From Dense to Sparse and Back

In Da Xuan we have this idea of grounding ourselves.  Being good Daoists who like balance, we not only like to improve the kind of emotional and mental grounding of someone who is ‘down to earth’, but we also develop a very physical grounding.  This literally means being difficult to move from our physical position; that we can’t be pushed over. As well as being balanced, the Daoists were always a pragmatic people. It’s no use to just know about it or think about it, you must practice so you can be it. I was always partial to my Teacher’s personal interpretation of the first line of the Dao De Jing:

“The Dao that can be talked about is not the actual Dao, so you may as well shut up and practice.”
~ Serge Augier

Although the practices we use to achieve good grounding are pretty universal, it’s useful to understand that different people will find different benefits from improving it depending on where one is starting from. There are plenty of frameworks for categorizing the various makeups people have – some are far more useful than others, too – but today I want to talk about something particular so I’m going to use a very simplified model.  Please excuse the over-generalization; my words are an attempt to point to something rather than convey an absolute truth.

I want to look at this from the perspective of the density of the person. At one end of the spectrum you have those who are very solid in their makeup. On the other extreme you have those who are sparse or porous. Another way to think of this spectrum is that the borders between what the individual considers ‘self’ and ‘other’ range from a heavily defended, impossible to penetrate border all the way to not at all protected in any way. Of course this is a spectrum so people exist in between the extremes but in my personal observation it seems that the distribution looks something like an inverted bell curve, with people gathered mostly towards either end, and only very few existing in a nice balance without any practice.

A fake chart but you get the idea

I’ll start with the solid end of the spectrum first as it’s where I naturally abide and so I’m personally familiar with it. Having been involved in the internal martial arts, qi gong and spiritual circles for quite some time, I am often around people who would talk of feeling energies, emotions of other people and so on. Until recently I would usually just nod and smile and go along with whatever was being said about the topic, while in my own experience I was not feeling anything of the kind. After more than a decade of practice I had come to the conclusion that the people who talked about this stuff were simply fantasizing or projecting.  When you’re super solid and dense naturally, it is really, really difficult to let anything in or out. So I wasn’t able to feel these strange energies that other people talked about (or much else really) but I also tended to bottle up my emotions and other aspects of personal expression.  It really was a case of nothing in, nothing out, and I wrongly assumed that nothing other than this was possible.

The positive side of being like this is it makes for an extraordinary resilience and adaptability. I have fond memories of going on retreat in the bush with Simon and my other friends and hearing everyone regularly talking about the period of recovery following the retreat and returning to city. I never understood this. From my perspective, you just went back to the city and life continued. Where was the need to recover? Being in the forest or being in the city was much the same for me. Either way my borders were well protected and my internal state was for the most part generally pretty good. So I had no problems. The same with being in big crowds or around people who are having difficult times. I was never bothered by any of these situations and could exist in a happily ignorant state in basically any situation. My shields were always set to maximum and so I was fine.

I was going to put a different picture here but then I found this - perfect!

The con is that it always made a distance between me and everyone and everything else. I was kind of isolated by myself and so unable to be really intimate and vulnerable in any given situation. I definitely learned how to act like this, but it was never quite the real thing.  Intellectual understanding of a situation and actual empathy with a situation or person are two entirely different things.

I didn’t consciously choose to be like this, it’s just how I was.  I actually didn’t know how to open up and allow things to come in or go out. For a long time I didn’t even know that it was a possibility or what it might mean to do such a thing. Luckily, I found the Da Xuan tradition (as well as receiving much needed guidance from close friends and other teachers) and even though it is slow going, I am beginning to perceive some very wonderful realms of life that I was previously unaware of.

But enough about me.  Let’s now go to the polar opposite end of the spectrum.  Here you have people that are open and somewhat hyper sensitive to various aspects of the other. These people are so porous that basically anything can come in and anything can leave. They can be regularly under assault from other people’s emotional states – often having no choice but to help the other to digest these emotions – and probably on the receiving end of various imagery, auditory and felt phenomenon coming from their own unconscious as well as the collective unconscious. It is also usually the case that their own emotions just explode out somewhat chaotically and regularly. In the most extreme cases they can be almost completely at the mercy of any given situation and just get dragged around this way and that without much choice in the matter.

Again there are pros and cons to being of this makeup. These people tend to be very warm, emotionally available and kind hearted when they aren’t being thrashed too much by the other. They can probably do a single qigong class and have experiences of energetics that all the solid people are secretly wishing they could have. Or they might have some strange latent or available empathetic capacities that lets them be quite intimate in some really wonderful moments.

The problem here is that it leaves just as easily as it shows up.  Even though many interesting energies are felt often, there is no mechanism for keeping what is felt inside the borders of your self. Easy come, easy go.  Without proper practice there is limited capacity to store and so things don’t grow. It’s not planted in something substantial so at best the things that are felt work like nice shower. In a more general sense, the previously mentioned wonderfully intimate situations can easily be replaced with serious horror in an instant.

Ruh roh!

At some point this spectrum of density became obvious to me. As I continue practicing I am slowly able to access more porous states and I am learning how to open up to some of the subtle experiences of life. As a result I became more empathetic, or at least sympathetic, to the plight of the very porous. Of course they are the way they are; a little bit strange and often unstable in the extreme cases.  I would be too if I had to deal with the constant barrage of things they have had to without any defenses. Being regularly told they are crazy by those more solid than them would not help the situation. The entirety of the western culture is still quite dense at this point in time so most of these people have to pretend like they aren’t having the experiences they are having, or move to Byron Bay to hang out with others who are like them. And just like the solid people, they don’t get much say in the matter of what their natural makeup will be.

Unfortunately, no amount of insisting from either end that the other stops being the way they are naturally made and be more like them will actually accomplish anything. It’s not a matter of just being told to be more open or to “harden up” because as I mentioned, we just simply do not know how to do it. A little bit of understanding of the other end’s situation will certainly go a fair way towards reducing confusion, but at some point action has to be taken.  Something has to be done. Practice has to be done. And not just once off, it needs to be done consistently for years to get any substantial results.

This is where the practice of grounding comes into view, in particular the physical grounding. In Da Xuan we have about a gazillion different ways of developing the grounding. It’s a fundamental quality that basically everything else in the school relies on. One of the most basic practices is where you get a partner to try push or pull you over and you do your best to hold your ground and not move. It’s a simple practice but rich in depth and gives you a very honest understanding of where your grounding is in actuality. My first experience with this exercise was quite a shock. Even after over a decade of practice in other systems, this simple test showed me a harsh truth: that I was not at all grounded in any way. Thankfully it shocked me into action and I have been practicing ever since, improving bit by bit.

The interesting thing here is what being more physically grounded can do for both ends of the spectrum. In the more solid people I’ve seen, it can really help to soften them.  When you are physically immovable you are a lot more agreeable to dropping the emotional guard, to lowering the shields so to speak. More often than not I see that the very solid are not aware that they are existing in a permanently guarded state. For this to come into awareness and then soften considerably is simultaneously a pleasant surprise and shock, both for yourself and those around you. Personally I feel that grounding is one of the critical practices (but not the only one) necessary for the naturally solid individuals who want to open up and experience the various subtle energies of the world. And it can help to become far more intimate and caring in many ways that are not understandable when bound constantly by an extremely dense state.

For the porous it will build a solid foundation and strength that is completely reliable in chaotic times. It’s a way of holding your ground, quite literally, so you no longer have to be dragged this way and that (unless you want to be).  It will build qualities of resilience and firmness that will help many things stabilize and then flourish. It also helps you to remove and protect yourself from the internal business of others. It is not always useful to be mixed up in other people’s emotional states, especially if you are unstable, even if your intention is to help. It can be irritating to the other in some cases or simply an overspend of your own resources which could be more usefully directed towards yourself. When you are firmly grounded you can use these natural capacities to help in a really meaningful way when it’s needed and wanted, and to withdraw when it’s not necessary. Crowds and other people having a bad day will become far less of a problem for you.

It may appear at this point that what I’m talking about is making the porous more solid and the solid more porous. This is part of the equation for sure – but not all of it. We want to be careful here not to throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s not trading one for the other, it’s not ‘instead of’ but rather ‘as well as’. We want to balance ourselves by keeping that which we are already naturally inclined towards, and developing that which we are not. But we’re still not done, we need the final piece. It is useful to be able to access both ends of the spectrum, but then we need to literally ground the whole thing in physical reality.

So often do people only see the benefits of the other end and not the problems, and in the same instance only see the problems of their end and not the benefits. On the flip side there are those who believe that their end is the only correct way to exist and people on the other end be damned. Attempting to swing completely to the other side doesn’t usually turn out so well, nor does holding fast to one end exclusively. Each extreme has it’s benefits and problems as we’ve seen and the grounding helps us to understand this and stabilize it all.

It’s like standing on one end of a see-saw then running to the other end only to have it tip down on that side instead. Grounding means to walk to the middle and have one foot on either side of the fulcrum where you can keep it balanced or tip it either way as you like. You can’t turn one end up without very viscerally knowing that the other is going down.

There are plenty of exceptions to these generalizations. I have personally met all kinds of people who have qualities of both but lack grounding, or have managed to ground themselves physically very strongly but still have plenty of armouring on various parts of their being, or have one aspect of themselves incredibly porous and another completely locked down and solid. It’s not terribly important nor is it useful to ponder endlessly about the possibilities. This is a very simple abstract model after all, and no substitute for reality. In fact a model never can be final. As the great poet Walt Whitman observed – we are vast, and contain contradicting multitudes.

Nevertheless, I enjoy using such simple frameworks because of how easily they can be put to practical use in the ordinary parts of our life. The first thing that we can take away from understanding this model is that other people may not be having quite the same experiences as we are and as a result both parties can find it difficult to relate (naturally). When we can have a clear and direct personal experience of ‘the other end’ it can really help us be not so quick to judgement. The second, and probably more important, is that something actually has to be done to remedy or at least buffer for the various problems presented throughout the spectrum. Perhaps it’s finally time to getting around to doing these things. It is not easy, but it is simple and certainly a worthwhile endeavour. Experience of something that is not natural to you is something that can only come with practice, naturally.

It is very important that such frameworks should not be taken on face value and need to be put to the test. The first port of call is to look into whether or not my ramblings (or anyone else’s for that matter) can actually be used coherently, and whether they achieve what they suggest can be achieved, if anything.  The only way to know for sure is to try for yourself. Has this idea actually helped you change something meaningful in your life or has it just lent more ammunition to cast judgement? A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing and to take ideas such as the one I have outlined here only at an intellectual level runs a heavy risk of turning against the knower. One can quite easily fall into the trap of using new ideas to silently berate all those that do not know them.

“Many people wish to see themselves as pink angels with blue wings, walking among the unfortunate, spreading light and love.  It is a revelation to find that you are one of the unfortunates. Great effort is needed to produce this insight, making it possible to change your pattern and begin to feel the gratitude within. It is only when a man is grateful for seeing what he is not that he can change.” 
~Swami Rudrananda

It is also important to understand that if the framework is not useful to you, it should just be discarded. You may simply not care how solid or sparse you are or what else may be possible or you may feel very strongly about sticking with and developing yourself where ever you naturally stand. This is fine by me, however it does mean that this article and idea isn’t really meant for you. Apologies for making you read this far to find that out 😉

Who it is meant for are those who may have knowingly or unknowingly been struggling with understanding this aspect of themselves or others; for those who are simply curious about experiencing a broader slice of their reality without running the risk of disconnecting from reality; or for the many teachers of personal development who might read this and hopefully find a way to help their students with more clarity.

Whatever the case, I hope that it spurs you into some kind of doing or investigation that will lead to broader horizons…