Rumination – Part 1

Keeling-fire-engine-illustrationThis is the first of two parts in a series about rumination (also known as self-generated emotion). This topic has been very relevant to the people I work with and somewhat difficult to understand. Hopefully in the next few weeks, it will start to make sense through these posts…

According to a paper published in 2004, Rumination is "repetitive thoughts…directed primarily toward processing the content of self-referent information [i.e. emotion] and not toward immediate goal-directed action." In other words, rumination is repetitive thinking which, though it may seem to be moving you toward clarity or action, is primarily functioning to manage your emotional experience.

You may have noticed this yourself: certain types of stories that your mind habitually tells, which pull you out of the present and stir up a predictable emotional response (be it resentment, shame, sadness, anger, blame, fear, anxiety, moral outrage, or even positive emotions like happiness, love, security, trust, humor, etc). Depending on your childhood conditioning, you may find that your mind is doing this much of the day.

Why is this significant?
From a mindfulness perspective, we're trying to find ways to stay in the present moment, knowing that being present makes us happier. One issue with rumination is that it replays content from the past or fantasies about the future, taking you out of the present moment. But that alone is not necessarily a "bad" thing (more on that later)—the more significant issue is the negative emotions that this process often generates* and the reinforcement of unsupportive beliefs. This combo:

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The Circle of Compassion

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

—Albert Einstein, 1921

Photo credit: Andy Spearing

What’s All This About Suffering?

Photo credit: Andy SpearingOK, so here I am, Mr. or Ms. Beginner Meditator, seeking some relief from my day-to-day stress, looking for a way to deal with grief, wanting to sleep better, etc. etc., and the next thing I know, I’m being told I have to look at my suffering. Feel my pain. Turn toward discomfort.

On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense. We’re used to a take-a-pill-and-feel-better model of healing. How is it that looking at discomfort produces comfort?

When we practice holding our attention on pain (physical, emotional), the natural response is, “I need my coping strategies!” (Food, entertainment, work, substances, mere movement). But at the very same time, we are committing to sit still, say for 10 minutes, deliberately depriving ourselves of those coping strategies. It can be quite unpleasant at first, because the body-mind doesn’t have another way to deal with the situation. So, for a while, we simply suffer—I like to define “suffering” as “resistance to the present moment”. We just sit there resisting the experience, being fidgety, irritable, bored, sleepy, scattered, confused, impatient. But it is in these specific conditions that the body-mind, having no other choice, begins to experiment.

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The Transcendent and the Mundane

What we are seeking is right here. Transcendence doesn’t come from looking for something that isn’t already present. In other words, we don’t escape from experience. We escape into experience. Into a sound. Into a conversation. Into a simple, mundane thought. Into our lives. Our relationships. Our work. Our path.

With rare and fleeting exceptions, deep practice is unremarkable. It doesn’t dance and shimmer and trip out. Altered states do. But the practitioner is ordinary. The presentation is ordinary. The experience of life is ordinary. The arising and passing of the experience of self is ordinary. Disidentification from emotion is ordinary. Whatever that thing is that you’re expecting, some day you may notice that it’s just another ordinary part of the way things are, and you don’t even remember when you gave up searching for it.

What Happened To Concentration?

In honor of an upcoming class series on concentration, some thoughts on the practice, why it’s important, and how to measure your ability at it. Concentration—our ability to follow a thread, stay focused, hold our attention—doesn’t get much airtime these days. Many practitioners are put off by the notion that concentration, which can be measured and quantified, should be a “goal” of the spiritual path.

Our culture is so productivity-oriented that meditation often provides a much-needed escape from agendas and to-do’s. However, without some focus on building concentration, it’s possible, even likely, that our mindfulness practice will not progress to the point where fundamental insight can arise (a point which is generally called “access concentration”).

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