We are Grounded

Ground is important to us because we are pressed against it. Ground is what dwellings and furnishings are supported on, so we can say that when we stand on a floor or rest in a chair we are still pressed against the ground. We have merely provided ourselves with a convenient shoe. Ground is what we plant gardens in, and sometimes bury treasure and our dead in.

Being pressed against ground involves first that ground draws us toward its own centre with a force we have come to call gravity. The ground also prevents us from approaching its centre. That exclusion is a general characteristic of ‘material’ objects, manifested in 1) resistance to change in their shape and integrity (resistance to penetration is a form of this) and, 2) resistance to change of place or movement (momentum or inertia). These resistances can be overcome if enough pressure is brought to bear. The effect is our being held at our point of contact on a surface, fetched up against an impenetrable, pressing, presence.


Our own presence on the ground is a body whose material is mostly a translucent jelly, in surroundings that are often hostile or indifferent. Simple survival requires us to defend ourselves against the surroundings, to devise shelter from weather and predators and we have to eat our surroundings to stay alive. That work produces a sense of personal force against the environment, a kinesthetic force of personality, even in the face of weakness from hunger, fatigue, illness, and injury. Some parts of the environment are very good to eat and contribute to that force of personality in being eaten.

Our body of translucent jelly has cores of rigid bone, and sensitive vulnerability. Hold your hand to a strong light, and red and blue blood vessels are visible inside. It is living jelly that springs and vibrates. It is sometimes tough and stringy, sometimes soft and floppy but always changing shape, giving way under gravity, voluntary movements, or touches from outside. In the belly and in large muscle bundles in thighs and shoulders it has liquid qualities. Skin communicates its own surface luster and the shape and structure beneath: muscle bulges around the wands, balls, and sockets of bone, red-blue blood in its pattern of tubes and capillaries, subcutaneous fat. Sometimes the muscle, bone, and skin structure feels like a container for liquid guts and belly organs, deep waters of the body. Thin, tremulous bands of muscle cover those deep waters, holding them in a tough but elastic and sloshing cellular column.

Muscle-Frame Opening

From birth, except for rare occasions when we are falling in open space, we feel the ground pressing on that body. Our skin is sensitive to the pressure and vibration of touch, to textures and temperatures. It might seem that much of our attention throughout life would be directed at warding off such a continuous assault. Yet, it is not so, because we manage to overcome the holding pressure and move. Since we cannot overcome it all at once, like space rockets do, in a great push into orbit, we overcome it in quantities sufficient for a little movement, again and again and again. We adapt the muscle structure of our body to hold ourselves poised on ground against gravity, and as part of that alignment, we adapt part of our body structure, a pair of movable limbs, as a flexible contact capable of pushing against ground with enough force to move away from the point of contact. We make our contacts with ground into a routine, a simple repeatable stepping, that we perform without much attention.

Even more important are sensations of strain that muscles make across joints in the bone frame of the body. A very rich and extensive array of distinctions is available in these sensations. Moving a particular finger is clearly distinguishable from moving a different one, and both are distinguishable from moving a leg or changing the posture of the back. A small movement is precisely distinguishable from a larger one, a slow one from a fast one, a slightly resisted one from a strongly resisted one.

Sensations of muscle-frame tension are sensations of directed pushing against a resistance or holding off a pressure. We sense the solidity of the object upon which we are bearing and the pressure of our body against the object. In ordinary standing we sense in our muscle tension the firmness of the footing and the force with which our body is pressing against that footing, normally the standard force of gravity on the particular mass of our body.

We are moving creatures in our very structure, and, except when we are falling, our movements are resisted by gravity at least, and quite often also by various obstacles. The space outside the surface of ground is largely not occupied by impenetrable presences, so if we propel ourselves in an unoccupied direction we move.

We use ground itself to propel ourselves. By its qualities of (relative) rigidity and immovability, ground provides us with something to push away from in directions we pick. We use it to push against when we want to travel in an open direction, and when we want to stop. This constitutes the region along ground’s surface as space in which we carry on controlled movements and play out our force of personality.

That we have enough leg power to overcome the holding pressure of ground does not negate the continuous presence of that holding pressure. Our overcoming it is not an annihilation of it, nor even a suspension of it. Our overcoming it is always a cost to us. It is an effort in which our vitality is reduced, and it always requires us to make up the reduction with food and rest.

When the only means you have of moving is the power of your own muscles the flat ground virtually rises up around you and closes you off from other places. Ground’s holding pressure constitutes a virtual upward slope, a gradual but important barrier to movement. Because of the costs of moving and barriers in specific directions we are easily marooned, stranded, at a particular place and with the material values of that place. The limits of kinesthetic force, costs of moving, and the resistance of barriers maroon each person at some particular place or locality most of the time. The material particulars of the place determine what becomes of the needs we suffer, what pleasures we have, what shelter we have, and what we are nourished or hurt by.

Down, Up, and Sideways

Ground itself is opaque, so our orientation is mainly lateral to the pressure of ground. Our lines of movement go along the surface rather than into it. Not only do we have to give a lot of attention in the direction of our movement to avoid mishaps, but also the very possibility of moving through a region invites attention there for opportunities, resources, and dangers. We put the continuously pressing presence away from the centre of our attention, but not too far away. In doing so we constitute the direction to the ground as a fixture of our orientation, as “down” and “under”.

Places very near to one another are yet very different in their relative accessibility. Most of us most of the time find ourselves between two great inaccessible regions. Ground itself is one of these and it has in most places a very abrupt beginning, a surface.

The other great region of inaccessibility stands roughly parallel to the surface of the earth and extends in the opposite direction from “down”. It is not marked by a surface but rather a gradual increase in inaccessibility. It is the sky above the surface of the earth. About half the time it is full of light, sometimes glaring, sometimes hazy. When the sky is not full of light it offers a very different spectacle. Given these conditions the portion of the world accessible to us is rather ‘tablet’ shaped on the medium scale, a narrow space between an interesting sort of ceiling and a floor.

Although an individual’s sensitivities and perception are local and anchored at a locality, we are aware of the vastness of the world in which we are placed. We are aware that the vastness we do not see or know may contain and deliver threats and hazards. The moment is always unfinished, never possessed of a fixed essence. There is more to come, which we have a thought (a hand) in creating. We live in that ‘not yet’ as if it were an opening in which we might create a larger, unfolded, form of ourselves. Our questions point us into it. The light of our questions beams into the ‘not yet’ opening, the future.

When momentum does not account for what happens, a person tries to fit events into patterns from subjectivity, assigning subjectivity to otherwise separate and different presences. To recognize intelligence, other than personal subjectivity, is to recognize an entity moved by intuitions of predicament, value, and opportunity, a memory-based sense of the relevance of things, a sense of the future, and problems of achieving presence in the world. It is to distinguish a voice, actions which express desires, judgments, and sensitivities instead of movements due to mechanical momentum. You cannot see or touch another intelligence. You have to sense it in action. For example imitative action, especially mimicry with an original addition, is a declaration and communication of intelligence. Rocks and bushes do not imitate.

We recognize intelligence too much, sensing human-like personalities in the form of gods, ghosts, or spirits ‘behind’ all kinds of natural events and irregular occurrences. The assignment of intelligence to separate beings changes a person’s presence in the world into a being-with these others. Being-with is a sense of having an existence larger than personal privacy, of self-experience as something others might be aware of, share, and possibly meddle in.

When sensing personality outside ourselves we are recognizing questions and intentions that are not our own, and so recognizing other entities acting from intelligence. We are making sense of movements of people and animals by recognizing intelligence as a force. Empathy is difficult in that awareness of external personalities. Fear and enmity seem to be common. Toward the external personalities identified as gods, people do not feel empathy but fear. Still, beings moved by intelligence sometimes shelter each other from the boundless darkness, uniting by imitation as well as by physical closeness. The first experience of other intelligence is probably mother.

Humans have imagined personalities in all sorts of natural phenomena such as trees, storms, and the universe as a whole, and we might next imagine personality in computers and robots. Desire, purpose, or curiosity as explanations of events in the objective world have generally been preferred over ‘brute’ causal explanations. “Somebody did it.” “A spirit did it.” “God did it.” These are still accepted among educated people as sufficient accounts of why and how something happened. There is even an inclination to fall back onto such act-of-personality explanation where it is clearly not appropriate: “There is a little guy inside the machine who counts the money you put in and drops out the change.” Anyone who claims belief in god, gods, or a deity is irrevocably committed to subjectivity and its acts of reason, desire, or questioning as the final, ultimate, original, and primordial creative source and cause of everything that exists.

Living has to be maintained continually by effort. We need to be taking in food, water, and breathable air which are unevenly and thinly scattered. The survival of a body requires coverings and shelter. Embodiment brings the necessity to work. Work is required to produce food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities of life. That is especially problematic because everybody wants to escape from work to enjoy and wonder at the mysteries of nature and intelligence. It has been customary, culturally structured, for people to unload tedium, fatigue, discomfort, and filth onto others when they can. Based on that, tedium, fatigue, and filth, ordered onto you by someone in a more powerful position, are defining qualities of the experience of work. Humans have always had disease, injury, fatigue, hunger, weakness, and old age. Anchored to the ground, the human body is at the mercy of wild nature, disease, parasites, predators, and hostile marauders, in a situation that is often out of control.

Considering all this, humans worry about survival and well-being, and not just because of uncertainty about invisible spirits. Such worries support formation of collectives. There is a longing for grandeur, the supra-individual nation, social-class, race, Church, or even civilization.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

There is lots of evidence that, for most of human presence, the landscape of the night sky looked far better than the clutching ground. In a world without urban crowding and smog, and without artificial lights, the awesome beauty and fascination of the universe as revealed in the night sky likely had an importance quite lost to modern minds, in fact seeming more real than the world on the ground. Life on the ground has been nasty, brutish, and short. People struggle, fight and run, get sick, hurt, tired, weak, and enslaved. People looked up at night and saw a landscape of soft light. It was huge, bigger by far then the turf below, and movements were few and slow. The daily drift from east to west is unvarying, recurring in a continuous pattern. The movement made it seem alive, yet without vulnerability.

Because the rotating pattern of stars does not change, in contrast to things close to the Earth, including the moon and planets, the starry sky was taken as a model of eternal being. It occurred to some that the realm of stars did not change because it was a vision of perfection. The fact that stars are immeasurably high and distant, pure light, and incomprehensible did not stand in the way of interpreting them as sacred and peculiarly real.

The night sky was an early inspiration for the idea of a transcendent world, everlasting, completely primal, and sacred. That world was imagined to have a different kind of Being, subtle, ethereal, pure luminosity, and immune from organic growth and aging processes, wear, tear, random change, or decay, the Being of Eternity. It was separated and different from the ordinary surroundings of human lives, but there is a historical pattern of people believing that the sky above creates and moves the earth below, the idea of the sky as a top-down causal and creative force. It seemed to be the foundation and source of ordinary surroundings, apparently creating them as a sort of imperfect echo or model of itself. The sky is the primordial clock, apparent driver of time. The night sky is always drifting or coasting (and falling) around a set of complicated cycles. Intelligence brings time to the brute actuality of nature. The great firmament of the night sky had a message for intelligence: together we hold time.

Intelligence has an analogous relation to the brute actuality of unintelligent nature. Both stars and subjective intelligence separately were sources of an impression of a kind of Being more subtle and sublime than the material world-of-work, but the star-world is easier to point toward. People of ancient times used qualities from the star-world to express intuitions of their self-experience, of intelligence and thought. The star-world gave them an image of an ethereal, subtle, and present-but-separate kind of existence suggesting thought itself. In the delicate beauty of the clear night sky they thought they saw a reflection of their own invisible Being.

Interpretation of the star world has been complicated. An element of gnosticism asserted that events in the world experienced by people are controlled and determined by the great stellar patterns of the zodiac. These celestial powers were sometimes conceived as demons, fallen angels, or lesser gods called archons. Those powers author the fate of individuals and humanity as a whole, but they are not ultimate powers. There is a higher and greater power which can be touched by individual persons. Inward awareness and contemplation of the highest deity can achieve release from the zodiac powers, and profound self-determination. The gnostic claim is that authentic self-determination is the best life, and it can be achieved only by that very special inward mental accomplishment.

Copyright © 2011 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.