93 – Stepping Into Groundlessness

Buddhist teachings and concepts often challenge us to think differently about life. They challenge us to question the stories we’ve come to believe about ourselves and about reality but perhaps none more than the idea of stepping into groundlessness.

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Transcript:

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 93. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about stepping into groundlessness. Keep in mind that you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learned to be a better whatever you already are. Buddhist teachings and concepts often challenge us to think differently about life. They challenge us to question the stories that we’ve come to believe about ourselves, and about reality. And, the concept of stepping into groundlessness certainly does this for me.

Imagine standing at the end of a precipice. If you’re like me, I’m not even afraid of heights. I practice para-motoring and paragliding, so I spend a lot of time in the air. But, if you put me on the edge of a cliff, I feel a sense of insecurity and fear standing there at the end of a cliff looking down, you know? I feel this strong desire to be holding tight to something, like a, I don’t know, something firm. Like a handrail, or a tree, or whatever I can there. If my kids are there with me, it’s even more scary. I don’t want to let anyone else close to that edge.

You know that feeling of fear standing at the edge of a cliff, I think it’s very similar when we’re facing the uncertainty of life. On this podcast episode I want to echo some of the sentiments that are expressed in episode 78, No Hope, No Fear. And, in episode 88, Radical Okayness. I want to address this concept of groundlessness, this teaching of groundlessness that I first encountered reading some of Pema Chodron’s work. I grew up with this analogy of the dangers of building a house on sand, you know? The wisdom of building a house on rock, which I think is sound wisdom. But, what happens when we realize that we live on a planet made entirely of sand, and everything is shifting and changing all the time? Suddenly there’s this realization that the idea of a firm foundation is itself an illusion.

This is something I experienced in my life many years ago, and a friend of mine experienced this recently. Fear is a universal experience. I think it’s a natural reaction to seeing reality clearly. A reality where things are impermanent, and we begin to understand that we have no control over what happens next. These are the moments where it seems the rug has been pulled out from under us, and what seemed like a solid foundation suddenly gives way to this very real sense of groundlessness.

Some good friends of ours, like I just mentioned, had a recent experience with their son who was in the backyard, and he fell 15 feet and fractured his skull. It was a big deal. He was rushed to the ER. Fortunately he’s doing well and he’s recovering, but this was a very near catastrophic end. His mom, very understandably was upset and shaken. We were talking about this, and it was interesting how this experience caused her to question many things. Things that were taking place in their life. They had just purchased a home, were they doing the right thing having purchased that home? Questions of that nature.

It’s like the rug of comfort and security had been pulled right out from under her, and suddenly you’re experiencing this feeling of free fall with nothing to hold onto. I think it’s these moments of insecurity where we start to see how unsolid our foundations really are. This is the very start of stepping into groundlessness. Thich Nhat Hanh, the zen Monk says, “It’s not impermanence that makes us suffer. It’s wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” Here’s the thing, we all experience this at one point or another. We all have, or we are now, or we will at some point. These close calls, or it could be the actual loss of a loved one. These unexpected Tetris pieces that show up, and they seem to just smash up, and rip holes into the stories that we have, that we were enjoying so much about life. The stories we have about ourselves and others, and about life in general, and it’s happening all the time.

I don’t think that this concept of groundlessness, this teaching isn’t mean to make us feel pessimistic, or negative, or fearful. But, it is an invitation to be able to learn to step into groundlessness now, before life inevitably pushes us near the edge of that cliff, where suddenly we find ourselves in free fall, and often we lose it. We panic, and we do really unskillful things when we’re pushed into those moments.

In Pema Chodron’s book, “The Places That Scare You”, she says, “We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But, the truth is, that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure, and it’s also what makes us afraid.” I really like that quote. It’s the not knowing is part of the adventure, and recognizing it’s also what makes us afraid.

I feel like moments where we feel fear, and insecurity, and uncertainty. These are moments that can highlight just how fragile life really is. They highlight our priorities, and the things that matter most to us. I remember experiencing this in my own life, the first time I had that rug pulled out from under me. I felt that feeling of falling, and I was spiraling in my thoughts, and the fear, and the uncertainty felt unbearable. Everything that seemed to be so solid and stable was gone in my life. I remember encountering this concept of groundlessness, and I remember recognizing the strong aversion I had towards the fear, and the uncertainty that I was feeling at that time in my life.

I remember thinking, “I can’t possibly be facing the fact that the nature of reality is insecurity and unknowing. No, no, no, not me. I have to know, I have to have this firm foundation under my feet again.” I was determined to regain my footing on solid ground. This is around that time in my life that I started reading, and exploring, and I first encountered Buddhism. It seemed to me at the time like all these ideologies, and religions out there had the answers for me. That wasn’t the problem, there were plenty of answers. I just had to find the one that made the most sense to me, that could fit into the story or the narrative that I had come to believe about the nature of reality.

I searched and I searched, and I felt like the more I was exploring these big, solid, existential questions like who am I, and why am I here, and where am I going? The more I read about Buddhism, the more it seemed as if to ask, who wants to know, or why do you want to know these things? That, with time, became the bigger question for me, the one that led me to understand myself first as the seeker. Kind of like I mentioned in the last podcast episode, it was like suddenly what I was looking for was who was looking.

This was a really profound shift for me. To me, this gets at the heart of stepping into groundlessness. I remember asking myself, what if I wasn’t afraid of being afraid when it comes to comfort, right? Comfort and being comfortable with all the uncertainty and insecurity, because what I was experiencing was an aversion to this. I thought, well what if it was okay to be scared? What if it’s okay to be afraid of not knowing? I realized there was a shift, and the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know, the problem was that I didn’t like that I didn’t know. I started to sit with these emotions. When they would surface, as they often do, or as they would at different stages of life, I began to invite these feelings, these emotions in as if they were old friends. I began to understand them.

Over time, I can honestly say I’ve befriended my fear, and my insecurity, and my unknowing. And, the deep grief and frustration that I used to feel when these emotions would arise, have turned into more of a friendship. It’s like, not only do they show up less and less, but when they do, when something happens that will remind me of the feeling that I had in that stage of my life, where the rug was pulled out from under me. I start to feel that same fear, and that same uncertainty arising in me. But, now it almost colorizes with a smile, almost as if to say, “Hello my old friends. I haven’t felt you in a while. Here you are, and I’m feeling scared, and I’m feeling insecure, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

That’s become the ground of groundlessness for me. The fear, and the aversion that we have towards uncertainty and towards groundlessness, it’s completely normal, and it’s natural. I think in these moments where we feel shaken, and we feel vulnerable, we feel fragile, we feel insecure. These are the moments that you may start to question everything. Why did I get into this career? Why did I marry this person? What would have happened had I done that? What if I’m messing it all up? How do I know I’m living the life that I should be living?” On, and on, and on, right? These are the questions that arise because of these moments of glimpse of insecurity.

This is the moment that we can look inward, and we can remind ourselves that what we are looking for is who is looking. The truth is, we never really know if we made the right choice about anything. We all make choices with a limited perspective in terms of space and time. It’s like the Tetris player doing the best with the current shapes in their game, but never know what shapes going to show up next. And, you’re currently dealing with all kinds of crazy things happening in your life. The Tetris pieces that cause us to question the way we’ve been playing every single piece that’s showed up prior to this one now. I think that insecurity is a natural part of the game.

I feel in my personal practice, I try to use those moments to anchor me in the present moment. As odd as it may seem, I often try to visualize, what are the most unwanted Tetris pieces that could show up in my life right now? These are like, what if one of my kids got sick? Or, what if one of them died? What if my marriage doesn’t last? What if my parents, or siblings die before I’m ready? These are deep troubling questions that we often avoid because they’re extremely uncomfortable. We don’t like to feel what we feel when we think about these questions.

For me, this has been at the heart of my practice. Thinking, “Well, I want to feel this. These are the moments I suddenly feel completely grounded in this state of groundlessness.” It’s like, I don’t know, but I do know that right now life is like this. Suddenly, the present moment seems to be so unique, and so precious. That doesn’t mean that it’s unpleasant or good, it just is. I find myself experiencing that sense of radical okayness that I have talked about before.

I’ve come to find that the fear of uncertainty has become the bedrock of my stability, of my mental stability. In other words, my firm foundation is that I don’t have or need a foundation. I’m comfortable now with the free fall. I have no certainty of what comes next, I’ve literally found that the feeling of uncertainty, that feeling of the free fall with nothing to hold onto. That’s become my normal, natural place of peace.

That doesn’t mean I go through life without wanting to make goals, or without plans, or being blown in the wind. It doesn’t mean that. It just means that I try to live my life willing and ready to shift at a moments notice. I’m constantly analyzing my Tetris game, and I’m ready to adapt, I’m ready to adjust to whatever that Tetris game is going to throw at me. It makes me feel radically okay with the game the way it is now. Because, I’m always thinking of how the game could be. It’s not that now, it’s this. With all that uncertainty, with all that fear, and often with my unconscious attempts to make life be different than how it is, in the middle of all that chaos. Every now and then I pause and I find this overwhelming sense of gratitude for life just the way that it is.

it’s like there’s a part of me that suddenly, even if just momentarily, has no desire for things to be different. Forgive me, I get emotional exploring these concepts because I know myself so well, and I know where I’ve been in my life, and the stages of my life that felt so painful, and that I felt so much aversion to that pain. Now I can look back at those moments again like with a smile, thinking, “I am the way I am now because of everything that I’ve been through.” To me this is stepping into groundlessness. It begins with having a sense of hopelessness. I’ve talked about this concept before. But again I want to share here, Pema Chodron’s wisdom where she says, “Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security.”

“If we make the journey to get security, we’re completely missing the point. We can do our meditation practice with the hope of getting security, we can study these teachings with the hope of getting security, and we can follow all the guidelines and instructions with the hope of getting security. But, it will only lead to disappointment, and pain. We could save ourselves a lot of time by taking this message very seriously right now, begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness.”

I love that sentiment that Pema shares. I feel that’s where I have found myself to have landed, in this space of hopelessness, and groundlessness, and I almost have to laugh when I say it because these words have negative connotations in our way of thinking, in our society. It’s like, nobody wants to be hopeless, nobody wants to be groundless.

Yet, the peace that we so desperately seek is found in that groundlessness, and in that hopelessness. I can say that because that’s exactly how it’s been for me. I find myself in this place of radical okayness, and contentment with the uncertainty, with nothing to hold onto. As I experience the free fall, or as I experience the shifting sands beneath my feet where life is constantly changing. And, I have no control over the big Tetris pieces that are going to show up inevitably in my life.

My invitation to you this week, and perhaps an invitation from now on, is to try to identify these moments of groundlessness. Moments where the game seems to shift. Notice how quickly you tend to shift the story, to have some sense of certainty and security again. Like, we’re clinging for that certainty and security. Notice, how illusory that is.

Then, try to ask yourself, what if I didn’t need this sense of security? What if I could become comfortable with insecurity? What if I could find comfort in the shifting sands, comfort in the free fall, comfort with just not knowing? I think you’ll find in these moments, that you actually have a lot of faith and trust in yourself. Not the kind of faith that says, “All things are going to go my way. Things are going to be okay.” But, faith in the sense of your ability to adapt, and to handle whatever life is going to throw at you. Because, when you have that sense of security in yourself, then suddenly it’s not the circumstances that matter.

It wasn’t about the Tetris game, it was about your ability to play the Tetris game. I think that’s a fundamental radical shift that we can all start to experience, that produces a strong sense of peace. Because, it’s no longer about the game or the pieces, it’s about me and how I’m playing the game, and how I’m handling the pieces knowing that there will be times when it’s completely pleasant and fund, and times when it will be completely chaotic, and scary, and I’ll be insecure. All of that’s part of the game, and how I handle the game.

I wanted to correlate a lot of these concepts that I’ve discussed before. Groundlessness, no hope, the Tetris analogy, radical okayness, to kind of just see if I can mesh them all into one cohesive narrative that seems to help you understand what we’re all facing here, which is that we’re all standing at the edge of the cliff, holding on desperately to whatever we can hold onto. Thinking that, that’s going to prevent us from eventually falling. The nature of reality, the nature of life is that, life eventually pushes you, and there you are in the free fall, like Allan Watts has talked about. It’s like, we’ve all been pushed off this cliff and that’s our life. There we are falling, sometimes clinging to things that we think are going to be beneficial. When in reality, they’re not. You let go of them and you’re still in a free fall, and nothing changes.

This is the concept of groundlessness. I think there are a few fascinating books that address this overall concept. If you want to explore this a bit more, check out The Wisdom of Insecurity by Allan Watts, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, or Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh. Those are a few that come to mind as I explore this concept with you.

That’s all I have to share in this episode. Again, if you want to learn more about Buddhism and mindfulness, you can always check out my books, Secular Buddhism, No Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, and The Five Minute Mindfulness Journal. Those are all available on NoahRasheta.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes. If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit SecularBuddhism.com, and click the donate button.

That’s all I have for now. But, I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.