Tell me if this sounds familiar: an unpleasant thought pops into your head, and no matter what you do, you can’t shake it. In fact, the more you try to pry its tendrils away from your brain, the more it tightens its grasp. Like a ship succumbing to the fabled kraken, your mood sinks deeper and deeper.
There is a name for this state of mind: rumination.
Ruminating is a perplexing state of mind. And endlessly frustrating.
What are we ruminating about? Pretty much anything is fair game. It could be as specific as that morning’s frustrating client call, or as expansive as questioning our current career trajectory.
In this state of mind, studies show that thoughts race through your head at a rate of 300 to 1000 words per minute.
Not surprisingly, when that happens, it’s hard to focus on the present.
That’s a problem, because if we can’t focus on the present, we’re not really living. After all, life is about the accumulation of experiences, and if your mind is stuck in the past or future, you are not experiencing the here-and-now.
So today we’re going to learn how to fight back against the rumination kraken. We’re going to use what we call a “mindfulness check” to ensure we are living in the present as opposed to being marooned in the doldrums of our mind.
And if we fail that mindfulness check, we’re going use another strategy to navigate our mind back to the port of the present.
If you’re following me so far, you’re going to love where we’re sailing to, so stick around!
So as we discussed, step one is a diagnostic “mindfulness check”. Our goal here is to determine if our mind is in the present or if it is stuck in rumination mode.
It’s surprisingly simple:
Stop whatever it is you are doing and try to recall with precision what you just accomplished in the last minute. If you were reading, what was the specific content you just covered? If you were in a conversation, what did you just discuss? If you were putting away dishes, which dishes did you just put away?
If you can’t easily answer that question, then you weren’t in the present.
Now just because you weren’t in the present doesn’t mean you were ruminating. The happy sparkly version of rumination is reverie, which is essentially a euphoric trance. So maybe that’s what was going on.
But unless you noticed rainbows streaking across the sky and unicorns prancing through flowery meadows, there’s a good chance you were ruminating.
Okay, so we were busted. We’re ruminating. We’re depriving ourselves of fresh new memories by preoccupying ourselves with past ones or future worries.
How do we break out of the cycle?
Our solution is rooted in a centuries-old practice, which was brought to our attention by David of the fantastic and deeply thoughtful Raptitude Blog.
To halt the rumination, we need to initiate a perception shift.
The objective with a perception shift is to transform a narrative experience (which is what we are currently experiencing in the form of ruminating about a previous or future narrative) into a sensory experience.
Let’s look at an example of how this works.
Let’s suppose that you’re watering the plants and instead of focusing on that task, you’re replaying in your mind a frustrating email you received earlier. At this point you are in full-on rumination mode, looping the track back repeatedly, making assumptions about the motivations for the person who wrote it, wondering how many different ways their meaning could be interpreted. This is your narrative experience and there’s no end in sight.
Hold up. No need for that.
Switch the script.
Turn that narrative experience into a sensory one.
Stop focusing on that worry-inducing email, which was probably hastily written and contains way less hidden meaning than you think.
Instead, shift your attention away from your mind to the rest of your body. Feel the sensations that the rumination is causing. Do you feel your heart racing? Are you palms sweaty? Are you short of breath? Are you feeling nauseated? Maybe your hands are trembling slightly.
By studying these physical sensations, we recognize that our mind has a powerful effect on our body. It’s hard to believe it, but our thoughts are causing actual physical reactions elsewhere. These are psychosomatic responses to a mind run wild. Powerful stuff, wouldn’t you say?
Now shift your attention from your body to the activity you are involved in. Feel the texture of the watering can you are holding. Inhale deeply and take in the humid scent of moist earth rising from the plant’s pot. As you water the next plan, pay special attention to the shape of the stream of water as it exits the spout. Listen to the sound of it pattering on the plant’s soil.
This exercise of immersing yourself in the sensory experience of what is happening in the moment forces your mind to be rooted in the present. It’s the difference between being lost in a massive empty parking lot, with no guides to follow and no exit in sight, versus cruising along a peaceful country road, with a clear path forward.
Wow, after that I feel calmer already, don’t you?
Let’s quickly recap:
For the next week, try running a quick mindfulness check on yourself. Test to see if your mind was in the present.
If you fail that test, then it’s time to bust out your perception shift.
Flip the script in your head from the narrative experience of whatever it is you are ruminating on and focus instead on the sensory experiences of the present. Use all your five senses: sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste (if possible).
The process of shifting from a narrative experience to a sensory one is a powerful skill that gets easier with practice. It triggers a series of calming effects that come with relieving your mind from its racing thoughts.
The likelihood that we are ruminating increases significantly during times of stress, so if you know things are more chaotic than normal, I encourage you to run a mindfulness check regularly.
The more you do it, the more likely you are to pass with flying colors 😊
So now that I've shared our thoughts, I’d love to hear your own ideas for battling rumination. How do you bring peace to your mind? How can you tell when your thoughts are racing out of control?
Share that with me and the Explearning community in the comments down below.
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With that, have an awesome week, Explearners.
Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.
Happy Explearning ⚡