Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Chris Grosso. Chris is a public speaker, writer, spiritual director, and recovering addict. Also a self-taught musician, Chris has been writing, recording, and touring since the mid-1990s. Chris is passionate about his work with people struggling with drug addictions and leads groups in detoxes, yoga studios, rehabs, youth centers, hospitals, and festivals worldwide. He is a member of the advisory board for Drugs Over Dinner, hosts the Indie Spiritualist podcast on the MindPod Network, and is the author of the book The Indie Spiritualist.
With Sounds True, Chris Grosso has released a new book called Everything Mind: What I’ve Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening, and the Mind-Blowing Truth of It All. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Chris and I spoke about shadow work and how to transform self-judgment and self-loathing. We also talked about how complete brokenness was the beginning of Chris’s deep recovery from addiction, and the relationship between spiritual awakening and recovery in his own life. Chris also offered several practices from his new book Everything Mind and shared with us about why he’s so passionate about being totally genuine in his communication as a path to connect meaningfully with other people. Here’s my conversation with Chris Grosso:
Chris, I’m often asked by people: where’s the next generation of spiritual teachers? Who are they? Who are the up-and-comers?
Quite honestly, your name is one of the names I offer on a shortlist of next-generation spiritual teachers. I’d be curious to know here, at the beginning of our conversation, what you think might be unique to this next generation of spiritual teachers in the world?
Chris Grosso: Well, that’s a great question to start with. It means a lot that my name would be on that list for you, so thank you.
You know, when you say “next generation,” there’s two camps that come to mind for me. I think of—how do I even word this? Maybe your more popular, user-friendly teachers—and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s also the other camp of maybe grittier teachers that aren’t quite as known. I guess I would fall into the latter category.
But, I feel like with this next generation—what I’ve personally been noticing—is a shift away from a lot of the over-emphasis on the light side of spirituality—the love and light, which of course is part of it. But, when that’s all that’s emphasized, I’ve heard various people use phrases like “McMindfulness” or “fast food for the mind.” Things of that nature. Actually, these are older-generation teachers that I’ve heard use that, so I thought that was a little funny.
But, what I find with at least the next-generation teachers I guess I resonate with is that they’re heading more in a direction of shadow work—and not just shadow work, but bringing that darkness into the path as well. So, you still have the light, of course. But, you also have the dark. You’re integrating the two on the path. That’s been very important in my own life with my history of addictions and other things that virtually brought me to death.
Anyway, I think that it’s a more raw and real and ragged and vulnerable spirituality. I want to be very clear and say that it’s not that that has not been available from teachers of the older generation, because that’s where I learned it from—a lot of the older-generation teachers. But, I guess—as with any time period in spirituality—it ebbs and flows, and it shifts.
Again, this is just my perspective. But, it really does seem like it’s getting back into the grit of spirituality—of the work we really don’t want to do, often, because it’s difficult, it can be painful, and—again—vulnerable. But, it’s the work that really needs to be done—at least in my experience and that of many I’ve learned from and talked with—in order to really progress on our path and reconnect with the divine or the sacred within ourselves.
Again, this is just my experience. I won’t be beat that horse, but I want to make it very clear up front that when I share, I share from my own experience. Nothing I say is a definitive truth. Or, I don’t mean it as a definitive truth. It’s just what I know today and that’s where I’m coming from.
TS: So, I want to tease out a couple things you said. The first is that these two camps, we could say—the user-friendly types and the gritty types. I just wanted to go on record, Chris, saying I find you user-friendly and gritty at the same time.
CG: Well, I appreciate that, actually. That means a lot because I want to be as accessible as I can to as many people as possible. So, I don’t go out of my way to write or offer my teachings a certain way. I just think—with my experience—a lot of it touches on that darker aspect.
TS: Yes. I know what you meant. I just wanted to say that I find you user-friendly.
CG: Well, I appreciate that very much. Thank you.
TS: But, I want to tease out your comments about doing shadow work. There’s a section in your new book, Everything Mind, where you talk about that and you even offer a practice—a shadow-work practice. I wonder if you can share with us that practice and how using it has played out in your own life.
CG: Yes, sure. So, there’s a number of shadow-work practices that I have found really beneficial in my life. This is one I shared in the book because it was a quicker one, and some of the practices I share in the book are longer. So, I wanted to mix it up and offer some quick and short ones as well.
As I say at the end of that section of the book, I think I name a few books or teachers that I encourage people to seek out to further develop their own shadow work.
But, this was really a rather simple one that I had learned from a Ken Wilber book. Ken, as anyone who picks up Everything Mind will see, has been an extremely influential teacher in my own life. I was honored to have him write the foreword for the book. He’s just really opened my eyes to a lot of things—and my heart. So, I’m very grateful to him.
Any shadow practice—I guess we can talk about that for a second before we get into it—really aims for us to re-own this shadow part of ourselves—the repressed things that we’ve been pushing down since as early as our childhood. Most of the time, we’re not aware of it.
So, often—just a general example—any time we feel something welling up within ourselves—it could be good or bad; a lot of people think shadow work and think just negative, but it also goes for positive as well. But, if we see something in another person or we hear something, or maybe even a shirt their wearing—a style, or whatever the case may be—and we feel something inside like ugh—towards them—and “ugh” is just a very general term I’m using here. But, that’s a good indicator that our shadow is acting up.
For me, that’s been one of the most important things in my own path—really becoming more familiar with that unconscious aspect of myself and working with that. So, the practice that I offer in Everything Mind is, again, a really simple one. The best time that someone—I think, at least—can do this practice is either in the morning after they’ve just woken up—and they can take someone that might have appeared in their dreams, for instance—or in the evening, before they go to bed, and they can use someone from their day.
You sit there. You take a moment. You just look over your day and you think of any instance that someone or something rubbed you the wrong way. It could be a coworker, a family member, whatever the case may be.
Then, whenever you have that person in mind, I recommend [that you] close your eyes and then you actually mentally face them and have this little discussion with them. You lay out any thoughts or feelings you have. You have no reason to hold back in this practice because it’s one that you’re doing alone. So, it’s a really great opportunity for us to get very real with whatever our experience was.
Now, the interesting part is [that] after you do that, you then place yourself in the position of the other person. You take on their perspective. So, your eyes are still closed and you actually now imagine yourself as this person, looking back at you. You talk to yourself as if you were them. This can be pretty weird in the beginning for people, but I’ve found it’s really great as I’ve worked with it because it helps to take me outside of myself and start seeing another’s perspective. In that other’s perspective, I usually find that it’s something about myself. It’s always something about myself, but it’s something that’s always been a bit below the surface. It’s just a great way of bringing this shadow aspect—this unconscious aspect—to light.
That’s really it. It’s that simple. Like I said, there’s a number of other practices. But, I really just wanted to give readers a taste of shadow work, and I’ve found [this] to be a very user-friendly one. I’ve taught it often, and people seem to have a pretty good experience with it. So, I thought that would be a pretty good place to start and introduce those who aren’t familiar with shadow work to it.
TS: Can you give an example of doing that and what you discovered?
CG: Yes! Well, actually, there’s one I share in the book where I was doing it and—I’m trying to think. It had to do with a baseball coach. I’ve always had a consciousness about my weight since—man—since really I can remember becoming conscious of myself. So, this goes back to late elementary school, early high school. I’ve always been a heavier-set kind of person. It’s just become something I’ve had to work through, I guess we can say.
So, I had—it was a dream that I’d had—and let me try to remember this so I can share it correctly. So, I had this dream and I think it was—I don’t remember, exactly. So, I apologize to anyone who hears this and then reads the book. But, it had something to do with a weight issue.
So, I was sitting and working with that in the shadow work practice that I just shared. What I remember is that during that shadow work, I was just—sometimes for this practice, I’ll just use it in general with an emotion. So, it might not even be a person. So, I’m kind of talking to an emotion. The emotion became this little league baseball coach that I had had.
I grew up playing soccer, and I did that straight through middle school. Baseball was something that I did for one season and it ended because of this experience I think I had with this little league coach.
So, we had gotten these uniforms. I put mine on and it was snug-fitting. The coach made a joke in front of all the players and the assistant coaches. He called me “Crisco.”
It could have been totally harmless. I don’t know. But, I remember everyone laughing. That was a really painful experience for me. That’s probably my first experience that I uncovered doing the shadow work—I traced that back to my first real painful experience around body image and food. That came up for me in this shadow work.
So, that was just an example of, really, how profound this practice can be. As with most things that we suffer from, a lot of it starts in our very, very early years. Shadow work for me has uncovered a lot of the problems that I still struggle with to this day—I’m able to see the various times in my childhood where they’ve connected or started. So, I’m grateful to the practice for that.
I’m sorry I wasn’t more eloquent in my explanation. I hadn’t thought about that since I wrote about it. But, that was a big one for me. I actually had that while I was writing the book. That’s why it was so great for me. It was pretty fresh.
TS: Well, it’s interesting that you bring up questions of body image and weight and the pain around that, because one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about is that—in your own biography—you move from somebody who had—it sounds like—quite a lot of challenges earlier in your life not just with addiction but also [with] self-loathing behavior of different kinds, including the extreme of attempting suicide and cutting behavior.
Now, as I talk to you as someone in their late 30s who’s obviously been through quite a process of recovery and also spiritual awakening and the spiritual journey, you have such a warmth [and a kindness] about you. One of the things that I’m so curious about is how people transform self-judgment in their lives and become more self-compassionate. We can talk about being compassionate towards other people and we’ll get there in our conversation, but I’d love to hear more about this transformation in you towards self-compassion.
CG: Yes, and it’s still an ongoing process. It’s one that’s way better today. But, I still have my moments where it’s hard. I have some very deeply rooted things within me from years of using and self-loathing, and just the way I was living.
I’m working on a documentary, and I was [just recently] interviewing a friend of mine. They were there with me. He’s actually in recovery now as well, but it was someone that I used to actively use drugs and alcohol with on a very regular basis. We were talking about a lot of things that I had actually forgotten about. I write about a lot of what I went through, but there’s still things that will come up and I will hear, and it’s like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe I was living that way.”
Like, for example, he told me—and I can’t believe I forgot about this—but there was a period where I was living with another roommate, but we were all close. So, he was over at our apartment quite often—this friend I was filming. But, he reminded me that I used to have 10 or 12 steak knives that I would put on my bed and go to sleep on. That’s just one of a number of crazy stories—just the way I was living. This is back in 2000, 2001.
But, to hear that and have not thought about that for many years was really difficult. So, as soon as I heard that, it started to bring up—it’s like the door opens for that self-loathing voice that still is down there and likes to rear its ugly head at times.
So, compassion is a big one for me. The lovingkindness meditation that many teachers teach has been huge for me in my own life, because with that practice—and we can talk about that if you want. But, with that practice, it starts first and foremost with ourselves. I was dedicated to doing this practice. So, I would skip over myself in the beginning—I mean, I would say a nice aspiration towards myself but I would make it quick, and then quickly move on and focus on other people.
But, even just making that one quick acknowledgment towards myself—that was a start. That’s what I often talk to a lot of people who are struggling with this—or similar things I’ve gone through—is start with what you can. Even if it’s just something tiny.
I remember—actually, it was a few years ago—I was out at the Yoga Journal conference in Estes Park, Colorado, and I was interviewing Jai Uttal. I remember this was really important for me to hear because it was the night after he had performed, and he was talking about he struggles with this and he still has that voice in his head. He was telling me about something he had done the night before, which was only the second time he had done that.
At one point during the night, he’ll go around and introduce the band. Everyone claps. So, what he had done that night for only the second time was—very quietly, away from the mic—he said to himself, “Thank you, Jai.” That was it.
But, that was him making that step towards extending compassion and love towards himself. That was really big for me to hear, because you’d think Jai Uttal—and anyone who knows his name and the kirtan music scene—you look at these people and—well, maybe you do, maybe you don’t. But, I think a lot of people look at them and think, “Ah, they’ve got it all figured out,” or, “They’re doing great.”
But, no. Not everyone does. So, that was just important for me to hear.
But, today it’s not so much baby steps anymore because it’s years later and I’ve done a lot of work. But, it’s really learning to be gentle, [which] is just as important as learning to be compassionate—and being easy on ourselves and our process as we’re working on compassion, as we’re working on loving ourselves, as we’re working on forgiving ourselves and healing.
Yes. Absolutely it’s the hardest thing for me to do—[to] extend that towards myself so I can extend it toward others with no problem whatsoever. I think that’s a pretty universal truth for a lot of people—that it’s just easier to give than to receive.
TS: At this point in your life, when that self-judgment comes up, do you have a kind of go-to move—if you will—that you use? Or do you have a way of working with that?
CG: Yes. I do. It’s another practice I shared in Everything Mind. It’s inspired by a Dharma Talk that I had heard Thich Nhat Hanh give. I don’t remember which one. I’ve listened to so many.
But, what I remember was him saying—very simply—that he encouraged us to hold our pain in the way a mother would hold a newborn baby. That just cut right to the core of me when I heard that. I really started thinking about that. I brought it into my meditation and I contemplated on it. I sort of—from there—came up with this practice that’s completely inspired by that. I use it on big and small things. It doesn’t matter. I find it works just as well for all of them.
But, the two steps are really, simply [that] any time I do become aware of the self-judging thoughts or if there’s a painful emotion—a sadness, a depression, whatever it may be—the first step is really closing my eyes and becoming intimate with it and familiar with it, allowing whatever the thoughts are saying or the feelings are feeling—allowing them to come up.
Our natural tendency as humans is to just push all of that stuff down. It’s kind of part of our survival instinct. We don’t want to feel pain. We want to feel pleasure. We want to feel happy. But, from what I’ve learned from experience is that it’s by continuing to suppress whatever’s already down there that just keeps us sick and suffering and in pain.
So, what I do when these things come up is, again—the first step is if I’m able to [and] I’m in a setting [such as] my apartment, I’ll go in a room where I can be quiet. I’ll close my eyes and I’ll just let it all come up. I won’t censor it at all. It can be as mean towards me as it wants.
But, what I do with this is I do my best to anchor myself in the place of witnessing awareness. So, if this thought is saying, “You’re such a piece of shit for what you did so many years ago,” I’m not feeding into that and being, “Yes, yes. I really am.” But instead, I’m watching the thought from this place of witnessing awareness or I’m watching this feeling of sadness arise.
So, if I feel sad, I’m anchored more as the witness of the sadness. There’s a little spaciousness that opens up in-between that. I know Eckhart Tolle and a lot of other great teachers talk quite a bit about that. That’s something that’s been very powerful for me—cultivating the witnessing awareness. Ram Dass talks quite a bit about that as well.
So, I allow these feelings and thoughts to come up, and do my best to just watch them unbiasedly, and let them do what they’re going to do and say. Then, once I feel as though they’ve exhausted themselves, the second step is to actually take the words or the sentences or the feelings or any images they conjure up—whatever’s in my experience, I take all of it and I literally picture myself wrapping it in a warm white blanket the same way a mother would wrap her newborn child in a blanket. Then I bring it up to my chest and I hold it and caress it just like a mother would hold her newborn baby.
The one caveat I put here is, for some people, they’ve expressed that the pain and the hurt is too much for them. So, [if that’s the case,] what I suggest is you can still take it and place it in a baby rocker. Imagine yourself putting it there and you’re rocking it. So, you’re still tending to it. It’s just not right there at your chest level.
So, as you hold it, what I do is I bring my awareness down into my heart center. I’ve already allowed my thoughts and feelings to exhaust themselves. So, pretty much at this point my mind is relatively clear and quiet. So, I’m able to then sink down into my heart and really just bring my awareness there, [anchoring] into that. Once I feel anchored into that, I then will mentally say something to the effect of, “I’m right here with you.” I’m talking to my pain and emotions at this point, and I say to them, “I’m sorry that you’re feeling the way you’re feeling. I’m sorry that you have not been listened to, felt, experienced . . .” whatever the case may be in that moment. I let them know that I’m there with them. My heart is completely open to them, and I’m willing to be with them for as long as they need.
So, again, just something to that effect. I encourage anyone who’s listening who wants to try this [to] just go with your own intuition. I find it’s pretty easy once you’re centered in your heart to express whatever needs to be expressed towards them.
Then, that’s it. Once you say whatever it is that you feel moved to say towards them, you sit there and you really have your open heart to them. You’re showing love towards this pain and sadness and hurt, and whatever else brokenness that’s been there for God know how long. It’s in that simple act that I find that we’re completely flipping the script. We’re not suppressing them anymore. We’re allowing them to be there and we’re extending compassion towards them.
Basically, like nine-point-nine out of ten times, very quickly—within one to five minutes—I find that it’s almost as if that white blanket kind of falls in on itself. That’s it. The thoughts and emotions have released themselves. I mean, all they needed was to be heard or experienced.
There have been times where, months later, it’ll come back. That’s fine. I just do the same thing again. Oftentimes, it never comes back. Usually, I do find if it does come back, it’s significantly less strong than it was.
But, again, if it comes back, I just sit there and I work with it. But, if it’s just a negative thought, easy enough. You just take that thought or that feeling and you can do that practice start to finish in one to two minutes. I find a significant shift in what I’m feeling or thinking after that.
Sorry—it was a little long-winded for a simple, two-step practice. Yes. I’ve had profound effects with that. I’ve written about that, and I’ve shared that. It seems like most people who try it really resonate with it and have had some pretty cool experiences too.
TS: You described it very, very beautifully and in a lot of detail. I’m appreciative of that.
The one question that comes up for me are those times in our life when we somehow don’t have the resource to move to that witnessing place. I’m curious if you’ve had that experience and what you might have to say about that.
CG: Yes. I’m so glad you brought that up, because there are times—absolutely—where I can’t go there. For me, it’s not that often—which I’m grateful for, because I think I’ve just gotten used to working with this practice.
But, for example, this afternoon—maybe like two or three hours ago—I was on a phone call with a dear friend of mine. He’s an author, [and] his name is Jarvis J. Masters. He’s also an inmate in San Quentin’s death row. He’s had a big, big influence in my life and helped me in many ways with working through what I’ve had to work through, through his own writing.
So, I was speaking with him and he was in a pretty bad way today. Generally, he’s pretty upbeat and optimistic. But, he was really struggling. He had gotten some good news. He’s been on death row for over 30 years now. The California court system actually reopened his case in 2011, which is pretty unprecedented for them. It’s just that the evidence is so overwhelming of his innocence that they were kind of backed into a corner and forced to reopen it.
So, he got this news less than month ago that they’ve been going through all these court appeals and processes—and I don’t know a lot of the jargon, so I won’t try to pretend like I do. But, the long and short of it is that, sooner than later, they’re going to finally be moving into the final stages of this process. What he found out from his attorney was that they really could start going into it almost within a month or two.
But, his attorneys have other things they’re doing. They have vacations coming up. This was very, very upsetting to him. He was expressing this to me. I could hear the pain. He was tearing up at times. He’s talking about how, “People don’t understand. I’ve been living on death row for over 30 years, innocent of this crime. I don’t deserve to be here.”
This was one of the rawest times I’ve ever heard him talk to me about this. I just felt his pain and I remember him saying, “What do I do? What do I do with this?” I told him, “I respect enough, Jarvis, that I will not bullshit you right now. I don’t know what you do with that.” I would not insult him by saying, “Sit with it. Bring it into your meditation practice.” Of course, for some people maybe that would work.
But, I tried to put myself in his position and really picture myself sitting in this tiny cell for 30 years, knowing that I did not deserve to be there. Finally, there’s a real light at the end of the tunnel—a very real chance that maybe I could be free. But, my attorneys are going on vacations, and this and that. I didn’t know what to say to him. But, I would not tell him, “Just meditate,” or, “Just use this lovingkindness meditation,” or what I just shared with you—the compassion practice.
So, what do we do in those cases? I think it’s different for everybody. Sometimes, we just need to turn the music up really loud and deal with it that way. Sometimes, maybe we just need to put something funny on and return to it when we can. I know that sounds like a form of aversion—and maybe, in a way, it is—but there are those times where really, really heavy things come up and we just can’t sit with them in the moment.
There have been times where—like I said—I’ve had that happen. I have tried to sit with certain things and it’s like it feels it that much more. So, I have to get up and step away from either meditation or practice. Like I just said, maybe I’ll pick up my guitar or I’ll play the drums or I’ll go out for a run, or do whatever I have to do.
So, yes. I would absolutely say that there are times—at least in my experience—where some things are really big. We just can’t sit with them in the moment. And that’s OK. That doesn’t make us any less spiritual.
TS: Thank you. Thank you for that.
I’m wondering, Chris, if you can help maybe fill in some of the gaps here for our listeners, who might be wondering, “How did this young person go from the despair and depths of pain of being suicidal to here—offering so much spiritual wisdom?” What [has] the relationship been to your own process of spiritual awakening and recovery from addiction? How [would] you describe that?
CG: Yes. In my case, it took a complete and utter brokenness. I stepped onto the spiritual path shortly after I stepped into recovery, which was about 12 years ago. But, it took me many years to finally get to the place—basically four years ago, where I ended up in a completely broken, hopeless, just despair-filled state after a relapse that once again all but took my life. It was frustrating and interesting to live up to that point, because—like I said—I was doing some practices. I was learning meditation and mantra and exploring different wisdom traditions. It was definitely not for nothing, because I was learning some really great things. Seeds were being planted.
But, I was not quite ready to go to these raw and vulnerable places within myself, where all that wreckage of the past lay—all the things I’d been continuing to suppress. So, inevitably, I would relapse and end up back in an emergency room or a psych hospital or a jail cell—detox, whatever the case may be—and start the whole process over.
This was until this final time, where I woke up again in another jail cell. It was after a blackout drunk and I didn’t know how I’d gotten there. This was the first time out of all the times I’d relapsed that I had no semblance of hope whatsoever. Every time prior to that, there wasn’t a lot of hope, but there was always like this little flicker of a candle within that [said], “You’re going to bounce back. It’s OK. It’s going to be tough, but you’ll come back from this.” This was the first time that that was not there.
I remember they released me the following morning from that jail cell on a promise to appear at a PTA for what I’d been arrested for, which was a DUI—which, talk about guilt. There’s another thing I’ve had a lot of struggle working through—the fact that I would drive under the influence like that. But, I can’t change that today. I just try to make a living amends and do what I can do.
So, they released me and I went into a detox that morning—again, in this broken, hopeless, despair-filled state. While I was in that detox, I found out I’d lost my job. I missed my brother’s wedding, where I was supposed to be his best man. It was like I’d hit this rock bottom, and the bottom gave out.
From there, I had a two-day window of going to treatment. I was living in Connecticut at this point and they wanted to get me out of state. So, they found an in-patient treatment program in New Jersey. But, there was a two-day window between me leaving Connecticut until I could get on the bus and head on down to the New Jersey.
So, I stayed with a friend and proceeded to just get blackout drunk for those two days. I don’t remember any of it. I barely remember boarding the bus. I had a layover in New York, [and] I don’t remember that at all. I lost my luggage there.
My next real memory is waking up in treatment, somehow. I mean, talk about grace. But, somehow I actually made it on this bus trip to New Jersey and was picked up by a clinician’s assistant. I don’t remember that happening.
But, I woke up this next morning and another clinician’s assistant came in. The door slammed. That’s what opened me up. He threw a pair of shorts down on the ground and he said, “Wake up. You pissed yourself last night. Put these on. It’s time to go to group.” That’s how I started this final time in treatment.
I can kind of laugh at that today. It’s slightly embarrassing sharing that, but at the same time I try to be pretty honest about my experience so people understand just how ugly addiction can get. Again, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That’s part of what happened for me.
So, I started treatment completely broken. It was horrible. The first few weeks I started going through withdrawals again, so they had to put me on this benzodiazepine taper. It’s medication to keep me from having a seizure, because I had a history of those from the way I was drinking and using drugs.
So, I barely made it through the first few weeks—but I did. It was roughly around that time where I started to feel slightly human again that the clinical director noticed a medicine Buddha tattoo that I had had. I’d gotten that after taking my bodhisattva vows some years ago in a really beautiful medicine Buddha ceremony that I was a part of. But, obviously, it didn’t sink in well enough.
As he noticed this tattoo and—going back to Jarvis, actually—he asked if I had ever read Finding Freedom by Jarvis J. Masters. I hadn’t, but I was familiar with Jarvis because Pema Chödrön speaks of him often in her talks. She wrote the foreword for his second book, and she’s his teacher. She actually goes out and visits him one or two times a year in San Quentin.
So, I knew who he was but I had not read his stuff. So, this clinical director said, “I’m going to bring this book in for you, and I ask you to read it.” So, I said, “All right. I’ll give it a shot.” That’s really what started to shift everything for me.
I read this book about this man who went to prison for a crime he did commit—originally sentenced to like eight years—but while there, was accused of sharpening a spear that was used in the murder of a guard that was on duty. That’s how he ended up getting the death sentence—even though the person who committed the crime and organized it did not get the death sentence. But, I’m not going to go into more details than that. It’s just pretty mind-boggling to me.
But, this man, while there, ends up finding a magazine. In the magazine, he could write away for a free Buddhist book, which he did. He ends up learning about Buddhism, and he has a Rinpoche start coming in and teaching him. He takes his bodhisattva vows and he’s living on death row at this point. He shared these stories in that book about cultivating his practice and finding his own freedom in San Quentin’s death row—in one of the darkest and desolate places I can imagine.
That was very profound for me. It really helped to put into perspective where I was at in my life. It wasn’t great, but it helped get me off that pity pot of, “Woe is me.” I still had a lot of sadness and anger and hurt, but that was what rekindled some hope for me. From there, I really started getting more involved in treatment while I was there and participating. It was a slow process, but one that I did.
Then I moved home after that, which was humbling because I moved back to Connecticut and I had to move in with my parents. There I’m 31 or 32 years old—something like that. I had no job. I had to file for unemployment. My car was repossessed while I was gone. I literally moved back home with nothing.
But, it was a real gift of that brokenness and despair that completely just cracked all this armor I had been putting over my heart wide open, and for the first time ever I was inspired and I felt like I really could begin to start doing that internal work that I’d been scared to do. Maybe I wasn’t even aware of it, but in retrospect I was scared. I was scared to go there and touch those places, and begin to get intimate with that pain—and the things that I had done to others, and that others had done to me. All of life’s shit that we all have experiences [of].
So, that was kind of the beginning of it for me. It’s just been an ongoing process since then—fine-tuning and working with whatever comes up in the moment.
TS: In the beginning of your new book, Everything Mind, you’re talking about recovering from addiction and being a recovering addict. You talk about a conversation that you had with Father Thomas Keating—a teacher of Centering Prayer [and] a beautiful elder. You quote him saying, “I’m in recovery too, but from the human condition and the addictive process that we all seem to suffer from in varying degrees of severity.”
I wanted to talk to you some about that—”the addictive process”—and how you’ve come to understand that—not necessarily in your life in the same way as being addicted to substances, but just putting the addictive process under a magnifying glass, if you will. How [have] you come to understand that?
CG: It’s a great question. Thank you for sharing that quote from the lovely Father Thomas Keating, who I adore. As simple and obvious as that sounds, when he said that, it was just like a light went off for me. It was in hearing that that it helped me see, “Wow! I can take these experiences that I have—of addiction with drugs and alcohol—but I can use them in a way that potentially and hopefully will help others shine a light on whatever their own recovery process is.”
We’re all addicted to something. It’s just part of the human condition. We feel pain. We feel suffering. Like I said earlier, it’s just our natural human tendency that we don’t want to feel that way.
So, I’ll speak in “I” statements here, but I was trying to find a way to feel happy and to feel some sense of contentment, which I was not feeling unless I was using drugs or alcohol. I was feeling sad, I was feeling depressed, I was feeling hurt, I was feeling angry. It was just a lot of ugliness that was stored up inside of me.
So, I was meeting my need—my human need—of peace or comfort in drugs and alcohol. Other people do it in other ways, whether it’s food, shopping, sex, TV, video games—even spirituality [and] spiritual practices could fall into that category. Exercise. I think all of it can be done in an addictive manner. [This is] not to say that everyone that does it is addicted to it.
But, really, we can take almost anything and have it become an addiction if it’s taking us to a place where we’re trying to meet that need of finding peace and comfort and happiness. So, in my experience—I mean, this is nothing new. You’ll probably hear almost any spiritual teacher say this. But, we can truly only find that lasting peace and contentment within ourselves. What I personally mean by that is: in working with these places of hurt that we have and have had, in many cases, many years—they’ve just been in there for so long. It’s really only through—again, my experience—but working through them and beginning to heal them that we can start to have the experience of more freedom and more compassion towards ourselves and towards others.
I fell into the trap of trying to find my peace and happiness in external things—whether it was even a new zafu or a new spiritual book or a new guitar or whatever the case might be. It would bring happiness for that moment, but it’s always short-lived because all of these things external to ourselves are all fleeting and are all temporary.
So, I’m sure it has a tendency to sound cliché when we say, “You’re only going to find true happiness within.” But, I believe that maybe a greater truth has never been spoken. Really, where else can you find it in a lasting way—and a very sincere, deep way?
So, for me, that’s where it is. I still watch myself. I go through very weird phases with eating to this day still. I will eat in an addictive way. I will have months where I’m great and I eat healthy. I’m usually always exercising. That’s a part of my own recovery process. But, there will be times where I will still eat—whether it’s for a couple of weeks or even a month, off and on—in the same way that I used to use drugs or alcohol. It was never enough. Using this food example, even if I’m full I’m still—every 15, 20 minutes, half hour, going back to grab a cookie or whatever. Whatever the case may be—just something to put inside of myself to make me feel happy for a few seconds.
But then, of course, later on with that comes the negative self-talk. “I can’t believe you did that again. Failure. Blah blah blah.” Luckily though, I haven’t had that in quite a while. It’s been at least a year, I think for the most part—which is great.
But, that’s just my example. Addiction [and] addictive processes are all around us. When I first read The Power of Now years ago—very early on in my spiritual path—listening to Eckhart Tolle talk about thinking as an addictive process. How true is that for so many people? We’re constantly talking to ourselves. We’re not able to stop it. So, we’re addicted to thinking.
So, again, I believe we all have our addictive processes. But, the question is: what are you going to do with it? That’s up to each of us on an individual level.
TS: One of the things I love, Chris, about the new book Everything Mind is that it’s filled with many short practices—many practices that are very accessible and—dare I say again—user-friendly. But, one of them that you offer is a practice for supporting oneself and not falling back into addiction—at least, [that’s how] I understood the practice that you call “Checking Yourself.” I wonder if you can describe that our listeners.
CG: Yes! Yes, yes, yes. Thanks for bringing that one up. That’s one that actually comes right from the 12 Step Fellowship itself—or at least that’s where I first became familiar with it.
But, it’s really taking a look at ourselves and our actions, and what we’ve done. I recommend it as a daily practice, especially for those who are in recovery—whether it’s from drugs, alcohol, eating, or whatever the case may be.
CG: Thinking. Sure. [Laughs.] Thinking absolutely.
But really, at the end of the day—and again, this is another quick one. It could be done within five minutes max. But, just review the day and think about, “All right. Was there a time where I might have been shitty towards someone else?” Maybe I said something I didn’t need to say. Or, maybe I acted in a way I didn’t need to act. Was there something that happened today where I could have been more skillful in my actions?
And not every day is there going to be that. That’s fine. But, some days there are. A lot of days there are.
So, what we do is we just go back through our day and mentally know, “All right. Here’s where I could have been better or here’s what I could have said differently.” In most cases, I encourage people to make a simple amends, for lack of a better word. That might even make it seem like a grander gesture than it is.
But, say it’s a coworker and you said something a little snooty. Maybe the next day when you go in and see them, just say, “Hey, sorry about what I said yesterday or how I acted towards that.” Just acknowledging it, more than anything. Nine out of ten times, they’ll be like, “All right. Thank you. I appreciate that.”
It’s really just owning our behaviors and our actions, and becoming more familiar with them—not in a way where we’re going to become self-criticizing or judgmental. Again, this goes back to compassion and gentleness for ourselves. But really, [it’s] just becoming more aware of how we are towards ourselves and towards others.
So, as we’re doing this practice, we can also note, “I could have been better towards myself in this way today,” and make an amends towards yourself. Why not?
I don’t know if I wrote that in the book. I hope I did. But, I might have overlooked that part.
But, that’s the practice. The reason I think it’s extra important for those in recovery is because it’s little, little things that generally will take people out on a relapse. A lot of people have this negative vision that it’s something big like the loss of a loved one that will make someone relapse. Of course, that does happen. At least from the people I’ve watched go out—and these could be people who have 1 to 15 or 20 years clean. It’s pretty crazy, but people still relapse with that much sobriety time. But, it’s a number of little things that have gone unchecked that end up adding up. So, the way to stay on top of that is just making these little amends.
But, again, it’s not just a practice for those in recovery. I did learn it in the 12 Step Fellowship, but I remember talking to my mom about that many years ago. She’s like, “Oh my God, that’s great!” That’s when I was like, “You know—yes. It is great. This is totally applicable for anybody.” It’s not just a recovery practice.
So, that’s why I was really happy to share it in the book.
TS: I think one of the things that I appreciated about it so much was also understanding this link between feeling slightly guilty or off or bad about myself and addictive behavior—how those things go together. Is [what I’m saying] making sense?
CG: Yes. Right, because it goes back to me, too. I’m feeling bad, but I want to feel happy. So, what am I going to do to feel happy? We’re a culture that [wants] what we want when we want it—instant gratification.
So, I’m feeling bad. I want to feel happy. Throwing myself under the bus, I’m going to go eat a cookie because I want to feel happy right now. But really, what I could be doing—and I’m sure these are times when I do that when I’m not on top of checking myself [and] really going through this daily inventory. I love that I can share these practices, but I’m not going to sit here and tell everyone I’m perfect, I do them daily, life’s great.
No—I do my best, and really they’re all practices that I work with and incorporate. They’ve made my life way better. I look back four years ago versus today—waking up in that jail cell—which I know is not a lot of time, but still in those four years it’s miraculous what has shifted and changed. It’s all thanks to these practices and really taking the time to work with them in my life.
TS: So, Chris, as I’m listening to you, I guess I’m a little stunned here. You’ve actually only been totally clean from—we could say—abusing drugs and alcohol for four years?
CG: Yes. Yes. It was last week—July 27—that I celebrated my four-year sobriety anniversary.
Now, going back from when I first stepped in the first place to recovery, I would have like a year clean here or there. So, it wasn’t like I was completely in addiction up until four years ago. But yes, I’ve never had—with the exception of these four years—more than tops a year clean at a time.
So, yes, it’s been four years.
TS: Do you have any fear of a relapse?
CG: Yes. Absolutely. There’s no one that’s in recovery that is not free from the possibility of relapsing.
I mean, “fear” is a strong word, so I don’t know that I would say that I’m scared of it. But, I recognize that it is an absolute reality in my life.
As I was sharing before with this practice, I’ve seen people with 15, 20, 25 years [of sobriety] relapse. So, if you suffer from the disease of addiction, then yes, it’s a reality—absolutely—that if you’re not taking care of yourself and doing what you need to do, you have the potential of relapsing.
TS: In Everything Mind, you point to a type of warriorship—and you use that word on a couple of occasions—that’s required in both recovery and on the spiritual path. I’d love to hear more about what “warriorship” means to you.
CG: Well, I think I’d reference that in a way that Chögyam Trungpa talks about it. It’s not like the big, sword-wielding warrior chopping heads off kind of thing, but more of creating and cultivating this gentleness with ourselves and this fearlessness. Now, “fearlessness” is a big word, but the willingness maybe to go within and really work with all the things that I’ve been talking about already—the pain and the suffering. Whatever the case may be—whether it’s past or present—being a warrior in that sense and the fact that we’re willing to go there and sit with that discomfort and that pain in the moment, and tend to it and really be there with it.
So, that’s what I mean in that regard.
TS: One of the things that I notice in our conversation is that you’re willing to be quite vulnerable and expose yourself in a certain kind of way—expose your own vulnerabilities in a way that is pretty unusual. It seems to me that that’s also an aspect of the warriorship that you seem to be demonstrating.
CG: Thank you. I don’t know that I’ve looked at it like that, but that means a lot to hear that. A lot of people who read Indie Spiritualist, my first book, and who’ve had a chance to look at Everything Mind have commented on that. It’s not easy to put myself out there in such a transparent way—in such a raw and vulnerable way—but that’s so important for me, to really lay it all out there. It’s import for me for people to see my flaws and my humanity because that’s the place where it gives me the ability to really connect in the most authentic way with others.
Probably I receive more emails or letters or messages—whatever the case may be—with people talking about how they really connected with what they read from me at that level. That’s where they were grateful to have read about this “spiritual teacher” who still struggles with things and isn’t afraid to share about that, and really be real about their humanity. I’m grateful for that.
In the beginning, truth be completely told, when I started writing my first book—I didn’t go to school for writing. I still at times can have trouble calling myself a writer. But, what I tried to do to make up for that was really just lay it all out there as raw as I could [and] in a way that I hoped would help other people who read it [and] were going through similar things that I had gone through—or family members. I’ve received a lot of emails and messages from aunts, uncles, parents of people have struggled with addiction, self-harm, or depression—things of that nature—and were able to really connect to the raw style and the vulnerable aspect of that.
A lot of people from jail would write me—or who have just gotten out of jail. “Hey, I found your book here, and me and some friends are reading it.” Et cetera, et cetera. That kind of thing means the world to me, because I understand that pain and that suffering, and the places that they’re in.
So, I was actually talking with my professor. I went down and visited her a few weeks ago. A woman that I hadn’t seen in many years. She’s the one who first set me on this path many, many years ago with a book she loaned me. We were talking about her and her own therapy practice. She was saying that she got into it, [first] because she was interested in not doing harm because she’s seen so much harm being done with other therapists and their clients—but more so than that, she could sit in hell with those people when they’re feeling that pain and that suffering. With what she had gone through in her life, she was able to sit there in that hell in a very real way—in a very empathetic way.
When she said that, that really resonated with me because I feel I have that ability too. As much as it was very painful going through what I’ve gone through, I’m grateful for that aspect because a lot of people tend to feel connected with me because of that. So, I’m grateful that I can connect with them in that place.
But then, from there, what can we do to heal, move forward, reduce that suffering, and cultivate that warriorship of being willing to be with ourselves in the moment—good, bad, ugly, and otherwise.
TS: Now, one of the things that I’m curious about, Chris—because I’m, for whatever reason, thinking of a couple of people I know who are parents and who have adult children who are struggling with some serious addictions. I know the pain of those parents, and their sense of helplessness. At the same time, of course, they want to help their children and would do anything they could.
I know you work as a counselor with people in recovery and also probably with situations like this—with parents who are struggling in such a context. What would be your advice for those parents?
CG: Yes, I get those emails and questions a lot. I can certainly empathize with that, because I know the pain that I put my own parents through. It’s heartbreaking to me. There’s a lot of guilt around that that I’ve had to work through.
One of the first things I tell parents in those situations is: don’t forget to take care of yourself in the moment. I know that sounds completely counterintuitive. But, when parents have a child that is struggling, of course that’s their main concern—to the point where they’re not taking care of themselves anymore. They’re losing sleep, they’re not eating right, they’re not healthy at any level. It’s easy for me to sit here and say that, putting myself in their shoes [but] I’ve never been in them.
But what I can say is that it’s so important—I believe, first and foremost—to make sure you’re not forgetting to take care of yourself in that position because that way you can also be coming to the situation with your child from the healthiest possible clarity—the mental clarity, physical health—that you can.
Now, this is tricky because—I’m thinking of a conversation that I had with a woman. This was about two years ago. She came to a book signing that I did for my first book. She was telling me about her son, who is struggling. He was just back from Florida and he was in a relapse to heroin. He was staying with them for a little while. She didn’t know what to do.
So, of course she had a copy of my book. I gave her my phone number. I said I’d be happy to talk to him. But regarding her, I kind of told her, “Please don’t forget to take care of yourself.” I always suggest [that] there are really wonderful support groups out there—things like Al-Anon or other related groups that you can find simply by doing a Google search—where you can connect with other people that are going through what you’ve gone through or may still be going through what you’re going through, and learn from them as well directly. They’ve gone through it. I can only talk about what I’ve seen or heard, and have not actually gone through that.
But, in this particular case, I suggested those things and of course I wished her all the best. I hoped to see her son. But, I knew the reality of it was I probably wouldn’t, because usually someone who is still active is not able or willing to reach out for help. I speak from experience on that.
But, it was a few weeks later—now, this woman was actually a friend of a friend of my mom’s. So, it was a few weeks later that I heard from my mom that she had found out that they had found her son dead in their bathroom of an overdose. [He] still had the needle in his arm. Just another tragic, unnecessary loss.
That’s the reality of it. I hate saying things like that, but we have to be really realistic about what’s going on with addiction and what the very real potential outcome could be. And that’s death.
So, for a parent, I share that because I think it’s very important to learn about boundaries and codependency and enabling. Any one of those things could be an entire conversation in of themselves. But, for any parent who’s listening and is not familiar with those terms, please do Google search “codependency” or “enabling” because these are important things.
A lot of times these children that are struggling with addiction are still living at home. That makes it easier for them to continue with those behaviors. I know it was in my case when I was very early in my addiction. I was at my parents’ and they got to a point eventually where they had to—which was very hard for them, but they had to draw that line in the sand. I wasn’t allowed to live at home.
When you bring that into the equation, it makes it harder for the addict to continue their behavior. Sure, they might move out on the streets and continue there, but that’s—in a lot of cases—only going to last so long until they will finally at least check themselves into a detox—if [only] to get off the street for a little bit.
In that detox, that’s where the seeds start getting planted about recovery. The drugs are out of their system at least usually for five days, and for the first time in a long time [they’ll] start to have a clear head. That’s what happened for me. It was in that first experience that those initial recovery seeds were planted.
Again, I ended up in a cycle of relapsing. But, luckily I didn’t die from one of those relapses.
That’s just a bit. That’s a really tough one for me to talk about, because then I automatically start thinking about my own parents and what I put them through. But, self-care is big—and really learning about the disease of addiction, what’s going on in their children’s lives, how [they] are possibly enabling that, what they can do to stop enabling that, if they’re being codependent in that addiction relationship with them, and if so how [they] can stop that. I think those are some really great initial things to take a look at.
TS: OK, Chris. Just two more questions and then we’ll shut this down. The first is: why did you decide to call the new book Everything Mind? What do you mean by that?
CG: Well, I have to thank Sounds True for that. I had a few initial ideas for the name. People there liked them, but weren’t sure it was going to work. So, it was a collaborative effort coming up with that. As soon as I heard it, was like, “Yes. I think that’s the one.”
It made sense to me, because that’s just the way I live. Everything Mind. It’s everything. Everything is part of the path: the good, the bad. All of it is part of our spiritual journeys.
I’ve found that, in a lot of cases, people tend to compartmentalize spirituality. They think it’s only for the times that they’re formally meditating or maybe in yoga class or visiting a sangha—whatever the case may be. But, in my experience, there’s not a time where spirituality—and even that’s just a word, but we need to use words to communicate. There’s not a time where spirituality is not happening.
So, again, the dark and the light. In the book, I talk about a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s just a simple quote he said: “No mud, no lotus.” I love that, because that resonates for me definitely in my own life. Through that, I take it as him talking about our greatest selves are cultivated and grow from our darkest places. They become our greatest teachers.
I’m thinking of another quote from Ram Dass, where he says, “Suffering is the sandpaper of our incarnation. It does its job of shaping us.” I love that, because again that resonates very true for me.
So, that suffering, that pain, that darkness—it’s just as much a part of the spiritual path as any of the good stuff. They’re all equal in the path. I think Ken does a really great job of talking about Everything Mind as well. I like how he wrote in his foreword something to the effect of, “It’s just another way of saying that the ground of all being—or Buddha nature, Brahman, Godhead.”
So, yes. It’s all part of it. It’s all Everything Mind.
TS: OK. One last question for you, Chris. I think maybe one of the biggest transformations that I felt in reading Everything Mind was your transformation from being primarily more self-involved and self-centered to becoming really focused on other people and other peoples’ happiness and experience. I’ve even felt that in this conversation—this sense of caring about what it was like for your parents and caring about your friend in prison. I’d love to know what you think made that move in your life—because I think so many of us find ourselves, unfortunately, being quite self-centered a lot. It’s painful. We don’t want to be.
So, how did that move happen for you?
CG: Well, I was living so self-centered for so long—in the way that I was living with the drugs and the alcohol, I was only concerned with getting high. Anything or anyone that stood in my way, to hell with them. That’s pretty much out of character for who I’ve been most of my life. I’ve always had a genuine heart and compassion for other people. But, living like that for so long, it was just how it was for me.
So, once I really, sincerely started doing the inner work, [I believe] that is what made it possible for me to truly start extending the care and compassion towards others. It’s often easier for me to do that than to bring it inwards towards myself. But, it was in really working with that, getting better at learning to love myself, and learning to be compassionate with myself that I could then truly extend that out into the world towards other people.
One of the really profound teachings in my life is one that Maharaji gave to Ram Dass: simply, “Love, serve, remember.” Love everyone, serve everyone, remember God. The service part is a huge aspect of it. A lot of teachers talk about service. Recovery—12 Step—talks about service. It’s just serving others.
I know that there is a tendency for a lot of people—particularly early on in spiritual paths—to get a little narcissistic in our practice. Am I far enough along? Am I doing this right? It’s very me, me, me, me, me. That’s OK. That’s part of the path and I get it. I experienced it too.
But, to bring greater awareness to that as we’re moving forward and to make sure we’re balancing the inner work—which we need to do, of course—with some outer work [and] with being [in] service of others. Karma yoga. What can I do today to be of service to others?
For me, I try to volunteer time in detoxes or rehabs, or speak at various events. Sometimes they’re paid. That’s great. Sometimes they’re not, and that’s OK too. Just making myself available to others. I respond to every email I get. It’s very time-consuming, but it’s important for me to respond.
I say that because a lot of these emails are from people that are directly struggling with addictions or self-harm—cutting, depression, whatever the case may be—or from family members of those that are struggling. So, that to me is an act of service [as well]—of taking time to write them and share whatever comes up for me in the moment that I feel I can offer them and hopefully have some kind of impact or be some service and help to them.
So, that’s a huge part. Some people find their path completely in service and offering themselves to others. Again, karma yoga. It’s one of the paths. For me, it’s not the only part of my path, obviously—but it’s a big one. I think, for me—again, going back to how I lived for so long. So self-involved and selfish. That’s what it’s very important for me to make some amends in that area. At first, I was consciously doing it because I wanted to try to make up for the way I lived.
Now, it’s just the natural part of my being. I really just want to help other people. That is the most important thing for me, period.
I get to speak at some cool events. It’s exciting. People say, “Isn’t it really great? You can walk into a bookstore and see your book get there.” Yes—that’s neat. But, hands down, the absolute greatest thing to me at all is the fact that I can, in some small way, can help another person. I am able to do that.
Anyone can do that. You don’t have to write a book. You don’t have to be some spiritual teacher. Anyone can help another person. Any small act—who knows the ripple effects that that will have?
So, oh yes. Service work. Very, very important and a big part of my life.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Chris Grosso. He’s the author of a new book called Everything Mind: What I’ve Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening, and the Mind-Blowing Truth of It All.
Chris, thank you so much. Thank you so much for being so genuine and straightforward. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
CG: Thank you, Tami. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. I’m very grateful.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.