I recently wrote about Lia Ditton, a 38-year old long-distance rower, who plans to row 4,500 nautical miles from Japan to San Francisco. It will take between 5 and 6 months and, if successful, will make her the third person and first female to complete it.
I am completely fascinated by the logistics of Lia’s journey. She writes everyday she’s aboard; she actually penned a bestselling book while on a similar quest. Which got me wondering. Who’s rowing the boat while she writes? Or sleeps?
Turns out, Lia has a sea anchor. A traditional anchor is something that tethers you to the land so that you don’t drift in the wind or current. Its job is to stop you from moving. But a sea anchor is a different animal. Its purpose is to simply slow you down. It acts as a brake by increasing the drag through the water. Basically, Lia positions her vessel in a water tunnel between two currents and the sea anchor keeps her on course. She practices using her sea anchor is calm water and hopes she’ll have the muscle memory to use it when she encounters the inevitable storms.
We all have an anchor in our breath. Mindful breathing anchors you to the here and now. In mindfulness training, we choose the breath as an anchor because it’s something that’s readily available and accessible to us all. If we’re alive, we’re breathing. Breathing mindfully doesn’t stop us, but simply slows us down enough to bring us back to the present.
And we’re not designed to be present in the moment. All of you who constantly tell me you can’t stop the endless chatter in your brains? You’re totally normal! The brain’s job is to keep us safe, not keep us happy or calm. Neuroscientists believe we have between 50,000-70,000 thoughts every single day. That’s a lot of thinking! And unfortunately, most of those thoughts are just mental flotsam and jetsam. Our default setting is to either rehash, ruminating about things that have happened in the past, or rehearse, worry and agonize about things that may or may not come to pass in the unknowable future. Some psychologists believe that depression stems from the brain’s habit of rehashing, while anxiety is your brain rehearsing. Which means a happy, peaceful brain can only exist in this moment. It’s our job to intentionally bypass the tendency towards mental time travel.
Intentional breathing brings us back into the present because it’s always this breath. You can think about past or future breaths, but you cannot experience them. You can only be in the breath that’s happening right now. So that’s why we call the breath an anchor.
An anchor is also the best way to remain steady in an emotional or mental storm. The anchor won’t get rid of the storm, but can hold you steady and safe until it passes. But, just like Lia, we have to practice using the anchor when the skies are blue so that it’s our natural go-to when the thunder crashes and the lightning strikes.
Try this mindful minute.
Sit up tall in your chair and place your feet on the floor. Or, if it’s more comfortable, lie down on the floor with legs bent and knees resting against each other. Rest one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Close your eyes or rest your gaze gently on the floor or ceiling.
Now notice your breath. Try to breathe in and out of your nose. Breathe in….this is the inhale. The belly will fill up like a balloon. Breathe out….this is the exhale. The belly will move back toward your spine, like letting the air out of the balloon. Feel your hands moving with the breath. Just notice the sensation without trying to analyze or label it.
Now start to count the breaths as they pass. On the inhale, silently count one. On the exhale, count two. The next inhale is three and the next exhale is four. Count all the way to ten. If you lose your place, no worries. Just start again at one.
Keep breathing like this, soft and relaxed. If you start thinking about other things, it doesn’t matter. Just come back to watching your breath come and go until you get to ten. That’s it.
Now scan through the body and notice how you feel. Open your eyes.
The mindful minute is the foundation of the BE Project, a mindful school program I helped to develop for the Clark County School System. We call it a mindful minute because, as you get totally relaxed and your breath starts to slow down (it’s an anchor, remember?), it’ll take about a minute to breathe to ten. Don’t be concerned with the time though; just breath intentionally to ten.
The more we practice using our anchor in calm waters, the easier it is to use when the storms come. Anchors aweigh, mateys.