In my prior book The Deep Heart, I suggested that the world’s great religious and secular pilgrimages, ranging from Mecca to the John Muir trail in the high Sierras, are the outer forms of an inner pilgrimage of attention that wants to unfold from the head to the heart. We all have a subtle yet profound pull to live more from our hearts – the center of love, compassion, gratitude, freedom, and silent wisdom – and less from our heads. Yet to live a truly heart-centered life, we must feel safe and inwardly stable. As a result, to live from the heart in a deep and steady way, we must also know our deep ground.
I have been exploring the relationship between the heart and the ground for decades both as a depth psychotherapist, now retired, as well as a spiritual teacher. I once thought that I could write a single volume about both, but each subject is so rich and complex that they deserve books of their own. I’ve devoted chapters to the theme of the ground in ‘In Touch and The Deep Heart’. Here I’ve taken the space to fully unpack this crucially important subject.
Why is the ground so important? In my experience, it is where most spiritual explorers – beginners and veterans – get stuck, often unknowingly. The ground is largely terra incognita – an unknown territory. There is enormous resistance to exploring it. Like the fanciful maps made by early ocean explorers, there may be dragons there.
What are these apparent dragons that hold us back from fully landing right here in the middle of our beautiful, challenging, poignant lives and opening to what is? Survival fear and ignorance. We are deeply wired to survive and we are deeply confused about where our essential safety lies.
Survival fear – the fear of physical and psychological annihilation – takes many forms. We try to control what we cannot: ourselves, others, and the world. We also fear the loss of this illusory control. As a result, we live with a chronic inner grip of tension. We lose touch with our bodies and overly rely on our thinking. We deny and distract. We cling to the familiar and avoid the unknown. We believe untrue and unkind stories about ourselves and the world. We try to connect to and belong with others in ways that are superficial, inauthentic, and unfulfilling. We project both our dark and luminous shadows onto others. Above all, we forget who we are and take ourselves to be separate from the whole of life. The list is long, compelling, widely shared, and largely unconscious.
Further, most religious and spiritual traditions reinforce our resistance to opening to the ground and experientially facing our survival fears. Most of these traditions focus on the upper half of the body and accent developing the mind or the heart area. The lower half of the body, with its instinctual tendencies of power, sex, and survival, is largely devalued or ignored.
There is, however, a growing recognition in contemplative spiritual circles that the region of the belly must be included if we are to authentically embody our spiritual understanding so that it impacts our relationships, work, and care for the planet which is in increasingly dire straits. This brings us to the theme of the “hara” which means belly in Japanese. The hara or gut ranges from the solar plexus to the base of the spine. When I first contemplated writing this book, I thought it would be about the hara, which is described in Taoism and Japanese martial arts such as Aikido. But I soon realized that it was actually the lowest level of the hara – the base of the spine – that was my real subject. In terms of the body, this is where terror localizes. This is where it feels like the rug gets pulled out from under us. This is where we either connect to or cut off from our sense of the ground.
When I write about the ground I am referring to the felt-sense of support and stability that lies beneath the body. Our deepest ground is underground. There are different levels to this sense of being grounded. On one level – the most obvious one – we feel rooted in and connected to the earth. Our bodies are earth-bodies and we are able to feel this earthy connection. Another level, less frequented, is archetypal. Here we may be pulled down into an underground realm on a mythic journey. Soulful rituals, vision quests, extraordinary dreams, and the guided use of plant medicine can sometimes induce contact with this powerful realm. There is a deeper level yet – the ground of being or the groundless ground. Here we open to unbounded openness.
There is also a false ground – the ground of the apparent separate self. This ground is a contraction, a frozen place, much like a thin layer of ice over a pond. As a separate self, we can sometimes sense that we are skating on thin ice. This false ground is a chronic grip of inner tension that defends against opening to our true ground. It is a bundle of false beliefs, reactive feelings and somatic contractions that we mis-take to be our self. We unconsciously cling to it because it is familiar, choosing a known suffering over an unknown openness. Finding our true ground almost always requires that we see through this false ground. Seeing through what is false allows a spontaneous letting go and unfolding of what is true.
This approach to the ground may be surprising to some readers since it includes dimensions that are not usually included or combined. It involves a blend of contemporary depth psychotherapy, energetic sensitivity, and nondual understanding based upon direct experience. In my view, at least one of these important dimensions often gets left out of teachings about spiritual development. My psychotherapeutic understanding comes from over four decades of practicing adult individual psychotherapy as well as from supervising and training masters level counseling students for twenty-three years. My energetic sensitivity first emerged in late boyhood and blossomed once I began a regular meditation practice and started working with clients. My nondual understanding unfolded after many years of meditation and self-inquiry and was catalyzed by years of close study first with the European sage Jean Klein and then with the American spiritual teacher Adyashanti.
This article is based on excerpts taken from a forthcoming manuscript by John Prendergast tentatively titled The Deep Ground.
In the course Opening to the Ground with John Prendergast, we will explore different levels of the ground: personal, archetypal, and universal. This exploration allows for a different way of knowing to spontaneously unfold. As we face our personal and existential fears, we find our ground. Learn More Here.
John J. Prendergast, Ph.D. is the author of The Deep Heart and In Touch, and the senior editor of The Sacred Mirror and Listening from the Heart of Silence.More Posts by John Prendergast