When The Anchor Can Sink the Ship

I was recently wrapping up a zoomed conference presentation for the national group of us docs that teach behavioral medicine to family medicine trainees.  I had just walked the convened “Hollywood Squares”-on-steroids group through a brief guided meditation exercise, to give a taste of the basic directions and opening experience of watching the breath.  Leading this diaspora of mindful participants, all practicing in unison across the continent, was thrilling, really; a silver lining to the limiting impact of closeness in teaching, and to the overall crap-fest that is 2020.

After some wrap-up slides on integrating the content into their home program curricula, I entertained questions via the chat function on Zoom.  One of them was simple, but cryptic:  “what can we use as an anchor for meditating besides the breath?”  I gave the hopefully helpful, anodyne response about other aspects of our experience to use in entraining awareness: the heartbeat, a thought or quietly reiterated mantra, aspirational ideas of gratitude and compassion, and out to anything and everything in our momentary field of awareness.  I followed that with a troubleshooting question of my own:  is there an obstacle in watching your breathing?  I was expecting a response involving a cold, or asthma.  Instead, I got an unexpected, potent reply.

“I can’t watch my breathing…. George Floyd comes up.”

The sound on the zoom conference was muted, but as I looked at the latticework of screens, the faces looking back at me…. wow.  I was quiet for a moment, first out of a little bit of numbing, then from a sense of respect.  A number of us teared up a little.  I had very little time left to address this moment; but I managed to express gratitude to and compassion for the questioner, and to frame the idea that what can “come up” in the midst of this practice can be lots of things, including trauma.

While we shouldn’t be afraid to meditate, we must take some care.  In Practical Mindfulness,  I cover a variety of “anchors” to work with, from physical sensations, to emotional states, to patterns of thought.  The anchor serves to help us not float too far away in discursive thought, or to loll about in mindless tune-out.

But what if the anchor itself drives tension, even triggers a traumatic response?  The answer depends on one’s intentions in that sitting, and one’s state of emotional settling generally.  In beginning practice, when getting the basics of watching/losing/regaining down is the primary goal, having the anchor be provocative or radioactive is a really bad idea – suffering generating, and likely to cause an early exit to cultivating a beneficial meditation practice.  An anchor that can sink the ship is not an anchor at all.

So, early on, pick another “target.”   Watching one’s heartbeat or a candle work fine.  Yet, down the road of experience, and best with the help of a teacher and/or therapist, carefully addressing that traumatic “anchor” can be important and fruitful.  We can demystify it, and make it “safe” in to hold in mind, though usually never without some reactivity that can linger.

That working with the breath, a foundational tactic in developing mindfulness, can be contaminated by that awful moment in Minneapolis is disappointing, but it’s frankly dwarfed by the larger impacts of inequality and casual cruelty that we must all face.  It’s ironic, too, in that cultivating mindfulness and compassion is surely part of the way we all can face and change it.

Take care and stay safe, friends.  GCS