The Foot Feels the Foot When It Feels the Ground

The Philosophy of Touch: How Feeling Grounded Shapes Buddhist Thought


It’s commonly believed that “The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground” comes from Buddha, but it was actually written by a noted English author named Ernest Wood.

Ernest Wood’s ‘Zen Dictionary’ (page 91-92) quotes this line.

In this blog post, I will explore what this means and how it relates to a Buddhist understanding of mindfulness and impermanence. 

Here, the author uses a metaphor of the foot touching the ground. Our feet (or ourselves) are really only felt or seen when we feel the ground (or resistance).

Ground allows the foot to feel itself. Likewise, knowing yourself is based on the knowledge of your ‘ground of being.’

Various interpretations of it can be made, but I will choose the ones that are most relevant to Buddhist philosophy. 

The Foot Feels the Foot When It Feels the Ground

This quote is a perfect example of how Buddhists view life. 

A verse in the Samyukta Nikaya highlights the concept of ‘Cotouching’ as follows:

“Who touches not is not touched. Touching he is touched.”

Our identity is only fully revealed when we face resistance, because that is when we get to know who we really are.

You are unaware of ‘things’ unless you come into contact with them or experience them. According to this interpretation, you can only understand and experience real feelings when you are in contact with other things.

It also states that when you experience emotions, you find ‘your place’ in the universe. 

To me, the quote signifies a sense of solidity or freedom from delusions. 

So, as soon as the foot touches the ground, it should shatter illusions and bring clarity.

The term ‘foot’ represents all beings that are living on this earth as well as your thoughts and actions, which have an effect on others.

The ‘ground’ symbolizes reality – or how things really are – so together they mean being grounded in yourself while also understanding that you’re not alone.

This means that you are only aware of your own body because of its contact with other things. We can think about this for a second, what would happen if we didn’t feel anything?

The feeling of touch helps to provide us with information about our surroundings. It’s important to remember that everything in life depends on something else and without any one thing, there would be no others.

According to Buddhist spirituality principles, we all have the ability to tap into our own inner wisdom in order to lead happier lives. This wisdom comes from being aware of our thoughts, feelings, reactions, and surroundings. 

The quote “the foot feels the foot when it feels the ground” says so much about mental health: by focusing on reality instead of just one’s own mind or emotions you are able to see how things really are without distortion; feeling your feet on the ground connects you back with your body which creates a sense of grounding.

The quote is a gentle reminder of how important it is to have a feeling of groundedness in order to have balance and stability.

This is true for all aspects of life. In order to feel alive and whole, we must be aware of our surroundings. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, this quote encourages us to take time out to stand still and appreciate what’s around us. 

The world is full of beauty and light if we allow ourselves to open up enough to receive it!

The ‘foot’ being felt here represents a person’s connection with the rest of humanity. When one foot touches another, some sort of contact is made so each individual has an awareness about themselves and others around them. 

There is no I that does things in Buddhism; there’s just a body doing things in response to stimulus (good or bad) given by external forces like other people or society at large.

In essence, the brain interprets sensations perceived by the nerve endings of the foot as the ground beneath it. Here, the body consists of only sensations.

Things (even the ones closely related to or part of one’s own body) can only be consciously perceived by a person who pays attention to them.

In this regard, we find the following explanation in Nalin Swaris’ “The Buddha’s way to Human Liberation”:

The seemingly enigmatic Zen koan, “What is the sound of one clapping hand?” statement bears on this necessity of co-touching. There is no arising of any type of sensation without co-touching.

The feeling and the felt are conditioned-conditioning factors. This is expressed in a terse formulation phassa-phuttha -“touched by touch” (Thag vs.783).

The ‘toucher’ is not an autonomous subject touching a passive object – ‘out there,’ or a transcendental ‘idea’ in the head. The ‘toucher’ is touched in the very act of touching. This emphasis on mutual touching is of utmost importance.

Nalin Swaris then expands on this idea by showing how a child gradually develops a sense of duality as a result of contact and feelings. 

Presented below are a few of my own words to describe his concept:

The ego is the part of your consciousness that thinks it is separate from everything else.

When you are a baby, you have a sensation of a ‘me’ and a ‘you.’ You know that you are a person and you know that other people are people too. But you don’t know that you have a body.

You think you are a soul. But as you grow up, you start to understand that you have a body. You understand that you have a body that can touch other things. 

You understand that you have a body that can touch other things. When you touch something, it feels different from you.

So, you think that you are a different thing from that thing. You think that you are a different person from that person. You think that you are a ‘me’. 

This is perhaps the reason why the Buddha said the following when he met Mara:

Oh lord of my own ego, you are pure illusion. You do not exist. The Earth is my witness.

When you are born you are still connected to your mother. You are still part of her body. After a while you grow and you start to get your own body. You start to feel like you are a separate person.

And you start to feel like you are different from other people. You start to feel like you are an ‘I’ and that everyone else is ‘not I’. 

There is a feeling that you are the only real person. It is as if you are the center of the universe. You start to feel like you are the only person who really matters.

This is called the development of ego consciousness. Ego consciousness is the feeling that you are the only real person. 

For example, a child is not mindful of the body. It is not aware of how things feel.

The child forgets that everything is interconnected. In the child’s mind, the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ are a separate thing from life.

The growing child starts to notice what feels good and what feels bad. They start to focus on the things that feel good and ignore the things that feel bad. They live without paying attention to what is happening inside their body.

The Buddha taught that all of our problems are caused by these “sensations.” Sensations are what you feel when you touch something. 

The way we think about ourselves comes from the way we think about other people. As the child reaches this stage, he or she is unaware that both subject and object are dependent on one another in a ‘conditioned-conditioning’ relationship.

In his teachings, the Buddha explains how elemental forces are converted into reflexive consciousness and then into volitional consciousness. Our reflexive feelings of attraction and repulsion are accompanied by feelings of prejudice and bias which we then place value on. 

To organize experiences into “Is” and stimuli outside the skin (“other”), we develop our own conception of what rules allow us to organize them. We can call this egoism, or I-consciousness, how we see ourselves and others as being apart from one another.

Anatta is an important concept in this context. Anatta is a Pali word that literally means “no self”, or no soul, and in Buddhism, it typically refers to the doctrine of non-self. This doctrine states that individuals have no unchanging essences or true identities separate from impermanence, interconnected with nothingness (sunyata).

The idea in Buddhism is that things cannot be defined as anything larger than their parts.

Video: The Buddhist Theory of No Self

Accordingly, when we try and look for any permanent enduring identity within ourselves–which Buddhists call atta–all we can find are changing sensations and experiences which end in death.

We learn how every object was classifiable as either ‘this’ or ‘that’, thus creating a perception of separation between everything around us.

The Buddha says that even though we act like we are separate from each other, in actuality, we are all connected to each other. We are all just like one big family.

It can be easy for us to become isolated from our surroundings and forget about others around us. When we are mindful of ourselves, we are also mindful of those who are with us and those who surround us.

Hence, the quote is also about sensibility and equanimity. When we have an understanding of ourselves, we know our thoughts and feelings arise from interaction with external elements.

The emergence of the concept of ‘I’ and ‘other’ involves touch and feeling. In making sense of the ‘I’ and ‘other’, the ‘this’ and ‘that’, we begin to call them by names.

Again, the Buddha tells us that we feel things and like or dislike them based on our feelings. And when we like them, we get attached to them. 

And thus, we create our own suffering (according to the Buddha).

Understanding the Metaphor

Many people find it tough to decipher the quote, however, you must understand that Buddha has used the words “foot” and “ground” as metaphors. Therefore, the best case is to develop a sense of this quote to know more about these metaphorical terms.

Here is a detailed explanation of these words.

Feet as Sturdy Companions

Feet play a pivotal role in explaining this quote. Since, feet are not only our body part, but it helps us move along in life. Moreover, feet carry our weight and guide us through the entire journey.

So, Buddha uses foot as a metaphor to explain our rough and tough journey through our entire life.

The Language of Feet

Feet have their own silent language, through which they talk to earth. Our feet communicate with the ground through each step we take. Therefore, Buddha uses feet as a metaphor for them communicating, translating textures and feeling sensations of connection. 

Therefore, our feet only feel their existence when they touch the ground. Without touching the ground, they are nothing but a piece of meat. The purpose is to explain the sense of belonging; we exist due to the presence of other human beings. There are no singularities, humans exist as pluralism.  

Tracing Stories with Soles

Imagine your feet are storytellers who are telling stories of the yesteryears with every touch of the ground. They feel the hardness of rocks, gentleness of the grass and cool caress of the sand. Thus, our feet are eager listeners who understand the narrative of each surface and translate that into a feeling.

The Magic of Barefoot Walking

Walking is an act of art if we walk barefoot. It is more than just a physical act, as it becomes a sensory experience, a journey through time for discovery. Therefore, we connect to the primal rhythm of the ground beneath us. 

So, if you want to experience and understand the true meaning of this quote, you must go out and let your feet touch different surfaces of the ground. Since, those sensations will allow you to connect with the meaning of earth and its relation with your feet.

Acknowledging the Intimate Connection

Buddha invites us to acknowledge the intimate conversation between the ground and our feet. We can experience it through literal and metaphorical levels. The purpose of doing so is to cultivate a deeper sense of connection with our inner self and to wonder about the beautiful world around us.

A Call to Presence

The quote ignites our curiosity by forcing us to pay attention to little things and listen to the sensation beneath our feet. Such a meaningful connection with the ground will let us experience our life and give us a purpose of belonging to the world in a meaningful manner. 

In short, the entire metaphor is based on discovering the true reality by creating a connection with nature in a purposeful way.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does the foot feel when it feels the ground mean?

The main purpose of this quote by Buddha is to connect with your inner self. He uses foot and ground as an analog. You can understand the quote by replacing foot with ourselves and ground with resistance. Therefore, we only know ourselves when we come across resistance; this is when we truly know who we are. 

What does feel the ground mean?

The term feel the ground means to stay rooted to the basics. For a person flying high, you can use this phrase to make them realize to stay grounded and humble, as time will not remain the same. 

Where does Buddha use ‘the foot feels the foot when it feels the ground’?

Although many people believe that, this quote is by Buddha. However, this is not true, as the quote, ‘the foot feels the foot when it feels the ground’ is written by Ernest Wood in his book ‘Zen Dictionary’. 

Why is it important to feel grounded in Buddhism?

Buddhists strive for inner peace through meditation, which they generally observe sitting on the ground. They believe that humans can only conquer their inner self if they connect to nature , especially ground. Thus, they prefer walking barefoot to connect themselves with nature, as it will lead them to self-realization.

Parting Words

This quote is a reminder that we are connected to everything in this world as much as anything else. With so many of us disconnected from what’s happening in others’ lives in today’s society, it is something to hold dear to our hearts and remember often.

The more we look for ways to connect with others and places around us, the more grounded we will feel. 

When you are mindful of what’s happening with your body, you become more aware of yourself and others around you because they’re interconnected. 

This quote means to be in touch with oneself and what we do. It’s easy to get caught up in our own little world where we think everything revolves around us.

The quote is a metaphor for how awareness helps us understand impermanence. Without contact with the ground or something to stand on, it would be impossible for your feet to understand what they are.

In the same way, only when we experience an object at some level, are we able to witness its impermanent characteristics in some depth.

And in this case the foot is like our mind which must have contact with another reality in order to experience it fully and truly realize its essential nature.

In other words, our life experiences create a framework that defines ourselves. Our foot will always be aware of itself because it touches and moves across the ground.

Our mind is doing something similar when we concentrate on consciousness and see its movements, such as thoughts that constantly pop up into the head.

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