One of my most embarrassing childhood moments happened during my first year in middle school. I was called out for chewing gum in class, and, after spitting out my wad, made to read a poem in front of my first period class. And no, not a poem of my choice, but a derogatory poem about how I looked like a cow chewing its cud: “The gum-chewing girl and the cud-chewing cow/Seem somewhat alike, but different, somehow./Ah, yes! There it is! I see it all now!/It’s the thoughtful look on the face of the cow.” While I was mortified to have to read the poem, it didn’t stop me from chewing gum. It did get me to the encyclopedia to understand why cows chewed their food so persistently.
Last week, during a morning meditation, my mind was racing ahead to all of the things that I had on my schedule that morning. After meditation, I would be heading to a Pilates class, then making several work phone calls, meeting a dryer repair person, another call, and then walking the dogs. Nothing super stressful, but I noticed how my mind kept going back to the list, considering, reconsidering, imagining, and reviewing. Nothing changed as a result of my mental chewing over the upcoming day, except that as I replayed my fear of forgetting something over and over, my stress levels stayed elevated. My mind was unskillfully and unsuccessfully attempting to manage my stress.
As I noticed my looping thoughts, I remembered the cud-chewing cow. Just like a cow (or goat, sheep or other ruminant), I was chewing my thoughts over and over and over again. As a non-ruminant human (and non-gum chewing adult), I am designed to simply chew my food well and then swallow it. Any additional chewing won’t improve my digestion. And it’s the same with my thoughts – thinking about the same things over and over again, won’t benefit me in any way. In fa
ct, it prevents me from living the life that’s in front of me, because I get caught in a whirlpool of my revolving thoughts.
“If you are ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future, you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of tea. You will look down at the cup, and the tea will be gone. Life is like that.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Rumination Stifles Creativity
I found it interesting to discover that both mind wandering and mindfulness can be the foundation for creative insights (more on that here.) What mind wandering and mindfulness have in common is that neither allows for any ruminating. Rumination blocks our ability to be creative, which means we are less likely to figure out a way to solve whatever the rumination is about. In my case, ruminating about my schedule didn’t help me find more time, and actually kept my stress levels elevated while I was doing it.
We usually ruminate on unpleasant or scary thoughts, which have the side effect of keeping us stuck in these unpleasant feelings. When we are ruminating, we are unable to access any of the more positive features of the moment. If we can bring ourselves back to ourselves — even for one breath — in the midst of a rumination attack, we can often find our way back to feelings of ease and calm. From there, the executive functioning part of our brain can get back to work, and we may find more creative solutions and make decisions that will benefit the situation.
What, Me Worry?
Most rumination could be defined as repetitive worry. The Dalai Lama addresses the futility of rumination when he says, “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
So, my practice is to remember that I’m not a cud-chewing cow (or a gum-chewing girl.) When my mind gets into chewing it’s cud over and over, I notice and say to myself, “Ah, you are chewing your cud. There’s no benefit to that.” Then I come back to my breath, breathing in, I feel I am breathing in; breathing out, I feel I am breathing out. I remind myself that chewing my cud will not help me reduce my fear or solve my worries and that I already have all the conditions I need for happiness in this very moment, if and when I let go of my cud.
I am Not a Cow!
Chewing our thoughts is a conditioned habit, just like chewing gum (although it’s unlikely you will ever be called out in front of a class for mind chewing!) It’s a difficult habit to transform, but it’s do-able, one moment at a time. Each time I find my mind ruminating on it’s cud, I remind myself that I am not a cow! I swallow the thoughts without any more chewing, come back to the present moment and savor my life just exactly as it is now.