Rumination In The Time of Isolation

Rumination is as common an affliction, as it is unhealthy. It is perfectly normal to feel mentally locked in, during a lockdown. Is there a key to set you free?

This human being is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival

A joy, a depression, a meanness
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture

Still, treat each guest honorably
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight

The dark thought, the shame, the malice
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in

Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond

— Jalaluddin Rumi

Those were Rumi’s ruminations on rumination. Sorry, that was too good to resist. As we all face the prospect of an extended lockdown for the better part of 2020 though, there have been a lot of discussions on the effects of anxiety, depression and general mental health issues on isolated people.

For some reason, the psychological effects of rumination are not quite mentioned in the same breath, although it is quite intertwined with the rest.

So perhaps we should take it upon ourselves to do it, building on what the great poet said.

Everyone gets triggered from time to time.

Every one.

No one is ‘too cool’ to not be affected by past injustices, perceived or otherwise, and unpleasant memories in general.

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This is the problem with past injustices, they have a way of keeping us stuck in our lives. It’s like a freeze frame in the continuum of everyday living, that lasts days, weeks, months at a time.

This could be because you may feel stuck in the aftermath of bad choices—the job you should have left as soon as you saw red flags, but at which you ended up staying for many more months than was ideal, the comeback to a verbal slight someone thrust upon you, a la George Costanza from Seinfeld, with his ‘jerk store’ zinger, or so he thought.

It is heart-stoppingly easy to get stuck in the darkness of bad memories. They are emotional quicksand and exert a strong downward pull on the psyche.

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Here’s the thing about rumination, it can trap you fairly easily, giving you a good dose of PTSD, enough to put a war veteran to shame. Just like that one cupboard you have been hoarding things in, since you were a pokey-haired school-goer, unexamined mental clutter can keel over and spill into every aspect of your existence, elbowing out the future and clouding your present in a haze.

Human beings have a strong urge to maintain equilibrium, but when wrongs can never be erased, hurt can never be assuaged and lost loves can never return, we are naturally inclined to brood, to want to set things right.

Up to a point and for a specific period, it is natural human tendency. Once you go past that point and time begins to stretch out, as you begin to dwell, that is when you can consider yourselves firmly in the throes of rumination.

Fortunately, with a little discipline, a little faith and a lot of resolve, you can overcome the pitfalls of rumination and get out of your own way.

Get Past The Past

We’ve all heard that self-help standard line, ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery…’ goading us to live in the present moment.

The present, while a gift, is also a lot more complex for most. It does not require a lot of logic to concede that our past leads us to the present moment and shapes us into the present person. Our yesterdays fuse and morph to make us who we are today.

In that sense, it is quite common to revisit the past from time to time, in order to better navigate our future. When you move beyond calibration and get stuck, when all forward motion gets stopped in its tracks and you cannot shake that slime out of your hair, is when you find yourself helpless.

So how do you get unstuck?

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Reconsider, Recalibrate

You reconsider the event, on which you dwell, from another angle, another perspective. You recalibrate how the event makes you feel.

It is common to cut off all connections to the event, to resort to all sorts of mental aids, particularly substances, to dull the memory of the event, if you are dealing in an environment of toxic masculinity. The only thing is that once the high wears off, you reach new depths of low. That is something you would want to avoid altogether.

Getting unstuck requires being true to yourself. If you have been conditioned to withhold all emotions, that’s where you start, by processing them. Anger, sadness, anxiety cannot go away in an instant, but you proactively hope for a a time that will put you in a better situation.

This involves understanding that you don’t get over the past, but you rearrange the events to put them in different places, a place where they do not come centrestage in your mind. You get past things, even if you cannot get over things.

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Don’t Feed The Rage, Fade The Rage

Getting past your past is as much about metaphysical thought as it is about physical action. You would need to deal with both in order to get past the suffering you feel.

Our actions and thoughts both chain us to our past. You need to fight both at the head, when your own heart and mind put up resistance, and they will. There is a reason they call it ‘heartache.’

Someone who holds onto their past sees that burden manifest in a great deal of physical pain, because of the resistance to change in their hearts and minds.

Never underestimate the great human reluctance to change, for better or worse. We are creatures of comfort, no matter how many Instagram posts urge you to live your best life, by stepping outside your comfort zone.

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While guilt and remorse are powerful emotions, it is really rage that proves to be the most self-destructive. Some of the best works, the best songs, the best books, came into existence because the authors found an outlet for their rage.

Letting go of a slight, the rage against the machine of injustice that befell us, maybe years ago, still eats away at our being in the present. It is essential to fade that rage away and relinquish our need to control, our quest for balance, and our propensity to not want to be misunderstood.

Fading the rage means acknowledging the injustice, processing your emotions and confronting your barriers. It means proactively challenging spirals of unproductive thought and fighting the fear of recurrence of a past situation in the future. That helps you learn.

Every Time You Get Out, They Pull You Back In

We all have certain behavioral tendencies that we can recognize, when trying to let go of a situation. Maybe we try to re-establish contact with someone who affected us negatively, maybe we try to follow the same pattern of decision-making, knowing full well it might not give us the changed results we want.

To avoid this, we need to build a healthy dose of self-awareness. We need to look at how our thoughts develop and take over our consciousness. Do we relinquish power to our minds to fester in their recalcitrance?

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We find comfort in the known and rally against the uncertainty of change, much to our own detriment.

That is the first thing we need to change. We need to let positive thoughts flood our mind just like negative ones do.

That is how you come unstuck. Moving on and letting go requires positive action.

Fish For The Future

When you do not have an idea of what your future is, it is very easy to ruminate on the past. This needs deliberate action in creating the tomorrow you want. You need to envision your future self and be kind to it.

Anything that excites you about your future will help push you forward.

Giving yourself a goal for the future self is imperative, as you are doing it a big injustice by staying stuck.

Work for that self, work towards that self.

Be Ruthless In Your Resolve

Putting the past in the past means you need to discard the hard stuff.

Everyone discards their old clothes when cleaning out their closets, making room for new ones. The same goes for your mind. Acquisitions that remind you of negative experiences need to go.

You can toss them out, banish them to a corner of your mind you may never open again or transfer them into a positive atmosphere of learning.

It is a rough ride, but you need to be ruthless in your resolve to discard.

Make Amends To Meet The Ends

While reaching out and establishing contact with the past experience may not always bear fruit as mentioned earlier, you can always restore it to a better place in your mind.

Make amends, both with yourself, if you have been wronged, and with the people you may have wronged, if you are the guilty party.

While things will not ever be the same, it is a way to put that version of you behind, and prevent any more rumination spirals.

Tell Yourself Your Story

Generally, rumination occurs when you feel helpless. When you feel like you are not in charge of your own narrative and you feel not in control of perceptions of yourself, you tend to ruminate over what could have been.

It is important to recognize that you are your narrative. You are the author, and nobody has that power over you. You write the story of the role you played in the moments of your lives.

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When you revisit the past pain from a more kind perspective, a more balanced frame of mind, you feel less of a victim and more of a bystander in the story. Just like you need to be empathetic to the future self, you need to empathise with the past version of yourself.

This is sure to reduce the deep rage, loss, and fear that have been holding you back from living your best life.

Telling yourself your story through fresh eyes helps rid you of all these powerful emotions. They affect the best of us, at any time, so you are certainly not alone.

Find Forgiveness To Find Peace

When you reclaim your narrative, you set yourself on the path to forgiveness, the hardest thing to do. Yet, it is very possible. To come unstuck from rumination and the thoughts that rent space in your head for free, you need to forgive whatever and whoever that wronged you, as well as yourself, for the reaction you had or didn’t have.

Forgiveness is a decision, not condoning a wrong done. It is as much freeing yourself from the rage that engulfs you as it is to recognise what the injustice is for what it is. It is to stop enslaving yourself to what could have been.

It is hard and totally worth it.

You Are In The Here, The Now

The most powerful tool you have to fight rumination is the hardest to execute, and also the simplest at first sight. It is the ability to stay focused on the present moment.

Anxiety, panic, fear, rage, remorse are all emotions that draw you into the maelstrom of your memories, almost to the point you feel you have no way out.

The ability to focus on the present is an acquired skill, call it awareness or mindfulness, whatever it may be. You can gain control of your thoughts and sensations in the present moment, to flood your mind with positivity.

As your skill increases in remaining in the present moment, you will, by definition, get past the past.

No one is cool enough to not be affected by negative experiences, as we said earlier. Yet, no one is is incapable of mustering the mental fortitude required to push past the pitfalls of rumination and emerge, more evolved souls.

You will appreciate Rumi in the truest sense then, and you will be the better for it.


The author is Senior Editor at Qrius