Last week, we started a discussion on rumination—what it is, why we do it, and how it can be harmful. It’s clear to see the damage that rumination can cause in day-to-day life. We can live almost continuously in an inner world of fear, resentments, and unpleasantness, while external experience passes us by. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
Essentially, rumination is thinking to regulate the emotional experience of the present moment. So as long as we’re using thinking to balance ourselves out, it can be any thinking! We can think pleasant thoughts, and that will serve the same purpose that unpleasant thoughts have been serving! In other words, it isn’t actually about the content of the thoughts, but rather, their function.*
But we don’t want to think pleasant thoughts in just any old way. As meditators, the classic practice is called lovingkindness. This link provides detailed instructions. If you’ve used this technique before, you may notice I’ve set it up differently than most teachers. Neuroscience research has found that the technique is most effective if it is grounded in a present-moment experience (like a feeling or a state of mind) rather than a sentimental reflection. I choose a state of mind because it gets us out of the body, which is often in pain in the moments when we need the technique most!
While the practice is done formally (sitting in meditation), the majority of the training happens out and about where you must actively choose to use this technique instead of the habits of mind which you’ve been “practicing” up until now. This choosing is often quite effortful at first, and it can take months before you’ve created new habits (after years I’m still rooting out rumination!). However, the benefits are progressive—you may notice it’s easier to let things go. You may notice spontaneous thoughts of goodwill. You may just feel better!
*It may take quite a bit of internal investigation to convince yourself of this. It sure did for me. The content of rumination always carries some weight. The question is: why is this thought arising in this moment? What’s emotion is it generating now, and what emotion might it be covering up or distracting me from?