Once upon a time, I spent four months living in a monastery in the town of Bodh Gaya, India. I was on a Buddhist studies program along with 32 other students, including my friend Hunter. One morning, sitting up straight and fighting off sleep, I looked across the meditation hall to see Hunter slowly reaching down and touching the ground. I was astounded. Was Hunter declaring his awakening?
The story goes that about 2,500 years earlier, not far from where we sat, a young Siddhartha Gautama, on the cusp of enlightenment, was tempted by the demon Mara with divine maidens and vicious storms. Instead of succumbing to these trials, he reached down and touched the ground, with the whole earth confirming his realization and status as the Buddha, “the Awakened One.” The earth-touching mudra, as it is known, is featured in many depictions and statues of the Buddha, and by touching the ground in the meditation hall, I could only assume that Hunter was signifying his own profound realization.
Grounding as a form of connection
Mindfulness is a form of becoming grounded, of rooting body and mind in the present moment. Such groundedness aids us immensely in remaining aware and not drifting away, whether it’s in a reverie about divine maidens, or in our screens. As our lives increasingly take place in the amorphous space of the world wide web, we can begin to lose touch—both literally and figuratively—with the ground beneath our feet. Being grounded, then, is a way to connect, both with what is happening right now, and with one another.
In psychology, this embodied connection is known as body sense, “the ability to pay attention to ourselves, to feel our sensations, emotions, and movements on-line, in the present moment, without the mediating influence of judgmental thoughts,” explained psychologist Alan Fogel. Such awareness can attune us to much of the information we miss when our head is in the clouds. That migraine that appears out of nowhere like an ax cleaving your skull? Perhaps tuning in to your dehydration a couple of hours earlier and drinking a glass of water could have helped stave off the pain.
Fogel breaks down self-awareness into “embodied self-awareness”—which is momentary and based in sensation—and “conceptual self-awareness,” which is abstract and based in language. Both can be useful, but as humans we’ve evolved to dramatically favor the latter. Conceptual self-awareness is how we find our place in the world, establishing the narrative that becomes the story of us.
In Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius called this function of mind “the simulator.” The simulator replays moments that have already happened and anticipates moments to come in an effort to reinforce behavior that will lead to reward and avoid danger. However, it also causes us to miss much of what is happening right now. “The simulator takes you out of the present moment and sets you chasing after carrots that aren’t really so great, while ignoring more important rewards (such as contentment and inner peace),” wrote Hanson and Mendius.
Many of these more important rewards are tied into our relationships with others, but we can be so caught up in the simulations in our mind that we often miss the forest for the trees, such as the flow of the conversation. Our obsession with this narrative leads to many behaviors that undermine embodied self-awareness, such as our addiction to social media or our unhealthy tendency to ruminate on our perceived faults. We seem to believe that the fantasy in our minds should take precedence over the felt experience of our bodies.
In modern Western society, this disconnect between mind and body is especially pronounced. We have inherited the legacy of Cartesian Dualism, in which the mind is considered an immaterial and thinking substance, whereas the body is considered to be material but unthinking. Such dualism might be useful in a theoretical sense, allowing one to discuss various features of experience independently. But in recent decades, much has been learned about the connection between mind and body that challenges the notion of dualism by showing how enmeshed mind and body actually are, an ideology already prevalent in Eastern practices such as meditation, yoga, or Qi Gong.
In these practices the mind and body are not treated as isolated entities but as co-arising phenomena. “The starting point for Buddhist analysis of mind is not the ontological distinction separating mind and body, but the causal relationship uniting them,” wrote William Waldron, a professor of South Asian religions at Middlebury College. As such, Buddhist tradition downplays the notion of the mind having primacy over the body.
How to use grounding in your mindfulness practice
In discussing the six modes of consciousness—the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind—Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki explained, “The first step in establishing mindfulness is to switch over to channel five, the stream of tactile bodily sensations, which serves to disrupt the tyranny of the thinking organ.” In doing so, we become grounded in sensations, able to tune in to both the external and the internal at once, and able to recognize their interdependent nature. This can relax the tendency we have to filter our experience through the prism of the simulator. “The Buddha got two steps further than Descartes,” wrote Olendzki, “Beyond the ‘me’ and beyond the thinking: awareness occurs. Knowing an event does not belong to anyone, nor need it be constrained by the thinking of thoughts.”
When we are grounded, we are able to engage in the present without the obfuscation of ego. This isn’t to say that thoughts are unwelcome in meditation, rather they are put in their proper place, so to speak, as facets of our consciousness that arise and fall as surely as the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches of the flow of experience.
In Say What You Mean, meditation and nonviolent communication teacher Oren Jay Sofer explored how being grounded can aid our communication. “Grounding in the body provides an anchor to steady your attention instead of losing your center,” wrote Sofer. Steady attention can have a remarkable effect on our relationships with others. We can begin to break the habits that have formed over years of fraught, uneasy, and often mindless communication.
In challenging conversations, for example, when it is easy for one to become triggered, mindfulness can allow us to “pause, track the reactivity in our body, and ride the wave rather than be capsized by it.” Tuning into sensation is a crucial part of this process. “If the activation is strong, shift attention to the periphery of your body,” wrote Sofer, “feeling the sensations in touch points such as your hands or feet, or orient to the sounds or physical space. These reference points widen awareness, which can provide much-needed relief in challenging moments.”
Strong emotions can often result in intense reactivity, so tapping into our ability to ride the wave through the act of grounding is a powerful ability. The amount of unnecessary harm and suffering that could be avoided were more people able to pause and pay attention to sensations is considerable, to say the least.
“Human beings are complex, dynamic systems,” noted Sofer. “A conversation is also a complex, dynamic system. It’s a living, breathing process.” Remaining grounded through this process reinforces the idea that we can attend to someone best with both body and mind. “In sensing the rhythm of that dance, something in our nervous system learns how to participate in the process of creating understanding with another human being,” wrote Sofer. It is often said that neurons that fire together, wire together, and the more that one brings felt presence to an interaction, the more that this ability will become embodied, and become simply the way that one engages with others.
The benefits of grounding
Ultimately, cultivating the ability to remain grounded can impact not just our own lives but the lives of those we touch. “With mindfulness we can produce thoughts, speech, and actions that will feed our relationships and help them grow and thrive,” said Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. This can manifest in our interactions with our coworkers, friends, relatives, and even the barista who serves us our morning coffee. “We can communicate in such a way as to solidify the peace and compassion in ourselves and bring joy to others,” wrote Hanh. With all the miscommunication currently occurring in our world, leading with embodied presence, peace, and compassion has never been more important.
When I asked Hunter about his earth-touching realization after our morning meditation session all those years ago, he did not confirm my suspicion that he had become awakened. The monastery we lived in was adjacent to a swampy field that was famous, even in a mosquito-rich town, for the tenacity of its mosquitos. Hunter had simply been scratching an itch on his foot. The truth is, we spend much of our time scratching a different kind of itch, the conceptual one that nags us, convincing us that we can think our way through all our woes and convince everyone else of our fundamental goodness despite the fact that we often feel bad (see: Instagram).
Perhaps we can take a cue from the Buddha, touch the earth, and tune in to our body sense, to the dynamic interplay of what is actually happening. Such grounding, it turns out, can begin with a single touch.