Breathing anchor meditation

I want to share one of the most simple mindfulness meditations, sometimes called a breathing anchor. The beauty of our breath is that it is always there with us, so it makes it a very good tool for focus and concentration, as well as a tool for connecting more to our own body and sensations – always right here and now.

This meditation or breathing anchor can be done at any time, for example if we want to take a break during the day or even when we are walking – in fact the more we do it the better. In this post I will explain it as a seated meditation.

1. If you want you can set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes – but of course you are welcome to sit for as long as you wish. Find a comfortable seat, perhaps a chair or sofa. Lower your shoulders and sit up straight, but not stiff. Find a position that you can hold for a few minutes, one that feels relaxed but also attentive. Close your eyes.

2. Direct your attention to the soles of your feet. How does the floor feel against your feet? How do your legs feel against the chair? Your back or shoulders against the back of the chair? See if you can notice any sensation anywhere in the body?

3. Now direct your attention to your breath. See how closely you can follow it. From the inhale, through the nose, down into your chest, and further down into your belly. Then all the way out again. Follow the natural flow of your breath. Where do you feel it the most? Perhaps in the nostrils, or the chest, or down in your stomach – perhaps when it expands on the inhale, and lowers on the exhale? See if you can notice the small pause between each exhale, and the following inhale. And the pause between each inhale, and the exhale. Can you feel the body expand on the inhale, and relax on the exhale?

4. Keep following each breath, as closely as you can. When your attention shifts from the breath – maybe you drift off into your thoughts, or to a sound you hear – just gently direct it back to your breath. All you need to do is notice when your attention is no longer on the breath and gently guide it back to it. As many times as necessary.

5. When you are ready you can end the meditation by taking three deep breaths, and notice how your body feels at the end. 

Remember that you can connect with your breath at any moment, so you can do this meditation anywhere, even standing or walking, whenever you want to come back to the present moment or deepen your connection to it.

“Pain is not a punishment, and pleasure is not a reward.”

The quote in the title comes from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, and I think it’s a great reminder for most of us – especially in the intense times that we are in at the moment. When negative emotions, thoughts or events are happening in our lives, it’s common for us to think there is something wrong. That somewhere along the way, something has gone wrong, or we have done something wrong – either to cause or to deserve what’s happening. From a mindfulness point of view, this is (in part) not true, but most importantly, it’s irrelevant in this very moment. Of course it’s good to reflect on what might be the cause of things, to know how to make clearer and more beneficial choices in the future. Looking at it from a Buddhist perspective everything does have a cause – it’s the law of karma, of cause and effect. At the same time, there is nothing we can really do about something that is already occurring – if a sensation is arising it’s already here. All we can do is decide how to meet it, here and now. What we do here and now is also what will shape our future moments. I heard someone once say: at this moment, we are completing the seeds of the past, and planting the seeds of the future. So it’s the way we meet this moment that matters the most.

Another point is that it can be very hard for us to know what truly is negative in our lives and what is positive. Sometimes a negative event brings us a beautiful gift. I think that most of us have experienced this in some way? And sometimes we think something really great has happened in our life, only for it to bring a lot of pain later on, or just turn out to be not that great at all. When it comes to our own sensations and states of mind: what we judge as negative, is perhaps (and most probably) rising to the surface to show us something – something we may need to become aware of. This is why curiosity is an important part of mindfulness – as well as non-judgment.

Sometimes non-judgment can look like saying to oneself: “I don’t think I can feel ok with what is happening right now, I’m worried, I feel afraid…” Or whatever feeling it may be. And to not judge whatever that emotion might be, but to observe it, and let it arise, let it be. And let it pass, as it will. Curiosity might sound like: “This is interesting. Let me maybe look at this more closely. I wonder what it would be like, to let myself feel this feeling fully? Where in the body do I feel or sense it the most?” And so on.

Of course, when a moment arises which we feel a strong aversion towards, it’s not always going to be easy to meet it with curiosity or in a non-judging way. This is why we practice. Just like we train in a sport or practice playing an instrument, we practice meeting life and our sensations, thoughts and emotions, in a kind, non-judging, and curious way. With practice and in time, it does become easier to rest in a state of presence and non-judgement. Our awareness of the moment when we are judging (ourselves, our feelings or thoughts or sensations) grows and expands, so it becomes easier to notice and easier to then guide ourselves back to our presence, instead of creating stories around an emotion or a thought.

In mindfulness practice we don’t try to remove unwanted or uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. But when we really pay attention, we begin to notice that our thoughts and emotions are constantly changing, just like life is constantly in flow and change. And we might learn to relate to them in a way that gives us more space, as well as courage to really feel and look at everything that is happening in our life, both the pain and pleasure.
We notice that we can let things be as they are, through all of life’s clouds and different weather.

If you are interested in more wise words by Pema Chödrön, here are two of her talks/courses on Sounds True.

Coming closer to ourselves – How to use curiosity and compassion to befriend your most challenging emotions.

Living with vulnerability – A Training in Making Friends with Your Mind.

Why practice mindfulness?

Mindfulness can be described as a way of waking up to life. In mindfulness, we practice how to relate to life with openness, curiosity, non-judgement, and compassion. We make a conscious effort to be present, here and now. It is a state of being truly awake. A state of really paying attention. A state of presence.

Even though mindfulness has gained more attention in the last few years – partially thanks to an increasing number of studies that show the benefits of the practice – there are still many misconceptions about what mindfulness is. It is not that strange considering it’s still a relatively new concept in the western world.

One common misconception is that practicing mindfulness means to passively sit around and allow everything in life to be as it is and to never really make any efforts to change anything. But mindfulness is not passivity at all. In truth, it takes some effort, mostly in the beginning when we are just getting into it and making it into a daily practice, and ultimately a way to live our life. I believe that living connected to ourselves, to others, and to here and now, is our natural state. But it takes effort – and intention – in part because of our conditioning, and because our everyday life these days doesn’t really make it easy for us to live mindfully.

The non-mindful life
For many of us, life is stressful. We tend to operate from a “flight or fight-mode” a lot of the time. Society, unfortunately, promotes quite a non-mindful and unconscious way of living. The human brain hasn’t really developed for the modern lifestyle that we have created, which explains why stress-related illnesses keep increasing. It can be painful to see how disconnected many of us are today from ourselves, each other and just life in general – life as it’s happening right now. Many discover mindfulness when they are searching for ways to deal with the difficulties of life, stress, anxiety or any kind of mental or physical pain. This is something we all share in our humanness – we all go through difficult times in one way or another at some point. Life is a constant ebb and flow, a constant change, and, in a way, mindfulness helps us to ride those waves of life as gracefully as possible. Most importantly, it takes us deeper into our humanity. And, I would say, it gifts us with courage to meet life fully.

Some benefits of mindfulness practice
– Lowers stress and anxiety. Mindfulness practice and meditation have been shown to lower the stress hormone cortisol.
– Improved sleep
– A stronger immune system
– Help with pain management
– More creativity
– More focus
– More compassion and kindness, towards ourselves and others
– We become better equipped to deal with difficulties in our life
– We open up to experience more joy and peace in our life

The mindfulness brain
Several newer studies show just how mindfulness helps when it comes to stress-related problems. What effect it has on the brain and how the practice helps to calm down our mind and put us into a more relaxed and receptive state. How it helps us shift from the fight-or-flight mode that so many of us are in more often than not these days. Or the dopamine-triggered-state, which has become an even bigger problem with the addictiveness of smart phones and apps.

I love seeing new studies having to do with neuroscience, as I find it super interesting. So I might write more about this further on. Our brains are so complex and fascinating, and there’s still so much to explore in this area. It’s exciting to me that science is beginning to bridge the gap between our modern lives and what has been known in some cultures and parts of the world for centuries. In a way, neuroscience is just further explaining things that humans already know from experience.