A “Beautiful” Acronym to Build Resilience and Endurance Through Difficulty
Staying mindful is no easy task. Whether you’re sitting and meditating, or attempting to do an activity mindfully, certain things tend to get in the way of being present and basking in the moment. The Buddhists have a name for these things: hindrances. There are 5 of them, but I won’t break them all down here. Suffice it to say, they are negative thoughts and feelings. We’ve all experienced them, and they can take many forms. We get physically uncomfortable, we get bored, an attractive or compulsive thought or urge pulls at our mind to run away from the moment. And so on.
Our minds will never completely stop doing these things; it’s just how they are. So the idea is not to try to force our minds to act as we’d like them to, but rather to be welcoming of adversity in our thoughts and feelings. One of my favorite meditation teachers, Gil Fronsdal, once gave a talk about an acronym that he came up with called BELLA. It describes what he suggests we do when we face difficulties with staying mindful. I lay out my own explanation of the process below.
You may be peaceful and happy one second, and all of the sudden feel anxiety, sadness, or an urge to jump up and do something else. When that happens, simply take a proverbial step back from that thought process — as if you were stepping out of a rushing stream. Sit on the bank of the stream and let it rush by.
Just be what you are, how you are. Be with how you’re feeling — whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. Don’t oppose it or get involved with it; simply allow it to be there beside you.
Examine your feelings and state of mind. Investigate in order to understand, as if you were trying to write a detailed description of an interesting room of a unique house. You’re feeling self-doubt? Great. Note some adjectives that describe it. Are there thoughts that seem to be attached to it? Describe those briefly to yourself.
Acknowledge that there is this feeling or thought here, but also acknowledge that it’s not who you are, and that it’s perfectly okay for that thought to be here. It’s just one thought or feeling coexisting with others — many which contradict it. They’re simply sharing the same space, and you are observing.
If you are feeling frustrated, just feel frustrated — but attempt to get a good look at your frustration. Take a hearty sniff of that fresh from the oven smell of hot frustration. Note how it seems to be pulling or pushing you, while resolving to stay still and examine it — rather than being moved to do something else.
Lucky for those of us practicing mindfulness, entropy is a law of nature. Things naturally deteriorate and lessen over time. That’s also true of emotions and desires — so long we don’t feed them. The tactic here when we encounter something unsavory is to let it be, and allow it to weaken on its own — which it will.
The trick to getting unsavory thoughts and feelings to lessen and subside is to disengage with them. Refusing to identify with them is a huge step toward that, and allowing them to simply burn out their fuel is what follows. When I do mindfulness meditation — especially on a day filled with stress, desires to just get up and nervously do something unproductive do pop up. Those feelings are strong. Many times — more than I would like — I give in to them. But when I do not, I find that they lose their power more quickly than I would have thought.
The key is to sit, observe, and not allow anything to move you until your meditation session is over. As you get used to this, your mind becomes less reactive, and more proactive. That carries over into the time your’e not meditating, as well. You feel the pull of potential distractions, but you now have this ability (perhaps weak at first) to just let it be while you do what you’re supposed to be doing. That muscle gets strengthened after a while. It will never be strong enough to overcome every distraction and desire, but even the small victories count.
Part of the lessening step above is also letting go. Two things tend to provide fuel to unwanted desires and feelings: identification and thinking. When we identify with feelings and thoughts, we provide a bed of soil for these unhealthy weeds to grow — a place for them to embed themselves, and nutrients to fuel growth. Simply viewing these thoughts and feelings as things that just happen, but are not yours — that goes a long way to keep them from effectively running you.
Often times, we tend to allow unwanted desires and thoughts kick us into high-gear trying to think our way around or out of them. This simply never works well. When we think about unwanted thoughts or desires, we’re engaging with them, and all that does is keep them at the forefront of our mind. It also ends up contributing to our identifying with those things — which makes them even stickier, so to speak. Letting go — refusing to identify with or entertain these thoughts and feelings — allows them to wilt and die, just like a weed no longer in the soil or sunlight.
For however many times we are bombarded by unwanted and unproductive thoughts, feelings, and desires, there are other times when we are free from them — even for short periods of time. If we can take time to appreciate when our mind is at peace, and we are not pulled at by a million thoughts and distractions, we can build the strength to let go later on. Again, so much of the mind is like a muscle, and appreciation is like wholesome, protein-packed food for it.
Appreciating the times when you have clear and focused attention — without distracting thoughts and feelings — makes you that much stronger and more resilient. Appreciation also helps to leverage the natural tendency we have to pursue pleasurable experiences. It’s a truly pleasurable experience to be present and to not be pulled at by other thoughts and feelings. Once it happens a few times, your mind begins to chase after it, and that means building a habit of mindfulness becomes just a bit easier.
Appreciation can also help you to add one more tool in your toolkit for dealing with negative thoughts: appreciation of them. It’s an odd thing to think of, for sure, but it’s real. You can appreciate negative thoughts and feelings even if you don’t enjoy them. It is a subtle distinction, but if you can do it, you can lessen the pull they tend to have on you. You can appreciate these negative things that pop up as simply examples of the wonderful, powerful mind at work. Think of them like you think of a young child that you love. They act out, cry, or do something wrong all the time. But they are learning, and making mistakes is the primary mode of doing that. So you have to appreciate those mistakes, even if they’re unpleasant at the time. They are simply small parts of a wonderful whole.