After years of heavy addiction, Chris Grosso found himself literally on his knees, utterly lost and broken. Grasping for life, he needed to find a new path, one that went beyond conventional religious or spiritual doctrine—one free of bullshit. Indie Spiritualist (Beyond Words Publishing, 2014) empowers readers to accept themselves as they are, in all their humanity and imperfect perfection. In this excerpt learn the basics of vipassana meditation, a simple relaxation practice that can be done by anyone and in any setting.
Besides being asked, “What’s an Indie Spiritualist?” the second most common question I’m typically asked is “What type of meditation do you practice?”
While I personally practice many different types of meditation—never feeling like I have to stay within the confines of only one tradition—I typically respond with vipassana, as I’ve found it to be the most universally applicable form of meditation around. Any form of meditation that resonates with you—whether guided, mantra, movement, and so forth—will definitely be of benefit.
I adore meditation because there are countless ways to meditate, with no particular style being any better than another. It’s all about what resonates with you. You can find many free guided meditations online by searching Google or YouTube, as well as by visiting your local library. Most meditation practices are to spirituality what Bob Ross was to painting—very laid back and go with the flow. And while your practice may not provide you with happy little trees, it will over time create a greater sense of peace, clarity, and serenity in your life, and that’s sorta like happy little trees, right?
Through years of drug addiction, I did considerable damage to myself, resulting in heavy bouts of depression and anxiety. For years, I relied on antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications to keep me in a somewhat balanced state, but after cultivating a dedicated meditation practice I eventually found myself at a place where, under doctor supervision, I was able to taper off the medication and no longer needed it.
Let me make it perfectly clear, however, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking prescribed medication for conditions like anxiety, depression, and so forth. I recognize that they were very necessary in my life at that time, as I was very chemically off-balance. There is nothing unspiritual about taking prescribed medication when needed, because our own mental and emotional well-being must come first before we can truly help others.
Whether we are on medication or not, meditation practices will certainly help us to not only cultivate more calm in our lives, but also to handle things like stress, anxiety, and depression in gentler ways. For the benefit of those who are new to meditation, I’m providing these simple guided instructions for the practice of vipassana.
There’s no shortage of “spiritual positions” suggested for meditative practices, but really, as long as you keep your spine straight, without being overly tense or rigid in your posture, you’ll be fine. You can sit with your legs crossed in half or full lotus position, sit upright in a chair with your feet on the ground, or lie down flat on your back (before lying down, however, be mindful of whether or not you’re tired, as it can be easy to fall asleep during meditation).
As far as mudra (hand) positions go, put them wherever feels right to you. You can place them in your lap, palms up, one on top of the other; you can place them palms down on your knees; or fuck it, you can even make those silly circle things with your fingers, which has become the quintessential consumer vision of what we’re supposed to look like while meditating. It really doesn’t matter, though. Whatever feels most comfortable for you is the right position. Once you’ve got the hands figured out, close your eyes.
Next, bring your awareness to your Buddha belly (or chiseled vegan abs), roughly two inches above your navel, along the vertical midline of your body. Remember that this is not an exact science, so just bring your awareness to somewhere in that area, wherever feels right for you. (Note: Bringing attention to the tip of your nose, just inside your nostrils, as you breathe in and out, is also an anchoring point in vipassana. If that feels more natural to you, go with it!)
As you bring your awareness to your belly, you’ll begin to notice that, as you breathe in, your abdomen expands, and as you breathe out it contracts. The movements of expanding and contracting are often referred to as “rising” and “falling,” and are used as anchoring points to focus on during practice.
As your abdomen expands, observe its motion from beginning to end. Then do the same as it contracts. It’s that simple. Your breath, and the rising and falling of your abdomen, happen naturally, with no conscious effort on your part, so as you bring your awareness to the rising and falling motions, they anchor you in the present moment. If you find you’re having difficulty perceiving the rising and falling movements, it may help to place your hand on your stomach to feel them more clearly.
It also helps to recognize that the rising and falling are actually separate movements. There is a moment, after the abdomen has expanded to its fullest, and just before it begins to contract, that it is completely still. Being vigilant in your awareness of this break point in the motion can be extremely helpful in keeping your concentration focused, as it keeps your awareness centered.
As you practice vipassana meditation, thoughts are bound to arise. When this happens, it’s important not to mentally beat yourself up. Simply acknowledge the thoughts whenever you catch yourself drifting, and let them go as you bring your awareness back to your abdomen. Our aim in this practice is to cultivate awareness, not to think, so do your best to just be.
As we continue with our practice, we want to experience the knowing of our abdomen rising and falling. This knowing is experienced as nonverbal, pure awareness. The same goes for anything else that may come up during practice. Regardless of what it is, we know it with pure awareness in the moment, and then we let it go.
While vipassana definitely isn’t overcomplicated by any means, it’s also probably not as easy as you think. There’s a reason vipassana is not only practiced by those new to meditation, but longtime meditators as well: it’s a tried and true way to anchor our attention here and now in the present moment, which helps us to let go of unnecessary nagging worries, fears, frustrations, and so forth.
When we come to vipassana as a beginner, it can be of serious benefit to mentally label the rising and falling movements of our abdomen as they occur. These mental notes support mindfulness by increasing momentary concentration. So for the duration of the abdomen’s expansion, we can mentally say “rising,” and for the duration of the abdomen’s contraction, we can mentally say “falling.” The tricky part here is that, while we’re mentally repeating the words “rising” and “falling” over and over, we want to keep our awareness on the sensation of the abdomen rising and falling and not the mental repetition of the words. Remember, our aim is to know the experience itself.
Once we feel confident in our awareness of anchoring into the rising and falling sensations without mentally labeling them, we can then let go of that part of the practice. Remember, this is not a race, so if you find you’re months (or even years) into the practice and mental repetition of the words “rising” and “falling” still helps, then stick with it. There’s no face to be saved here, and anyone who brags about their meditation practice obviously still has plenty of work to do.
As you continue with vipassana, here are a few more things to be aware of:
• Make sure the breath flows naturally. Do not try to control it.
• Be aware of your abdomen moving, but do not visualize it. The experience should be similar to that of a buoy floating naturally up and down in the water. Shit, now you’re going to visualize a buoy during practice, aren’t you? Well, do your best not to and try to let it all be as natural as possible.
• While vipassana is most conducive in a quiet setting during formal practice periods, it can be done anytime and anywhere. Whether you’re sitting at your desk at work, riding on a bus, at the movies, or wherever, anytime you bring your awareness to the natural movement of your abdomen rising and falling, you’re mindful in the moment and thus you’re practicing vipassana.
• Vipassana, or any form of meditation for that matter, will naturally cultivate a greater sense of calm, peace, and mindfulness in your everyday life. However, it will take some time, so have patience and be gentle with yourself.
Some people, including myself, have reacted to meditation in the exact opposite way they thought they would. Typically, we expect a sense of peace and calm. Instead of floating in the clouds with Buddha, we may find ourselves mentally clawing our way out of a Freddy Krueger nightmare. For some, painful thoughts and memories may arise, sparking an emotional response that can make for an unpleasant experience. While this is not the case for everyone, it does sometimes happen, so if you find yourself having one of those experiences, do not let it scare you away!
The uncomfortable times in meditation offer us the opportunity to do some truly wonderful work. As we sit and allow uncomfortable thoughts and emotions to play themselves out, with the understanding that they cannot harm us, we’re allowing healing to unfold naturally. We’re allowing the pain and hurt from days, weeks, months, and even years ago to be released in whatever way our body, and meditative experience, sees fit.
At the conclusion of meditation practice, it is sometimes suggested (though absolutely not required) to make an aspiration based on any merit we cultivated during our time spent in quietude, as an offering of peace, love, and harmony to all beings. Here is an example of something simple you can recite (though you can use any words that resonate with you).
May all beings be free from danger.
May all beings be free from mental suffering.
May all beings be free from physical suffering.
And may all beings know peace.
Through the practice of vipassana, we begin to stop associating so strongly with the mental constructs of who we think we are, which allows us to stop taking ourselves so goddamn seriously. We learn to embrace our imperfections exactly as they are and as a part of who we are. We can celebrate the fact that we’re imperfectly perfect, and together we can make a big mess of our imperfections. So let’s get messy. Let’s rekindle the carefree inner child that many of us have been suppressing for far too long now, because that too is part of being an indie spiritualist—embracing our most authentic selves in a fearless yet lighthearted and carefree way.
Reprinted with permission from Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality by Chris Grosso and published by Beyond Words Publishing, 2014.