A few weeks ago, on a morning walk, I came across a spectacular carpet of morning glories. Otherwise known as bindweed, these marshmallow pink flowers grow rapaciously on scrubby ground in the summer months. True to their name, they are open and most glorious first thing, when the sun is up; by the afternoon they have folded in a tight pink whorl, waiting for the next beams of morning light. In gardens they are often uprooted, but if left undisturbed in farmland and hedgerows, they will roam over the ground without limit, like a green and pink web of delights for visiting bees and butterflies.
There was no other way to appreciate these ground-dwellers on a glorious morning: I sat down on the sun-baked earth, and settled in to watch the flowers and their visitors. Slowly but surely, peace, like the beetles, crept over me.
When we think of going to ground, it often has a fearful quality. We think of how rabbits disappear into their burrows at approaching footsteps, or a mouse bolts below the skirting boards. Indeed, with no burrow in sight, it is a profoundly animal pattern to drop to the ground in times of terror or distress: think of how a gazelle cornered by a lion will freeze, and fall.
Humans are just the same. In a moment of shock, we crumble to our knees, or say, “I need to lie down.” In Eat Pray Love, the writer Elizabeth Gilbert describes how during the years of the breakdown of her marriage, she spent nights on the bathroom floor. The ground offers us something: as I wrote a few weeks back, even being in contact with it through walking activates the pressure receptors in the soles of the feet, helping to meet the body’s neurological need for touch.
To see what the ground gives back, you might watch how that gazelle, apparently felled, can bolt for freedom at the predator’s momentary inattention; how a human’s blood pressure rights, as they fold to the floor in a faint (ouch); how Gilbert’s prayers on the floor opened her to a guiding voice within. Going to ground gives us time. It allows us to replenish. Indeed, given the time of year, and your need for a holiday, many of you as you read this may actually be horizontal – or wish you were.
But the ground is not only palliative. As the dancers among you will attest, our bodies’ relationship with the earth is also the source of some of the most beautiful forms of art. Watch a contemporary dancer roll and lift from the ground, in a seamless wave of motion; or a Cuban salsera, or a tap dancer. You will see how going to ground does not only restore us to baseline: it makes new and rather wonderful things possible.
Here, then, is some ground beneath your feet this week.
1. GRAIN, for hard times
I’ve introduced Tara Brach’s RAIN practice to you before as a way of responding wisely to fear, worry, and illness. The practice’s four stages – Recognise, Allow, Investigate, Nurture – are a very helpful way of using your attention to explore and tend to the experience of stress.
Sometimes, however, if distress is acute, or RAIN is unfamiliar as a practice, it is difficult for us to move attentively through this process without losing the thread, or getting sucked into the worry. My colleague from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, Chris Cullen, talks about the value of Grounding first, by sensing the feet on the floor, and the seat on the chair. This allows the mind to begin to shift mode out of the fight-flight response. Indeed, once you have grounded, and are moving through RAIN, you might return the attention to the feet and the seat, in between its stages, to help steady the attention as you explore the practice.
In particularly sticky moments, simply attend for a few minutes to the soles of the feet on the floor, and the sit-bones on the chair. FOFBOC – succinctly standing for feet on floor, bum on chair – was developed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project, as a brief practice to help teenagers’ minds to settle at the beginning of class. It’s a great one to do regularly, so that the attention learns to settle in these places, and your ground is ready and waiting in the moments you need it.
2. Your head in the clouds
Leaving the ground can be one of the most exhilarating experiences known to humans. Think of the plane taking off to a faraway land, the phrase flight of fancy, the rollercoaster, the simple pleasure of climbing a tree. There is a reason that the penthouse is the preferred floor.
Extraordinary things can happen when we go up. But we also sense, with animal blood in our veins, that leaving the ground carries a risk to it. Those who are afraid of flying, who prefer the stairs to the lift, are in touch with this very basic fear. The idea of strange and frightening things happening when we go too high appears across literature; think of Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre’s attic, or the vicious Knids in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Dahl, who was an RAF pilot during the Second World War, was well aware of what can happen in the sky.
From a cognitive perspective, one of the most interesting facets of creative thought is that it takes what is already here, and transforms it into something new. Creativity is literally grounded. The plane depends on the ground, and must return to it, to take off once more – otherwise, at some point, it will find itself running on fumes.
So use FOFBOC – not just when you are stressed and low, but at work, or play, when the adrenaline begins to peter. Take your project on a walk, and feel your feet on the ground. Dance out your energy, and feel, like the dancers do, the heels and balls of the feet, and the sense of a shuffle or spin.
We see and feel things differently from the ground. From a cognitive perspective, we shift in mode. We gain insight into problems, whether of heart or mind. When we have our feet on the ground, they support our head in the clouds. Like the contemporary dancers, we can create something new, and beautiful.
Kitty’s weekly mindfulness virtual drop-in, the MindLetter, consists of an email with a suggested practice, theme, and article or podcast episode for reflection, to explore in your own time. Email email@example.com to subscribe.
Photography: Kitty Wheater; Sam Sills