Use of an Anchor in Meditation

Now that you understand what meditation is as well as how to do it, you are probably wondering what exactly an anchor is and how to decide which one to use.

While a variety of potential anchors exist, we’ll confine our discussion here to the two principal, traditional ones: mantra and breath. These are suitable for anyone who wants to learn meditation, whether it’s for emotional well-being, mental enhancement or spiritual cultivation.

But before going into details about these two anchors, we should first clear up any confusion regarding the nature of anchors, especially insofar as how they relate to objects of concentration, which are something quite different. This confusion is one of the principal reasons why beginners get frustrated while learning meditation.

An anchor is not the same thing as an object of concentration. Anchors are mental objects you associate with a particular state of mind, in this case meditation. By remembering the anchor you automatically recall the state of mind with which it is associated. But you don’t necessarily keep the anchor at the center of your attention for the entire time you meditate. It is only used in order to return to meditating, not to “meditate upon”.

Objects of concentration, on the other hand, are mental objects you keep at the center of your attention for as long as you can or wish to. While it can be said that concentration is also an act of remembering, it is a remembering that is maintained constantly throughout a period of time, rather than elicited occasionally as with the remembering of an anchor.

The confusion for the beginner arises because both mantra and breath are widely used as objects of concentration. The notion of anchoring and remembering is rather less well represented in the meditation literature and even so, when it is, it is often intermixed with suggestions like “concentrate on the breath” or “focus your attention on the mantra.” Suggestions like these cause much confusion and frustration for beginners and quite a few give up, believing they can’t meditate or don’t understand how. In reality, it is the fault of the teaching.

The fact is, objects of concentration and the methods by which they are employed are appropriate only for intermediate and advanced practitioners who are seeking improved concentration skills, self-understanding or spiritual cultivation. If you are learning meditation for purposes of relaxation and stress reduction, all you’ll ever really need is an anchor. But everyone starts with learning how to meditate, and for that everyone needs an anchor.

And for that, either a mantra or the breath will do. The decision is entirely up to you and depends only upon your personal preference. You can try both for awhile and see which one you like better – which one makes you more relaxed or feels more attractive. Having made your decision, it’s best to remain with it and not switch around. An anchor gets stronger over time and with repetition. So switching around only undermines the strength of the anchoring effect.

A mantra is any sound, word or short phrase that the practitioner finds attractive, easy to remember and conducive to relaxation. It can have meaning or no meaning. Some people do better with a meaningful word or phrase while others experience the meaning as a distraction and hence prefer a simple sound.

If you are religious, you can use the name of a saint, prophet or of your God – whatever you feel most comfortable with. But religious content in a mantra is not at all necessary. It’s simply what works better for some people.

Here are some non-religious, meaningful words and phrases that you might consider (just a handful of the many possibilities):

I am
Now
Relax
Being
Here and now
Okay
So
Peace

And then some traditional mantras which have no meaning in English:

Aiym
Hum
Nama
Hamso
Soham
Shirah
Shree
Shyam
Shivo
Om

Choose any of the above or find one on your own and try it out for a few days. If you are comfortable with it, there is no reason not to continue using it for the rest of your life.

Remember: it’s not the particular mantra that is important, but the continued and habitual use of it over time. Persistent loyalty to one mantra will strengthen the association of that mantra with the meditative state of mind. This is what is truly important, not the sound, meaning, language, apparent exoticism, antiquity or any other aspect of the mantra itself.

The use of the breath as an anchor is quite simple. At the beginning of your meditation session, you associate the breath with the meditative state of mind by first relaxing, then feeling two or three full breaths, either at the nostrils or with the rising and falling of your abdomen (the choice is up to you – whichever you find easier to feel and more relaxing). Then, each time you become distracted, you’ll eventually remember the breath, at which point you feel your inhalation and exhalation for one or two times at the place where you’ve chosen to feel it. This action, being associated with the meditative state, will bring you back to your meditation.

There is no need to “stay with” the breath, keeping your attention on it to the relative exclusion of everything else, a method taught in some traditions. While this is a valid method for specific applications, it is not the same use of the breath we are seeking here. In this case, we just remember the breath, watch it come in and out one or two times, and then let it go while we rest in the meditative state of mind, no longer focused on the breath per se.

You may find yourself returning to your anchor time and time again, even every few seconds, especially when you are first learning to meditate. This can even happen occasionally to more advanced practitioners on days when their minds are “scattered” and easily distracted. No matter, you just continue to remember the anchor, coming as close as you can and as often as necessary back to the relaxed, meditative state of mind. That, in a nutshell, is the entire “work” of the anchor. Everything happens there, and the more often over time it happens, the more deeply the anchor will become properly associated with the meditative state of mind.

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