Mental Rubbernecking

What is it about passing an accident scene on the highway that compels us to crane our necks around to satisfy our morbid curiosity?

I don’t really know, but I’ve noticed that the same thing can happen in our daily life with past events of pain or hurt. Rubbernecking with the past. Dwelling on thoughts, and constantly bringing them back to mind.

One example of this is that after my dad’s unexpected passing one particularly vivid memory would return to my mind over and over again.

It was the hallway to his room. He had just been moved there and the previous floor he had been on was bright and well lit. This floor seemed to be in need of a color update and the lighting was poor.

As I remember it, that hallway was dark, and lonely. His room was at the end, in the corner. Forgotten.

I could find myself thinking about that hallway when I was doing something else. It was persistent and ongoing. Dim and suffocating.

And in a way, I thought that I was trying to sort things out, mourning in a way, maybe even keeping his memory alive.

But what I came to learn was that I was “ruminating” on a particularly dark memory.

Ruminating is what cows do when they chew the cud. They eat the grass when grazing and then later on they lie down and they regurgitate the grass and continue to chew it. That’s why they are called ruminants and it allows them to extract additional nutrition from basic grass.

Great for cows, goats, and sheep. But it’s a tiny little deception for human thoughts.

Brain science has shown that if you think a thought over and over again you build up neural pathways in the brain. The more you think it, and the more emotion is involved, the stronger the pathway.

Pathways in the brain become well worn, so much so that you begin to think things without even being aware that you’re thinking them.

Have you ever caught yourself doing this?

Thinking continually about a past pain is the equivalent of mental rubbernecking, when you crane your neck around to stare at a horrible or upsetting event in the past.

And what happens is that you can get locked into an unproductive loop of regurgitating the past, constantly bringing it up, chewing on it, and swallowing it again and again.

Only there is no nutrition there. Only more darkness.

So how do you change something that’s become such an unconscious habit of thinking, an actual neural pathway that’s been created in the brain?

Traditional advice is simple: stop thinking about it. And there’s something to that. But as someone who’s been through it I can attest that that advice while simple, is not easy.

Enter meditation.

It turns out meditation is quite useful when it comes to rumination, or this mental rubbernecking. The reason is that by focusing your attention you can learn two things.

First you strengthen your brain’s attention abilities. Attention is like a muscle and needs to be worked in order to strengthen it. Our clickbait, online, social media world is designed for distraction, which is the candy of attentional nutrition. If you want holes in your teeth, eat lots of sugar. If you want weak attention, give into distraction. The antidote is focused attention.

Secondly, when you’re focused you’ll be able to notice distracting thoughts. This isn’t bad and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for getting distracted when you meditate because this is actually one of the benefits.

When you have a rumination problem one of the tricks is that you are often unaware of it, or at least unaware of how often it’s happening.

So when you are focused on meditation, you can identify the persistent thoughts that distract you from your focus. As soon as you notice that’s your opportunity.

You can give that thought, or whatever it’s about, to God. He can handle it and you can acknowledge that you’re worrying about it.

Do you see how useful meditation can be?

And how important it is to use it in the context of God’s presence?

When you’re purposely sitting with Him, quieting yourself and paying attention to what thoughts come up then you can seek forgiveness and help from your Heavenly Father who already knows what you are struggling with. It’s you that needs to become aware of this, not Him.

But when you do become aware, wow! Some of the most healing times have happened in this type of setting for me.

Maybe you can do the same.

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  1. This was so Timely!! I love how God brings an issue to my attention from multiple sources! I’ve been reading a lot lately about memories and how we create them. Recently, I went to my favorite counselor to specifically talk about a past ‘feeling/ association’ that I just couldn’t let go of but needed to. He gave me some helpful advice and now I know I can also give it to God during mediation. Just another motivation to keep going with mediate on Christ. Thank you

  2. Awesome insight. I am amazed at the peace that has come from time spent in meditation with God. Fix my focus on scripture. Now I will add awareness of those rubbernecking traps as well. One is already coming to mind. Banish the thought!