FINDING AN ANCHOR
PDF text downloadable here Introduction to Mindfulness Session 2
Why choose an anchor or home base?
When we start to sit with mindful presence, we realise that we get swept away very easily by our experiences and perceptions. They can be very strong and carry our attention to all kinds of places.
So, to steady the attention, it is helpful to select a home base or several anchors that allow us to quiet and collect the mind, as we bring our attention to them. They help us to train our concentration. Useful anchors are:
- The breath
- Physical sensations
The breath as an anchor for our attention
Mindfulness of the breath is one of the most universal practices because the breath is ever present, it’s neutral, it’s simple and it helps to connect to body, mind and spirit.
Thich Nhat Hahn writes that “the breath is aligned to both body and mind and it alone is the tool which can bring them both together, illuminating both and bringing both peace and calm”.
And by attending to the breath, we begin to notice what’s present all around us and to become more alive in the here and now.
How do we sense the breath?
You want to find a place where the breath is most obvious, evident to you.
It might be at the nostrils, where the cool air enters your body.
It could be swirling, tingling at the back of the throat.
Or you might feel the breath at some other place in the body, maybe the rise and fall of the chest and belly with each breath.
Or as you pay attention, you may feel your whole body breathing.
If it’s helpful to you, you can place your hand on your belly and feel the rise and fall of your breath in the palm of your hand. Especially if your breath feels faint or hard to sense, you can just leave your hand on your belly and let that be the way you connect with your breath.
Following the breath
When you sit down for meditation, begin with watching your breath.
At first breathe normally, and without any effort on your part, gradually your breathing will slow down until it is quiet, even and the lengths of the breaths are fairly long, it will happen naturally. Breathing in, know that you are breathing in, breathing out, know that you are breathing out. You might find it helpful to use soft mental noting “in, out”.
Thich Nhat Hahn “Your breath should be light, even and flowing like a thin stream of water running through sand.”
After about 10 to 20 minutes, your thoughts will have quiet down.
Counting your breath
If the method of following your breath seems hard at first, you can substitute the method of counting the breath.
As you breathe in, count 1 in your mind, and as you breathe out, count 1. Breathe in, count 2, and breathe out, count 2. Continue through 10 then return to 1 again.
This counting is like a string that attaches your mindfulness to your breath.
Without mindfulness, you will quickly lose count. When the count is lost, simply return to 1 and keep trying until you can keep the count correctly.
Be curious about the breath. As you pay attention to the breath, you may notice that it changes, it has rhythms that are shorter or longer, spaces or gaps between the breaths. You may even notice the beginning, middle and end of the breath. Maybe you’ll notice that one breath might be cooler or warmer than another. You might notice the pauses in between in-breath and out-breaths, relax with the pauses.
Relaxing with the breath
If you are feeling very agitated and anxious, deep abdominal breathing can be used to calm your nervous system down. Taking 3 to 5 full breaths.
Another breathing technique for relaxing is straw breathing. It is a simple self-regulation breathing practice that directly engages the relaxation response through the parasympathetic NS. Begin by establishing a felt sense of embodied presence, then start inhaling through the nose on a count of 4, and exhale through pursed lips as if through a straw on a count of 8. Keep it comfortable. The idea is to relax. Continue for several minutes until you feel the relaxation response shifting your physiological, mental and emotional state to a more calm, centred and balanced state.
If you ever feel any discomfort, dizziness or disorientation with this or any other breath regulation exercises, stop immediately and let your breath return to normal.
Physical sensations as anchor
Sometimes we might have difficulties following our breath, for example if we are feeling very anxious, or if we have a respiratory condition like a cold, or asthma. In that case, it might be helpful to choose a physical sensation as an anchor for our attention. Our physical sensations are always happening in the present moment.
- The sensations in our hands or feet
- The point of contact between our body and the seat (choose one contact point, for example the back and the chair, or the thighs)
You can choose one of the above physical sensations and bring the attention back to these sensations whenever the mind wanders.
Sounds as anchor for our attention
Another way to develop concentration is to focus our attention on the sense of hearing sounds. Sounds are always present wherever we go. They are always happening in the present moment. And it takes no energy to hear something.
When we start meditating, most of us think of sounds as full on distractions. If you are trying to meditate and there are some sounds coming up, your initial reaction will be irritation and resisting the sounds, which in fact makes it worse, because it creates tension and contraction in the body and lack of concentration.
So rather than getting lost in the sounds, or resisting them, we develop a different relationship to the sound, where we choose to experience the sound, whether we like it or not. We practice opening to the sounds, letting them wash through us, relaxing with the sounds, not judging them, not resisting them and not clinging to them.. We bring a curious and interested attitude to this practice.
What happens during the practice of mindfulness: the monkey mind
As you pay attention to your chosen anchor, you will notice that the attention stays with the anchor for a few seconds or minutes at a time, and then it wanders off to planning, remembering, questioning, to thousand other places. This has been described as the monkey mind, jumping from thought to thought and not able to remain still for long. In our culture, our span of attention is about the length of a TV commercial, about 50 seconds. We have such a complex multi-tasking way of using attention, that it’s going to take a bit of training and practice to learn to focus on our anchor for a period of time. So patience is key in this training.
One of the most important things to remember is not to judge yourself when your attention has wandered off. In this regard, the instructions given by the chef Julia Childs are most helpful: she says if you’re in the kitchen and you drop the lamb you can just pick it up, who’s going to know, right? It’s pretty much the same with meditation. You ‘re concentrating on your anchor and then you start thinking about something else, all of a sudden there’s an itch or a tingle or an emotion that arises. You can acknowledge that, notice it very gently and just come right back to feeling your chosen anchor. In meditation, one of the key concepts is beginning again. We can always begin again. This is at the core of our practice.
An image that is helpful in the training of attention is that of a training a puppy: It’s a matter of repeating the same instructions over and over again “come back, sit and stay” when the puppy gets distracted and wanders off, and at the same time we remain patient, loving and kind towards the puppy. So you focus on your anchor for a little while, then you notice the attention has gone somewhere else, you acknowledge that very simply, without any judgement, and you come back, “sit and stay” again. That movement of your attention, when it returns to your chosen anchor, is the key moment. When you’re coming back, you are really in the here and now.
So at the very moment that you discover that the mind is no longer with the breath, try not to turn that into a problem or judge yourself for this lapse in attention, but simply and affectionately noting what’s on your mind in this moment and then gently let it go coming back to your anchor, right in this moment, because it’s already here right now.
Also remember to keep a sense of humour as you practice, one Zen master recommends trying a half-smile as you practice.
As you learn to practice, little by little, the quality of presence, the ability to be where you are deepens and grows, and it serves the whole of your life.
Poem “Little Breath” by WS Merwin:
Little breath breathe me gently
Row me gently,
For I am a river I am learning to cross
Quote by Thich Nhat Hanh :
“Your breath should be light, even and flowing like a thin stream of water running through sand.”
Finding an anchor, long version (20 min)
Finding an anchor, short version (8 min)
For your home practice this week, I invite you to listen to the recording of this meditation or to the shorter version at least once a day, or to alternate with the recording from last week if you prefer.
Obstacles to starting a new habit, the autopilot mind
A lot of the time, when we are not mindful, our minds function on autopilot, without us really being aware of what is going on and of our motivation for doing the things we do. In this mode, we often make choices that bring us instant gratification and require the least amount of effort. So for example, we might have set a time for our daily meditation, but instead of sticking to it, we are pulled to doing something else like getting a snack, checking our phone for emails or text messages, or getting started on our to-do list.
I invite you to sense what is happening inside you at the moment that you are about to go and meditate. Notice if you feel settled or sped up, if your attention feels spacious or rather scattered and agitated. Notice what your mind is telling you. Are you thinking of other things you should be doing instead or that you would rather do instead? Do you feel pulled away from your intention to go and meditate? Can you maybe notice some form of craving or wanting, or some form of resistance and aversion? Bringing a sense of curiosity and interest to what happens in your mind.
Bring to mind your deepest aspiration or intention, the values that you care about in relation with starting a regular meditation practice at home. Notice if there are any forces leading you away from this intention, and imagine that in this moment you are able to make a wiser, more intentional choice, by remembering what most matters to you. Stepping out of autopilot living and into mindful living. Remember to remain kind and patient towards yourself as you do this internal work.
We can bring a mindful attention to all the moments in our life, and this can help us achieve our goals. Particularly, when we sense that we are on autopilot, in the habit of wanting and desiring, or resistance and aversion, we can get curious about that moment, pause and become aware again, reconnect with our deepest values, and see what happens next.