Finding a Suitable Anchor of Attention in Meditation

The Wandering Mind and Finding a Suitable Anchor of Attention in Meditation

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” (Killingworth & Gilbert, 2010, p. 932). This was the concluding statement of a study on mind wondering which found that we spend as much as 50% of our lives lost in thinking.  This can have negative effects on our mental, physical health and happiness.  But is it possible to reduce this mind wondering? Is there a way with which we can anchor our attention in the present moment? And what anchor of attention should I use?

This is where meditation can be of help. While our mind has a natural tendency to wander in thought, on the other hand, meditation is an exercise which can help us bring our minds back to where we are.  In meditation, this involves using something called an anchor to stabilise attention.  Usually, this anchor of attention takes the form of a neutral point of reference to which we return whenever our mind wanders.

The breath as an anchor of attention

In one of the most popularly advertised meditation practices, mindfulness meditation, this anchor is usually the breath. That is whenever we notice that we are lost in thought, you return your attention to the breath, either the sensations coming in and out of your nostrils or noticing the falling and rising of the abdomen.

But as Treleaven (2018) says the breath as an anchor of attention is not suitable for everyone.  For example, for people who have gone through some form of trauma, the breath may be far from neutral as the breath is an area of the body that can hold on to tension related to a trauma.  So focusing on the breath might connect you with overwhelming feelings linked to previous life-threatening events.

Finding an alternative anchor of attention

It’s all about finding an anchor that helps you stabilise your attention while at the same time offering you a sense of tranquillity.  That is finding an object to focus on which you can tolerate with ease, one which creates a sense of stability in the mind as opposed to dysregulation. 

Besides the sensation of the breath, anchors of attention can include the following:

Using an Object/Image

When you use an object/image as an anchor of attention in meditation, you gently rest your attention on the chosen object and whenever you notice that your mind has wandered you acknowledged that and gently return your attention to the chosen object/image.  You can use any object/image as an anchor of attention but is best to use an object of natural beauty or one that has a special meaning, or you find inspiring. 

For example, you could use a flower or a crystal.  You can also use objects/images that have a religious meaning or embody the truth.  For instance, you could use a statue of the Buddha or Christ or even your meditation teacher.  Or any other individual that inspires justice and truth and compassion, and you find inspiring.  These objects/images can be both real like having a painting or a statue or imagined by gently resting your attention on a mental image of the chosen object.

Reciting a Mantra

Another technique is meditating by reciting a mantra as it is said that the sound of a mantra unifies the mind.   Sogyal Rinpoche says that a mantra is, “that which protects the mind. That which protects the mind from negativity, or that which protects you from your own mind” (2002, p. 71).

A mantra can be any sound, word or short phrase, preferably one that you find appealing, easy to remember and helps you relax.  It does not necessarily need to have meaning and can be a phrase or sound that is totally meaningless. 

Some people find that using a meaningful word or phrase can be distracting in such a case use a meaningless phrase. While other people find helpful using the name of a saint prophet or their God.  But at the same time, religious content is not necessary for a mantra. You need to find something that specifically works for you and helps you concentrate. 

Using The body

Another frequently used anchor of attention in meditation is the body.  When using the body as an anchor of attention, you place your focus gently on the sensations arising at the points of contact between your body and the chair, floor, mat or cushion.  For example, if you’re sitting on a chair, you could gently rest your focus on the sensations at your feet, noticing how they touch and rest on the floor. 

You can also focus on your body as a whole.  Some people find focusing on the body as a whole as an anchor in meditation quite grounding when compared to focusing on a particular body part.  While others as in the practice of heartfulness gently rest their attention on the sensations of the heart beating.  

Another practice which uses the body as an anchor in meditation is called a body scan.  Were you systematically scan throughout your body starting at your feet and finishing with the sensations at the head.  As with the above two methods, it’s finding what works best for you as an anchor.  So that whenever your mind wanders, you can gently bring it back to the present and ground yourself in the body.

Using sounds

Another quite useful anchor of attention in meditation is using the sounds in your environment.  For example, when indoors, you can use the sound of a clock or the humming of an appliance.  When using sounds in your environment as an anchor of attention, it is essential that you find a reasonably constant sound, so that it will be there whenever your mind wanders and you need to return to it. 

For those meditating outdoors, it might be challenging to find a sound that is constant.  Still, this should not stop you for meditating outdoors using sound as nature sounds at times could be likened to a beautiful symphony. So gently rest your attention on the sounds present within your environment.  Noticing that although there are different sounds present, they all make part of the whole. And whenever you notice that your mind wanders return your attention back to the sounds in your environment just as if you were listening to a symphony.

What works best for you

The great thing about meditation is that no one anchor of attention that is better than the other. And there is no one rule to specify which anchor to use and when.  It might be that on specific days or in certain circumstances, you might find one anchor of attention more helpful than another as a point of reference to stabilise the mind.  Or it might be that you find a particular anchor extremely helpful in stabilising your mind and it becomes a staple of your practice. 

Sogyal Rinpoche (2002) also explains that you might use more than one anchor of attention in any one particular meditation session. For example, you might start your meditation practice by focusing on an object then as your mind starts to settle you would continue by repeating a mantra and finally resting your attention on the whole of your body.

It doesn’t matter which anchor you use.  It’s all about what works best for the individual as a point of reference to return to the present moment and to stabilise the mind.  Meditation is a practice in which you cultivate awareness just as a farmer cultivates a field.

Concluding reflection

We all wander off in thought during meditation, and the anchor we use in meditation is there to remind us that whenever the mind wanders, we can bring it back to the present moment, over and over again. It doesn’t matter how many times or for how long when your mind wanders off once you notice, that is a moment of mindfulness.  A moment where you have woken up in the present, and when this happens, congratulate yourself and gently return to your meditation anchor and to the experience of meditation — that of getting to know and befriending the monkey mind.

What are your thoughts? What anchor do you use in meditation? Leave your comment below.

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Anderson, T., & Farb, N. A. (2018). Personalising practice using preferences for meditation anchor modality. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2521. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02521

Killingworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932. doi:10.1126/science.1192439

Rinpoche, S. (2002). The Tibetan book of living and dying (2nd revised edition ed.). London: Rider & Co.

Treleaven, D. A. (2018). Trauma sensitive mindfulness: Practices for sale and transformative healing [epub]. New York, NY: WW Norton & Co.

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2 thoughts on “Finding a Suitable Anchor of Attention in Meditation”

  1. Very easily explained for beginners like me, thank you. I am still struggling with using sounds as the anchor of attention but will try your advice.
    To me it seems like there is a similarity between a mantra and what in psychology we call positive self-affirmations. What do you think? Thank you.

    1. yes you could say they are similar although their purpose is different as a positive self-affirmation is a “mantra” used to solidify a positive sense of self while in meditation a mantra is used for the purpose of stabilising the mind or bringing the mind back when you notice it has wandered in thought and also as mentioned in the article a mantra as used in meditation is neutral while in positive self-affirmation its not as its directed towards oneself you could actually say it is self-serving.

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