Chris Grosso is a writer, Spiritual Director of Tovio by Advocacy Unlimited, teacher with the Worldwide Insight Organization and public speaker. He is also the author of Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality and Everything Mind: What I’ve Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening and the Mind-Blowing Truth of it All (Sounds True). He writes for many publications including Huffington Post, ORIGIN Magazine and Mantra Yoga + Health Magazine. He created his website, The Indie Spiritualist, six years ago and is jam packed with interviews, music and spiritual teachings – there’s something for every seeker.
My first introduction to Chris Grosso was attending a live, video 2.0 meeting he was hosting on InTheRooms.com. His spiritual philosophy and the solutions he found for his years of devastating addiction made me sit upright and listen. His message is all inclusive regarding spirituality. Indeed his message is all inclusive no matter what he’s talking about. He believes that there’s different paths for everyone and it’s perfectly acceptable to do it your way. Both his books have received excellent reviews from Ram Dass, Tony Hawk, Jeff Bridges and Don Miguel Ruiz Jr., to name a few.
Nicola: How do you define your own addiction?
Chris: I would agree with the idea that addiction refers to any behavior that we continue to do despite the negative consequences. You’ve read my book the Indie Spiritualist so you know some of the really low points in my life – but I continued to use drugs and alcohol despite the very dark places it brought me. It’s being a slave to the disease. There were times when I would be crying, not wanting to drink or snort that line, but it was so beyond my control at that point. I’m not a Gabor Mate who can give you the precise science behind it but I do know that part of it is to do with the brain and the chemicals produced there.
Nicola: Do you feel that addiction is different for everyone – that maybe there’s a different process for each person?
Chris: I just want to make it clear that everything I say in this conversation is completely my own view. I’m not saying that anything is the correct answer, it’s just my opinion. So I think that addiction is multifaceted – it can be a gene, it can be trauma related it can be learned behavior. But I believe that there is so much that goes into it. It’s not just a physical thing. To me it’s all encompassing. You have to look at the mental, emotional and the spiritual. These are all different components of our being, but they are all interconnected. To me you have to take all of that into consideration when you’re dealing with addiction. So no, I do not believe that there is any generic explanation – like you’re an addict because of this or that. I think it’s a highly individualized experience for each person that leads them to the addiction itself.
Nicola: From Reading your writings regarding your spiritual practice, a lot of it refers to Eastern Philosophies and I’m wondering if you believe that we have just one life, or do we reincarnate – therefore maybe carrying some of our addiction and spiritual issues with us from one life to the next?
Chris: That’s a great question and I was actually just talking about this with my wife yesterday morning, in fact. And it’s a question that comes up in life. It’s a curious question. And what I will say is that nobody has that answer definitively. I mean how would anyone really know? We are all alive at this point only – and sure some people have had past life experiences. You will hear two sides to that story too. Some coming from a scientific point of view will say that’s just the way the brain is functioning at that moment – that it was more of a brain thing rather than a spiritual thing. But if I’m to be completely honest, then yes I would say there is reincarnation. And perhaps there’s a bit of ego based fear attached to that. I don’t want to believe that once I’m dead it’s over. Sure part of me does not want to die and then fade to black.
But it makes sense to me. In Buddhism they talk about the store consciousness – these seeds that are planted – and what we do in our daily lives brings these seeds to fruition. So there are seeds that bring good things and some that bring bad things. Hence karma – and until we clean out that store consciousness we will continue to take rebirths. In the Buddhist tradition there are different realms of existence. So we might take a rebirth here on this earthly realm – or if we lived a life where we caused a lot of pain we might rebirth in a hell realm. But you know I can’t sit here and tell you I can remember any of those possible experiences definitively – so really who knows? And what resonates even deeper with me is the teachings of Hinduism of the Athman and Brahman, that there is this soul that continues on. I know that Buddhism refutes that completely and I respect that, but I do like to believe that there is a soul that incarnates from life to life and you continue to learn, and evolve and grow until you experience Moksha, or liberation. And you are no longer on this wheel of life and death.
Nicola: From my own spiritual learning and experience I agree with your ideas. But sometimes that idea can also go against the grain – especially regarding Karma and the idea that if we have been a horrible person in a past life then we are reincarnated into a life of deep suffering. It’s too harsh an idea for me to be able to accept, especially in regard to children – that doesn’t sit right with me. It’s a very contradictory concept for me even though it also makes sense.
Chris: And you know it’s interesting you say that, because in that conversation I had with my wife yesterday she made a very good point. She said it’s easy for us to sit here – referring to her and I – and talk about this, because we’re ok. I mean we’re not rich but we are comfortable and we are not living a life where we have to worry about bombs going off, or starvation. But think about these children who are born into a life of lack and horrific circumstances – I can’t believe that, that is karma. And then I’ve heard the argument that, well you never know what they did in a previous life, and there has been no shortage of monsters in history from the beginning of time. But again, for me, it comes back to the question – who knows? And anytime I hear anyone give an attempt at a definitive answer on anything in that regard, that’s my time to walk away. Because you can have your beliefs and ideas, but if you hold it as a definitive truth that must be held by everyone, then that’s dogmatic – the opposite of spirituality in my opinion.
Nicola: So how long has it been since your last drink or drug?
Chris: Yeah – boy that’s a good question. I don’t really keep track of my date. I love the concept of being clean and sober today. And I don’t look at it just in relation to drugs or alcohol. I look at it in all aspects of my life. Sure I may not have drank today – but how did I eat, what kind of sugary or processed foods did I put in my body? How did I live today just as a human being? So I mean it’s all encompassing. What I do know is that about five years ago I had an experience that I write about in The Indie Spiritualist and then wrote a little more in Everything Mind, that really just brought me to the rock bottom of rock bottoms. I was really just ready to die. I had those suicide attempts that were really just cries for help but still landed me in a psych hospital at the time – but I really was ready to die. It was after having that experience and then reading Finding Freedom by Jervis Masters, that I recognized I wasn’t doing the work to remove me from the sick and suffering place. I wasn’t prepared to go into these raw and vulnerable places and start doing that work and that was what kept me, for the most part, going back out as frequently as I was. I had all this internal turmoil and at face value things would get better. I would get the job, the money, the girlfriend or whatever – but still there was just this wreckage inside that I wasn’t working with. So that’s what I focus on the most – that experience five years ago. And I have fallen short in every way possible since then. I’ve eaten like crap. My wife and I almost got divorced last year because of emotional problems I was having. So I have fallen. But what is more important to me is that I’ve gotten back up. I’ve learned to show up for myself. I’ve learned to really do this work and be compassionate with myself in this process. But that’s on a good day. And there are many days I would consider not good days.
Nicola: I can so relate to that. I love your honesty about not having this perfect “happy, joyous and free” recovery. I come from a twelve step background and sometimes that phrase can make me feel less than recovered, because I never seem to be able to hit that milestone. And like you I still have these ups and downs and sometimes it can cause me to feel shame. But another part of me feels awesome that I don’t have to bend under the pressure of this illusive perfection. I loved in your books where you talk about sitting with the turmoil and caring for it like a baby as a form of meditation and healing.
Chris: Yes. I share that at all the workshops I do and in both my books because it’s so powerful. But I’m still not perfect at doing that myself. There are times, like last year when my wife and I were having problems – there were three days when we didn’t talk. I tried to sit with that practice and I couldn’t, because it was too much for me to handle. And so from that experience I absolutely realize that sometimes my spirituality looks different. There is no such thing as a spiritual super hero. We are all flawed and vulnerable. And in fact it was more compassionate in that moment to sit on my couch and watch mindless TV – which I would normally not suggest – but the emotion of losing my wife was too much. I watched how I reacted during that time. That repetitive thing appeared again, the same as when I was doing drugs. I’d go back and look for sugary foods to comfort myself and get rid of the pain. So while it may not be drugs or alcohol it’s still an obsessive behavior.
Nicola: I completely get that. I mean when I put down chemicals I discovered that there was a whole minefield of behaviors that were totally dysfunctional. Like there was a whole landscape that accompanied the addictions.
Chris: That’s exactly it. I like that idea – addiction being a landscape full of mines we have to avoid.
Nicola: And What is recovery to you?
Chris: It’s just showing up – showing up for ourselves and being aware of the behaviors we just talked about and then taking some action to change the harmful aspects. If we fall down we fall down. Recovery is what we do to get back up. Relapse to me is part of my recovery too. They were hard, intense lessons I had to experience. Most people do end up relapsing. Again the most natural thing for an addict to do is to use. But what happens after the relapse? But again, as you said, I must look at the landscape of my addiction, and get authoritative with myself and say, Dude! Look what you’re doing to yourself.
Nicola: That’s totally relatable to me. Like I really enjoy the act of taking care of myself, which to me is recovery. But then all of a sudden I drop the ball and I become aware for a period of time I haven’t done the things that I usually enjoy. I haven’t eaten right or exercised or meditated and it’s not a conscious decision I’ve made. I just realize I haven’t done those things for a week! Why the hell do we do that?
Chris: I’m working on two books at the moment and that is one of the things I’m writing about. Why do these things happen to us? It’s specifically related to relapse, but also why we experience other self-defeating behavior when we know better. Like I have this friend who is an incredible writer and editor and has worked with tons of Buddhist teachers. She has a very dedicated meditation and spiritual practice for many years. But recently she’s been going through something with her teenager that has left her at the point, on some days, that she can barely get anything done. She just lies there and cannot function. Yet she knows better. She knows what the solutions are to her dysfunction but just can’t do it. So I’m speaking to wonderful people like Gabor Mate and a Doctor called Peter Levine who has written some great books about trauma and healing. Ram Dass, a great spiritual teacher and Ken Wilber and Lissa Rankin are others I’m talking with. And as it was with my other two books, I’m really my own test subject for writing this book. Getting insight from these other wonderful teachers, relating it to my own behavior and sharing it in a way that is accessible to everyone is my aim.
I share in The Indie Spiritualist, that I interviewed a wonderful Trappist Monk, Fr. Thomas Keating, several years ago. I mentioned to him that I was in recovery from drugs and alcohol – and he laughed and said – “Well I’m in recovery too, but I’m in recovery from the human condition”. And yes! That’s it exactly. That’s something we all have in common, addict or not.
So yeah, I too am sometimes ridiculously self-defeating and it can be totally baffling as to why I do it. Sometimes within a few hours or a few days I’ll realize, yeah that’s why I did what I did and sometimes it could be years later. And there are many things in my life that I’m still trying to make sense of and maybe I’ll never have answers to why.
Nicola: I find it fascinating when I see people following the same practices all their lives and I admire their consistency. For me though, I have picked certain things up and then left them behind and found something new and it continues that way. It’s like an evolution of my spirituality. I’m very close to Paganism – but it’s not even that – it’s like bits of everything. Does your spiritual practice evolve all the time? Are there things that you have continued to use consistently on your path?
Chris: The main thing that I try to get across to people in my books is to find what works for them – what really works for them. And I really appreciate what you said about Paganism, because you have found something that resonates deeply with you. And that’s the whole point of it. Because there is such thing as spiritual materialism – like some people dress and talk the part but are not really doing the work. Intent is great but it takes action to grow. That said, I don’t advocate for one path or tradition over another and it’s the same for recovery – I don’t advocate for one path of recovery over another. I guess if I had to call myself anything, an Individual Spiritualist fits, which is pretty close to interfaith or interspiritual. My bookshelves are loaded with books from all the wisdom traditions because there is such truth and beauty in all of it. As far back as high school, before I had any interest in spirituality I had music, but could never just listen to one type of music – I loved all of it.
But since I started my spiritual journey, the one thing that has been with me consistently is meditation. And there is no shortage of different kinds of meditation. So find the type that you like and works for you and go with it. And I, at different times, use a variety of them. There is no one size fits all for anything in life. Even skate boarding can be a form of meditation for me. I can get on that board and be so focused that nothing else gets in.
Nicola: That’s so cool – the skateboarding thing. I totally get that. Dancing in my living room with my headphones on to drumbeats is one of mine. I totally sound like a weirdo now I know. And photography – when I’m looking for that perfect shot I’m focused on nothing but the creation of the Universe. And you spoke about in your book the different forms of music you have listened to and how each one can take you to a state of bliss in their own way.
Chris: Absolutely. There’s a whole list of music that has brought me to a very similar state that a session of meditation has. That’s exactly it.
Nicola: I get questioned quite a bit about why I do what I do –like why can’t I just be sober and shut up about it. Sometimes I am totally sure what that reason is and other times I even question myself. What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?
Chris: I think it’s a common thing in recovery that we have this drive to help other people and see them do well. However in early recovery that was a bad thing for me. Because I came to recognize that it was a form of aversion. I was taking the focus off myself and not looking at what was going on with me. Like let’s focus on your problems and not worry about mine. So we need to be careful about our motives regarding helping others. But doing what I do now is deeply engrained in me. So my motivation is thinking about those many times of darkness. The times I should have died, or I could have died. And the fact that I didn’t and the fact I’m here still is a big drive for me doing what I’m doing. I don’t believe that it was just luck that I survived some really horrible situations. And I can’t say that I understand, but I do believe that I got through those things so I can help others going through the same things. And this is not coming from an ego place. It’s just sharing the shit human experiences that can devastate us. It’s a huge gift to be able to reach another person like that. But I have to remember I can’t save them – just understand them and show them how I got through it. They have to do the work.
When I came home after that last treatment center, the only drive I had in me was to be of service in whatever capacity that was going to be. I didn’t come home with the intention to write books. That just kind of happened. I just came home with the resolve that I’m going to help others – I don’t know how that’s going to look – but I’m going to do it.
Nicola: It amazes me how our idea of helping can evolve into something that we hadn’t expected. I remember talking to you last year about a similar thing and you said to me that if it’s our calling we have no choice. It’s something that won’t leave us alone until we surrender to it.
Chris: That is absolutely my experience. It’s becomes our life’s work. And even the Indie Spiritualist became a different book than it started out with. It turned into its own thing. And that’s what happens when you go into something with an open heart and open mind and with the right spirit and intention. It becomes a very fluid thing. And the funny thing is that when I finished writing everything mind last year – I said to my wife – I’m never doing that again. Because writing a book with such depth for me is a very emotionally draining experience. I mean it’s not easy to write any book. But when it’s about such heavy stuff it can deplete me. And she laughed saying – “you don’t remember saying that exact same thing after you wrote Indie Spiritualist?” I had completely forgotten and now I’m working on two books at the same time.
Nicola: Lets talk about tattoos – I’m a fan and have started my own collection. Tell me about your vast collection and what they mean to you.
Chris: You know I had a really interesting thing happen to me in one of my many rehab visits. I had this realization that I had been getting tattooed up to that point as a way of having people not look at me, but instead look at the tattoos. I have a lot of piercings too. That’s not to say that I didn’t love the art of tattooing, because I did and still do. But for me at that time I was getting them because it would take the focus off of me as a person and instead make people look at the artwork or the big holes in my ears or whatever. And that was big self-realization for me. After I realized that, I didn’t get another tattoo for over five years. Since then I’ve gotten plenty of work done – I would say I’m about 70% covered now – but today some of them certainly have deep meaning. I have a medicine Buddha, and Jesus meditating which mean a lot. But then I just get some fun and silly ones too because having a sense of humor is so important. And sometimes they don’t have any meaning except for the beauty of them – like my back piece which is this beautiful Japanese art piece and I just love it because of the art work. And sometimes the actual tattooing itself becomes a spiritual practice because when you’re laying there for six or eight hours and the pain becomes intense, I really have to go into my breathing. All I have is my breath, and I focus on it and there’s no drink or drugs to numb
Nicola: When should we expect to see your new books?
Chris: They are pretty much a year or eighteen months away from publication. I’m co-authoring one of them with Jarvis J Masters, who I wrote about in Indie Spiritualist. I’m flying out to visit him in San Quentin prison at the end of this month. We’ve been friends for over four years and I’ve not had the chance to meet him. I’m very much looking forward to that. It’s so inspiring to me that this death row inmate can become such a spiritual person.
Nicola: It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk with you Chris and I can’t wait to read your next publications.