In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had the great good fortune to learn to meditate with several remarkable teachers. By then, I had already spent over a decade integrating aspects of more than 30 different personal change systems into my psychotherapy practice. During all that time, however, grounding was only ever vaguely mentioned in passing and mindfulness not at all.
Jon Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness meditation to prominence in the Western world by actively teaching it in the USA from the early 1970s. With its early origins in the Buddhism of the 5th Century BCE, Kabat-Zinn brilliantly adapted mindfulness practices for people in the modern world, initially in medical settings. These patients needed help with stress reduction in particular. Today, as its increasing use cascades around the world, huge numbers of people continue to take it up in all sorts of settings for helping with many different conditions and outcomes.
As a signal of its expansion, a Google search a moment ago (May 2016) yielded 3,670.000 references to “mindfulness meditation” in 0.38 seconds. “Mindfulness” scored 40,400,000 in 0.36 seconds.
Probably as a result of this massive expansion, in the last few years, many practices once called meditation are now being called mindfulness. Hopefully, this change will not sideline the many millions of other valuable meditation practices that are available. For meditation has roots that go back as much as 15,000 years. Another Google search, this time on the word “meditation” yielded 153,000,000 results in 0.45 seconds, which adds weight to my assertion that mindfulness meditation does not cover the full range of available meditative possibilities.
We could live to regret it if people practicing mindfulness meditation miss the excellent contribution to humankind that many other types of meditation have contributed to us for so long. In fact, opportunities to integrate a great many of these practices with mindfulness exist and both could enrich each other. Grounding is a good example of this.
The Grounding Meditation
Back in the mid-1970s in Australia, my interest in grounding was sparked as I listened to a very distressed woman describing her problems. The way she spoke was not helping. In fact, it aggravated her distress to the extent that she was so overwhelmed as she told her story that she was no longer aware of me sitting with her.
I interrupted her by getting her to look at me and to see me as she did. Doing this was a significant departure from what I would previously have done and I was a little puzzled about my doing it. At the same time, I was immediately encouraged as she began to calm down. And, as I persisted, I had an important insight: Her connection to the outside world and me was through all five of her senses, not just her eyes.
This understanding prompted me to get her to listen to the traffic noise outside the window, to touch various things within her reach and to feel her weight on the seat under her. These days I might also give her something sweet or sour to suck to stimulate tastes and smells.
She quickly became even calmer, more alert and more aware of me and her surroundings.
And for the rest of the session, each time she started her story again and showed any signs of distress, I interrupted to get her to tell me what sensations she was aware of inside her body; and what she could see, hear, touch, taste and smell around her. I also occasionally encouraged her to stand up and move around the room. I reasoned that her moving would both require more attention to the outside and would offer more soothing to the inside, than sitting passively in a chair.
We continued to discuss what was troubling her, for the rest of the session. However, instead of exploring the issues by talking about of them with her, I asked her to report what was happening physically in different parts of her body; as well as what she was aware of happening physically around her. Specifically, I invited her to describe her sensations and to tell me where they were in her body; and to describe the different things she could see, hear, touch, taste and smell. To my delight, this emphasis kept calming her even more, so I persisted until she was completely relaxed. The speed and ease at which she relaxed astounded me.
Near the end of her session, I asked her to think about what had previously been so upsetting to her; and she said, “Oh, that doesn’t matter anymore. I feel fine. And I understand what it was about, too.” Her discomfort had dissolved and her reaction clearly indicated both that she was no longer traumatized by the incident and was resolved and at peace. Such a quick and complete resolution seemed extraordinary to me, so I pressed her a little to check that that she was not pretending to herself. She continued to remain emotionally calm and physically relaxed.
In subsequent sessions, her peacefulness, acceptance and resolution of the original issue continued. This outcome was an incredible surprise to me, as expressing feelings and problem-solving were previously the mainstays of my psychotherapeutic interventions.
The Next Steps
My success with this client prompted me to explore the process with all my clients. Calling it “grounding,” I quickly learned that there are several crucial aspects for the success of this remarkably therapeutic process. They included:
- Awareness and acceptance of whatever sensations accompanied the subjective experiences people were having, experiences such as feelings, thoughts, impulses, desires, memories, hopes and dreams.
- The best results came from gently encouraging people to tell me what sensations they were having and where they were in their bodies. I would interrupt them to do this, even as they talked about whatever was troubling them. Examples of sensations included: hot or cold, tight or loose, flowing or stuck, painful or pleasant, dark or light, tingling or numb, noisy or quiet and sweet or sour. For example, “I feel a dull tightness in my chest and tingling in my arms and legs.”
- At the same time, while exploring such inner processes, I continually encouraged clients to remain physically aware of their surroundings. I would often ask them to describe in detail what they were seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or smelling. It was not always necessary to go through all five. While they described their surroundings, I also encouraged them to remain aware of their inner sensations. It did not matter if this distracted them from what they had been discussing.
This dual awareness and its physical nature were the keys. It was clear that physical alertness to the inside and outside of the body worked together to bring about the incredible balance and resolution I was repeatedly observing.
With this new way of working, my overall goal quickly expanded from solving specific problems to helping my clients to realize general resolution, balance, ease, release, happiness, peace, joy, aliveness and completion; and to develop understanding, insight and integration of their personal issues. This change of direction was a natural outcome of what grounding made possible with people. The process repeatedly produced these results, often very quickly and deeply. By using grounding for myself, I benefited from the process too!
If you are familiar with mindfulness meditation, you will almost certainly recognize the similarities of some mindfulness practices with what I encouraged my clients to do. For, as with mindfulness, grounding requires that we notice our awareness, accept it and persistently remain aware of it while allowing any changes to take their course as we do.
An important difference is that with grounding we actively embrace and encourage ourselves to live the fullness of our experiences. We engage rather than simply witness. By doing this, we can repeatedly discover that our systems digest what we are going through; and bathe us in ideal resolutions that seem to arise in us as if they have only been waiting for us to ground ourselves to discover them.
The Grounding Process
In summary, physical awareness is essential. Grounding depends on our having combined physical awareness of:
- Our bodily sensations
- The physical situations and events occurring around us using our five senses and
- Our inner and outer awareness at the same time.
While a natural process, paying attention physically to internal and external experiences is not always easy at first. We have learned not to do this, so most people need to learn and this takes persistence because it involves changing old habits of awareness and perception.
Fundamental emotional, cognitive and spiritual resolution of the sort to which I am referring here, are accompanied by the stable states of physical ease and balance already mentioned. Grounding helps to produce the necessary relaxation, inner peace and balance. The absence of these conditions arises because as we grow through childhood and adulthood, our bodies become “silted up” with the energy from undigested experiences: unresolved feelings, traumas, limited patterns for dealing with crises and more. As the energy from such experiences accumulates the body become less supple, muscles and tendons carry more tension than is required for living life well, etc.
These outcomes develop when, for whatever reason, we have been unable to process and release the energy attempting to flow through our bodies out into the world around us. We hold in our tears, anger, fear, etc.; withhold our feelings instead of expressing them; block ourselves from talking to people who have wronged us or we have hurt; keep rerunning past slights; repress our thoughts, feelings and impulses, etc. As a remedy, grounding promotes our natural inner flow with the behavior that would also have been natural and grounded in the first place had we responded as needed. Furthermore, it digests in the present whatever has collected in our systems.
The energy from our feelings, emotions, thoughts and bodily processes does accumulate like this. Bodily tension is what initially holds this vital force in; and with enough repetition, the inflexibility, muscle tension and “closedness” becomes set in what is called “body armoring.” This rigidity is what blocks the natural flow that would have relieved us during the original events had we acted congruently with what we were feeling and experiencing then and allowed the energy to flow through our bodies and out into the world.
Moving the body is a natural way to encourage a flow that will release this armoring. In other words, we can deliberately move to release blocks and clear silt, so the armoring will soften, the blockages will dissolve and the vital force will flow again. We do this by standing up and moving around or sequentially flexing then relaxing different parts of our bodies while sitting, standing or walking around. Sometimes spontaneous movements arise. If they do, staying grounded is the way to handle them. They are also a reliable sign that significant change is occurring.
Understanding movement in this way has implications for people who stay completely still or only move in minor ways while meditating.
Benefits of Grounding
The benefits are both general and specific.
- Whenever you are feeling happy, loving, secure or fulfilled, grounding spreads, maintains and intensifies these experiences.
- When you feel sad, scared, angry, anxious or discomforted in some other way, grounding helps to dissolve or digest these experiences, replacing them with ease and balance.
- Sustained groundedness also clears collected discomforts, difficulties, recurring challenges, disturbing thoughts or memories and releases us into enduring states of well-being.
- Grounding helps deal with disturbing thoughts or feelings. Using it regularly will gradually produce lasting inner equilibrium. Remember to connect your inner and outer
- Perhaps there is some past incident about which you have repeating memories. Grounding can help. Each time you remember, ground yourself well and continue to do so until you experience the release. As time passes, so will your discomfort.
- By intensifying your groundedness during a delightful meal or when listening to beautiful music, find how your delights increase. In fact, you can use grounding to expand all enjoyment and excitement in your life.
- You can also use it in any challenging situation: during an interview with the boss, the speech to a group of strangers, the exam or test, the feared situation, during an anxiety or “panic” attack. All can become at least manageable and even enjoyable with grounding.
- You can use grounding to strengthen and balance you as you cope with the difficulties and challenges of your life.
It is as if grounding invites a profoundly wise and potent healer-adviser with thousands of years of experience to take care of us. The process enables us to call on the release, empathic understanding and resolution of this precious resource.
Interestingly, the most grounded people in a situation often seem to determine the outcomes that occur, because they are anchored securely in the I-Am-Here-&-Now. Noticing our sensations gives us an experience of “I-Am” (of the self) and an internal experience of “Now;” and awareness of the physical world provides us with a sense of “Here-&-Now.” Many people don’t live with this ongoing awareness, which limits the power available to them.
There are many mindfulness meditation teachers these days and, as with most other forms of meditation, just as many different descriptions of what to emphasize and what to avoid.
Mindfulness meditation can involve:
- Cultivating awareness of what is current (thoughts, feelings, memories,)
- Paying attention to the sensations in our bodies
- Noticing what we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell around us
- Accepting what we are aware of without judgment
- Sustaining our awareness as it unfolds without trying to change it
- Keeping still or restricting movement unless doing a mindful walking meditation
- Paying attention to our breathing.
The context in which we meditate is significant, too; different locations often stimulate changes of emphasis according to the different purposes and outcomes we seek.
Combining Grounding and Mindfulness
Clearly, there is some overlap between the two meditations. However, there are significant differences that produce value from each to the other. Fortunately, experienced mindfulness meditators can learn to do the grounding at the same time by adding its steps one at a time. Also, as they add them, do only a little of what is involved in each one and gradually expand this.
For example, many people are significantly unaware of the way only paying attention energizes our systems and intensifies our reactions. The result for some meditators is an intensifying of their feelings and their awareness of that intensity. Inexperienced people can become alarmed by this.
Grounding is an asset here: we encourage ourselves to experience open to and accept their physical sensations and to pay close attention to their surroundings (seeing, listening, touching, tasting and smelling). NOTE: The contact with the outside needs to be as intense as the feelings. When they match and we connect the two by holding them both in our awareness, immediate relief accompanied by resolution usually arises.
While grounded, living your experiences, not just observing them, involves deliberately opening yourself to and becoming saturated by those experiences.
Remember, too, that sitting still during meditation often clogs up the body and inhibits the flow of Life Energy. When we sit rigidly, it is as if our bodies become denser, more tense, cloudy and strained. Some meditators who hold themselves still often look closed down. It is as if they deliberately keep themselves still so as to mute their experiences or to withdraw into themselves in some way, instead of cultivating their exquisite presence.
Moving is the solution to this. The nature of the movement can vary from relaxed and very subtle rocking or shifting or limbs etc. to standing and limbering up or walking around. Such mild action is often enough. However, some people, who are particularly armored, may need more.
Sit to do your mindfulness meditation and as you meditate:
- Notice whatever is happening inside you
- Accept it by relaxing your body into what you experience and allow it to do whatever unfolds.
- Move your body from time to time: for example, rock gently, shift position, stretch your arms up or lean forward.
- These movements can be slight, so small as not to disturb your mindfulness; or they can be large enough to involve much of your body.
- Such physical activity is not intended to be continual; simply a way of loosening up muscles, releasing joints and encouraging the flow of energy in different parts of your body.
- The movements are chosen to impact that areas discomfort, congestion or tension.
- Also, you can pay attention to your surroundings: listen, look, touch, taste or smell them; without interfering with your mindfulness. In fact, mindfully paying attention is optimal.
- Blend your consciousness with what you experience internally; you are not merely observing it, you have become it.
- Mindfully merge your sensate awareness of the inside with your sensory awareness of the outside.
Thousands of people meditate in a combined mindfulness/grounded way. It is well worth learning how to do this. A recording of The Grounding Meditation that teaches the process is available on iTunes. More information is also available in Inspiration, Meditation, and Personal Wellbeing: A Practical Guide to Balanced Living written by Ken Mellor, which is available on Kindle and in paperback.
About the Author:
Ken Mellor is a Board Member of Meditation Association Australia, registered in the Personal Development, Clinical and Spiritual categories in the Association. He is also a Clinical Member of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, a Teaching and Supervising Member (Clinical) of the International Transactional Analysis Association and a registered member of the Australian Association of Social Workers. Aspects of his work are available in more than 30 languages. You can contact Ken Mellor at the following email address: