What Does Grounding Even Mean?
Although we all seem to have an intuitive sense, the longer I (Florian) have thought about it, the more different definitions or aspects become apparent to me. One common meaning of grounding is being connected to the ground, to the earth. Like electrical grounding. This aspect also appears in the Buddhist metaphor of having to be like a mountain to be able to meditate. To support focused awareness on one point, like the peak of a mountain, the base of the mountain has to be much wider and firmly rooted on the ground.
We can walk barefoot and sit on the ground to really connect to the earth. Every step we take on our mother, the Earth, should be a loving touch. When I lived in New York and tried to meditate in my 10th floor apartment, it was almost impossible to really feel the ground 10 floors and an unknown number of basements below, every inch covered in layer upon layer of concrete and man-made structures. To remind us to ground like this, we often use language like ‘Imagine roots growing out of your sit bone and the bottom of your feet.’ So while grounding also means being in the body, imagining roots growing out below us takes imagination and awareness. I’ve learned it’s really important not to just visualize these roots, but to actually feel them.
Another aspect of this I’ve mulled over for a while is that I think we ground from the wrong place. As upright homo sapiens, our lowest point is our sit bone and our feet (depending if you’re sitting or standing). However, if you were a tree or plant looking at a human, you’d recognize that our root, the place where we grew from is actually our belly button, or more precisely our umbilical cord through which we were connected to the placenta, which serves the same function as a root system in a plant. A plant would say that a human is a funny plant that cut itself from its root and started walking around on some of its branches (legs) and using other branches (arms) for tasks.
Looking at it from the evolutionary perspective shows something similar. As we evolved from single cell organisms living in the primordial ocean, we internalized the ocean in our blood and circulatory system. Similarly, we internalized our roots and soil in our gut. The vili inside our intestines absorb nutrients from the material in our gut, like roots absorb the nutrients from the soil. In fact, many of the common gut bacteria are very similar to soil bacteria. We carry our soil in our gut. The digested food materials in our gut are like the humus and soil that plants grow in. Furthermore, the third chakra, the solar plexus, is associated with the element earth and the first, sacral chakra at the bottom of our pelvis is actually associated with the fire element. (Remember the kundalini is fiery.) So perhaps we need to imagine ourselves connecting to the ground through our gut and third chakra instead of through our sit bones and feet.
Grounding also means to be in the body. When our awareness and spirit travel through the disembodied, unseen realms, it makes sense that we need to be firmly anchored in our bodies, so that we are oriented. So that our spirit can find its way ‘back home’ and not get lost. This isn’t just the case if we journey deliberately. We can see what happens if we are not sufficiently in our body in dissociation, which can happen due to trauma and is a common symptom of PTSD. People who experience dissociation often describe it as feeling like ‘my head is in the clouds’, ‘my head is disconnected from my body’, ‘I feel like a disembodied head’, ‘Everything feels unreal, like a movie, like I’m underwater.’ Dissociation is a survival mechanism that helps us survive an overwhelming trauma, especially when we’re traumatized as children. Many animals dissociate, the most classic example the oppossum that ‘plays dead.’ Even though dissociation is a survival mechanism during trauma, it will often recur later and cause great distress and suffering. In the most extreme forms it leads to a ‘fugue state’ or ‘multiple-personality disorder.’ A dissociated spirit and mind flutter about, never really fully present in the here and now. It feels like ‘the lights are on/but no one’s home.’ The best way to define grounding in this context is to say that grounding is the opposite of dissociation.
Dissociation is not just an individual phenomenon. Our entire culture has become dissociated. We live our lives in virtual worlds, staring at screens, numb, hopeless, disempowered, our attention constantly being tickled and pulled further, addicted and dissociated. We are asked to ignore our body’s distress signals, such as fatigue, exhaustion, insomnia, pain, so we can continue to be cogs in the machinery. (See the documentary “The Social Dilemma” for more on how social media seduce us and lure us into a dissociated, addicted state.) No wonder we dissociate and are so susceptible to being pulled into dissociation by constant stimulation. It’s the only way to ignore the pain in our bodies and to ignore the pain of the natural world around us. Although people think ‘social media’ connect them, they in fact cause the opposite, dissociating us.
Grounding can also mean to focus one’s awareness on the present moment, instead of fluttering about from regrets and griefs about the past and worries and desires for the future. This is what mindfulness tries to do, by inviting us just to be mindful of the present moment. In his beautiful speech “This is Water” D. F. Wallace (link) tells the story of two young fish that meet an older fish who says to them ‘Good morning boys…How’s the water?’ After the old fish has passed, one young fish turns to the other and says ‘Dude…what’s water?’ The young fish were completely unaware of water, because they were always surrounded by it. So becoming aware of our habitual mental patterns, the water that we’re always swimming in, is another way of grounding.
Another form of grounding has to do with ‘vertical integration’, like a ladder. A ladder can only stand if it’s aligned, every rung above the other. To be grounded, from this perspective, means to be aware of all the dimensions of our being, from our physical body, on the ground, i.e. the bottom of the ladder, as well as including our emotional, mental and spiritual bodies and our connections and presence in all the other disembodied dimensions, i.e. what we refer to as the collective unconscious in our concentric circles diagram. Like a ladder, our bodies in all these realms need to be aligned. A beautiful symbol of this is the ancient Egyptian ‘djed’, a symbol that looks like a pillar, or abstract tree, or spinal column and represents Osiris after he is reborn, i.e. after he’s gone through all the alchemical stages and is fully in his power. This pillar can also be called the axis mundi (the world axis) or the world tree. The biblical Jacob’s vision of the ladder, with angels going up and down is another version of this. In Jungian terms, this ‘tree’ is the axis between the ego and the Self, because that truly is the world axis, the world tree along which we develop and which is the only orientation that is always valid, regardless if everything else, including the ground under our feet, dissolves.
So now that we’ve made the term grounding sufficiently complex, although we’ve not nearly exhausted it, let’s look at some oils.
Ruh Khus (Wild Vetiver) Essential Oil is made from the aromatic roots of the grass Chrysopogon zizanioides. It is musky and earthy, with hidden cool notes. It has been a key ingredient in some famous men’s perfumes, because groundedness in the body is sexy, perhaps? The effect of the aroma is a sensual and sensuous awareness of being in our body and it has a pleasurable downward pull. I often get a synesthetic visual of a tangle of green, juicy roots that say ‘yes’ to the entangled messiness and grit and ‘dirtiness’ that being in our bodies really is. Ruh khus invites me to enjoy this messiness and grit. If we’re not in our bodies, if our mind is galloping all over, ruh khus brings us home into our bodies and the ground beneath our feet.
Patchouli Essential Oil grounds in a very different way. I have to first admit that I couldn’t really stand patchouli for much of my life. I blamed this on growing up in the 70s, but now I wonder if it has to do with the fact that I was dissociated most of my early life, as a survival mechanism, and patchouli’s grounding may have been too much for me to bear. Now I’ve come to really enjoy patchouli. I can say from direct experience that it is a wonderful aphrodisiac. It really brings my awareness into the structure of my body. If my body feels like an out of focus photograph when I’m dissociated or distracted by too much mental activity, patchouli brings my body into sharp focus. I am aware of my bones, muscles, the materiality of my body, the boundaries of my body. I really feel all these parts of my body, which is why it makes sense as an aphrodisiac. We need to be fully in our bodies to enjoy intimacy, as hard as that is for many of us. This sharp focus also helps give a structuredness to my perceptions. The air and my vision become sharper and clearer.
Angelica Root Essential Oil grounds in yet another way, like Jacob’s ladder. It is a journeying plant, as it reminds us with its hollow stem, but more than that, it provides multidimensional integration and centering, aligning our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies and our presence in all the unseen dimensions, like a giant ladder. It grounds us along the world tree, the axis between ego and Self. You can deepen this form of multi-dimensional grounding by combining it with Angelica Seed Essential Oil.
Sandalwood Essential Oil grounds in yet another way. In a similar way that the sandalwood essential oil in an attar acts like a vessel for the more fragile aromas such as jasmin, tuberose or rose, it also strengthens our vessel of awareness. This is one reason sandalwood has been used in incense for meditation. To be able to meditate, especially for longer periods, having a strong vessel of awareness and groundedness at the same time, is essential.
It has taken me fifty years to get to a point where I (Cathy) have the tools and internal attitude that makes me feel autonomously ‘safe.’ What do I mean by this?
Although I can only truly speak from a personal standpoint about my own life story and related traumas, I know they are no different from most peoples’. I went through life dependent on outside influences in order to feel some amount of inner stability and security.
As a system for emotional wellbeing this does not work very well. Relying on external influences means that:
a) The winds–outside influences–can change form one moment to the next and knock you off balance instantly. Someone else’s shift in attitude or off-hand comment can be all that is needed for your energy to dissipate and your sense of emotional balance to be jeopardized.
b) You are continually reliant on the external emotional environment and need it to fall within the framework of what you consider to be ‘acceptable.’ In order to feel safe you are constantly on the look-out for possible signs that this is not the case, which is a negative feedback loop. Like a hunted animal, you are continually vigilant. Your inability to fully trust anyone—convinced you must not trust in order to survive—subtly permeates your relationships.
c) You think that your emotional safety and stability depend on what is happening outside yourself. You have a constant need to try and ‘control’ the outer environment. Always vigilant—as if at any moment the ground could be pulled away from under your feet.
If you constantly need acknowledgment from other people in order to feel ok, this is a sign of co-dependency. Co-dependency covers a wide range of situations, from subtle to pathological. It took me a long time to see and admit that I had co-dependent tendencies.
I remember the day it sunk in. It was such a shock. Something that I had never considered possible. For this strong, independent facade, my ego, it was the slap across the face. It demanded that I commit to doing what was necessary to heal. After over thirty years of personal inner work, this was also exactly the insight that I needed to start to ‘feel better.’
In one second, a culmination of all these years of peeling away coupled with this new, frightening self-diagnosis created the ‘soil’ that enabled me to shift perspective.
And that was all it was—a simple change in perspective, a subtle inner manipulation that took less than 5 seconds to accomplish, but had required more than thirty years of soul searching to understand what exactly was needed.
Of course, I had heard and read many times the wise words that “if we love ourselves we cannot come to any harm and only by loving ourselves can we really love others,” etc. Easy to say, but in reality not so easy to do. It took years of unravelling the false beliefs one by one: Why I was not lovable. Each layer revealed yet another, like the skins of an onion in a cold winter. Until finally the reasons to love myself and the capacity to believe this outweighed the accumulation of false beliefs that were telling me otherwise. This coincided with a moment in my life where instead of denying or exiling parts of myself, I was learning to accept all of myself–the big, the bad and the ugly… I had no choice. Either I accepted them and loved them or they would continue to wreak havoc.
By transforming false inner judgements about ourselves and accepting all parts of ourselves—however hurt, angry, sad, enraged or shamed they may be—we slowly remove the inner barriers to being able to love ourselves.
The journey seems endless. It can feel as if you are being asked to climb Mount Everest, over and over. Yet every cycle of this inner evolution, cooking in the alchemical vessel, goes into conjunctio—the sacred union. In conjunctio things ‘come together’—the opposites within us, our light and our shadow, reconcile. When this happens, you realize with all your being how all of yourself, all the wounded parts, make you a unique beautiful multidimensional being. Being truly able to love who you are feels beautiful, incredible and brings a strong sensation of inner security.
In my own journey, I had been searching for a place to call home for most of my life. When I finally found it here in New Mexico, the desert lands intensified and accelerated the peeling away of layers within me. As Florian kept telling me, “the desert strips away everything that is unnecessary.” The outer reflects the inner and vice versa—the microcosm IS the macrocosm. Just as I was ready to find a ‘home’ in the world, I was finally simultaneously ready to find home within myself. True home was finally being able to tell myself ‘Nothing can stand in the way of me loving myself.” I not only tell this myself, I believe it and above all I feel it. It is somatic, a warm, grounded feeling within.
This does not mean, that once found you do not have to continually re-align with this feeling consciously, like a baby bird, it needs feeding every five minutes to gain in strength. Remember, the alchemical cycles continue, endlessly.
Reflecting on this journey, many allies have accompanied me: plants, trees, animals, places and people. On the last leg of this cycle a beautiful, gently powerful yet unobtrusive guide, Angelica archangelica stood by my side.
For many years, I have loved this plant. I used to harvest the wild variety, Angelica sylvestris when living in France. I always found her magical, deep and compelling, while at the same time something about her is elusive. Like her name, she was too huge to be fully comprehended. I also noticed that on the field, my herbal students always wanted to meet Angelica. Most of them had no idea what she even looked like, but something mysterious attracted them to her, a profound, ancestral, inner calling.
I often carry the essential oil with me. I use it to ground and come into the physical body. Recently, I had intuitively been drawn once again to her aroma and presence. This time I could not put my finger on why. I just wanted her near. Then, while teaching at the ancient alchemy workshop in Spokane, my friend and fellow speaker, Christa Obuchowski showed me her perfume blends. As I smelled the beautiful scents, a particular one just called out to me. It had my signature and I bought it straight away. Its name is ‘ambergreen.’ It is a solid angelica perfume. I cannot get enough of it. I reach in to my little pouch numerous times a day to bring closer that deep, knowing that comes through her smell.
The name Angelica originally comes from the Greek, angelos meaning messenger. The story goes that in the 14th century angelica was revealed to a physician called Mattheus Sylvaticus as a medicinal plant by an archangel—hence its name. It was also known in the 17th century by the name ‘Root of the Holy Ghost.’ John Parkinson in his famous gardening book, ‘Paradisi’ recommends a decoction of angelica ‘when the spirits are overcome and faint, or tremblings and passions of the heart.’ In his 1764 edition of Herbal cures, the American herbalist Christopher Saur wrote ‘when the winds of death are blowing, Angelica makes an excellent prophylactic against dangerous contagion.’ (’75 Exceptional herbs’ by Jack Staub) Lastly, the famous English herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote ‘Some call this an herb of the Holy Ghost; others more moderate called it Angelica because of its angelic qualities….It resists poison by defending and comforting the heart, blood and spirits.’
Although Angelica has a wide variety of medicinal qualities, I personally believe Angelica’s strength works in another sphere completely: In spiritual, emotional and soul healing Angelica is definitely a master teacher. Its essence seems to bring together the opposites and helps us find balance and stability by feeling the conjunction between the internal and external, what is above and what is below, what is dark in us and the light, our courageousness and our fears. On a subtle level, Angelica helps us become comfortable in our inner space. This is where we can really meet ourselves and discover the seat of our inspiration and the deep territory where the feeling of loving ourselves resides. The morphology of the Angelica plant mirrors the gift it gives to us. It makes strong protective boundaries between the chaotic outer world and our inner worlds. It helps us anchor the spirit inside our bodies and feel our soul safely embodied in our inner core. It is from here we can love ourselves.
Being Grounded Means Being Home in Ourselves
“I have no home: I make awareness my home.” –A Samurai Creed
With all the craziness in the world, where it feels like everything we think we can take for granted dissolves or implodes, it’s easy to get ungrounded and this has made me think about feet and groundedness.
Many of us neglect our feet. We stick them in shoes all day and move around on them every day and the only time we give them any loving attention is when they’re sore or we’ve injured a toe, for example. And yet, our feet remain silent and never complain. Many people pay more attention to the tires on their cars than their feet. Curiously, even though our feet play a profound role in our overall health, this bias exists in medicine, too, where foot problems are referred to podiatrists, because other specialists aren’t interested in the feet. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, podiatrists are looked down upon by other specialists, since they ‘only deal with feet.’ Give your feet some loving attention, by massaging them with a sacred oil. Hopefully do this more often than you change the tires on your car 😉
The way we walk also matters. We are often completely unaware of how we move our feet. We kick things or stomp when we’re angry, we move through the world in our head, cut off from our body, leaking our unconscious patterns out through every step we take, leaving them along our trail like banana peels or dog poop for others to unconsciously stumble across. The Navajo say that we have a rainbow at the bottom of our feet. With each step we take on our Mother Earth, we should be touching her with love and compassion. Each step we take could be an expression of love and reminder to be mindful. We could express loving mindfulness thousands of times a day in this way! Practice this, no matter where you may be at the moment.
As a culture, we sit way too much. We sit at home in front of our laptops, we sit driving our cars around, we sit at work. More and more research has shown how unhealthy sitting is. A chair can be worse for our health than a pack of cigarettes. Ancient humans spread all over the world by walking. Be mindful of how much time you spend sitting.
When we run, but also when we walk, there is a moment before the foot we have put forward lands and we’re already no longer putting our full weight on the rear leg. With each step we take, we’re actually falling. When we talk about being in the moment, it’s easy to think of the moment as one point in time, perhaps some ideal moment of bliss and connectedness. Yet it is the essence of any moment that it passes. With each step we take, we are literally falling from moment to moment. Being in the moment isn’t about being in one moment and getting attached to it, but it’s the opportunity to continuously fall from moment to moment and with each moment to fall back into loving awareness.
It’s easy to get too attached to that one perfect moment and then unconsciously rush through many more moments, that may not be as seemingly ‘perfect’, to return to that perfect moment, which of course we can never return to. I’m reminded of a stanza by William Blake “he who binds himself to joy/ does a winged life destroy/ But he who kisses joy as it flies/ lives in eternity’s sunrise”. To me, ‘binding ourselves to joy’ is that attachment to that one perfect moment, and it drives away the angels that always surround us—we destroy ‘a winged life’. When we are lovingly aware of each moment as it passes—kissing joy as it flies—we live in eternity’s sunrise.
In many cultures, pilgrimage is a revered form of expressing our devotion and praying. When I was in Tibet, I saw pilgrims that measured the entire length of their pilgrimage with their bodies. With every step they took they prostrated themselves on the ground. They would take months and years to travel in this way from their homes to the sacred sites. What devotion and mindfulness! Traveling in Europe, we frequently encountered roads and trails that are among the many estuaries of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. A pilgrimage means we’re praying with our feet. It’s to lose sight of the path, distracted when we are pulled into unconscious patterns and complexes, like getting caught in fog or a thunderstorm while walking. If I am able to remember that this life is a pilgrimage, even if there’s no clear destination in the outside world, or even if the storm clouds and fog obscure the path, I know there’s always a destination within, the Self, and I’m on the lifelong pilgrimage that Jung called Individuation.
I find this exercise is really helpful regardless of where I am and especially helpful during times when it’s easy to be stuck in unconscious patterns—Stuck in an airplane seat, waiting at a traffic light, rushing from place to place.
Close your eyes halfway, even briefly if you can.
Take a few falling out breaths, inhaling deeply through your nose and exhaling all the stress and distractedness deeply through your mouth.
Then try to observe your breathing, not forcing it, but just observing as your body is moved by the tide of air in and out. Remember that this air is what connects all living beings. We are all breathing the same air and it is the invisible presence between us all.
As you observe your breath and the air moving in and out, with your awareness, direct your breath deeper and deeper into your belly, your soil inside, your belly button.
After a few breaths, when you feel you’ve connected through awareness to your abdomen, direct your breath with your awareness all the way to the bottom of your feet. See if you can be aware of the rainbows at the bottom of your feet.
When you feel fully connected to your abdomen and your feet, from the perspective of your body, connect to your busy mind and reconnect it to your groundedness. As your awareness now moves upward, remember that your awareness resides in your heart and your heart connects all the parts of your being and connects you to the beings around you and spirit.
Once you have connected feet, abdomen, busy mind and heart, through the heart doorway, connect to nature around you—a tree, or plants nearby. If you’re somewhere where it feels like there’s no plants nearby, open yourself to their presence. It might be a weed surviving in a sidewalk crack. If you really can’t connect with a plant around you, take your awareness to your favorite tree or plant somewhere else.
Try to do this for as long as you can, even if it’s just a few moments while stuck in traffic. Ideally set aside time in nature and really savor the connectedness.
Oils that are helpful for this grounding exercise: Rose Attar, Ruh Khus (Wild Vetiver), Galbanum, Juniper hydrosol, Sandalwood.