Using An Anchor In Meditation

Our meditation teachers might ask us to ‘anchor’ our attention on the breath.

We do this by setting this behaviour as an intention for the meditation session. We start very deliberately, with some determination that the mind should rest on the breath. Then, each time we notice that the mind has become distracted, we gently return the attention back to the breath. We do this as many times as we forget and remember.

Every time we catch our mind drifting, and return it to our chosen anchor, our mindfulness capacity increases. We strengthen our ability to pay attention, attend for longer durations, bring the attention back more often and bring the attention back more quickly.

The mind is a virtual space, in which almost anything can happen. Since it’s not limited to what’s actually happening in the senses, it can drift in any direction and go to any place. The mind slipping off to somewhere else is very subtle. Having a pre-decided anchor is a way for us to notice that the mind has drifted.

Knowing beforehand where we will return the attention to also means that we are not distracted by having to decide where to put it each time.

Any activity that requires our attention will be supercharged by this capacity for mindfulness.

The purpose of our meditation might be simply to reduce distraction and rumination, so we can function with less mental agitation. Stability itself can be soothing, giving us the sensation of being centred rather than scattered.

If our meditation session has some additional purpose, such as the body scan, then we can spend more time benefiting from the body scan. We acquire more information, and apply any guidance more diligently.

The breath isn’t the only anchor we can choose, but it is the most commonly useful.

Why The Breath Is A Good Object For Mindfulness

It seems like mindfulness teachers are obsessed with the breath. They are always telling us to pay attention to it. But it’s the attention rather than the breath that we are developing. So why is the breath always chosen as the object of mindfulness?

The breath is subtle

Most of the time, the breath is noticeable enough that we can pay attention to it, but subtle enough that we can ignore it. This makes it a perfect challenge for training the mind.

Once we have gained some skill with mindfulness, we can also let the breath fall into the background, while we notice the shape of the mind in the current moment. That’s when things start to get really interesting.

The breath is in real time

Since the breath is something we perceive through our senses, our minds are focusing on what is happening in real time. Attending to the body brings us back to the present moment.

The breath is always with us.

The breath is portable. We always carry it around and we never leave it at home.

The breath has a rhythm

When the mind drifts away, breathing is a cycle of events that can eventually remind us that we were meant to be doing something.

The rhythm is just the right frequency to prompt us in the next interval in our distracted thinking. If you miss this breath, there’ll be another one along soon.

The breath is private

No-one has to know what you are doing. You can bring your attention to the breath in a meeting, during an argument, at a bus stop – anywhere.

The breath is essential

No matter how bad things are, the breath is usually available.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “If you are breathing, then there is more right with you than wrong with you.”