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Ending Rumination

Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide

Do you ever find yourself thinking the same thoughts over and over despite your desire not to? Whether it’s worrying about something over and over or remembering a betrayal or reliving an old relationship that didn’t work out.  “Why didn’t I?”” “Why did she…?”

Whenever I get into that state, there’s always a part of me that recognizes that rehashing something again and again is not useful. But my mind can’t help do it. I’ve always wondered why that’s so. My friend Dr. Pam Peeke says women are particularly prone to rumination, that we put ourselves in a blender and hit “high” and “chop.” 

That’s why I was so excited to read Rick Hanson’s latest email blog “Drop the Stone.” He explains what’s going on: “In your brain, negative preoccupations tend to engage the `default mode network’ centered in the back half of the midline cortex. As this network evolved over millions of years, our ancestors used it as a simulator in which they could review past actions and imagine future possibilities, and thus learn from their mistakes and make good plans. But when the simulator uses you, it’s more like a `ruminator’ in which you are trapped, feeling bad, and reinforcing negative neural circuits….

“[I]t’s stressful and harmful to get sucked into repetitive preoccupations, to keep looping multiple times around the same track. I heard that the great Tibetan teacher, Tsoknye Rinpoche, had once said essentially: `Thinking the same thought again is OK – but ten is enough!’”

Exactly! And as Hanson points out, when this network turns on, it’s not just that it plays the same old tune over and over, but in doing so, the likelihood that we will do it more gets reinforced!

So what’s a ruminating mind to do? Drop the stone, says Hanson. In other words, stop the network from operating. It takes mental energy, but is well worth the effort. Here’s how:

“Pick one `stone’ [troubling thought] you’d like to drop (and you can repeat this process with other things if you like). First, decide for yourself what if anything is reasonable or useful about it. Know in your heart what is worth taking into account . . . and what is just needless worthless excess suffering. Know that you are and can be a good person without pouring rocks on your head.

“Second, for a few seconds or longer, deliberately `carry’ that stone – think about it, worry about it, get sad or mad about it – so you can really know what that feels like.

“Third, try to be very aware of when that particular weight comes back. Regular mindfulness practice can help. Building up the trait of steady present-moment awareness is like strengthening what’s called a `strange attractor’ in complex systems theory. This kind of attractor is like a planet inside your mind, whose gravitational force pulls you naturally in a good direction. The greater your trait mindfulness is, the more you’ll stay grounded in it and the faster you’ll return to it if you get distracted.

“Fourth, resolve to yourself to stop picking up the stone. Determine to disengage from it, to stop allying with it and getting hijacked by it. It may keep mumbling away in the background, but at least you can stop adding to its weight.

“Be strong inside your own mind. In much the same way that you could step back from someone who’s being harmful, you can step back from old habit patterns. It’s OK to build muscularity inside, with a sense of healthy entitlement to reasonable well-being: `No, I don’t have to keep listening to and agreeing with that voice inside my head!’

“Shift your attention to other things, ideally those that are the opposite in some way to the `stone.’ Such as forgiving yourself for old shame, or turning toward healthy pleasures and away from unhealthy ones, or seeing the big picture of everything that’s working if you’ve gotten preoccupied with something that’s not. With repetition, these new objects of attention will grow like `attractors’ where you increasingly dwell.

“Last, let yourself feel and know that this life is precious and short – even if it lasts a hundred years. In the long run, what will those stones matter? Imagine what it will feel like to lay your stones down. Tell yourself it’s OK to do this. Tell other people it’s OK for them to lay down their own stones.

“As you shed your stones, feel the lightness that comes, the room in your heart for good things. Like growing flowers of inner peace, self-worth, ease, inner freedom, an unburdened and undivided mind, and love.”

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