Geneticists tell us that cows and humans share about 80 per cent of their genes. Two eyes, two ears, a nose, lungs, liver, a heart, etc. Moreover—because of genetics—both have something else in common: they ruminate.
The cow brings up food already swallowed to chew it again, while humans bring up long-gone events, to chew them again.
Over millennia, the cow has slowly developed this ability, which has contributed to her very survival. Grazing too long in an open meadow, in danger, she has cultivated the ability to minimally chew grass and swallow it quickly, and then regurgitate and rechew it calmly later, out of the sun and away from predators.
Biologists call this intelligence. Can we say the same about humans?
Frequently, we are not calm when we bring up the past, sometimes agitating ourselves beyond control. Ruminating more and more intensely, humans can become excited to the point of acting out. At first, it might seem innocuous: "What harm can there be in thinking badly of someone?" Unfortunately, this ruminative activity can escalate into words, which can lead to outright physical aggression.
Aggression against the other, or against oneself.
Ruminating is very useful for the cow. By doing so she can digest grass, transforming it into elements that she assimilates to nourish herself. In contrast, by ruminating, humans feed on their accumulated anger, anxiety, resentment and depression. Not only do they not nourish themselves, they gradually poison themselves, because all this fermenting material gets stored in the mind and comes up later, to be chewed again.
Once the cow has swallowed a sufficient amount of grass, she lies down, relaxes, brings it back up, and calmly rechews it. When we humans bring up events, recent or distant, along with them we "rechew" the emotions that were present at the time. Our breathing increases, the heart beats faster, the throat tightens ... and sometimes tears ensue. Calm is a distant memory.
Another thing we have in common: the cow doesn't know it's ruminating; for us as well, the process works by itself.
For about eight hours a day the cow ruminates in blissful ignorance. And we? Since we don't notice ourselves ruminating either, and retain the fiction that we are not, we continue to delude ourselves for most of the day.
When we are in this delusional vortex, the mind is often out of control, caught in a frantic spiral of scenarios and images, a whirlwind levelling everything in its path.
How is it useful for us to ruminate, I wonder!
I had never been aware that I was ruminating most of the time until I sat on a meditation cushion in the darkness of a room, simply trying to be attentive to the reality of my breath going in and out. This particular form of "presence" was a genuine wake-up call, shedding light on what was actually occurring in my mind, moment by moment.
After two seconds of attention—then, oops—the mind leaps into ruminative action and is soon ungovernable, plunging into memories of the past and skipping into hopes and fears for the future. After ten minutes of such "rechewing," I recover and return to the reality of breathing. A few seconds later, my mind is again out of control. In the past. Into the future. Going back to the past. Jumping into the future. Briefly back to breathing. Then another chewing session. Without respite. Unable to remain in the present moment.
This preparatory exercise for Vipassana was a hard but indispensable first lesson. Indeed, it was only by experiencing this lack of control directly could I realize how much harm I was doing to myself. (Psychologists talk about the vortex of rumination, which can lead to depression or anxiety.)
It was also a lesson in humility. I had always thought myself exempt from this unskillful habit, thinking, "Others ruminate, not me." But this form of meditation was a stern reality check. "You claim to be adept at staying in the present moment? Prove it!"
Faced with the accumulation of evidence, my inner jury had to face the facts. The result: Guilty ... of a lack of mind control.
The good news (and that's the point) is that, little by little, with patience and perseverance, I started regaining some control. The mind calmed down and relaxed more quickly. After more than 70 years of practice brooding and ruminating, needless to say I still do it. However, by striving to be continuously attentive to the activity of the moment, I ruminate for less and less of the time, and I can halt it more and more easily.
The cow ruminates, relaxed and peaceful. For me, it is by not ruminating that I am peaceful and relaxed.