“You’re grounded!” a teenager may hear from an admonishing parent. In a way, Covid-19 has said the same thing to all of us in 2020. As a cartoon circulating in the early days of the pandemic imagined Mother Earth saying to her children, “Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.” Without attributing parental intelligence to the virus or the earth, the fact is, we have been grounded. Worldwide, air travel is down by nearly half as compared with pre-pandemic levels. Throughout the year, between one- and two-thirds of the world’s jets have been grounded. In the US, we’re traveling up to 40% less by car and ridership on public transportation is 65% lower than pre-pandemic levels. And you can forget traveling by ship; the pandemic has all but shut down the cruise industry.
Viewed in this light, we might take being grounded as an unwelcome limitation. Yet the very same word—grounded—is used by many who train in Zen leadership to describe an incredibly positive experience of being more at home in their body, more comfortable in their skin, more down to earth and less spinning around in their head. We can use the sense of being grounded that 2020 imposed on us to reflect on our doings and craft our intentions for 2021 from a different place. The upside is: if we’re grounded enough, we’ll will be supported in those intentions by the very ground we stand on.
Is this just rewarmed, Celestine-prophetic, build-it-and-they-will-come wishful thinking? No, it is a principle of resonance that if we work attuned to larger forces, from the timing of a market trend to the needs of our community, to the ecological balance of our garden, we get better results with less wasted effort. When we listen deeply to what is needed and let it change us, we are literally taking in energy that changes how we think and act, and at its best, what springs out of us matches conditions as effortlessly as dancing to the beat of a song. It’s not the only way to lead, but it’s the only way to lead well.
Contrast this with the lack of grounded-ness that people often feel living in their heads. Our head is about as far away from the ground as you can get in a human body, and it operates in abstractions carried on energetic signals from our senses. If we’re analyzing a business plan, the head can be busy calculating return on investment, cost of capital, size of the market, and probability of disruption to supply chains. If we’re doing marketing on social media, the head can spit out catchy phrases that optimize likes, outrage or the chances of being found by a search engine. If we’re playing a video game, the head can turn into a Fortnite survivor mowing down the other players. None of these activities requires much of a body; indeed, they can be performed quite nicely by artificial intelligence (AI).
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the head doing its thing, and there are many clever things it can do. Indeed, the human intelligence on which AI is modeled is rich in logic and computation, undistracted by bodily feelings or functions. Yet without connection to the body, the head can get wildly out of sync with what the heart truly wants, what the earth can support or what connects us as humans. With lots of clever abstractions and little down-to-earth wisdom, it may go on creating business plans without connection to social and ecological “externalities.” Coldly calculating, it can whip up social media firestorms or elements of a brutish, Fortnite world.
For cleverness to evolve into wisdom, for leadership to evolve beyond self-serving rationality, a deeper integration of head with heart and hara is called for. Integration with heart refers not only to love, emotions and human connection, but also to the energetic field we radiate when our emotions are positive, and to the coherence possible when head and heart hit a frequency where they can resonate together.
Integration with hara is just as important, perhaps more so.Harais a Japanese term that physically refers to the lower abdomen, what we might call “guts”, which also has energetic significance. It is a center of consciousness, host to more than 500 million nerve cells and neural ganglia that regulate our ability to walk upright in gravity. Hara organizes our most powerful, coordinated movement. And when deep muscles in this region regulate our breathing, they allow it to slow down to its lowest frequency, better enabling coherent resonance with the heart and head. What we subjectively experience is a sense of dropping down into this center of gravity and, ah-h-h, being grounded. Feeling grounded and safe, the body relaxes even more, and gravity becomes a felt sense in every part of it. And what is gravity if not the natural attraction of matter to the earth? You could call it a kind of love.
From this grounded place, the head is less of a chatterbox and more attuned through its senses. With calm coherence, we sense more and distort less. If we are inclined to use this turn of the year as a time for reflection, inspiration and planning, being grounded is the way to do it. Putting a metaphorical ear to the ground, we might inquire, what does 2021 ask of us? What does the earth ask of us? As we build back from a year in which we were rather forcibly grounded by nature, how can we do so in harmony with nature? Where might love, beauty or permacultural principles infuse our plans, performance or priorities in the coming year?
The more open and curious we can be about questions like these, the more we tune ourselves to the subtle frequencies that carry answers. Like feeling the rhythm of a swing set or catching the rhythm of a wave, when we’re able to sense and flow with larger forces, adding our energy in the right way at the right time, more is accomplished with less effort. In Taoist terms, this is the wu-wei or “effortless effort” of leading according to the Way. In Western terms, we could call it resonating with the energy that connects us all. And how do we know we’re getting it right? An unmistakable sensation arises, the signature of harmonizing with the ground of being: Joy!
Whether by force or by choice, being grounded brings us closer to home. Grounded by a pandemic in 2020, perhaps we can now choose to be magnificently grounded in 2021.
–Originally appeared on Forbes.com December 25, 2020