I’m losing patience with the “spiritual but not religious” genre of books that’s so popular right now. After a while they all begin to say the same thing, to skim the surface of understanding but never dive in. As Gertrude Stein wrote, “There is no there there.” And so I didn’t expect to like Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality (Atria Books/Beyond Words) nearly as much as I did. Chris Grosso’s new book struck a chord with me because it’s not so much spiritual-but-not-religious as spiritual-but-not-dogmatic.
And that’s no accident. Early in his book Grosso gives eloquence to my impatience when he writes: “So much of this so-called spirituality is presented as pretty and cosmetic, and basically is to spirituality what Jersey Shore is to reality.” He shines a bright and sometimes harsh light on his own life, exploring his experiences from rock stage to drug addiction to rehab to relationships to spiritual seeking and does so with sincerity, curiosity, humor, and just enough humility.
Grosso is eclectic in the best way. Throughout his book he seeks, questions, and learns from teachers of all stripes—including Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero, Brad Will of Rage Against the Machine, death row inmate and author Jarvis Jay Masters, skateboarder Christian Hosoi, Kirtan musician Krishna Das, Trappist monk Thomas Keating, nuclear physicist Amit Goswami, and American Buddhist teachers including Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Noah Levine.
So what exactly is an indie spiritualist? Grosso explains it this way:
An indie spiritualist is more than a person who thinks independently or craves a spiritual path outside the traditional confines of religion. Indie spiritualists are people who honor the spiritual truth within themselves, regardless of what popular society, religious institutions, friends, family, or anyone else, for that matter, prefer they think. The indie spiritualist stays true to the heart because that’s the most authentic teacher any of us will have. When we honor that internal nudge that tells us everything may not be exactly as it seems, and when we explore all that we’ve been told is true by society with the understanding that maybe it’s not, we’re taking our first steps toward awakening.
Note that Grosso said “outside the confines of,” not “without,” religion—and that he’s looking for a way toward awakening and all it implies in religious, psychological, and spiritual terms, not just thriving or happiness or mindfulness without insight. This inclusion is really appealing, as is how he relates to readers through the way each of us has at one time or another felt “other than,” sharing “a new approach to divine experience for those who reject the trappings and hypocrisies of mainstream spirituality and organized religion.”
I also appreciated how, in the second half of the book, Grosso presents and explains a series of meditations and practices (most rooted in a religious tradition and not just vaguely spiritual) that readers can try. These include:
- Art as spiritual practice
- Centering prayer
- Journal writing
- Karma yoga drawn from Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita
- Mahasati meditation, which originated in Thailand
- Metta or lovingkindness meditation
- Rosary bead or mala recitations
- Vipassana meditation in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition
Grosso has a lot to say and says it well. Take a look at this excerpt about self-love from Indie Spiritualist and let us know what you think.
To be beautiful means to be yourself.
You don’t need to be accepted by others.
You need to accept yourself.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
Self-love seems to be one of the greatest struggles many of us face in our daily lives, and, trust me, I’m no exception. Many people base their self-worth on crazy ideas such as their weight, how many friends they have, or what kind of job they perform. Others base their sense of worth on how many sun salutations they do in a day, or how many things they’ve given away in the name of nonattachment, or how great they are because of whatever particular dietary lifestyle they choose. The unifying theme in all of this is that, for most, it never seems to be enough. We feel like we could always be doing something more—we could be skinnier, work at a more lucrative job, get rid of more stuff, or add an extra half hour to our yoga practice—but it’s all in a vain attempt to fill some image of what we think we need to be in order to accept ourselves and be accepted by others.
We need to relax the ridiculous standards we set. And the way most of us mentally berate ourselves when we don’t meet them—it has to stop. Ask yourself this question: “Would you speak to your friends and family half as harshly as you speak to yourself?” I mean, if your friends and family are assholes, that’s one thing, but really, would you be as hard on them as you are on yourself, and if not, why not? Please take a moment to truly reflect on that.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who consistently resides in a place of serene self-acceptance, and if that’s the case I’m sincerely happy for you. The majority of us, however, well, we struggle with this a lot. For me, it actually got worse the more mindful I became. I started to become aware of some seriously self-judging and limiting thoughts, such as, “Well, you’re looking extra fat today.” “You really suck at playing the guitar and drums.” “Man, you’re ugly.” “You don’t have anything to offer this world, so why not go back to using drugs and drinking?” Those thoughts had been with me all along, but as my mind began to quiet through meditation practice, they now became much easier to hear. There seemed to be no end to them, and what made it worse was that, as those thoughts arose, I would then judge myself for having them…brilliant, right?
These thoughts and our internal mental struggles are truly the most unnecessary struggles we face in our daily lives, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Please hear me right now when I tell you that you’re so fucking perfect in your imperfections that it actually is funny. I’m so serious when I say that. Our quirks—the things that we often look at with disgust—they are the things that make us unique and completely amazing! While that sentiment may sound like an after-school special to some, I wholeheartedly mean it. And I offer it directly from my heart, the heart that knows better than to take any of this mental ego chatter that tells us we’re less than, seriously.
Fourteenth-century Tibetan master Longchenpa once said:
Since everything is like an “apparition,” Perfect in just being “What It Is”—as it is. Having nothing to do with “good” or “bad,” “acceptance” or “rejection”—You might as well just burst out laughing!
And I’ve been blessed on more than a few occasions to have experienced what he meant by those words. Sure, the lovely shit storm that life can be will ultimately rear its ugly head from time to time, but as we learn to not take the self-defeating thoughts and mental chatter so seriously, and truly learn to embrace our perfectly imperfect selves, our lives become much more enjoyable.
I recently interviewed Jai Uttal (kirtan musician) after his performance at the Yoga Journal conference in Estes Park, Colorado, and while discussing a barrage of eclectic things, the topic of self-love came up. While I’m sorry that he too deals with the self-condemning mind, just like the rest of us, it was refreshing to hear someone in his position address the issue so candidly. Jai said:
Sometimes you can be with a group of people and feel so much love for them while you’re looking around and then you get to yourself and you go, “Ugh.” You like to skip over yourself real fast and go to the next person. It’s a negative ego but only calling it ego doesn’t help. I need to remember that I’m a human being too, so why can’t I love me [laughing]? Last night, I did something, it was only the second time I did it and it’s very silly, but it triggered something for me when I did it the first time last week. I was thanking all the performers who played with me and after I thanked them all, I looked down and said, “Thank you Jai.” So I’m trying to be nice to me too. It’s kind of childish, but it’s work that needs to be done.
“Why can’t I love me?” Jai asks, which may be one of the most important questions any of us could ever ask ourselves. Many of us may think we love ourselves, but if we were to explore the stories our minds constantly feed us (often on such a deep level we’re not even aware of them), you’d be surprised. For me, there was never any question about the lack of self-love, because it’s always been clear as day. I’ve already shared some of my experiences that make that abundantly clear, but for others it’s not always so obvious.
I had a profound yet very simple “aha” experience in meditation a few years back, and while it was nothing groundbreaking in the way of new spiritual revelations, it did change my entire life. As I sat on my nifty little zafu, failing miserably at calming my mind, I watched my haphazard thoughts begin to contemplate the wacky world of quantum physics. I’d been reading titles from Fred Alan Wolf, Amit Goswami, and others after watching the documentary What the Bleep Do We Know?! and was enthralled with the way physics and spirituality complement one another. So as I sat there thinking about quantum physics, and its assertion that all things at the level of both mind and matter are interconnected, thanks to atoms and their subatomic particles, a realization hit me, and it hit me hard. I realized that if we truly are interconnected, which, according to quantum mechanics (our most up-to-date science), we are, then everything, everything, including God, really is all One.
I began to think to myself, “Well, if God is in me, just as much as He/She/It is in the Buddha and Jesus, two solid dudes who instantly make my heart warm with feelings of love and compassion, why don’t thoughts and emotions about myself create that same loving response?” And it all came full circle as I recognized ego to be the culprit. As I sat there with the understanding that it was my (ego) thoughts that were constantly nailing me to my own illusory cross, I also began to understand the complete bullshit nature of them, and that I didn’t have to buy in to them anymore. That realization, understanding, and experience was such a relief!
So through that “aha” experience, I learned that self-love is much more than just liking my physical being and personality, because real self-love has very little to do with them. And as we begin to lay aside our attachment to those ideas, we allow a space for true self-love to reveal itself. It’s a love of self that has no stipulations, which does not compromise, and cannot be swayed or tempered by our own (or others’) thoughts and judgments.
From Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality, by Chris Grosso. Copyright © 2014 Chris Grosso. Published with permission from Atria Books/Beyond Words Publishing.