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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

Grounding the Person

by John Lawson 1997, 2006 

    There are two basic ways that the process of grounding personal energy can be understood: one is physical, the other is mental.  Since mental processes are rooted in the body and bodily processes are experiential in nature, the two aspects of grounding are really one.  When we talk of being grounded in reality, we mean that an individual is both psychologically balanced and physically stable.  This ideal is expressed in the Latin phrase: mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body).  While the attainment of this ideal is made difficult by the stresses of life, it is important not to lose sight of the desirability of such a state.  Fortunately, there are practical means to assist us in moving our lives in a healthier, more grounded direction.
    The concept of grounding was introduced into the theory of personal growth work, or functional therapy, by Alexander Lowen, who was a student of Wilhelm Reich.  Lowen's use of the term "grounding" refers to the condition of establishing a firm contact with reality and maintaining a down-to-earth outlook on life.  On a somatic level, this means achieving a sense of having one's feet on the ground and of being in one's lower body.  The opposite of being "grounded" is being "hung up."  This condition results when we lack a firm sensory awareness of ourselves.  We then live in our heads, and we fabricate an idealized, "elevated" self-image to compensate for the insecurity that comes from not being rooted in our natural functioning.  This leads to a split in our personality and to talk of a "higher" and a "lower" self. 
    The split between a higher and a lower self results in an exaggerated emphasis on either the spiritual or the material world.  In such circumstances, the body loses its spiritual quality, and the spirit becomes disembodied.  In either case, the person who is not grounded becomes hung up on his or her self-image.  We can see this condition reflected in the prevailing cultural and social order.  In advertising and entertainment, as well as in politics and religion, the emphasis is on attempting to go higher and higher, to reach new peaks, to be the "best that we can be," to break records, to achieve success, to attain power, to stay young, and to live forever, if possible.  If Lowen's analysis is correct, however, "what goes up must come down."  The infatuation with unlimited success and power and with attaining the heights betokens an underlying trend toward collapse, deflation, and depression.   
    Given the dynamics of the situation, it should not come as a surprise that many people feel a sense of despair beneath the mask of contentment.  Those who are in touch with their despair, paradoxically, are more  fortunate than those who identify with the mask; for they recognize within themselves a state of dissatisfaction.  This state of dissatisfaction can act as a motivating force for constructive personal change.  Such change can lead in the direction of more rewarding values and a renewed gratification in life based on a deeper identification with genuine human impulses.  What are the stumbling blocks along this path?
    The main obstacle is anxiety.  In working with people in a professional setting, I have learned of some of the fears that individuals face in dealing with change.  For each person, there is a unique and personal quality to the apprehension that is felt; but always there is a fear of genuine self-awareness and self-expression, and in all cases that fear is rooted in a basic sense of insecurity.  Such insecurity make take the form of a fear of abandonment or a fear of loss of self-control.*  A person may be afraid of ending up on skid row or of incurring society's wrath and landing in jail. A person may fear a diminution of self-esteem or an onslaught of humiliation, rejection, and self-hate.  Whatever the particular concern, the anxiety stems from a lack of basic security.  The challenge in dealing with an individual's anxieties in the context of personal growth work becomes one of assisting the person to develop the capacity to take reasonable risks.  How is this to be accomplished?
    The answer to this question is that the individual must become better grounded in reality.  This means that realistic distinctions must be made between anxieties that are genuinely relevant to current dangers and anxieties that are misplaced or exaggerated.  It pays to remember that, on occasion, individuals have drowned in only a few feet of water.  In these instances, they felt so much panic that they did not think to put their feet on the ground.  Had they been able to confront and contain their anxiety, they would not have gone under.  Instead, they would have touched bottom.  They then would have been able to stand up and discover that they were not in over their heads after all.  They had merely failed to perceive the reality of the situation.
    The process of grounding oneself in reality is a physical, energetic process.  In today's world, one of the chief complaints that people have is a lack of energy.  To increase one's energy, it is necessary to breathe deeply and to feel deeply.  Consequently, in functional personal growth work, much emphasis is placed on developing the capacity for deeper breathing.  And since restrictions in breathing are related to patterns of chronic muscular tension, or armoring, it is necessary to foster the reduction of these tensions so that greater motility and freedom of movement can result.  But this is not enough; for if a person is to tolerate the increase in energy that comes with better breathing, an enhanced range of movement, and greater structural balance, he must have his feet on the ground.  He must have a sense of being rooted in the earth.  Energetically, this means that the buildup of excitement must be grounded just as, analogously, electricity must be grounded if it is to function productively rather than be discharged randomly and dangerously.
    In Reichian Energetics, there are two principal methods of grounding personal energy.  One involves the use of discussion to establish a realistic perspective on life, and the other entails a somatic approach to assist in opening up channels of energetic flow in the body.  Alexander Lowen, in his published works, has described many specific techniques, and there are others that can be improvised and utilized as needed in given circumstances.  No technique, however, is foolproof.  On one occasion, I worked with an individual who had taken the valid principle of not hyperextending or "locking" the knees as a gospel truth.  She stood and walked with her knees excessively flexed and with a resulting generalized collapse in her upper body.  Noticing this, I asked her to stretch her arms above her head and to extend her knees while breathing deeply for a few minutes.  She found this liberating, yet she felt considerable anxiety.  Part of her anxiety resulted from a sense that she was "breaking the rules."  No rule, however, can provide us with security.  There is a balance that must be struck between rooting oneself in the earth and reaching for the heavens.  Striking that balance is an essential task for human beings, who walk and stand upright and who are, nonetheless, animals by nature.
    Lowen's emphasis on grounding personal experience in reality represents a significant contribution to the understanding of human growth and development, and his ideas in this regard are far-reaching in their implications, both practically and theoretically.  Yet we must not forget the paradox inherent in the subject.  This paradox is expressed in a saying: "Reality - what a concept!"  The point is that it is not always easy to determine what is realistic.  My own view is that in living we are not faced with defining reality but rather with testing reality, and this is an ongoing task.  When we are fully engaged in this task, we are necessarily learning and growing, for reality is not static, any more than life is static.  To be fully engaged in this venture, we need to be grounded, and this means that the roots of our consciousness must be sunk deep into our bodily processes so that our energetic experience is strengthened to the greatest possible extent consistent with healthy personal balance.  In this sense, being grounded does not make us "earth-bound."  Rather, in a culture that is "up in the air" and that invites us to live in our heads, it provides us with a firmer basis for being.  When we have our feet on the ground, we are not left hanging.  We can then reach for what we want in life without inordinate fear of letting go.  We need not be terrorized at the thought of falling, for we have a place to stand.  In other words, we are grounded.

*  At a deep level,  there is a fear of going insane or of dying.  See Alexander Lowen. The Will to Live and the Wish to Die (New York: The International Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis, 1982).

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