One of the more obscure concepts in mystical spirituality to explain, and arguably the most important for understanding what it’s all about, is the Ground of Being. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich popularized the term in the mid-twentieth century, but it has been foundational to the perennial tradition of spiritual wisdom for nearly 3,000 years.
Even Tillich’s assertion that God is just a theological nickname for the Ground of Being had already been made by Johannes (Meister) Eckhart in the early 14th century. It wasn’t received well by orthodoxy back then, either, and hasn’t been for as long as dogmatists have preferred talking about god (the theological construct) to experiencing God (the present Mystery).
At the same time as the orthodox Church was launching external crusades against other religions, it was also pursuing an internal campaign against mystical spirituality and its “Ground of Being.”
The effort continues to this day.
As a consequence of the orthodox rejection of mystical spirituality, it was driven into a variety of esoteric “secret societies,” pushing it even farther from the reach of ordinary spiritual seekers.
It wasn’t long before these esoteric sects had developed orthodoxies of their own, with hierarchies of authority and strict requirements for membership. The age-old metaphor of ultimate reality as the “Ground of Being” is still trapped inside an arcane symbolism and cryptic vocabulary. This is purportedly to protect the Mystery, when really all it does is bury the Mystery under needless nonsense.
Because theology, or “god-talk,” is such a nuanced and complicated language, it is common to assume that mystical spirituality must be even more so. If theologians talk about something (a supreme being) that is “out there,” how much more challenging it must be to talk about a present Mystery that is said to have no objective existence!
In this post I will use the convention of capitalizing the ‘G’ in God when speaking of the Ground, and employing the lowercase ‘g’ for the many theological constructs that we imagine to exist – even if that construct is the one supreme deity of monotheism.
Actually, it is much easier to understand mystical spirituality than orthodox theology, and for one very simple reason, which is that while theology talks about a god whose existence is always up for debate, spirituality speaks of a present Mystery that is Existence itself.
The Ground of Being is not one being among (or above) all others, but the source and power of be-ing in all things.
Using its popular nickname, God, we can say with Paul Tillich that there is no such thing as God, for God is not a thing. This is slightly, but importantly, different from saying that there is no such thing as this or that god. It is historically around this distinction that misunderstandings and conflicts have arisen.
The illustration above is useful in helping us appreciate what mystical spirituality is really saying when it identifies God with the Ground of Being. Let’s pretend that the large circle generates and contains everything there is. Whatever kind of being we may observe in this universe – a star being, a cloud being, a bird being, a tree being, a dog being, or a human being – is a specific and formal manifestation of Being, of a power actualized in its special form.
The revelation expressed in the term “human being” has been all but lost to us, but the insight is still there. A human being is a human manifestation of Being, or the power of be-ing in human substance and form.
In my simplified image of the universe, I have placed you in the very middle, as a self-conscious human being, or ego (Latin for “I”). Your ego is where the consciousness of your sentient body and mind is conscious of itself as a center of thought, feeling, will and agency.
Let’s have the color orange represent objective consciousness, which is your awareness of the countless objects around you (all of those other beings), as well as of yourself (as an object of self-conscious awareness).
Looking out and around yourself, all you can see is what your objective consciousness apprehends. All of it has objective existence from the vantage point of your ego. From that vantage point each thing or object, including you, stands out as separate and distinct from all the rest.
But notice, too, that everything is rooted in the larger circle, which in my illustration represents the Ground of Being. When you observe a star or a tree, you are noticing the attributes of a specific form and manifestation of Being, while its essence remains hidden – not behind or inside it as ‘something else’, but as the form itself. What you see is paradoxically the “visible concealment” of its deeper essence.
The be-ing of a star, the be-ing of a tree, and the be-ing of a human is colored purple; this dimension of its existence is not available to objective consciousness.
A final element in my illustration is a sphere surrounding your center of self-conscious identity, encapsulating it as it were. This is your world, referring to the construct of meaning that you project around yourself.
Your world is not the universe. If the physical environment around your self-conscious embodied mind is the ecosystem, the world is your egosystem. Everything inside your world has value, meaning, and identity relative to your ego. Your egosystem is also where the lowercase god is found – not outside but inside your world, which really means inside the stories and imaginarium of your egoic mind.
Another important distinction identifies the lowercase god as a literary being, a fictional character in myths, but not a literal (i.e., factual and objective) being. The lowercase god is a projection of your mind, but also a symptom of what’s going on in there: of your need for security, control, recognition and esteem.
This observation of mystical spirituality has given orthodox religion sufficient reason to condemn, persecute, and murder mystics through the ages. The mystics have always been more interested in what God means than in whether or not god exists. Indeed, the obsession with god’s existence has kept many believers from the spiritual nourishment they seek.
In healthy religion, the lowercase god is an acknowledged metaphor and symbol of the Mystery beyond name and form: the Ground of Being.
By now it should be clear that the Ground of Being is not “out there” or under your feet, in the way that the literal and physical ground is under your feet.
Looking out with objective consciousness, all that you see is the “hidden Ground,” Being hiding in (and manifesting as) the myriad beings around you. Pluck one of them from the web, take it apart and break it down to its most elementary particles, and you will get no closer to the Ground. All you will have is an exponentially multiplied number of smaller objects, each revealing and concealing the Ground in its individual form.
Is there anywhere you can turn to experience the Ground of Being without the veil of objective existence?
With this question we come at last to the foundational practice of mystical spirituality, which is about dropping out of objective consciousness and releasing your center of personal identity.
Remember, you too are a manifestation of Being, concealed behind a personal identity and enclosed by the construct of your world. In surrendering all that makes you one being among many, along with all your quirks, convictions, and masks of identity, objective consciousness is allowed to dissolve into an experience of the present Mystery of reality, the Ground of Being.
In some traditions of mystical spirituality, this shift is designated as a descent from, or “death” of, egoic self-consciousness, and the awakening, or “resurrection,” of spiritual Self-awareness.
As an ego, you are one among many beings; deep in your soul, you are One with the Ground of Being.
So then, who are you really?