A Life On The Ground

Parker Palmer

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Question: ... the idea of having “a life on the ground”. Can you expand on what that means to you?

That brings back a really important moment in my journey with depression, and in my life journey. I was seeing this therapist about my depression, and he listened to me for quite a long time. And finally, after the seventh or eighth meeting, he said, “If I could mirror something back to you, Parker, it seems to me that you are imagining depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you” … which is indeed how it felt. But he said, “Would it be possible for you to image depression as the hand of a friend trying to press you down to the ground on which it’s safe to stand?” He was a very wise man and a good therapist. He didn’t give me a lecture; he just sort of planted that image with me. And I think he trusted that I could work with it, which I did. And we talked about it more in the subsequent weeks and months.

What I came to understand is this: I had been living ‘at altitude’, and I remember trying to identify the ways in which I had been doing that. I was living at altitude because of my ego, which wanted to be at the top of the tower. I was living at altitude because of my intellect, which wanted to think its way through everything, and you can’t think your way out of depression. I was living at altitude because of my high ethic, which wasn’t coming from inside of me; it was just a bag full of ‘oughts’ that were inherited from God knows where. And I was living at altitude because of some misunderstandings I had about spirituality being sort of a Superman “up, up and away” kind of thing.

Well, that’s a lot of altitude that I’ve just named. I was probably in the stratosphere at that point, where the oxygen is very thin. It’s not fit for human life. But the big point is that if you live ‘at altitude’ and you trip and fall, as we all do on a pretty regular basis, you have a long, long way to fall, and you might kill yourself.

Depression can sometimes be imagined, especially depressions that end in suicide, as falling a long, long way down. But if the spiritual quest is to get your feet on the ground, and the intellectual quest is to use your mind on the ground, and the ethical quest is to find those values that come up through your own root system, and you really keep working with your ego, to keep it from making you into a gas balloon, and you live on the ground, then you can fall down ten times a day and not kill yourself. You can get up, dust yourself off and proceed. And that image stayed with me in a really, really helpful way.

Years ago I studied the work of Paul Tillich, the great theologian, when I was in my 20s at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and was too young to understand what he was talking about. For Tillich, the image of God was ‘the ground of our being’. I think I understand now why those are important words. It’s groundedness that I think we’re all seeking; solid ground under our feet.

Excerpted from this interview.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion that the goal of a spiritual quest is to get our feet on the ground? Can you share a personal story of a time you were able to close the distance between you and the ground? What helps you be aware of your altitude?

Add Your Reflection:

11 Previous Reflections:

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    On Sep 21, 2021 Amy wrote:
    Idon't think I've ever had a problem with "altitude". Ironically, I fear/"am allergic to" altitude (of attitude). I was born grounded ... by DNA and life experience. The fact that I am but dust (most especially my brain) was fully understood and instilled in my formative years ... and remains today. My personal spiritual quest is what turned my life around. I met my Father God, Savior Jesus and Power in Holy Spirit. In Him, my dust became special!

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    On Sep 21, 2021 Patrick wrote:
    Such a vitally, life-saving perspective on the deep, dark nights of the soul in depression. I have been one of the fortunate ones to experience the spiritual depth and hence life of this "grounding", including ending my own life. We must share this truth, this love, as "wounded healers". }:- a.m.

    1 reply: Jo | Post Your Reply
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    On Sep 21, 2021 Sherry G Skillwoman wrote:
    Life on Life's terms

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    On Sep 21, 2021 Pauline Laurent wrote:
    When I was severely depressed and suicidal, I was drawn to Armstrong Woods in Guerneville, CA. I would walk there among the giant Redwood and feel as if I were in a cathedral. I went there frequently when I was writing my healing book, Grief Denied A Vietnam Widows Story. The Redwoods held me as I entered the abyss of my denied grief and I recovered my innocence, long lost to the traumas of my life. 

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    On Sep 21, 2021 PIUS THEKEMURY wrote:
    Reflecting on it, I got the image of a monkey jumping from one tree to another, landing on the branch of a dry tree. It was really dry and also brittle, and it broke. The monkey landed on a lower branch, and that also broke. Three or four branches broke and finally, the monkey landed on the ground, and said to itself: "Now I can confidently fall down"

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    On Sep 21, 2021 Julia Lofness wrote:
    In her Introductory Wisdom School course, Cynthia Bourgeault'sgrounding refrain is, "Where are your feet?" Asking myself this when I am "at altitude" caught in worry, fear, spinning stories, etc, helps me toimmediately return to solid ground and the present moment.

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    On Sep 18, 2021 David Doane wrote:
    I believe the statement that we are in the world but not of it. Being only grounded in the world you lose your spiritual groundedness and essence, you are consumed by the world and you lose (awareness of) your soul. Being just (aware of) spiritual, you're not part of this world, you're out of it and irrelevant to this world. The 'goal' of my spiritual quest in this life is to live and balance in the world and not of it. There are times I am aware of being in the world and not of it, and I live in and from that reality, grounded to some extent in both, totally in neither and not totally out of either. During those times I am at peace and satisfied. Knowing this and having at times experienced it helps me be aware of my altitude, be aware of whether I am too high or too low, too in the world or too out of it.

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    On Sep 17, 2021 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    For me as a human being, all quests-intellectual, ethical, and spiritual- are important. Intellectual quest without being bound by ego is important for thinking and for processing my thoughts and emotions andto understand me, others and the world. Moral or ethicalquest without "oughts" is important for me to walk on the moral path. The spiritual quest is essentialfor knowing and realizing my true nature, who or what I am.. In this state I do not feel bound by my own self-created"altitude". This is the state of unitive consciousness in which otherstates with "attitude"get dissolved. I feel grounded and connected with existence, the "being". Spiritual practices keep me grounded in what is and relate to what is rather than my own fabrications of the reality. I feel free fom my self-createdprison and self-ignorance. In deep meditation state I experiencethe distance between me and the ground going away and I realize that at the core of our being, we ... [View Full Comment] For me as a human being, all quests-intellectual, ethical, and spiritual- are important. Intellectual quest without being bound by ego is important for thinking and for processing my thoughts and emotions andto understand me, others and the world. Moral or ethicalquest without "oughts" is important for me to walk on the moral path. The spiritual quest is essentialfor knowing and realizing my true nature, who or what I am.. In this state I do not feel bound by my own self-created"altitude". This is the state of unitive consciousness in which otherstates with "attitude"get dissolved. I feel grounded and connected with existence, the "being".

    Spiritual practices keep me grounded in what is and relate to what is rather than my own fabrications of the reality. I feel free fom my self-createdprison and self-ignorance. In deep meditation state I experiencethe distance between me and the ground going away and I realize that at the core of our being, we all are one. As the great theologian Paul Tillich says," the ground of being."

    It has taken a good amount time to know who I am. Remaining awake when I go into the sleep of delusion and working on what makes me fall asleep has been very helpful to me. The challenge for me is not to go back to "sleep". Self-awareness is the key to stay on "the ground of being." Getting feedback from my own selfand from others is also helpful to me for walking on the spiritual path.
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave'





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    1 reply: Valerie | Post Your Reply
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    On Sep 17, 2021 susan schaller wrote:
    Such an apt description of the depression I used to fall into all my youth. Reminds me of a verse in the Tau te Ching about fear and hope being hollow, attached to ego/self: Whether we climb up the ladder or down, we are unsteady. We need both feet on the ground for stability.

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