The biggest challenge in meditation is staying present, not getting lost in memories of the past, dreams of the future or the running commentary that your mind creates about whatever you’re experiencing; having an anchor, a place that you can return to when your mind wanders off is an incredibly useful tool for all meditators, regardless of how long you have been practicing for.
The most commonly used anchor is the breath, as you are always breathing and the sensation of your breath is easy to access. To use the breath as your anchor, breathe naturally, just become aware of the experience of breathing and allow your attention to go to the place that the sensation of breathing is the strongest. Some people find this to be in their nostrils, as coolness on the in-breath and warmth on the out-breath. Others focus on the rise and fall of their belly or their chest. And some focus on the way their rib cage expands and contracts. There is no right place or wrong place, only what feels right to you.
Some people find that they feel more grounded by using their body as their anchor, particularly at the points of contact between their body and the floor or the points of contact between their body and their mat, chair, bench or cushion. Others find that the sensation of their heart beating works best.
The sounds in your environment can also be used as anchors. When indoors, you may find that the sound of a clock ticking or the hum of a radiator work for you. When using a sound, it is best to find something that is reasonably constant, so that it will be there when you return to it. For those meditating outdoors, nature is filled with opportunities for finding sounds that can be used as anchors, such as the wind blowing in the trees or birdsong. Nature can also provide anchors that connect your body with external elements, such as the sun shining on you or the cool breeze touching your skin. Some people even use their sense of smell, particularly if they’re sitting in a garden of scented flowers, but this requires a certain sensitivity as many of us become desensitised to smells after being exposed to them for a while, so for many this anchor can be a tad unreliable.
You may find that on different days or in different circumstances you prefer one anchor over another, or you may find that once you’ve chosen your anchor that it just works for you and it becomes a staple of your practice. It doesn’t really matter which anchor you choose, as long as it serves as a reminder to return to the present. We all wander off in thought during meditation and the anchor is there to bring us back to the present moment, over and over again. When your mind wanders off, it doesn’t matter for how long, once you notice this, it’s as if you’ve woken up in the present, and when this happens, just return to your anchor and to the experience of meditation.