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Internal Anchors—One Life Lesson from Grief

Internal Anchors—One Life Lesson from Grief


Change is the only constant. Life is about enduring change, positive or negative, large or small. We manage change by finding anchors in our lives, solid and unchanging things we can cling to for stability.

Common anchors are:

  • people or significant relationships such as family and friends
  • career
  • hobbies
  • something physical like a home

Like a ship anchoring amidst unpredictable tides, an anchor is a dependable constant in your life to hang onto as you integrate changing aspects. Look at the list, the fact is, most people anchor on 1) something external, 2) a significant pillar of life, and 3) something that deeply contributes to identity.

This works most of the time. But what happens when the change happens around one of the anchors themselves? The more unexpected the change is around a significant pillar of your life, the more difficult it is to process. And the more that pillar is associated with your identity, the more an unexpected change triggers crises of identity and meaning.

When my partner was killed instantaneously in an accident, my life went from perfect to chaos overnight. The accident took away the person I loved, and a lifetime forward, wedding, marriage and children. San Francisco, our home, became a prison of memories triggering intense trauma, so I left. My deepest friendships fell apart because no one knew how to deal with loss and grief. That triggered questions on meaning of friendship and trust. Struggling to make sense of life and death, I lost the meaning of my work and quit my career.

One by one, each one of my anchors fell away—my partner, my home, my relationships, my career. Because they were external, significant, and interwoven with my identity, I lost myself. I was that ship, lost at sea, whipped by tidal waves, not knowing where to anchor.

Through this loss, I learned to switch from external anchors to internal anchors. I realized that external anchors can always fail or fall away. I found comfort in a statement of yoga teacher Tara Judelle’s:

“Anchoring outside makes you dependent on an outside event, person, experience or outcome, and all of it is out of your control. The only thing dependable is your journey with yourself. Anchoring inside is an enriching, interesting and sustainable way to experience life. The less I anchor externally, the freer I am.”

An internal anchor is something that is part of you, your body-mind, a mental space or physical part of you that you can access always that makes you feel centered, grounded, whole, and at home.

Examples of internal anchors could be:

  • an affirmation or mantra
  • a gratitude contemplation of things you are grateful for
  • a gesture of bringing hands to heart center
  • a ritual of making a cup of tea

While you can anchor on these tools, it is important to differentiate the internal state of your mind and body, your state of wellbeing that you associate with these tools from the tools themselves. An internal anchor can be both this reference state of being, a blissfulness, and the internal tools that get you there.

Except for the cup of tea, a small external tool, every example here is “thingless,” or internal. These tools should be small gestures, not associated with a significant pillar of life or intertwined with your identity. Thus, you reduce the destruction and unraveling when a significant pillar of life falls apart and you end up in an identity crisis.

Significant unexpected changes will happen, but you can hold to dependable internal anchors to integrate those changes.

internal anchor

We can anchor internally in the space between thoughts, a meditative state. Like an anchor creating space in the ocean floor, think of it as creating space in between thoughts, the seat of how to operate in the world. Here’s how it works for me.

In my grief, closing my eyes to shut out the world was the only thing that calmed intense mental and emotional pain. After enough repetition, I slowly noticed a pattern to an internal bliss despite the pain. It happened like this:

1: attention diverted externally.
This is my normal state. I am involved and identified with incessant thoughts, each triggering reactions and emotions.

i.e.       A flower! > I love flowers!

2: draw single-pointed focus on an external phenomenon.
It can be anything, but it has to be a single thing, like a deep breath.

The normal mind processes so many things that it lacks the “processing power” to notice my internal state. Drawing single-pointed focus on an external phenomenon is a shortcut freeing up “processing power” to notice my internal state. A bonus – taking a deep breath calms the nervous system, relaxing the body and mind.

i.e.       A flower. I need to run that errand. Make a left turn here. > A flower.

3: label internal thoughts and emotions.
With extra “processing power,” I can label my internal state, parallel processing on two levels, simultaneously thinking and feeling while labeling thoughts and emotions.

i.e.       A flower. > A thought is arising in my mind.

             I love flowers! > An emotion is arising in my mind.

4: watch thoughts and emotions arise and pass.
Do not try to stop thoughts and emotions, it is impossible. I allow them to arise, experience them fully, and watch them pass as the next ones arise.

i.e.       A flower. > A thought is arising in my mind. A thought is passing in my mind.

             I love flowers! > An emotion is arising in my mind. An emotion is passing in my mind.

5: notice the space in between thoughts.
If thoughts slow down enough, I caught moments between thoughts. Whether the thought is “a flower” and triggers appreciation or the thought is “he died” and triggers profound sadness, the space in between is the same, unchanging and blissful. When I reach that space, my lips curl up in a slight smile even if tears are still rolling down from a last thought of “he died.”

i.e.       A flower. > That is a thought. A thought is arising in my mind. A thought is passing in my mind. > Space.

Repeat: create a reference point of internal anchors through repetition.
The internal anchor is created by taking repeated reference point of the mind and the body’s state of being. In this space between thoughts, my mind feels blissful, my body feels grounded.

Notice how a desired internal state (i.e. 5) feels for you so you know when you have gotten there. Notice the path to get there so you can create a map of guideposts and tools (i.e. 2–4). Then you can anchor on that internal state (and on the tools) to get there repeatedly.

Returning to an internal anchor helped me slowly process every aspect of life that collapsed and integrate my biggest loss. Loss was a far greater challenge than anything else I have faced in life or business. The gift that keeps giving is truly learning to manage change, not by anchoring externally on what appears dependable but can unexpectedly change just as quickly, but by anchoring internally. I can participate more fully and fearlessly with people and the environment, both personally and professionally, because I am more ready to face change.

This is one precious gift of grief, and you can experience it for yourself through internal anchoring, whether you are grieving or not.

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