Feeding the Flames

by Site Author


In his senior year of high school, Darin Strauss killed one of his classmates. It was an accident. While driving, he approached a group of bikers. One of the bikers swerved in front of Strauss’s car, and Strauss didn’t have time to steer around her. She died nearly instantly.

The accident was not his fault, but Strauss was traumatized nonetheless. In the years after the accident, he thought back on it constantly. The memory haunted him.

Thinking about the accident only made him feel worse, but he couldn’t stop the thinking. As he puts it, “My brain persisted—as any bodily organ would—in trying to heal what was in effect a bruise… Regret doesn’t budge things; it seems crazy that the force of all that human want can’t amend a moment, can’t even stir a pebble.”

Psychologists call that kind of thinking “ruminating:” the constant repetition of unwanted thoughts. We all ruminate. We fight internal battles over past traumas, humiliations, and disappointments. It’s the nature of the mind to just play the tape over and over again.

And, in the end, it is the ruminating that makes us suffer. Some people drink alcohol to try to stop it. Others turn to similarly problematic approaches. In fact, propensity to ruminate is associated with alcoholism, depression, and nearly every other marker of psychological distress.

My favorite metaphor for ruminating comes from Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist teacher. Chödrön says that ruminating is akin to pouring kerosene on a fire. The fire represents our initial feelings: sadness, distress, anger. Ruminating only makes the fire grow. Repetitive thoughts, internal debates, inner arguments—they all feed the flames.

Chödrön instructs her students, in the language of the metaphor, to put down the bottle of kerosene and to sit by the fire. If you can gently stop ruminating and let your feelings be, they can become bearable.