In mindfulness meditation practice we are invited to anchor or ground our awareness in something we can sense, the breath being the most common anchor. Often the assumption in meditation instruction is that the breath is a neutral, portable, dynamic, rhythmic object of awareness that is a convenient place to train our awareness on.
However, the breath doesn’t feel like much of an anchor for some people. Trauma memories can be associated with the face, neck and chest area – all places on the body that the breath moves through. If our particular trauma memory is carried in these parts of our body, then this is not a neutral place to rest our awareness.
Or, if we have difficulty breathing as a result of a chronic or acute physical condition, bringing awareness to this physiological process probably won’t feel grounding. The breath is not a neutral object of awareness and may actually increase our anxiety and move us out of our window of tolerance.
In addition, according to some wisdom traditions, our heart area is the part of our body where many emotions are stored and felt. We might feel love, kindness, generosity and compassion in our heart area, and we might also feel the other side of these emotions – isolation, scarcity, loneliness and grief. When we bring our awareness to this part of our body, we might tap into any of these qualities of the heart. For some of us, this might feel soothing, but for others of us who carry a heavy heart, this might feel distressing. When , , , and
If we are interested in cultivating a mindfulness meditation practice but we are challenged by anchoring our awareness on the breath, or we are a teacher of mindfulness and wish to offer options for folks who are challenged by using the breath as an anchor, we can consider some alternative anchors based on what we understand about our sensory system.
Two kinds of sensory anchors
Our sensations can be categorized in two ways:
- those that give us information about our environment (environment-expanded), and
- that give us information about our body (body-centered).
Environment-expanded sensations include:
- Vision – tells us about movement in our environment;
- Hearing – tells us about movement and distance in our environment;
- Smell – tells us about the safety of our food and also alerts us to objects in our environment.
Body-centered sensations include:
- Balance – tells us where our head is in relation to our body’s movement;
- Proprioception – tells us where our body is in relationship to our environment;
- Taste – tells us about food and drink that we put in our mouth;
- Touch sensors – tell our brain us about the state of our skin;
- Interoception – tells us about the state of our internal landscape including muscles, ligaments, joints and tendons, as well as felt sense or intuition.
Choosing sensory anchors in mindfulness meditation
Focussing our awareness on the breath is part of our ability for interoception, which can be the most challenging sense to tap into when we have experienced trauma or when we have ongoing pain in our body. Tamara Russell, author of the book Mindfulness in Motion, at the Neurocognitive Foundations Mindfulness Teacher Training in Brazil this year suggested that breath meditation is quite an advanced practice. Even though breath meditation is often offered because it is believed to be an accessible practice, anchoring in other senses can feel much more supportive for some of us.
We can use what we understand about these two sense categories when considering anchor options in mindfulness meditation. In this way we are recruiting principles of sensory modulation to help support our practice. Sensory modulation theory helps us to understand how particular stimulation of our different senses affects our emotional regulation and our ability to self-organize. It also offers information about how we might use different kinds of sensory stimulation for different tasks in our day. For example,
- If we have difficult memories and associations with body-centered sensations, we might employ environment-expanded sensations as a way to anchor our awareness in something more neutral and further from our physical body (like focussing on sound or something in our visual field).
- If we feel we have dissociated from our body or spaced out, we might gently employ body-centered practices to get in touch with how we are feeling and to ground our experience in the present moment. Practices involving firm pressure can be particularly helpful (like focussing on the soles of the feet or the pressure of holding our hands together).
Choosing our object of awareness
Choosing an object of awareness to help self-regulate is a highly personal endeavor, and it’s a beautiful act of self-compassion to work through our options so that we can find an anchor we truly feel we can come home to. We don’t need to fit into an expectation of having the breath as an anchor – it is merely one in a range of anchors to choose from.
Below is a list of some objects of awareness you might anchor in, starting with environment-expanding anchors that will likely feel less activating, followed by body-centered anchors that may be more likely to touch in to difficult body memories. The lists are offered in order from potentially least activating anchors (sight potentially being least activating) to potentially most activating (interoception potentially being most activating).
The aim is not to continually move between anchors during a single meditation session, but to find one that resonates and to stay with that one to support the steadying of our awareness. If we are a meditation teacher, we might offer to our participants 3 or 4 options for anchoring our awareness – not so few that it doesn’t feel like an option and not so many that it feels confusing – and invite our participants to stay with the sensory experience that feels most grounding.
We might also find that a sensory experience that changes is more accessible than one that does not change, simply because our brain is more likely to move away from the object of our attention toward our default mode of remembering and planning if we don’t have new stimulation to attend to. Our brain is wired to look out for novelty and to go into rest when there is no novelty. So, holding your attention on a candle flame might be a more successful endeavor than holding your awareness on the carpet in front of you. Experimenting is the key to finding an object of attention that supports your practice.
Similarly, an object of awareness that is rhythmic might be more accessible than an object that doesn’t change or that changes randomly. Rhythm gives us a balance between novelty and predictability – dopamine drives us to both find new things and to feel rewarded when we get what we expected, so finding both novelty and predictability in our practice will give us a reward of dopamine, supporting our motivation to practice. In line with this reasoning, a rhythmic drum beat might feel more stabilizing than nature sounds, depending on our relationship with both sounds.
- A candle flame;
- The carpet in front of you;
- Incense burning;
- Fire in a fireplace;
- A simple mandala;
- The palm of your hand;
- Running water;
- Sand running in an hourglass;
- A lava lamp;
- Attention Restoration Meditations.
- A recording of a simple sound in nature (crickets, birds, flowing water, waves on the beach);
- The sound of your overhead fan;
- The repetitive sound of a drumbeat;
- The sound of a heartbeat (could be activating for some people with heart challenges or difficult pre-birth memories);
- Repeating a word whose qualities you would like to invite into your awareness;
- A recording of a simple chant (eg “Ohm” repeated over and over);
- Music that is simple and does not move you into your intellect or activate your emotions (eg gentle rhythmic tones without lyrics);
- Sound meditation.
- Neutral or soothing Essential Oils;
- Nature smells.
Note: Particular smells can have quite an effect on our emotions as our sense of smell has a direct link to our amygdala which processes memories and emotions. This is important to know if we have trauma in our story and is one good reason for us to have scent-free group meditation spaces. Another good reason is that chemical scents, including essential oils, can induce fragrance sensitivity symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, breathing difficulty and watery eyes for some people.
- Mindful bike riding;
- Bringing mindfulness to our posture;
- Shifting body weight slowly and rhythmically on the soles of our feet;
- Slow mindful movement (eg tai chi);
- Mindful walking;
- Mindful running;
- Mindful walking or running on uneven surfaces (eg in the forest).
- Mindful weight training;
- Mindful swimming;
- Intuitive movement.
- Mindful eating and drinking.
Winnie Dunn, in her book Living Sensationally: Understanding Your Senses, explains that the sense of touch can be divided into two different kinds:
- light touch which is generally alerting (alerts us to information like temperature and texture), and
- deep pressure touch which is generally grounding (helps us to feel sources of stability).
Light touch anchors:
- Feeling the sensation of clothing against our skin.
- Feeling our hands on our legs.
- Patting our four-legged family member rhythmically.
- Running our hand rhythmically over a texture we enjoy like a fluffy blanket or soft-bristled brush.
- Sense of Touch Meditation.
Deep pressure touch anchors (deep touch receptors in our body – joints, muscles and tendons – are similar to proprioception receptors):
- Meditating under a weighted blanket;
- Meditating while pulling a blanket or shawl tightly around us;
- Feeling our back move against the chair or floor as we breath;
- Being mindful while receiving a massage.
- Pulsation and vibration in your internal body experience (you could try laying on your side with your head on a pillow and notice your pulse in your ear);
- Your pulse at a place where you can feel your heartbeat easily;
- The movement of your whole body with each breath;
- The movement of your shoulders with each breath (you could try laying on your side and notice how your top shoulder moves with each breath);
- The sensation of your breath just inside your nostrils;
- The movement of your belly with each inbreath and outbreath (you could try laying down with a hand on your belly noticing how it moves with the breath).
- The expansion and contraction of your diaphragm with the inbreath and outbreath;
- The rise and fall of your chest with the inbreath and outbreath;
- The sensation of your breath in the back of your throat;
- Internal Body Meditation.
If you’d like to continue to explore trauma-sensitive ways to be with your body within a self-compassion practice, please check out Somatic Self-Compassion training. We’d love to see you there!
- Dunn, W. (2009) Living Sensationally: Understanding Your Senses
- Champagne, T. (2011) Sensory Modulation and Environment: Essential Elements of Occupation
- Heller, S. (2002) Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to do if you are sensory defensive in an overstimulating world
- Nummenmaa L, Glerean E, Hari R, Hietanen JK. Bodily maps of emotions. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jan 14;111(2):646-51. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1321664111. Epub 2013 Dec 30. PMID: 24379370; PMCID: PMC3896150.
- Treleaven, D. (2018) Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing
- Arriving Meditation (9 minutes) - October 20, 2021
- Setting Up Your Meditation Space: A place to come home to - September 17, 2021
- Awakening Your Nervous System Through Tapping Practice (15 minutes) - September 12, 2021
- Awareness of Sound (21 minutes) - July 19, 2021
- Podcast Episode 9: Compassion in a T-Shirt: In Session with Kristy Arbon - June 13, 2021