Mindful Self-Compassion: Learning to Be Anchor, Boat, and Sea
I have a history of working with anchors. Not the kind you throw overboard. But rather the figurative kind used to keep something hyper mobile in a fixed place. I had my first experience with anchors when I was a UCLA grad student TAing for a writing course in the early aughts. To clarify assignments, my colleague and me found ourselves writing lengthy emails to our students to explain the purpose of having a strong thesis. We even went so far as to generate a hand-out partially cribbed from a Writing Center at a university in Indiana called ‘the thesis finder.’ By making arguments of our own, we tried to convince our students it was necessary to start their essay with a strong thesis. A weak thesis or, worst case scenario, no thesis, we told our students, made the reader feel adrift in the text.
It might have been my colleague who likened the absence of a thesis statement in an argumentative essay to leaving the reader ‘unmoored’ or at sea. I liked this nautical metaphor because it helped to convey the queasy sense of disorientation brought on by the lack of an anchor. A thesis provides a fixed point around which to organize evidence and analysis. It grounds the reader in the discursive space of the essay and orients them by providing a clear organizing principle. In other words, it frames the reading experience by making the author’s discursive moves legible; it provides a key for their interpretation. It not only signals to the reader what is important, but makes a case for why it is important to the argument itself. Long story short: thesis not optional.
When I transitioned later in my career to teaching yoga and mindfulness, I found myself working with this figure of the anchor once again. Here, like in writing, the anchor acts as an organizing principle for the meditative experience which, unlike an essay, is fluid, not fixed. The anchor provides a stable point to which the wandering mind can keep coming back to — again and again as the attention wanes and, then, refocuses itself. The anchor’s identity isn’t important and, could vary, depending on the meditator and their style of meditation. The breath, the sensations in the body, sounds, phrases, thoughts and feelings could all serve as anchors. One wasn’t better than another, per se, but individuals might have preferences. I don’t know about other people, but I am one such individual. And I hold fast to the anchor I like best.
When I am struggling in a sit (which is pretty much all of the time), the anchor that grounds me in the moment is Loving Kindness Meditation. While I try to overcome the queasiness — the roiling, turmoil of being in the moment, I come back again and again to these kind phrases to help me not only to stay present, but to be with the discomfort with kindness and compassion. I like to place one hand on my heart and one hand on my belly as I repeat to myself following the rhythm of my breath: May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe and strong. May I be free from suffering and the things that cause me to suffer. May I be well. There are other variations of these phrases, for sure, but this is the one I’ve memorized.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that I’ve internalized these Loving Kindness phrases as well over the past ten months of the pandemic. It is interesting to try to describe just how deeply I’ve internalized them through a combination of formal and informal practice. Whenever I feel ‘challenged’ in my daily life, I stop and feel my feet to ground myself in the present moment. Feeling the soles of my feet press into the ground reminds me that I’m in my home, surrounded by my nuclear family, safe. The phrases, whether I will them to or not, come on quick as I turn my attention to the breath and begin to deepen it too. This ritual has gotten me through some pretty tough times as the four of us have spent 24/7 within these walls working, learning, and living together.
It’s really, then, no surprise that this is the anchor I called upon when I found myself adrift on the first full day of the virtual silent retreat I’d signed up to do in my own home this January. Leaving the wisdom of this idea of an in-home retreat aside, let’s just say that, at best, it could only be challenging. Because it essentially asks of each participant to put their daily life on hold and to adopt a new rhythm punctuated by new routines. Sit, walk, eat, repeat. That’s the cycle of the silent retreat. The afternoon session, for the sake of variety, offers mindful movement, as well as a dharma talk followed by Metta (Loving Kindness) meditation. As my MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) teacher would say, ‘It’s simple, but not easy.’ Given that the retreat was being run on Eastern Standard Time, it felt neither simple, nor easy. Enter anchor.
As the days passed, I sat, walked, ate, repeat in silence within my home as my children and husband went about the business of living their regular pandemic lives. As I heard dramas unfold and saw struggle around me during this in-house retreat, I leaned on my phrases to comfort me. No matter how many times I repeated them, they were never enough. They weren’t able to overcome the strain, or should I say, the pain of this enforced separation of me and my family. To borrow the words of my therapist, it was just too much to be present to my own absence. I can’t imagine a more painful spectacle than watching myself not being there for my kids and husband in this time of heightened stress and anxiety. Which, depending on how you look at it, was exactly what the retreat was asking me to do.
Through the suffering, I came to see that I am an anchor. Yes, I call on them — the breath, the sensations, the sounds, and the phrases — in meditation to help me be in the moment. But, more than that, I am an anchor in my own household. With my children, I help them to come back to the present moment when they spin out into the past or the future. And, believe me, right now the present isn’t always the easiest place to be. My work, as an anchor, is to provide this sense of stability that can help them to weather the vicissitudes of the pandemic present by feeling a sense of groundedness exactly where they are.
To regulate others isn’t easy, but this tending to our collective nervous system is also what regulates me. It seems strange to me, cruel even, to think that this lesson had to be won the hardest of ways: via silent separation. A retreat routine that enforced physical barriers and put emotional distance between me and my dear ones. Coming out of this retreat experience, I wonder if there might have been an easier, kinder approach to getting a mindful education. Could there be, in this world of virtual mindfulness practice, a program that met me where I’m at, embraced who I am, and honored my connected family? It turns out the answer is yes.
While maybe not a retreat experience, last night I got a taste of what I’d missed and what had felt so sorely missing. On a whim, I joined an online practice circle led by senior graduates of the Mindfulness Self-Compassion program (MSC for short). The session, I soon learned, was being led by a substitute teacher, an older Australian gentleman, J. He shared that he had a penchant for dark chocolate (which he mindfully ate every night). And introduced us to the acrobatic gray cat of his that sometimes sat on his shoulders while he spoke.
At first, the sit with John struck me as pretty standard. He led us through the steps of setting up our sit: finding a comfortable seat, connecting with the ground, and beginning to notice the breath in the body. For the next twenty minutes, we sat in silence each in our own Zoom squares as we breathed and brought our wandering attention back to our chosen anchor. At some point, John broke the silence and began to speak. And everything changed. He invited us to imagine ourselves floating on a sea of compassion. Our practice was our boat; it kept us safely afloat on these waters. He reminded us that we built out our boats over time through the practice, which was as much about showing compassion to others as it was giving it to ourselves.
His words gave me peace in a way that the virtual silent retreat hadn’t or couldn’t. They were, in a way, a coming home to what I already knew deep inside me. The Loving Kindness practice that I’d been relying on was like knocking on the door of this place of understanding. I’d been waiting there patiently at the entrance until John turned the handle and let me in. I’d needed to be reminded that this incredible expansiveness I was feeling in my heart, my mind, and my body was mindfulness. It was not a practice of restriction, but invitation. And I was invited to be all the parts of the whole at once: the sea, the boat, the anchor. Not one, but many tethers tying us together in this tumult and turmoil. I appreciate now that anchors are all around; what matters is coming back to them again and again once you find them. They are like arms: made both to hold and to be held. Always with compassion.