Embracing Groundlessness

Photo by NASA

If we practice long and deeply enough, we eventually get a glimpse of what some mindfulness teachers have termed “groundlessness”. It’s the dawning realization that emerges, through practice, that there really is no certainty, no solidity, and no fixity in our lives – no ground for us to stand on.

As we observe the mind, we notice its randomness and capriciousness. We discover that many of our assumptions and beliefs are pretty flimsy. This leads to asking deeper questions about who we are, why we’re here, and where we’re going – questioning things we once took for granted and seeing through things that once seemed solid.

For some, encountering groundlessness initially brings a sense of unsettledness or even fear. Losing the ground beneath us can feel like the stuff of our primordial nightmares (Alrecht, K., 2007), such as the fear of annihilation, loss of integrity of identity or bodily structure, abandonment or isolation, and engulfment or loss of autonomy – the fear of losing our selves. These are fears that can become obstacles to our practice when unexamined. In our efforts to avoid these fears, our instinctive reaction is often to fight, flee or freeze up. The experience may be so unsettling to some, that the guidance of an experienced teacher or even a therapist may be needed. With the appropriate guidance, the development of inner resources, and an attitude of patience and kindness, we can begin to face and accept these fears – and the result can be greater ease and freedom.

What we often fail to recognize about our fears is that, even when we enlist our strongest defenses, some of our fears are already here and some are merely an illusion. Annihilation is inevitable – we all will die one day, our bodies will disintegrate, our minds will cease to function, and eventually, not even a memory of us will remain on Earth. Being part of a vast and complicated ecosystem without which we cannot survive, we are already engulfed and our autonomy is incomplete at best. In addition, there is no way we can truly be abandoned, except by ourselves, because we are all together in our groundlessness. And as part of a complex ecosystem, our very existence proves that we are not alone. Yet, we find ourselves expending great energy in futile avoidance efforts that may cause us even more suffering than we might experience otherwise. If we choose instead to embrace our fears when we’re ready to do so, we will start to encounter the truth in this.

So if we’re already free falling, why not learn to tumble, float, or fly? If there is no ground, there’s nowhere to crash – only spaciousness, limitlessness, and freedom.

Since we live in a conventional world of cause and effect, we do benefit from relying on some structure, some sort of rule of thumb, to help us make wiser decisions. And we can always return to the ground of the present moment through mindfulness of the senses. The problem is, we tend to take our playbooks too seriously. We over-generalize the “rules” or apply them too rigidly. We may demand that everything conform to our expectations and preferences, and then feel angry or disappointed when they inevitably don’t.

Through mindfulness, we come to recognize the ground we stand on is largely constructed on myths and best guesses. Through experimentation and a gradual softening and opening to what is, we develop courage and greater trust in ourselves and our experience. We become more flexible, less invested in our conditioning, and more willing to be with ambiguity. In this way we are able to see things more clearly, make choices that are in better alignment with how things really are, and allow things to unfold or take more skillful action as needed.

This is what silence said to me today:

Trust what you can’t see. Move forward
despite the wobbly groundlessness
of I don’t know. Breathe, love, create, show up
as you are, everyday—no matter what. Go
to where wild irises grow. Say thank you
for all of it—weeds
cracks, sunbeams, that hand on your shoulder—
the forever throb of ache

it’s all
a doorway—a hand leading you back
to grace.

Julia Fehrenbacher


Albrecht, K. (2007). Practical Intelligence: the Art and Science of Common Sense. New York: Wiley

2 replies
  1. Mark
    Mark says:

    This is all very new to me as I got into mindfulness to sleep better. I sort of stumbled into becoming enlightened (glimpses, more and more frequent and on demand but still most time is still “with the self”). Once I realized the self was an illusion and free will followed as it’s essentially the same thing. Then when introduced to emptiness it seemed easy to see it. But it is unsettling. I am sort of all over the place on practices but it’s like I can’t stop it. The door is opening whether I want it to or not. Does this sound crazy?


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