The Difference Between Meditation and Rumination

Q. What’s the difference between meditating on a problem and ruminating? Can you recommend anything on mindfully deconstructing a problem?

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A. Mindfulness practice leads to better decision making due to the skills it develops over time. It’s about paying attention to ordinary experience differently.

This means attempting to drop the emphasis on meaning (resolution) and instead noticing the basic sensory components of experience—including thoughts and feelings. Thinking involves a kind of internal seeing (mental images) and internal hearing (verbal thoughts). We can detect emotional valence in the body.

Ordinary rumination implies that we are not intentionally imposing a strategy. The default mode network is actively engaged and we are puzzling out our options and considering possible solutions. There is nothing wrong with thinking, ruminating, letting the mind wander. In the absence of some intentional strategy, however, it wouldn’t technically be considered mindfulness meditation.

Employing a mindfulness strategy while the mind is active implies intentionally observing the various component parts at work. The goal of solving the conundrum is dropped (or at least relaxed) and we observe the mind and body engaged in the process of responding to uncertainty. It’s a window into intimate familiarity with subjective experience. The need for an answer has been temporarily suspended.  

Some strategies are so subtle that the distinction gets even blurrier. Examples include Krishnamurti’s "Choiceless Awareness," Shinzen Young’s “Do Nothing,” and Adyashanti’s instruction to “Allow Everything to Be As It Is.” I consider these as close cousins if not siblings. They are all in the "Ordinary Mind is the Way" family.