Dad’s worrying was a microcosm of humanity’s thinking. He knew that I was aware of his habit of worrying. He was fond of saying that he didn’t actually worry, he ruminated. Just the act of writing those sentences is to ruminate.
Rumination is an interesting word. It can refer to the human act of allowing thoughts to repeatedly go over and over in the mind. It might be akin to contemplation or worrying. Sometimes rumination becomes the slippery slope towards worrying.
The dictionary includes another meaning. “To chew again, what has already been chewed slightly and swallowed, such as to chew the cud.” Animals like cattle do this in order to digest their food. I won’t go into a description of the process just in case you are having a snack while reading this.
It seems like the human version of mentally chewing the cud is a common practice. It is similar to meditative contemplation of concepts and options. A Venn diagram might show some categories of worry as a subset of rumination.
Oftentimes, ruminating is a positive way to think. Contemplating pleasant events of the past is a type of helpful nostalgia, as long as one does not make a habit of living in the past and giving the past more attributes than it deserves.
Then, there is worrying. We’ve all tormented ourselves with disturbing thoughts over and over again that can lead to an uneasy state of mind or even into anxiety. One odd thing about worrying is that when someone advises us not to worry, we tend to worry even more.
“It would be much better if I could only stop thinking. Thoughts are the dullest things. Duller than flesh. They stretch out and there’s no end to them and they leave a funny taste in the mouth. Then there are words, inside the thoughts, unfinished words, a sketchy sentence which constantly returns…It goes, it goes … and there’s no end to it. It’s worse than the rest because I feel responsible and have complicity in it. For example, this sort of painful rumination: I exist, I am the one who keeps it up. I.”–Jean-Paul Sartre
A worrisome aspect about rumination is that it seems as if it is helpful. We spend precious mental energy ruminating but take no action. In this way, some forms of rumination can keep us stuck in life and lead to feelings of anxiety.
One of my distant cousins is very fond of ruminating about unpleasant events from her past. The stories she tells venture into the land of regrets. The ruminating is such a habit, that she applies it to present and future concerns. This cousin complains that her thoughts get her all riled up and anxious. She is the classic case of someone you tell, “Don’t worry” but the advice only encourages her to justify her worries. On and on she worries about every single person and thing in her life. She tells her worries to everyone she meets. The result being, people go out of their way to avoid her. This is fuel for more ruminations. I wish she could learn how to let go.
In a certain respect, we all ruminate. Perhaps that is one definition of thinking. Great thinkers, like Albert Einstein are famous for their ruminations. Over and over, Einstein ruminated about relativity until he finally came up with his famous theories.
Evidently, Einstein understood the limits of rumination. He used it as a tool and knew not to ruminate as a default form of thinking. He understood that over-thinking can lead to feeling like a victim, powerlessness, and general negativity.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders a quote from the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. “We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”