One thing I get asked from time to time is “Why is it so hard to stay focused on the breath?” I’d say in the last two weeks or so, I’ve had at least three people ask me, so I figured I’d write a quick blog on how to find the right anchor for you and your meditation practice...
When people ask me for advice on their breath, my first suggestion is usually to try counting each inhale and each exhale. For beginners, this can be a helpful little trick but based on most accounts, people have a hard time getting past even one or two conscious breaths before losing focus. Obviously, this can be super frustrating and the last thing we want is to associate meditation with frustration.
For those of you who've never heard of an anchor, the concept is pretty straightforward: an anchor is simply something that we choose to focus on while we meditate...
In practice, an anchor is what you bring your attention back to when you’ve noticed your mind has wandered. There are many ways for us to access presence but for some reason the prevailing anchor is always the breath.
Those of you who have read my blogs before know that I use the breath as my anchor when meditating, but it hasn’t always been that way for me. In fact, when I first started meditating I found it incredibly challenging to focus on my breathing. For me, I carry a lot of tension in my core and sternum and every time I focused on my breath I experienced a steady underlying buzz of anxiety and this anxiety only made it harder to still my mind.
I had to find a better approach because trying to “will-power” my way through an uncomfortable situation was making each meditation session painful and difficult.
To my surprise, after doing a little research online, I found dozens of different anchors to test out during my next few sessions. After reading more on the proper application of an anchor, it became clear to me that the point of entry each of use choose is unique and specific to us. In other words, no one anchor is better than the other as long as the principle practice of the anchor is applied correctly.
There’s a great book that I read in 2017 called Grit, written by psychology PhD, Angela Duckworth. In her book, Angela makes the argument that those who are successful in life—whether it be through one’s careers or in our case, one’s meditation practice—usually display an ability to find what’s best for them through a systematic process of trial and error.
According to Dr. Duckworth, those who persevere in the long haul don’t do so because of will-power. Instead, much of their success is based on a willingness to test their hypotheses and if proven incorrect, move on to the next option.
Of course, with an iterative process such as this, one is bound to experience many failures but ultimately, those who “win” in life are willing to “Fall seven times, and rise eight.” as the saying goes.
So what does this mean for our meditation practice?
It means you need to try as many different anchors as you can—especially if you are new to meditating. There is no point slogging along with a challenging anchor when you can try multiple anchors and find out which one works best for you and your temperament.
Not all anchors will work of course, but that’s why it’s important to keep trying until you find the right one for you!
So, with that, here are three common alternatives for you to try during your next meditation session.
Starting with the very top of your head and see if can feel your scalp completely. Once you’ve felt every inch of your head, slowly move your attention towards your ears, nose and throat. Feel them all as intensely as you can. At this point, you might start to notice a subtle tingling sensation in your head and neck area.
Now, bring your attention to your arms and fingers. Feel each arm and finger by itself and once you’ve experienced the sensations in each arm and hand individually, begin to feel your chest and back. Feel your heart with each inhale and exhale. Notice what it feels like when your lungs and belly are full with air and consciousness.
Once you’re finished with your chest, belly and back, shift your awareness to each leg and as with the arms and hands, feel each as their own.
Finally, when you’re finished feeling your legs and toes, try to feel the entire body all at once. See if you can feel one connected sensation from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet.
This is a slow process and should take you some time to complete. Do not try to rush through, truly feel your body and notice any areas of tightness or strain. Imagine your lungs in those spots and try to truly feel your breath as you inhale and exhale. Once you’ve felt it completely, move on to the next part of your body.
After finding a comfortable posture, bring your attention to your immediate surroundings. Can you hear sounds rumbling off in the distance? Can you hear what’s around you as you sit?
Bringing your attention to sound gives you a parking spot for your awareness. As with the breath, every time you notice your mind had wandered away from the sensation of hearing, simply bring it back to the sounds of your direct environment.
Many people who find the breath a challenging place to keep their awareness choose sounds because the attention is focused externally, not internally. For those who are new to meditation, a sound anchor is a great place to start and eventually segue into breath awareness.
If you’ve ever heard of Transcendental Meditation (TM) then you’ve definitely heard of mantras. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars for a TM teacher to work with you and provide you with a special and unique mantra (although I don’t discourage people from trying TM).
The application of a mantra is the same to that of the breath and sounds. First, chose a phrase and repeat it over and over in your mind. Then, when you notice that you’ve lost focus, bring your attention back to your mantra. It’s that easy.!!
One of the most common mantras I’ve heard is “I am at peace.” To use this mantra try saying “I am” on the inhale and “…at peace” on the exhale. Same rules apply here too: when you lose focus, bring your attention back to the phrase.
Whether you use your breath, your body or a mantra, it’s important to your practice that you spend some time with each anchor to find out which works best for you. If none of these work, the concept of an anchor can be easily extrapolated to this: find anything that will hold your attention and continue to bring your awareness back every time your mind loses focus.
When you find the right anchor, you will immediately notice that your sessions become deeper and richer. So, don’t be afraid to try out as many anchors as you need! And just remember, it’s okay to fall seven times, as long as you get up eight…