John has kindly granted us permission to feature an excerpt from his wonderful new book, In Touch, which you can read below.
The (adapted) excerpt is from the second half of Chapter 5, “Relaxed Groundedness” and includes two charts. The book is published by Sounds True ©2015—available to be ordered online and in selected bookstores.
This work is about the sense of inner knowing and breaks new ground in pointing to four subtle somatic markers/portals that arise when we are honing in on our truth.
Your body has a natural sense of truth. We can feel authenticity in ourselves and in others. However, this innate wisdom is obscured by our conditioning—the core limiting beliefs, reactive feelings, and somatic contractions that fuel our sense of struggle and veil who we really are.
In Touch is a experiential guide to the felt-sense of our “inner knowing”—the deep intelligence available through our bodies. Each chapter presents moving stories, helpful insights from spirituality, psychology, and science, and simple experiments for integrating the gifts of inner knowing into every aspect of daily life.
“As we tune into our deepest nature, our body relaxes, grounds, lines up, opens up, and lights up,” writes Prendergast.
“So far this extraordinarily useful subtle feedback has been largely overlooked; almost nothing has been written about it. We need to both sense and decode these signals if we are to benefit from them. These bodily markers are here to be seen and used as guides to enable us to more gracefully navigate life and to awaken. They are part of our birthright, available to anyone.”
Please support the book and check out John’s work.
N-Joy the excerpt!
Our inner knowing may be fleeting or quietly persistent, and it is more sensation than thought. We feel it somewhere deep inside of ourselves — often in the heart area or the belly. It doesn’t explain or justify itself. It is frequently unbidden and unexpected. It can be deeply reassuring and soothing, or on occasion, it can be very unwelcome, rocking the boat, making waves, and turning our life upside down. Sometimes we may not want to know what we know — the truth can be very inconvenient. It can end marriages, friendships, and careers and disrupt families, spiritual communities, and governments. It is also very liberating to live in accord with this truth. It is a two-edged knife that cuts us out of our comfort zone and opens us to life as it is.
This book will help you recognize your own natural sense of inner knowing by showing you how to listen to your body for guidance and then follow it. Getting in touch with your inner knowing is a process of unlearning, letting go, and deeply attuning with yourself in a new way. It can help you navigate life’s challenges more gracefully, authentically, and intimately. It can also help you discover who you really are.
Getting in touch with your inner knowing will ultimately lead you to experience your natural openness, as Kelly did at the end of her session. In this openness, the ordinary boundary of self and other softens and dissolves. This brings a sense of great inner freedom and deep intimacy. We are free from the story of who we think we are — especially from the core belief that we are a separate, isolated, and deficient self. We are also free to intimately experience our connection to the whole of life. Our deepest suffering comes from imagining and feeling that we are a separate self. Our inner knowing will eventually release us from this illusion.
The Four-Stage Continuum of Groundedness
The ground is both a metaphor and a felt sense. As a metaphor, it means to be in touch with reality. As a felt sense, it refers to feeling our center of gravity low in the belly and experiencing a deep silence, stability, and connection with the whole of life. Feeling grounded does not require contact with the earth; it can happen anywhere and anytime — even when we’re flat on our backs in a rowboat.
Reality is inherently grounding. The more in touch with it we are, the more grounded we feel. This is as true of the facts of daily life as it is of our true nature. Life is multidimensional, ranging from the physical to the subtle to formless awareness. When we are in touch with physical reality, we feel physically grounded. As subtle levels of feeling and energy unfold, we feel subtly grounded. When we know ourselves as open awareness, not separate from anything, we rest in and as our deepest ground that is sometimes called our homeground or groundless ground.
As attention deepens and opens, our experience of and identification with the physical body changes. Our felt sense of the ground shifts accordingly. After decades of working with clients and students, I have observed a continuum of groundedness that spans four broad experiential stages: no ground, foreground, background, homeground. Each has a corresponding body identity. Charts are inadequate when trying to describe such subtle and fluid experience, but because the mind likes to detect patterns and share them, the following chart may help you to picture this continuum.
With the stage of no ground, it feels like we are barely in our bodies. We feel ungrounded. Our attention is on the surface or at a short distance from our body in a dissociative state. If we normally dwell in this stage as an adult, it is almost always because of childhood abuse or neglect. When we were being abused, it simply felt too dangerous to be present in the body. With neglect, it felt as if we weren’t worth being attended to. Reworking this conditioning usually takes time. A safe, steady, and warmly attuned relationship allows attention to gradually reenter the body. Specialized somatic approaches also help.
We can experience temporary states of no ground when we are very ill or have been traumatized by an accident or an abrupt loss. Most of us have had tastes of this disembodied, ungrounded state. As an odd coincidence, as I was writing the previous sentence, my son came into my room to inform me that my car was missing. Sure enough, when I went outside, it was nowhere to be found. I briefly felt very ungrounded and disoriented. It turns out I had left the car parked at work two days before, and having immersed myself in writing at home, I had completely forgotten about it! Some people experience this ungrounded feeling through their whole lives.
The foreground stage unfolds as we get more in touch with our needs and feelings. The interior of the body opens as we learn to feel our feelings and sense our sensations. Attention drops down from the head and into the trunk and core of the body. We can feel more of what is happening in the heart area and the gut. This is a big discovery for people who have been trained to overly rely on their thinking — something our information-saturated society increasingly cultivates. Most psychotherapy and somatic approaches focus on this domain, helping people to be more in touch with themselves on a personal level and more open to relating with others.
When we experience the foreground deeply, we feel very much in the body. As subtle dimensions awaken, essential qualities such as love, wisdom, inner strength, and joy emerge. The body begins to feel less dense and more like energy — porous and light.
Here is a description by John Greiner, one of my interviewees, that fits this stage of being richly foregrounded in his body:
“When I am in touch with the truth, there’s a sense of calmness and being well-grounded. When I say calmness, it’s throughout my whole body. It’s a sense of being connected to the earth, almost as if there are roots. When I’m really grounded, it feels like it goes all the way to the center of the earth. It doesn’t matter if I’m walking or I’m sitting, but that is a big part of my foundation.”
Many spiritual approaches try to cultivate these subtle qualities and experiences so that they become stronger or last longer. While these practices can enhance the quality of personal life, they can also fuel an endless self-improvement project and delay the discovery of true inner freedom. Most psychospiritual approaches stop at this stage, satisfied with an enriched experience of the foreground.
The background stage of awareness generally remains unrecognized, quietly out of view. It is like the page upon which words are written or the screen upon which a movie plays. It is the context within which the contents of awareness — thoughts, feelings, and sensations — arise. It is easily overlooked even though it is implicit in any experience. We cannot experience anything without awareness, yet when we try to objectify awareness, we can’t. Looking for and trying to define it is like the eye trying to turn upon itself; what is seeing cannot be seen. As a result, the mind dismisses it.
Attention is like a wave on the ocean of awareness. Sometimes it peaks, focusing upon a particular experience, and other times it subsides back into its source. At some point, either because we have an intuition of this source or because we are seasick from the waves (suffering from our attachments and identifications), we become interested in following attention back toward its origin. This exploration may take the form of an intense, heartfelt inquiry — “What is this that is aware? Who am I really?” — or a simple, meditative resting in silence. It is more of an orientation than a technique.
As attention comes to rest quietly in the heart, not knowing, the background eventually comes into conscious awareness. At some point, we recognize that this is who we really are — infinite, open, empty, awake awareness. This recognition brings great freedom as we see that we are not bounded by space or time. We are not at all who we thought we were. No story or image can define or confine us. When we recognize our true nature as this unbounded awareness, we experience our body as being inside us, much like a cloud within the clear sky. Some spiritual traditions stop here, content with this transcendent realization.
When I was a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies a few years ago, one of my students, Dan Scharlack, who had been a Buddhist meditator for years, approached me and asked if I would be there for him, as he was going through an intense spiritual opening. Without thinking I agreed, although we had only recently met and I did not know what “being there” would entail. It turned out that my offer of support was all that he needed. He came back a week or two later and reported having had the following dramatic experience:
“I just wanted to let go into the emptiness, no matter what happened. It was strange, but as soon as the decision arose, there was also spontaneously a sense that I actually knew how to move into and through it. Nevertheless I felt like I wanted someone there with me when I did it in case something bad happened. . .
As I came to the same impasse, I felt my torso begin to shake. My heart was beating so fast that it felt like it would come out of my chest. My whole body moved in violent convulsions that almost sent me off the [meditation] cushion. I jerked forward, then back, and everything inside of me felt like it was screaming. My body was convulsing as it never had before. In spite of all of this, there was a sense that I just had to stay with the emptiness no matter what. There was a feeling of deep surrender, and I knew in that moment that I was willing to die for this.
And then it just kind of popped. I felt awareness move up my spine, out of the back of my heart, and out through the top of my head. While the shaking continued, it was less violent, and it was as if I was watching it from above and behind my body. Everything was incredibly quiet, and I had the unmistakable sense of looking down on my body from above with a deep feeling of compassion and sweetness for the one who was shaking. When I finally opened my eyes, it was as if I was looking at the world for the first time. Everything felt crisp, alive, and fascinating.”
Dan’s experience illustrates a marked shift of attention and identity from the foreground to the background stage of awareness. It was an initial awakening to his true nature.
A final stage of discovery awaits — the realization of our homeground. Even when we know ourselves as the background, a subtle duality continues between background and foreground, the knower and the known. The true nature of the body and, by extension, the world remains to be fully discovered. The felt sense of infinite awareness begins to saturate the body, often from the top down, as it penetrates into the core and transforms our emotional and instinctual levels of experience. It almost always takes years for this awareness to deeply unfold. As this happens, the body and the world feel increasingly transparent. We realize that the world is our body. The distinction between the background and the foreground, knower and known, dissolves. There is only knowing. Everything is seen and felt as an expression of awareness. There is a deep sense of being at home, as no-thing and everything. We could also speak of this as a groundless ground, a ground that is nowhere and everywhere. Words fail to capture it fully.
In 2010, I visited the Pech Merle cave in France, one of the few caves with extensive prehistoric paintings that remain open to the public. Since an earlier visit to Lascaux, I have been fascinated by these elegant charcoal and pigment drawings of horses, bison, aurochs (Paleolithic cattle), and mammoths, along with an occasional human handprint, some of which date as far back as 33,000 BCE. I have been equally drawn to the dark, silent caves that shelter these exquisite works of art.
Early one morning my wife, Christiane, and I joined a small group moving down a flight of stairs from a well-lit gift shop to the entrance of the cave about one hundred feet below. We stepped through the doorway into a completely different world — dark, cool, and unimaginably silent.
After a brief orientation, our guide warned us to stay together and began to lead us along a dimly lit path through the winding underground caverns. Despite her admonition, I felt compelled to hold back. As her voice and the footsteps of the others became increasingly faint in the darkness, I savored the extraordinary silence. The dark space beneath the earth and the feeling of open ground deep within my body became one ground — vibrant, dark, and mysterious. The outer and inner ground were not different; there was no separate knower and something known. I felt completely at home and at peace in the silence. There was a clear sense of knowing this homeground. Reluctantly, I rejoined the group after a few minutes.
Experiencing the Four Stages
Our sense of groundedness and our identification with our body are usually fairly stable and tend to localize in a particular stage somewhere along the continuum. For most people, it is localized in the foreground stage, where we experience being in our bodies. In contrast, our inner somatic, emotional, and mental states fluctuate according to many factors — health, stress, and occasional epiphanies — so that we can feel more or less grounded at any particular moment. States are constantly in flux, while stages change slowly. For instance, if I learn of the unexpected death of a close friend, I may experience a temporary state of being ungrounded, as if the rug has been pulled out from beneath me. The shock of the news may trigger me to feel dissociated for a while. In this case, my attention temporarily regresses from the stage of foreground to the stage of no ground. After a short time, my center of ground will return to its familiar stage.
If we usually feel fairly dissociated and ungrounded due to a chaotic childhood and then settle into a stable relationship as an adult, our stage of ground may gradually change from no ground to foreground. Instead of feeling mostly out of our body, we will feel mostly in our body. Effective psychotherapy can help facilitate this shift in stages.
As our spiritual life opens, we may begin to have experiences of being open and less identified with our body. At first these experiences may be fleeting glimpses or states. At some point, we may shift from the stage of feeling that we are in our body to the stage of sensing that we are open awareness within which our body exists. The sense of groundedness opens into a vast space. Everything that we have taken ourselves to be — sensations (body), feelings, and thoughts — is witnessed as an object in awareness. This is the background stage. As this open awareness penetrates deeply into the conditioned body, we begin to experience the world much more intimately. We have the sense that everything is made of this awareness and that nothing is separate from us. This fourth stage is our homeground.
These four stages — no ground, foreground, background, and homeground — don’t always unfold in a smooth order. We can even skip a stage and revisit it later, although this is quite rare. For example, it is possible to be in a dissociative stage of no ground and suddenly be catapulted into the background stage of formless awareness. This uncommon event can leave someone feeling simultaneously spacy (dissociative) and spacious (open and unattached). I know a woman who experiences this. Her integrative work is to come more into her body — to better know the foreground. Doing so will also allow her to feel her homeground, her essential nonseparation from everything, including her body.
It is much more common for the gravity of identity to shift from foreground to background, from being someone to being no one, as Dan experienced. This is a very significant opening; however, at some point, attention returns to the foreground of human feelings to accomplish a thorough, integrative “mopping up.” Nothing is left behind in this process of embodying awareness. As Adyashanti poetically notes, “Love returns for itself.”
It is very common to have brief glimpses of a more mature stage and then settle back into a familiar one. Almost everyone has experienced expansive states of consciousness that were induced by witnessing beauty, making love, being in the presence of a genuine teacher, meditating, ecstatic dancing and drumming, psychoactive substances, or for no apparent reason at all. It is as if a camera lens temporarily opens and we are exposed to a much wider perspective. The doors of perception briefly clear.
Spiritual seekers often get attached to these experiences and try unsuccessfully to recreate them. These foretastes ignite a yearning to return home, along with confusion about how this return happens. While we cannot manufacture these openings, we can make ourselves available to them. A regular sitting meditation practice can be helpful, if it is done innocently. Likewise, self-inquiry helps to bring space from our beliefs and identities. When our attention opens to the felt sense of the ground, it is important to give ourselves fully to it. If it closes, then it is important to carefully observe the process. How do we unenlighten ourselves? What old stories and identities do we take on? Each glimpse of our deeper nature widens our capacity and reorients the body-mind.
It is also very common for attention to regress to a prior stage. In fact, this is an inevitable part of an integrative process that effectively explores and develops the foreground of individual feelings and needs. If we are willing to feel our feelings and sense our sensations, we will encounter unintegrated parts of the psyche. Temporary regression is inevitable and necessary. We go back through prior conditioning (in the present) to unpack, release, and reclaim what is of value. Inner child work is an example of this. The unfolding process is dynamic and unique for each of us. It is important to trust and follow it.
Even as reality is inherently grounding, it is also inherently ungrounding if we have not been living in accord with it. The truth is rarely convenient for those who have not been friends with it. For example, if I am used to being heavily armored in my body and out of touch with my feelings, it can be very disorienting when an interior sensitivity begins to open. I may feel vulnerable and shaky until I get used to the new sensations and the feelings of intimacy they bring. Similarly, if my work or relationships have been out of integrity, facing this reality can initially be very destabilizing.
On a deeper level, if I have strongly identified with being just this physical body and discover that who I am is the light of pure awareness empty of any definition, I may also feel very unsettled. Or I may be hugely relieved. Meditators will sometimes experience each of these polarities at different times, particularly on longer retreats. When this process goes through an especially intense phase, it can feel like we are both living in and are a house that is being remodeled.
Not surprisingly, the felt sense of the ground is often directly related to the root chakra at the base of the spine. When there is a strong contraction in this energy center, there is a weak felt sense of the ground. This chakra is one of the key strongholds of the inner grip. As I mentioned in chapter 2, this contraction directly relates to the fear of survival, either physically or psychologically. The threat of psychological annihilation usually appears as a fear of abandonment (“I’ll be all alone”), engulfment (“I’ll be smothered”), or fragmentation (“I’ll fall apart and go crazy”).
When we have lived with this contraction for many years, it becomes a shallow ground of its own — a kind of thin ice. It is as if we take our stand upon a familiar, although highly unstable, inner island of suffering. We become surprisingly attached to our chronic holding patterns; they give us a self-definition in the same way that living in a prison allows us to identify as a prisoner. Separating from them can be like prying a child away from her abusive parents. Clients will sometimes describe these contracted energetic and emotional states as “comfort zones,” but they are anything but comfortable.
Letting go can feel like a freefall. I was once working with a client whose longtime friend had lost her son to suicide. My client had known the young man his whole life, and it was a devastating loss for everyone. As she closed her eyes and let her attention drop down and in, she sensed a contraction at the base of her spine. As she felt into it, it suddenly released, and she had the image of a trapdoor opening and her body free-falling into dark, empty space. Instead of panicking, however, she relaxed into the feeling of being held by no-thing and experienced a clear sense of nonseparation from everything. In that moment, the ground was wide open — or perhaps I should say that she was wide open to her homeground.
Eckhart Tolle experienced this shift into the background stage at age twenty-nine, when he was a very depressed graduate student at the University of Cambridge. One night he awoke with a feeling of complete dread, loathing the world and longing for annihilation. He had the repetitive thought that he could no longer live with himself:
“Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” Maybe, I thought, only one of them is real.
I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words “resist nothing” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.”
There are a number of interesting elements in Tolle’s experience. First, he was desperately depressed; life held no interest for him. Second, his mind was stopped by a paradoxical thought — a naturalistic koan: was he one or two selves? If he was two, perhaps one of them was not real. Third, his familiar identity began to collapse and along with it the sense of ground as he felt sucked down an energetic vortex and into a void within himself. And, finally, although he was terrified, he trusted an inner voice inside his chest that counseled him to not resist. He completely let go into a free fall. He was like the mountaineer in the earlier parable, except that he was able to trust his inner knowing. When Tolle woke up in the morning, he reported, he felt as if he had been born into a fresh and pristine world.
Our sense of groundedness has different flavors as other essential qualities emerge with it. For example, there may be feelings of love, flow, and a connection with being. When I interviewed my friend Riyaz Motan, a psychotherapist, he described his evolving sense of the ground in this way:
“Just as we talked about [the ground], I sensed it immediately as a rootedness — of energy going down through the feet and out into the earth. Even the earth doesn’t quite describe it — just a sense of rootedness into ground. The image of a pyramid comes, that feels really wide with a solid base.
As I sense the ground more, part of what happens is the heart comes more into it. There is a sense of receptivity, empathy, and softness. There is a dual quality of real solidity and strength and yet softness, receptivity, and openness.
Being in touch with the felt sense of the ground as a solid, rooted base allows the heart to open. The safer we feel, the more easily we can sustain an open heart”
When I spoke with Silke Greiner, a gifted bodyworker, she described a deeper level of groundedness that arose when she connected with being:
JP: As you described that connection [with being] coming into awareness, you moved your hands upward from the ground.
JP: The sense of connection becomes clearer and more alive for you.
Silke: Yeah, I guess it’s very deep. When it’s just a relative truth, it is not as deep. This really is what I’m describing when I’m down into the truth of being because I’m not always as aware of it in my day-to-day life. But when I’m really sitting down, when I’m working [bodywork/massage], I take that space and open myself to it. The truth of being just appears.
Silke contrasted her experience of being relatively grounded in everyday life with a deeper sense of groundedness and connection that she opened to when she sat and worked with people. The “truth of being” came clearly into her awareness. This sense is available to each of us at any moment if we are willing to slow down and listen. Doing so is like turning our face toward an invisible sun. We just need to remember that it is here awaiting our attention.
As we attune with inner knowing, we experience a deep relaxation in the core of our body and a growing sense of groundedness. However, most of us are in a state of chronic inner tension as we try to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) control ourselves and the environment. Some of this tension is concerned with biological survival, while most of it is concerned with psychological survival — the preservation of the self-image. The psychological self — the little me — is always insecure and defends itself against potential annihilation. This manifests in the body as an attempt to hold ourselves up and in with an inner grip or core contraction. We can be forced to release this grip when we encounter a crisis that makes us let go of the illusion of control and/or brings the insight that it is futile and more painful to try to hang on. The chronic grip also softens as we live more authentically, both personally and essentially. Feeling held by something greater than our limited self also allows the letting go to happen more gracefully. Letting go requires trusting in life — no matter what.
Reality is inherently grounding. The more in touch with it we are, the more grounded we feel. This is true on every level: physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual. Reality can be temporarily ungrounding to us when we have been living out of accord with it.
There is a continuum of groundedness with distinctive stages that sometimes coexist: no ground, foreground, background, and homeground. Each stage has a corresponding body identification. Attention can move fluidly between stages, and we can experience foretastes, regressions, and an occasional gravitational shift of identity between stages.
The openness of the energy center at the base of the spine is directly related to the depth of experiencing groundedness. Letting go can sometimes feel like a free fall. Our felt sense of the ground deepens with our attunement with being and is often accompanied by the experience of other essential qualities such as love, connection, and flow.
John J. Prendergast, Ph.D. is a long-time student of Adyashanti and Jean Klein who has worked as a psychotherapist, professor of psychology, and spiritual counselor for over 30 years.
He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Undivided: The Online Journal of Nonduality and Psychology.
He resides in Petaluma, California.
*Photo credits: Douglas Sandberg