Wonder Day 12.26.14 - Chris Grosso

I’d have to say the most positive change I’ve made in my life was to begin cultivating love and compassion for myself. That may sound a bit selfish, but my life for many years was one that consisted predominately of cutting, severe drug and alcohol addiction, suicide attempts, jails, psych wards and more. - Chris Grosso

Hello friends of Wonder Anew,

I’d have to say the most positive change I’ve made in my life was to begin cultivating love and compassion for myself. That may sound a bit selfish, but my life for many years was one that consisted predominately of cutting, severe drug and alcohol addiction, suicide attempts, jails, psych wards and more. However, by gently learning to love myself, I’ve not only been able to leave behind the aforementioned things like drugs, alcohol, cutting and more, but equally as important, today, I’m capable of sharing sincere love and compassion with others as well.

It’s been said we can only offer others what we ourselves have. I don’t know if that statement is entirely true, but what I can say is that in the state I was in prior to beginning this healing process, I was unable to extend sincere compassion and loving-kindness towards others. I lived in a place of complete selfishness, worrying only about myself and how I was going to get high each day.

Today however, I find my heart is wide open to both the love, and the suffering of others, and I’m grateful and humbled to be at a place in life where I can give back, where I can be of service. This life is one that’s worth living and as the Buddha said, “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” So it is my hope that you come to know this love intimately for yourself and then, you let it shine and share it with all beings.

Regarding how I did it, I’d like to offer a chapter from a book I wrote about my experience as I feel it conveys both the dark and light of my process in both an honest and candid way. May these words offer hope, and help you to see that indeed, we do recover.

All Love,
Chris Grosso

Image credit: Chris Grosso

Excerpt from Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality by Chris Grosso (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster Publishing, 2014)

Finding Freedom

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.
— Pema Chödrön

A few days into rehab, I met with one of the facility’s clinical directors. Welcoming me into his office, he noticed a Medicine Buddha tattoo on the back of my leg (a Buddha who’s believed to cure all suffering through his teachings or “medicine”- obviously, I hadn’t been paying close enough attention to what he was saying). Having his own interest in Buddhism, we proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes discussing its various tenants as well as spirituality in general.
Then he told me about a book called Finding Freedom by San Quentin death row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters. While I wasn’t familiar with the book, I recognized Jarvis’s name from hearing author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön mention him in some of her audio talks. The director told me a bit about the book and how Masters found Buddhism, ultimately leading to his own personal redemption while living on death row. He also told me he’d bring in his copy for me to borrow and read.
I was all for it. I’ve always loved the revolutionary type of writing from people like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Leonard Peltier and so forth, but with Finding Freedom having the added element of spirituality incorporated into it, I found myself actually looking forward to something for the first time in quite a while.
As I began to read Finding Freedom, I knew within the first few pages that it was no accident that the book had found its way to me in my darkest hours of despair. As I read through its stories, my experience ranged from that of complete shock to sincere laughter—with the most important part of the experience however, being centered on the hope I took away from everything Jarvis had to say.
         I mean, here was a Death Row inmate housed in one of America’s most notoriously violent penitentiaries—San Quentin State Prison—living in rat and shit infested conditions with violence as the audio and visual soundtrack of his daily life. Yet, he still found the resolve within himself to completely renounce his own violent past, selfish ways, and in turn, commit his life to the wellbeing of all beings.
The book had such a deep impact on me not necessarily because there was a relation between his prison life and my own experience with addiction (though it would be fair to say that addiction is a state of imprisonment all its own), but rather, it was the fact that he found hope in the most hopeless place possible, death row.  Deeper into Jarvis’s stories I found inspiration from a man who himself found redemption and healing. I knew if Jarvis could do it there on Death Row, I could definitely do it myself in a comparatively cushier situation such as rehab.
As I took the first steps towards finding my own freedom, I began to look at the wreckage of my recent past in a fearless and uncompromising way and was fucking terrifying to say the least, but it was that fear, which was keeping me stuck exactly where I was, and that was a truly awful place to be. But I had a choice to make, I could either do my time in rehab only to leave and go back to drinking myself to death, or I could find the resolve I knew I had in my heart to pick myself back up and make the necessary changes in my life, no matter how difficult the process may be. Jarvis’s stories helped me believe that if he could do it, then so could I, and so I did.   
I also made another little vow of my own while in rehab too, which was to do whatever I could to help spread the word about Jarvis when I got out, and I kept true to that. I checked out the website listed in his book, www.FreeJarvis.org, and sent an email with my request to possibly coordinate an interview with him over the phone at San Quentin to publish on my website in an effort to help spread the word about his case. After a few days went by, I received an email from Jarvis’s wonderful wife who said she would talk to him about the request within a few days, and it was shortly thereafter that I heard back from her, letting me know that he was onboard for the interview. 
And so it was over the course of roughly a month, and ten phone calls that I got to speak with and know in an even more intimate way, the man who’d had such an impact on me, and my life. Jarvis and I spoke about many different things during our phone calls ranging from Buddhism to addiction, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, his life on Death Row, and much more.
Jarvis supplied me with a plethora of wisdom and shared just as candidly during our interview with me as he did in Finding Freedom. The following excerpt completely reiterated the experience I’d had of finding that hope deep down inside myself and honoring my will to live, thanks to Jarvis’ inspiring words. I had to ask him to elaborate on how he makes peace with being in prison, especially since he’s been imprisoned for over 30 years now, the majority of which has been for a crime he didn’t even commit. Jarvis’ response was:
 Well, I’ve been so blessed man, and it’s a weird thing that I don’t even get sometimes. I mean, I’ve been here 31 years and wrote a book that’s helped a lot of people. I think about how if they released me five years after I initially got here in 1981, instead of how many people I’ve now helped, how many more people I could have hurt, how much more pain I could have inflicted… How can I say 31 years has been a total waste when it hasn’t.
We talked about how important it was to be authentic with one’s true nature, understanding that “people in and of themselves are not necessarily bad… it’s the bad things we do that reflect all the bullshit that’s going on in people’s lives… how we often wish our lives to be a whole lot different, but we come to find out that we wouldn’t have that experience were it not for the troubles.” The Buddhist publication Tricycle Magazine even caught wind of the condensed interview I’d published on ElephantJournal.com and wrote about it on their website.
         So in continuing to take Jarvis’s inspiration to heart, I carried on with the unpleasant task of looking at what a shit show my life had actually become, as well as assessing the work that needed to be done in order to continue the healing process for both myself and others.
Often in the beginning stages of healing, or recovery, most addicts, or abusers of any kind, find it extremely difficult to express even the slightest semblance of love towards themselves, and I was no exception. So taking into consideration the already existing condition of self-loathing that most addicts experience, and adding to that the countless shitty things we’ve done to ourselves, and others while in our active addictive states—whether it was prostituting ourselves, physically, mentally or emotionally harming ourselves or others, losing our wife, husband or children, or any number of very difficult circumstances to face—it’s obvious the odds of learning to love ourselves are stacked against us from the very beginning.
So with that being the case, what are those of us who find ourselves in positions such as this left to do? Personally, I found that the most beneficial thing I could do was to start by getting honest with myself: to tell the fucking truth. And I’m not talking about some tiptoeing around whatever the situation or circumstance may be half-truth, but a brutally fucking honest exploration into self-truth.
In Finding Freedom, Jarvis wrote, “For a long time I had been my own stranger, but everything I went through in learning how to accept myself brought me to the doorsteps of dharma, the Buddhist path.” We need not be Buddhist to appreciate his sentiment in those words. We all go through a ton of shit in our lives, and it’s that shit which, as Jarvis says, makes us a stranger to ourselves. The question is, now that we’re aware of that, what are we going to do with it?
 For Jarvis, it led him to the Buddhist path. For me, it was reconciliation with the desire to live life. How about you? What’s your shit and how are you going to use it to make positive changes? You don’t need to be an inmate or an addict to have experienced your own share of struggles in life, so this question really is applicable to anyone who reads it.
As I kept moving forward in my recovery I found that exploring the reasons why I had been so scared to look at the things that sucked in my life (lack of self-love, fear, emotional scars, and other baggage) helped me begin to clearly express the futile nature of the fear behind the fear. And herein lies a perfect opportunity to explore why we’re scared to take an honest look at the unpleasant things in our life (besides the obvious fact that they’re unpleasant). And more importantly, what we can do today to begin making even small steps towards changing that.
I’m not trying to make this sound like an after school special or some cheesy motivational type thing, but if we’re really sick and tired of being sick and tired, well then some shit has got to change. Other people can (and should) most definitely help us through this difficult process, but ultimately, it’s up to us to decide to even begin making the change in the first place.
I mean Jarvis, while on Death Row, decided to completely change his life and begin practicing non-violence and other acts to benefit the wellbeing of those both inside and out of prison. Luckily for us, we don’t need to be on Death Row, nor do we even have to have a specific interest in any particular religion or spirituality to begin making significant changes in our lives for the better.        
I’m not saying this is simply a matter of making the decision to change and everything magically becomes better, because that’s a crock of shit. However, if we don’t at least make the decision to change in the first place, we’ll keep doing what we’ve always done and in turn, keep getting what we’ve always gotten.
         After I personally made the decision to change, I knew there was work to be done. Like I said, I had to get honest with myself, brutally honest. I began to open up a little bit in the groups I was attending in Rehab but for the most part, I still kept the majority of my internal shit held safely under lock and key.
I did however get myself a journal and began putting some of the heavier stuff to paper because I felt like even though I couldn’t trust anyone else with it yet, I still needed to begin getting some of it out. Even with those steps being taken however, I knew there was still a lot of heavy shit I wasn’t ready to face, even by writing it in a journal, but I wrote what I could and began letting go of what I was ready to.
         I wrote about the deep sadness I felt due to all of the pain I’d caused my family throughout the years and how unbearably sad it made me to think about all the times they saw me strapped down in emergency rooms because I was wasted out of my fucking mind. I wrote about all the blackouts I’d experienced and the countless people I’d fucked over. I thought about the kids at the job I’d just lost due to my relapse and how most of them would be lied to about what really happened to me when they asked why I wasn’t at work anymore.
As I continued to write, I found myself slowly beginning to open up a bit more in groups and became increasingly aware of a cathartic release I’d often feel afterwards. I still felt a lot of guilt and shame around many of my actions, as well as plenty of residual self-loathing as a result, but I found that as I became willing to get vulnerable with others about some of the things I’d done in the past, and how the pain I’d caused others wreaked havoc on my mental and emotional states, I realized I was not alone in my pain, just as you are not alone in yours either.
I began to see out of the corner of my eyes (which were usually fixated on the floor while I would share) the heads of others nodding up and down as if they too had experienced what I was talking about, and in turn I would feel some relief as I embraced the notion that others could relate and I wasn’t so alone in this.
After voluntarily completing two months of inpatient rehab treatment, I moved home with my parents. For the first time in my life, I had no job and found myself filing for unemployment. I had no idea what I was going to do. The one thing I had committed myself to however was living life.