Missing the Point: Meditation, Rumination & Journaling

I’ve come to realize that 2022 has apparently been a very hard year for me emotionally. A series of big events have apparently thrown me for a loop: a life-changing political upheaval in April, a distressing family hospitalization, and several months of chaos & disruption with two home renovation projects. I didn’t fully appreciate the impact all this has had on me until some medical data started coming in. My blood pressure and blood work are all suddenly terrible. All these events may well be the culprit, because in January all these measures were in acceptable ranges. And always have been.

Meanwhile, while all these things have transpired, I’ve simultaneously slacked off on a number of self-care practices, particularly daily walks and meditation. I’ve resumed both now, and also added new ones like diet changes I hope will help with weight and cholesterol.

I’ve become hyper-attentive these days to my physical and mental wellbeing, and I’m coming to realize something important.

Meditation is Training, Not an End in Itself

For all I’ve posted here in this blog and on my website, I’m a relative novice at meditation. Nonetheless, I feel rather successful in the practice. More than a few times I’ve lowered my blood pressure from hypertensive to normal levels. This is excellent, but I see now that I’ve been missing the point. The idea is to carry into real life the state of presence one reaches in a meditation session..

In meditation, thoughts constantly flow through one’s mind. Probably most people see this as failure since they think the idea of meditation is to have no thoughts, to have an empty mind. Well, that’s not possible unless you’re dead. The idea of meditation is to let the thoughts arise, but then not chase them or grab onto them. Recognize a thought or feeling, acknowledge it, and then quietly return your focus to your breathing — until the next thought comes, and then repeat.

The point I find I’m missing is that meditation is not an end in itself, it’s training for real life.

Thoughts continuously flow through our minds all day long. We grab onto them and follow them, often becoming totally unconscious to the moment. Have you ever driven someplace, arrived, and then realized you don’t recall the trip? You drove on automatic — “sleepdriving” — while your head was a million miles away. You were not present in the moment.

This could almost be OK, except the hours we spend all day lost in thought are seldom about positive things. Few of us ruminate all afternoon about good stuff. It’s almost always negative in some way. The purpose of meditation is to develop the skill to let these thoughts in real life pass through just as we let them pass through while meditating. Notice the thought or feeling, accept that you’re having it, but don’t lock onto it. Pull your attention back to the moment you’re in, where you are, and what you’re doing — here and now.

Constructive Thinking & Journaling

This is not to say that thoughts and feelings should be suppressed or ignored. We can learn from them and there’s a time and place to do so. The problem with rumination is that it’s circular and repetitive. Issues are seldom resolved by ruminating over them. Thoughts become entrenched, distorted, exaggerated and even destructive. Rumination can send us down a rabbit hole.

This is where journaling comes in. Instead of ruminating, journaling allows us to address our thoughts and issues constructively. If we read a transcript of our rumination, we’d see the same paragraph or two repeated nearly verbatim for hundreds of pages. That’s not likely happen if we stop and journal. The act of journaling forces us to explore these thoughts and feelings, and move them forward. We aren’t going to write one or two paragraphs over and over verbatim. Writing those paragraphs is the first step — but then we’re forced to advance to step 2, and step 3, and beyond.

Journaling allows us to resolve a thought or issue, or at least not remain stuck. It helps us stop circular rumination and in doing so we can become more present. Later, when we’re ready, we can journal again and make further progress towards resolution.

“We teach best what we most need to learn.”

Richard Bach

I need to publish this post, and then I need to read it once each day.

Pause, and Come Back to Presence

I often “return to well,” as it were, in periods of stress and challenge. This week I turned to a favorite teacher of mine, Tara Brach. She is a clinical psychologist and Buddhist who also majored in political science. In 2003 she published Radical Acceptance and has founded the Awareness Training Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

I love and appreciate all her lectures. This one deals with a big challenge in life: How do we respond constructively to events instead of reacting impulsively and usually negatively?

If you’re inclined to watch, I think you’ll find this worthwhile.

Title image is by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash.

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