Rumination vs Reflection

As I’ve been journeying through this brave new life in Los Angeles, I’ve gained plenty of time to reflect on the circus that has been 2018. Not one single part of it has been easy or effortless.  All of it has been entangled with hard choices and even harder feelings to manage. I’m human and I’ve made a ton of mistakes. There is still so much I have to learn in the ways of empathy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, what it really means to love and support another human in their growth and freedom. By far, the biggest discovery I’ve made through the uncomfortable and challenging is confusing ruminating with reflection. Especially when things are not going well, we easily slip inside the comfort of learned patterns. Mine is rumination.

Rumination is an experience deeply tied to anxiety and depression. It is super common in people who have experienced trauma, are perfectionists, and/or have a tendency to value relationships with others over the wellbeing of the self. Even if the former doesn’t sound or feel like you, rumination can exist in anyone’s mind. In its simplest form, rumination is felt as cyclically analyzing experiences from the past that didn’t turn out well and finding no solution to the perceived problems. Your brain is a prediction machine.  It analyzes all of the input it receives and out of hundreds of possible predictions chooses the thing most likely to happen based on all of the knowledge and experiences you’ve accumulated up to this point. When ruminating, your brain is replaying memories over and over again, analyzing them, receiving that stimulus again. Your brain gets stuck on one or a series of tracks. The longer we spend inside the cycle of rumination, the more trapped we can feel. Instead of seeing problems from multiple vantage points, our brains become less agile, locked into a prediction of not succeeding. Ruminating keeps our brains trapped in prediction patterns of helplessness. 

Reflection, on the other hand, is the experience of looking back at past events that we perceive as both good and bad, and discerning what kernels of wisdom each moment has to share with us. When we reflect, we look at our past through a broad and compassionate lens. Reflection is mainly used as a springboard into a deeper experience of the present moment. Without reflection, it’s hard to digest all of the things that have happened. Our lives are filled with thousands of choices and interactions every day. Consciously unpacking some of the more important moments gives them an opportunity to sink into our hearts and inform the way our brains make predictions going forward. 

Both of these elements are looking back at the past. Our reflections can easily get hijacked and turned into rumination. How can we then steer ourselves back towards balance and growth?

Meditation: Though the science isn’t quite clear on the why yet, it’s becoming widely acknowledge that a regular meditation practice balances body budgets. Body budgets occur at a cellular level and inform the emotions we perceive ourselves to have. It’s part of the thing that moves us in and out of fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest. Body budgets are part of the stimuli package our brain gets to determine what sort o predictions to make. A balanced body budget will mean predictions in alignment with the feeling of safety. Unbalanced body budgets will tend to produce predictions that things are not okay; something is off. The more we can help our internal systems feel even, the greater chance our brains will continue to offer predictions that support balance. More subjectively, meditation allows the practitioner to see complicated situations from many different vantage points.  Meditation teaches us that all thoughts and feelings are temporary; they will come and go like clouds that drift across the sky. Rumination will often attach significance and meaning to particular ideas that trap us in holding patterns of helplessness. Rumination can make us feel powerless in the face of large "negative" feelings and problems. Meditation releases us from these holding patterns. Meditation can looking like anything: a yoga practice, journaling, cleaning the dishes, gardening, sitting on a cushion, chanting. More important than what the meditation looks like is the function. Focus the mind on something other than the spiral. The rumination spiral forces us into the past. Meditation asks us to observe the present.  In the meditation practice, we don’t deny that we have feelings and thoughts and attachments. Of course we do. We are human. Rather, those burdens don’t have to be as important as the breath or the task at hand. Meditation pulls us back into the current experience of ourselves and forces the rumination cycle to stop, even if just for a moment.

Take Action: Rumination can leave us feeling helpless because when in the rumination spiral, it seems like no solutions are possible. And that truly is the worst.  Especially if you are the type of person who likes to know, who like to be right, who prides themselves on creatively solving all problems in front of them, being stuck can feel like the biggest failure. It doesn’t have to be that way though. I recently looked back at my journal from the end of 2017 and found inside of it a list of reasons to stay in New York and reasons to move to LA.  I honestly have no recollection of writing that down. Somewhere though, in the beginning of my rumination spiral though, my heart knew that I needed to take action, to make a choice, and it started to do that for me. Retrospectively, I can tell that I was in a spiral of rumination because every decisions I was making (quitting my job, dropping out of school, moving across the country, saying goodbye to people I cared so deeply about) were all the same choice. The gravity of all of it made me feel like there wasn’t a solution in which I won. Though many of those decisions were similar, they were not the same. I definitely made choices that I wish I could undo, and hopefully with enough time and grace, I can. But mainly, the great thing that I did was TAKE ACTION. I wrote down everything: every thought, every feeling, every pro, every con, every action item that felt impossible, every action item that I knew needed to happen. One by one, I discerned which actions were necessary to help me move forward and heal. I offer this to you: no matter how big or how many the problems are, don’t let them live solely in your head. Get them out of your head and on paper or in the ear of a person you can trust. Even if the first action is minuscule, make a choice and do a thing that puts you one centimeter closer to full-out progress. When you give your brain the input that you are creating change, that you are succeeding, it will start to generate different predictions. 

The words we use matter.  The way we speak to ourselves matters. Our world is made up entirely of concepts that we have been gathering and refining since birth. The more fine-tuned our ability to differentiate concepts, the more vibrant our worlds are. Though we can describe rumination and reflection as similar concepts, they are vastly different. One is rooted in healing and forward movement while the other is heaviness and a tether to the past. Redefine this concepts for yourself and free yourself from the weight of the past.