but over the course of 16 years the spiritual path becomes a very integral part in making a relationship work. The principles that are the foundation of our practice – like care, commitment and growth – are also the very ones that allow us to be in a relationship that continues. Buddhism and spiritual practice in general have been like a journey we are both on that has not only created a meaningful life, but also has created a meaningful relationship.
Kathy Cherry: There are so many interesting coincidences that lined up perfectly in the way that we met. Down to this weird thing where we both had left recent relationships thinking ’I give up. I am just gonna be myself’. About three months into the relationship, we realized we both had set the same intention, shifting to ’I am going to be me. And if they don’t like me, that’s fine.’ We both happen to like each other, which is fortuitous.
What drew you to DharmaPunx?
Josh Korda: I met Noah (Levine, co-founder of DharmaPunx) in the auspices of the twelve step environment. He was there, I was there. We are both second generation Buddhists. His father was a famous Buddhist, mine was just a run of the mill practitioner. We were both tattooed, we were both punk rockers and both bald. When we finally came to spiritual practice, we wanted to integrate some of the same rebellious questioning of authority that had become part of our lives. I think Noah and I experienced a degree of feeling like outsiders when we first attended a lot of Buddhist meetings. I know, I did. I didn’t feel particularly welcomed there. On the other hand, DharmaPunx was a way to open up spiritual practice to people who often feel marginalized whether due to their financial situation, their sexuality, their lifestyle, their general questioning or anti-authoritarian stances in life. We wanted to have a school of Buddhism that was very much against the stream of the very safe, white, upper middle-class sanghas that were prevalent at the time.
Kathy Cherry: When I first heard Noah teach I was really struck, because for a long time I had been looking for a spiritual practice that could expand upon the base of sobriety that I already had been well established in. The way he taught was just so straight forward. It made so much sense. There were no airs about it. He was very authentic, very disclosing. A lot of Buddhist teachers have a holier-than-thou attitude.
It was also really nice to see people who were my age, like-minded and creative people. I would never claim to be quite so counter-cultural and rebellious as the guys, coming from a family with police and military people in it…but I really appreciated the almost immediate sense of community.
How DharmaPunx became a real anchor, the center of our lives
You have both been teaching at DharmaPunx for years. In which ways has this commitment helped your journey of healing?
Josh Korda: For me the twelve-step tools that are available in AA and in NA are limited in terms of a long lasting recovery that’s not just about abstinence. Deep down, most people yearn for a far more significant personal journey of uncovering the emotions that we have been repressing throughout our lives. For me, addiction is an attempt to replace people in our lives because we don’t trust them to accept our true, authentic experience. At the beginning, AA can be a safe space. But over time, the demands of believing in God and the presentation of certain emotions like anger or shame or fear as essentially bad things to rid ourselves of, can be unsettling.
For me Buddhism is about self-discovery, about creating a safe container where we can turn to the parts of ourselves that we feel ashamed of. I don’t believe that’s available in twelve-step groups. I wouldn’t be this happy and fulfilled in my life or this self-acceptant, if I had just remained in twelve-step practice. DharmaPunx and the practice of Against The Stream is much more nonjudgmental but also, at the same time, much more fearless in connecting with our different emotions.
Kathy Cherry: In the beginning I was very attracted to DharmaPunx, because it connected with a lot of the concepts in twelve-step recovery. I had already been sober for over 15 years, when I started making these connections, so it made things exciting and interesting again. I still held fears about myself and felt the need to succeed in the world. Therefore I was not prioritizing certain things the way that I should have been. My commitment to DharmaPunx clarified that contrast in my life. I started to see how my workaholic lifestyle and Buddhist principles were incompatible in a lot of ways. It allowed me to start the process of stepping back from the New York grind. DharmaPunx became a real anchor, the center of our lives. It has also created a little family for us. As a couple, we chose not to have kids so it gave us something to care for and tend to.
“The insight and tools of Theravada are very much like a cookbook for happiness”
Can you please explain your approach to buddhism, Josh?
Josh Korda: My approach is based on western psychology. I have always believed that Buddhism changes, it takes on a different flavor, wherever it goes. When it was introduced in the West, especially in America, it was brought over by people with a psychological background such as Jack Cornfield. I also grew up in a family where my dad was a Buddhist and my mom an averred, dedicated Freudian. So, they were presented to me alike – my dad’s Buddhists books and my mum’s Freud, Jung, Erikson and Rankin. There was never a sense of ’Buddhism is religion’ and ’Freud is psychology or science’, rather a sense of ’these are two interrelated paths that allow you to find happiness and examine the way your mind works’. To me both psychology and Buddhist practice are not about answering cosmological questions or questions other than ’How can I be at peace in my own mind and live a life that feels fulfilling?’
Why did you settle with Theravada Buddhism in the end?
Josh Korda: I grew up in a Zen family and then I sat with a Tibetan group. When I eventually heard the Theravada teachings, especially by people like Ajahn Sujato and Thanissaro Bhikkhu, it made sense. I immediately found the teachings easy to grasp and parse. The insight and tools of Theravada are very much like a cookbook for happiness. That being said, there is nothing wrong with Zen or Tibetan!
You were working in advertising, Josh, before you became a buddhist/meditation teacher. What’s your motivation to work on a donation basis instead of having a well-paid job?
Josh Korda: One, it’s a Buddhist tradition called Dhana. Two, I wanted to take an action that directly challenged the ingrained fears that are endemic in a capitalist country: the sense that everything has to have a price tag. I really believe that spiritual practice should exist outside of consumerism. When I first started teaching, I didn’t accept any money at all for a number of years. Later, I made it very clear when it came to Dhana that people should never give anything that causes any stress or out of a sense of obligation. I don’t look at what people give. Frankly, it’s amazing that it has allowed me to pay my bills. It’s not allowed me to save a lot of money, but it’s actually allowed me to survive – in doing something that I love.
In your words, what are the benefits of sitting a retreat?
Kathy Cherry: The chance to have the time to really just dive in, to fully commit and let go of everything. It’s a real gift in today’s society to completely unplug. And you never know what’s going to happen. I have gone into certain retreats thinking ‘I hope to work on this’ and then something totally different and unexpected will come up. Just the ability to learn how to be with whatever happens teaches you a lot of flexibility.
Josh Korda: The quietest my mind has ever been was during a retreat through „Spirit Rock“. Not only quiet in terms of lack of thoughts. We tend to carry around this inner calendar, that tells us: ’At 4pm I am supposed to be doing this, at 5pm I am supposed to be doing that…’ and so even when we have time to relax there is always this feeling that it’s coming to an end. When that falls away there is this timeless opening in the mind that, when combined with inner silence, creates this great feeling of spaciousness and openness that’s really quite profound.