Must one remain always alone? plaintively asks Obermann, the eponymous protagonist of Étienne Pivert de Senancour’s 1804 novel, in contemplating happiness. Renouncing happiness would make one happier, he concludes, but such peace would be a mournful “mournful gift if one has no hope of sharing it”. The book was quite popular in its day and, depending on whom you asked, an exquisitely crafted masterpiece or the fullest expression of ennui thus produced in literature. The poet Matthew Arnold was so captivated by it that he wrote two poems in reverence of the book and its author, while Robert Louis Stevenson, on reading the book many years later, confessed that he always bore Arnold a grudge for leading him to the “cheerless fields of Obermann” and introducing more dreariness into his already despondent youth 1. Obermann, told in epistolary form, is pervading sense of futility when pitted against the demands of life and its vertiginous ascent to its ideals while being constantly thwarted by forces beyond his control. It is a tired soul sapped of all its energies so that the ordinary impulses that are the teleology of natural desires to live and the actions they engender for the sheer pleasure of the exercise of doing. Just like a century later, Kafka would come to epitomise the existential angst and alienation, the horrors and traumas of modern times, and the byzantine absurdity of the bureaucracy orchestrated by totalitarian demagogues. For Kafka, it was his progressive ill-health, social ostracism for being a Jew and a German in Czech Bohemia, and most especially his overbearing Father who “ruled the world from his armchair” and would abuse, threaten, and mock his son throughout his life. Such a haunting figure did he pose over Kafka’s work that in a letter written in 1919 to his father, Kafka states that “All my writing was about you.”2.
to undertake useless labours, to embrace distasteful cares, to struggle painfully to an undesired goal;…daily to speak and act without grace, naturalness, or freedom; to be utterly sincere and yet suppress one’s frankness; to have a true soul and refined feelings and yet to exhibit neither nobility nor energy; to be for ever silent about one’s dearest projects, and only to accomplish others very imperfectly—that is what it means to lose the whole of one’s fortune.Senancour in a note to his editor Levallois in the third edition of Rêveries (1833)3
Rumination is the act of focussing on something that makes you frightened or angry. It is a continual occurrence into consciousness of stressful events that occur uncontrollably, more so than the ordinary process of thinking. Such non biological needs and perceived threats trigger the same priming of the bodily system as biological needs and genuine threats do. Since these ephemeral constructs of the mind cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated, they continually trigger the critical parts of your system, depleting the limited supply of cerebral current in the system. If you are someone who focuses excessively on the negative aspects of yourself or life then your brain’s vital energies are going to be taken up with this hollow pinging back and forth of areas of your system so that you have less free energy to notice and make sense of the world in front of you. Fear, in particular, activates the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, whose only functions are, rather crudely, referred to as the four Fs—flight, fight, feed, or fuck. The other primary regions of the brain that are involved in the pathology are the hippocampus, which is the seat of your memories and the motor cortex, which controls your movements. All regions of the brain are controlled by a region at the front of the brain know as the prefrontal cortex, which acts as the master regulator. Rumination brings on a flood of emotions and increases the activity in the amygdala which in turn cause waves of fear to traverse through the system, shutting down the cognitively sophisticated anterior cingulate and releasing a deluge of toxic neurochemicals into the brain. Because such a heightened state of alert is resource-intensive and highly debilitating to the system when prolonged for too long, the only way for the system to assuage or alleviate the feelings of irrational anger, guilt, loneliness, or the myriad other intrusive and obstreperous thoughts that plague the mind ad infinitum, is to detect them early as they are welling up and inhibiting or numbing the areas that they trigger. Just like our body automatically controls our actions by subduing stray muscular reflexes until they are necessary, the mechanism in our brain stops unwanted thoughts from occurring. In a 2017 research study of this inhibitory behaviour by Dr Taylor Schmitz, the transmission of messages between nerve cells is mediated by a neurotransmitter known as GABA4. GABA secreted by one nerve cell can suppress the activity of the other cells it is connected to. The hippocampus is the storehouse of the GABA chemical and its available concentration determines how effectively different people are able to block the retrieval of memories and prevent thoughts from reoccurring. However, inhibition is like a brake that must be continually depressed and the system must continue to be in a state of hypervigilance, ever alert to the possible outcropping of unwanted states—the net effect being that cerebral energy continues to be sapped but now with the added necessity of having to be maintained over an indefinite term. When the critical receptive areas of the system are ever vigilant for possible threats in the stream of awareness they are processing, it’s hardly likely that they will be efficiently able to act on and react to your rapidly changing environment. As your mind is so preoccupied with keeping at bay painful memories and as it continually scans your stream of consciousness in order to preempt and avoid things that trigger those unwanted memories make you anxious, you fail to notice the speeding car at the intersection, the note of worry in your wife’s voice, or the . Or, as in the case of Senancour’s Obermann, you sink into despondency and ennui as the constant struggle against forces from within and without leave you disenchanted by life’s hopes and dreams. The zest for life’s lofty prizes like pleasure and success seem hollow and unsatisfying and therefore not worth the effort of the attempt.
So if we cannot suppress unwanted memories how can we overcome their dilating effects? One way is to disassociate ourselves from the memory so we become outside observers of our thoughts and, with time, learn to numb ourselves to their presence. The other way is to embrace the unwanted memories more fully, to develop your reason, awareness, and capacity to accept all things to such a point that you transcend your egocentric involvement and reach a new harmony, a new solidarity with the world. Psychology gives us the method of detached mindfulness5 as a means of numbing ourselves to unbidden thoughts and stimuli. In Freud’s free association exercise, the repressed memory is elicited from the patient as a word spoken out in response to a string of spoken words. More recently, Wells and Matthews (1994)[^7] have proposed metacognitive therapy as a way of teaching patients how to stop engaging with the thought with what if? and why? questions. Both, free association and detached mindfulness attempt to dissuade our brains from using worry as a coping strategy and instead learning how to disassociate from thoughts.
Meditation works on the principle of reflection—that facility of the mind to leisurely explore dormant and underlying thoughts in a languid and unhurried way without the pressing need to resolve them. It is the opposite of rumination. Rather than suppress and inhibit the offending memory, meditation trains us to watch it unfold and cultivate a friendly attitude towards all excursions of the mind, so that the constant struggle with noxious thoughts and neurotic habits is replaced by an unconditional acceptance. Buddhism calls this Maitrī (मैत्री)—endeavouring to approach our fears, insecurities, emotional with warmth and compassion so that we try to “get to know” those parts of us that we find so abhorrent and repulsive. When we do not try to control negative experiences, subdue them, and direct them in a more pleasant directions, the mists of confusion and conflation dissipate and the inner struggle against fear subsides. Unlike therapeutic practices that are concerned with sorting the experience and training patients to improve themselves over time, meditation teaches us how to be with ourselves. After all, the pathology of these second fears is a revelation of ourselves as being and not being; who we think we are or what we are said to be; and just like every act of living it is deeply personal and must be undertaken solitarily. No one can hold your hand and guide you across the chasm.
From an introduction to the 1840 translation of Obermann by J. Anthony Barnes. Barnes describes Obermann as a “pure and lofty soul, with fine sensibilities and a craving to server, but disheartened and disenchanted; chafed and repelled by the imperfections of an existing social order, he indulges in vague and beautiful dreams of unattainable ideals, only to wake to the paralysing consciousness of his own impotence and life-weariness”, concluding that it is “perhaps the fullest expression in literature of the mood of ennui”. “He prefers to let [love] hover before him as a dream rather than risk all in the great venture. ↩
From John Williams’s introduction to the Wordworth’s edition of the Castle (Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Herts 2009). ↩
Schmitz, TW et al. Hippocampal GABA enables inhibitory control over unwanted thoughts. Nature Communications; 3 Nov 2017. Professor Michael Anderson from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and Dr Schmitz demonstrated that subjects with low levels of hippocampal GABA fared much worse in inhibiting unwanted thoughts. Anderson believes that improving GABA activity within the hippocampus could help people to stifle errant thoughts and help treat a range of conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and chronic depression. For the time-being though, unless you are lucky enough to be favourably genetically predisposed, science does not offer any immediate treatments. ↩
Detached mindfulness is a term first used by clinical psychologist Adrian Wells to describe a therapeutic process that uses several metacognitive approaches to facilitate change, such as “the activation of metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive monitoring and control, suspension of conceptual processing, attentional flexibility, and a de-centered relationship with thoughts”. ↩