Some Thoughts on Rumination Shared in Worship

by Mariellen Gilpin June 26, 2016

Rumination is a word therapists use that describes when a client goes over and over the same memory, time and time again. It is a metaphor, based on a digestive process. Grass is basically indigestible. When a cow eats grass, she chews it and chews it and swallows it. After awhile she burps it up and chews on it some more, swallows it again, then later burps and chews it some more. All of us have had experiences that basically are indigestible lumps, and we need to chew them many times over to find resolution.  Rumination is a healthy digestion process, which many therapists tend to use exclusively to describe an unhealthy psychological process. I want to reclaim the health in a process that is all-too-necessary when we have an unpleasant memory to deal with. Which leads me to ask, “How does a cow know when she’s chewed that indigestible lump enough to swallow it again? When am I chewing over that memory in a healthy way? How can I learn to tell the difference?”

This is a lifelong learning process.

What I’ve learned, so far, is to expect that it’s going to take lots of chewing to resolve an unpleasant memory. It helps me to write about the memory in my journal. What I’m working for is insight. When I can tell my feelings are starting to dig me into a deeper hole, I stop writing. I put the journal away, maybe a few days; maybe several months. When I am ready, I re-read what I wrote. Re-reading, for me, is labor-saving; I can read about the memory without having to feel every one of my feelings all over again. I can instead read until I spot where it was I started to spin my wheels last time, and then start my re-thinking process there. I’ve saved my time and energy for the next phase, for what can be a healthy psychological digestive process.

It is a lifelong learning experience.

Editor’s note: We are reminding Friends that the next Gathering of Friendly Mystics is September 30th  – October 2nd at the Cenacle in Chicago. Although the deadline has passed, we allowed a few extra spaces for late registrants. Contact Mike Resman if you are interested: <>


8 thoughts on “Rumination

  1. What I think one needs to watch out for… is addiction to the emotions involved.

    Whether an experience was pleasant or otherwise, when throngs of neurons all party together it makes for a powerful experience. Anything suitably similar to the original experience can trigger the same emotional reaction… and when that happens, keeps lots of little cells happy, active, & nourished — whether or not the person going through this feels the same. Hence, people who repeatedly find themselves in truly bummer-type situations, far more than they might conceivably ‘deserve’. Likewise phobias etc.

    Meditating through it, when one is hit with such an emotional whammy, is the best thing I know. Thoughts aren’t likely to help much at such times; I just breathe & let it take its course. It comes to an end…

  2. Agreed, Treegestalt! Maybe it’ll help if I explain my understanding of addiction: it’s anything we do over and over, even when we know it’s bad for us. Most often addiction is a response to unpleasant feelings. It’s an understanding that applies not only to substance abuse, but also behavioral addictions. In this understanding, anything can be addictive, and all of us are in some sense addicts: our stinking thinking makes us unwilling to see (let alone reflect on) the long term effects of what is often in the short term not only pleasurable but appears to harm no one. Those of us who eat to alleviate anxiety, for instance, are not obviously drunk. We may even experience enough relief that our thinking stabilizes, making us more able to function—in the short run. It’ll be a few weeks before the pattern of eating to relieve anxiety begins to affect our waistline. Since the inches do not quickly appear, it’s easier to sneak chocolate than whiskey. It can be socially more acceptable to be overweight than plastered, which helps to delay recognition of consequences until we are short of breath or unable to get out of a chair. Delayed harms are still harms; being able to hold one’s liquor, not experiencing hangovers, may simply speed the moment of death, whether by accident or alcohol poisoning. Harmed by our own poor choices, over and over again—karma at work.

    My method of journaling for sanity doesn’t work for everyone. Something I’ve observed over and over, however, is that once I’ve written an unpleasant experience, I don’t need to Go There in quite the same way; I can reread without reliving. I understand that women who journal during their journeys with breast cancer tend to live longer, so I am not alone profiting from writing down the unpleasantnesses. At the time of my breakdown, however, the mental health community applied a cookie cutter to helping people get well: no journal writing, to prevent rumination. They also medicated us so thoroughly that meditation was not an option–not for me, anyway. Learning a new skill with my brain wrapped in a warm wooly blanket was not promising as a solution. (And the mental health folks discouraged meditation as well, for that matter.) So, I am not arguing for my solution over yours, Friend TreeGestalt. I’m arguing that we notice what it is that really helps us, and never mind the experts!

  3. See, one of the poets I liked best ( ) used to say that poets aren’t unusually ‘sensitive’ — We just have a better way of digesting our troubles. “I don’t know how normal people can make it through their lives without writing poetry!”

    Anyway, I like what this guy has to say about addiction, both the chemical sort and the milder example that’s been quite disturbing enough in his own life. See
    ( ) — though as he says, if he were really able to cure many of his patients, that would truly be miraculous.

    It’s a compassionate look at what’s going on, and one that makes sense as well, without bringing in pejorative labels like “stinking thinking” — with, rather, a lot to say about long-term pain, physical or emotional.

    What he describes as “implicit memory” makes a lot more sense than the old notions like “repression” (which might have been based on a misunderstanding of what goes on with memory under hypnosis: While a hypnotised person will freely specify whatever details he’s asked about — when he truly doesn’t know one, he’ll invent it. )

    The fact that most people have few memories of really early childhood — is now thought to result from the fact that new neurons grow in (in everybody) and form new networks more relevant to what’s going on currently, while unused neurons… tend to die. (Hence the cells that endure — I’m thinking — ought to be those cells which have formed a behavioral loop that brings them a zap now & then… People can and do use their own minds against themselves, but we don’t need to imagine a fiendish Unconscious personality conspiring against us from within.)

  4. Since I was once a dairy farmer I know that the cow gets lots of help, billions of microrganisms in the rumen. The chewing and rechewing by the cow helps make their job easier and therefore more efficient. It is said that there are as many microrganisms in one drop of rumen fluid as there are people on earth. How many unseen spirits might be present helping your mental digestion?

    • Lovely, Stuart! I’m convinced there is one who speaks to my condition regularly. All I have to do is learn to discern which speaker is the Holy Spirit, and which is the spirit of Mariellen in need of a quick fix because she’s in pain. It’s only taken me forty years to figure that one out…well, mostly nowadays i can tell the difference!

  5. Thanks Meriellen, I’ve been led to walk graveyards for the last couple of years. I honor their lives lived on earth and ask those of good will to pay attention to us now and for them to pray for us in this time of polarization and fear. Lately I’ve returned to a couple of the graveyards and as I walked through the gate I felt a sense of welcoming – they knew me. It reinforces my impression that there are a lot of souls in another form working along with me on God’s behalf. Something’s going on because I find myself in the right place at the right time so often. So far that’s the result of my current experiment of Trust. I suspect that everyone has a guardian angel and probably sooo many more.

    Meriellen, the sharing of your journey in your pamphlet “God’s Healing Grace” came along at just the right time to help me deal with a siege of dark mental challenges and to help a F/friend through intercessory prayer who had a daughter diagnosed with schizophrenia. Presently, her daughter has been convinced that she needs to take her meds (due to being arrested), is holding a job and my friend says, “I have my daughter back again”. Thank you for your faithfulness.

  6. Meriellen, It just so happens that I’m standing in the Sandy Spring FM Graveyard Sandy Spring, Maryland looking at the stone of Margaret J. Gilpin 1899-1986 & William H. Gilpin 1899-1976. And they aren’t alone, the Gilpin name is on a bunch of stones. Feels like home to me in here. :). Wishing you well.

    • What a lovely idea, Stuart, inviting our spiritual ancestors to pray for us as we blunder our way through life. Sounds like a spiritual practice, indeed, and it’s no wonder they welcome you when you arrive in the burial ground nowadays. I’ve also sensed that cloud of witnesses continuing to hang out near the well-loved meetinghouse where they grew in their faith and witness.

      About those Gilpins in the Sandy Spring burial grounds: if we are related, it’s probably not due to a connection on this continent, but back in the dim dawn of record-keeping in northern Ireland….
      Blessings to you!

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