On Monday, I’ll be leading a workshop on Grounding, a term for soothing the nervous system.
I first learned about Grounding from my supervisor when I worked at the Blanton-Peale Counseling Center in Manhattan. She had specifically studied ways of healing trauma.
She encouraged me to instruct a particularly distressed patient to “look around the room and just state the colors of the objects that you see.” When animals are stressed by encounters with danger they will sense into their environment. Think of a deer suddenly standing still, tail erect, ears craning for the slightest sound of threat.
At first, I embraced the technique as something to use with patients, but was resistant to using it myself. Surely someone as well-integrated as I am doesn’t need such a pedestrian pacifier, I thought. It is too simple, too basic and I am beyond such primitive devices.
I had spent several years studying the consciousness-altering potential of meditation and assumed that such practices had sufficiently insulated me from the adrenal spikes of life’s slings and arrows.
It is a great relief to no longer hold that position.
If you are human, then you have inherited a nervous system shaped by thousands and millions of years of evolution. As Jordan Peterson writes about in his Maps of Meaning, every time we encounter the unknown, we are confronted with a combination of danger and excitement. Novelty prompts our nervous system to prepare ancient instinctual responses to both threat and windfall. This presents us with a conflict. If the conflict is pronounced enough, we freeze, as contradictory hormones flood our system.
In her book, Creation Myths, Marie-Louise van Franz, a prominent Jungian analyst and scholar, suggest that the ego evolved to manage this kind of impasse. Occasionally animals are possessed by conflicting instinctual urges which can sap energy and immobilize them. The ego interrupts this enervating clash by weighing and selecting from the competing impulses.
Here is where Grounding becomes profound. Modern life is so much more complicated than it was in the past. We are confronted by conflicting impulses many times each day, though they may be subtle and ignored. Every time we have the urge to say something and simultaneously fear speaking our mind, the ego is tasked with choosing which path to follow. Every time we are judged by others based on our presentation, performance, appearance or personality, the ego is challenged to either promote reassurance that it went well, or criticism to troubleshoot and improve. Difficult decisions tax the ego. Surprises, both joyous and tragic, take a toll.
Psychoanalysts talk about ego-strength, the ability of the ego to tolerate psychic discomfort without becoming possessed by a complex or shattering into dissociation. Trauma therapists speak about the “window of tolerance,” the range of experience that the ego can respond to with calm, focused energy. Grounding is a way of strengthening the ego and expanding this window.
Instead of intoxicating bliss, Grounding offers humble, stable okay-ness. It means letting go of the excitement of being overly agitated as well as the indolent stupor of depressed inactivity. It’s a way to keep carrying on, to settle the nervous system in the face of uncertainty. The more you practice Grounding, the more aware you become of how frequently you need it. Thankfully, it’s easy to learn and always available. You can start right now.