The Perils of Rumination
In Book X of his work 'The Nicomachean Ethics', the Greek philosopher Aristotle extols the virtues of contemplation as
"both the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest thing that can be known), and also the most continuous, because we are more capable of continuous contemplation than we are of any practical activity."
In our current crazy world full of smart phones constantly connecting to wifi networks whilst syncing themselves to all manner of other gadgets just to make sure that all the machines and us might miraculously end up on the same page, we rarely get enough time for contemplation.
So, what would a person with only limited time left in the world but released from the concerns of the world spend their time contemplating?
Recently I've had the opportunity to ask this question as two of my friends have been dying - and yes I know we are all dying but what I mean is dying in a more accelerated way - read terminal illness and visualise doctors frowning and stroking their chins as they try to determine exactly how long you've got...
In any case, contemplation - or in the initial case rumination - "chewing the cud" - begins with 'Why?!' or more specifically 'Why me?!'
And here's where we get to see pain because 'Why me?' is a question about fairness and justice. And we can extrapolate this type of thinking into any bad news or perceived injustice afflicting us in our world.
A refusal to accept the reality presented before us and a vain attempt to try and dredge through history to find a reason 'WHY!' so that the world may make sense and we can find a solution to the underlying feeling of injustice.
Rumination like this keeps us up at night, frustrates us on a tautological merry-go-round that haunts our dreams and taints our world.
Neuroscience researchers tell us that part of our brain seeks meaning in the events of life and absent of meaning will actually make something up to fill in the details. The merry-go-round of 'Why?' keeps engaging this part and keeps us trapped in an analysis of the past.
Freedom arises when there is surrender and acceptance. One friend has been in terrible pain. At one point after days and days of suffering he had an epiphany - stop fighting and allow yourself to see through the pain. We joked about it later. About embracing your destiny.
"Welcome teacher, thank you" he said.
There is only the present and no amount of rumination on the past will change history.
I asked my other friend what he thought about whilst he sat for days and days on end, having medical treatments but knowing that quietly the doctors were calculating 'How long'.
I expected a truly profound and philosophical response - especially given that he had long ago cast himself off the merry go round of why and had instead embraced the moment.
He laughed at me, at my naivety I guess, "I'm thinking about surviving" he said "just thinking about surviving every day."
So, there is freedom. The ability to embrace every moment as if it's your last, the will to release yourself from the perils of ruminating about the past and to instead direct your contemplation towards the future.
It doesn't have to be that complicated.
Aristotle cautions us about studying ethics, or how to lead a good life. He says that our aim should not be the acquisition of knowledge about the action, but the action itself. It's not enough to contemplate the 'good life' we must get ourselves into action and live it.
George Bernard Shaw was a great exponent of this view
"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."
In peace and love always.