Struggling With Willpower? A 'Spiritual Anchor' Is The Solution You've Been Looking For

Photo: Zheng Long

A "spiritual anchor" is an object that reminds people of what gives their lives meaning and purpose and consequently why they may want to change their behavior. It's a talisman that connects to the most powerful neuro-networks in the central nervous system—those that influence behaviors. This is because meaning and purpose are strongly related to emotions that "emote movement" toward healthy choices—choices people make because they are associated with what matters most to them.

My spiritual anchor is a small stone. Sometimes I keep it on my desk, but most of the time, it resides in my pocket. Why is this stone so important to me? Many years ago, my family and I were at a beach that was covered with lots of little stones. My youngest child seemed to be staring at a pile of them for no less than 20 minutes. Finally, he came over to where I was sitting and presented me with a black one. It was round and smooth and earthy. "Dad, I found this for you," he said proudly. My heart soared. This was so beautiful. My son was searching for the perfect stone for his father. His act of love touched me deeply.

Calling on a spiritual anchor on difficult days.

When I’m having a bad day, or I don’t get a grant I’ve been working on for months, or I have an argument with my wife, I will stick my hand in my pocket and connect with what gives meaning and purpose to my life. It’s a reminder for me of why I want to move ahead, to be a good person, to spread positive energy. Even in the bleakest of times, it helps me recall the goodness of our lives. That’s what spirituality is—a connection that gives our lives meaning and purpose. (The range can be broad here: watching one’s children grow and marry, living to see one’s grandchildren, traveling, making significant contributions at work, and so on.) Sadly, due to our constant busyness, we often need reminders that bring us back to the basics.

For me, it’s this small stone. I use this tool in the clinical setting with my patients all the time. I ask them to share with me what they consider their spiritual anchor. We talk about it and use it to help them keep on track for healing and recovery. One patient, Jeff, went through the difficult work of renouncing alcohol. When I asked him how he accomplished this, he told me, "I wanted to be a gardener and to cultivate a healthy soil for my children to grow and flourish in." He knew that his drinking was setting a bad example for them, and that motivated him to stop.

But soon, as happens so often with alcoholics in remission, Jeff became addicted to something else. In his case, it was food. His uncontrolled eating led to obesity coupled with diabetes. So I said to him, "It looks as if food is making you unhealthy the same way that the alcohol did. Two weeks from now, I’d like you to bring to my office a physical object that reminds you of why you would want to watch what you eat and why you want to lose weight. I want you to be able to keep this on your body so you can connect to it when you need to, especially before you open the refrigerator."

Two weeks passed, and Jeff presented himself in my office emptyhanded. So I asked him, "Did you find a spiritual anchor and bring it with you today?" Silently, but with a twinkle in his eye, he lifted his right trouser leg and pulled down his sock. On the inside of his lower leg was a new tattoo of a gardener hoeing a garden. "If I want a dessert," he told me triumphantly, "I look at my tattoo. It reminds me of my children and their welfare. It’s going to help me lose weight."

Finding a sense of control.

Today, Jeff still has diabetes, but he has it under much better control because he has successfully slimmed down! Whenever people have a sense of control, it provides focus and allows them to have confidence and the belief that they can overcome their current adversity. For the caregiver’s part, this means concentrating on and structuring the chaos, fear, and uncertainty and then turning it into pragmatic steps that patients can take to overcome their suffering, anxiety, and illness.

A spiritual anchor can be a useful tool in this process. To be sure, knowing what people want their health for is essential. It’s the fulcrum of change. Awareness of its significance stimulates emotions that motivate new, more healthful behaviors. Caregivers need to know what really matters to the person they want to help or she won’t change. And they have to help her understand for herself why she would be better off conducting her life differently. When caregivers encourage this kind of self-reflection, it helps their patients or those they love appreciate the discordance between what they’re doing and what they really want in life.

The recognition of this disconnect helps them stop a detrimental behavior. They ask the person who loves to eat, "What do you like about your current lifestyle? Do you want to be around to continue enjoying great meals with your friends and family?"

Once they realize how their behavior conflicts with their life’s meaning, they often decide to change on their own. The spiritual anchor is a symbol of why people want to live better lives. But it has to come from within each individual. Caregivers can encourage others to find theirs. I’ve got my stone.

Based on excerpts from The Compassionate Connection: The Healing Power of Empathy and Mindful Listening by David Rakel, with the permission of W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2018.

Interested in learning more about personal growth and change? Here's the hidden way our emotions help us communicate.

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