Reflecting, Sleeping, Ruminating

  • Derek Roger

The first two steps in the Challenge of Change Resilience programme are waking up and controlling attention, and the key to understanding what the programme is about is attention.  Using a simple example, a piece of work arriving on your table is an event, and that event provides information through your senses about what needs to be done.  You then process the information and give attention.  When you attend to something it progresses, becoming a new event with new information, new processing, and new attention. 

Attention being snatched away
The emphasis in the training is on being in the present – having 'presence of mind' – but at the same time acknowledging, firstly, that no-one is awake 100% of the time, and secondly, that you do need to go into the past or the future to get things done.  Intentionally going into the past or the future we describe in the programme as reflection, and this is entirely appropriate.  Reflection might involve remembering what you did last time you had a similar problem, making a plan to avoid having it happen again in the future, or walking down the corridor to seek advice on the plan: these are all expressions of giving attention.  The problem is when attention is snatched away, for example, thinking 'oh no, not that again!' when the piece of work arrives, and promptly going into thoughts about next weekend or next holiday.  

Waking sleep
This state of attention being snatched away into the past or the future is what we call waking sleep, and once it happens, work stops – you can't work and sleep.  Stress is then introduced with the scenario of a line manager giving someone a piece of work, getting to the door, turning back and making some threatening comment about not messing up again this time.  What follows is unlikely to be thoughts about next holiday, and much more likely to involve negative emotion: anger, fear, resentment.  Once waking sleep becomes coloured by negative emotion, we call this state of mind rumination.  Rumination is all that stress is – being preoccupied with 'what-if' and 'if-only' thoughts, what Mark Twain described as the worst things in my life that never happened.

Telling the difference
One of the difficulties expressed by participants in the training is how to tell the difference between reflection, waking sleep and rumination.  People often say that they might start off reflecting and end up finding themselves ruminating, and the dividing line between these states can seem a very fine one indeed.  In fact, the distinction is as wide as a street, but what makes it seem imprecise and haphazard is habit.  We're so accustomed to having our minds wander off, we just find ourselves absent without even being aware that it has happened. 

Habit changing
This is the habit that needs to be changed, from the habit of waking sleep to the habit of waking up.  There is no magic bullet, but it can more or less be guaranteed that after the training participants will be aware of waking up.  The key then is to stay awake for as long as you can – this is the practice, and people then find themselves waking up more and more frequently and able to stay awake longer.  The test of whether you've been reflecting on something or just in waking sleep is this: have you done the work in front of you that was waiting to be done?  If not, you've been absent.

Letting negative thoughts go
To see the difference between reflection or waking sleep and rumination, the question is whether or not the thoughts involve negative emotion.  If they do, then that's rumination.  People also sometimes ask whether you can ruminate about positive thoughts.  Thinking about pleasant things certainly leads to feeling happy, and in fact the physiological effects of positive thoughts is very different from thinking about negative ones, but the term rumination is reserved specifically to describe ruminating about emotional upset.  The trap is to try to cover up an unhappy thought with a happy one – as everyone knows, the unhappy ones will keep intruding.  The key is to get things into perspective by becoming detached and then letting the negative thoughts go. 

Letting go
A final part of the process is to not see detachment as a form of opting out.  The fourth step in the process is letting go, but what you let go of is the accompanying negative thoughts, not the issue itself.  Your manager might comment in a negative, personally critical way about a piece of work you've done.  What will arise in the mind is the negative emotion, but when that's seen for what it is – just a thought – and let go, there will be something useful to reflect on from what's been said.  Angry, hypercritical people are by definition unhappy, but there's no need for you to take on their unhappiness as well!  Misery is contagious, and the Resilience programme offers inoculation against it.

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