When you’re suffering from OCD, from a mindfulness perspective you are very identified with certain thoughts you have to the exclusion of others. In fact, not only are you identified with your obsessive thoughts, you may in general tend to be more aware of your thoughts than you are of other aspects of your being such as your senses and how your body feels when it feels good (not when you’re anxious about it).
In spiritual practice, when you meditate, the focus is on learning to watch and allow the flow of your thoughts and feelings rather than getting caught up in or pulled in by their messages. Gestalt therapy too, believes good mental health is when you are able to allow yourself to meet each moment as it emerges with flexibility rather than with fixed interruptions such as obsessive thinking. Getting to this “flow”zone can take a lot of practice (and anyway you’re not really supposed to TRY to get anywhere in meditation but don’t tell anyone I said that sometimes you do have a bit of a plan!). The problem for most of us though is that certain thoughts are much more compelling and attractive (usually in a negative way) than others and so often times we get pulled into a cycle of thoughts that feel circular and unpleasant and we lose the flow of experience.
Acceptance and Commitment therapy developed an exercise which you can practice to begin this process of observing your thoughts. It involves imagining you are sitting by the bank of a river. Leaves are floating by one by one down the river and each leaf has a different one of your many thoughts on it. Some of the thoughts (leaves) you find you’re able to let pass you by, but others have compelling thoughts on them which end up pulling you in and sweeping you down the river for awhile. With practice it may be possible to begin to observe some of these stickier thoughts rather than indulge them.
Beginning to pay attention to the possibility that you are not your thoughts (as with the recommendations in the book Brainlock- “that’s not me, that’s ocd”) but rather the witness to your thoughts as well as their container, can eventually set you free to not have to be defined by them. What this means is that at some point you will even be able to choose which thoughts to pay attention to and which ones to send down the river!
However, discovering you are not your thoughts can feel scary if you don’t know who you are apart from them. This is deep! Most humans walk around with very strong interests (!) in their thoughts. They live from these thoughts as if this is are all there is to them. (Eg “I have to do this later.. I need to lose weight.. why didn’t I get that promotion?” etc..)
ACT as well as Brainlock encourage living your life around your OCD and in spite of OCD. But…if the only way you know yourself is mostly through your thinking.. these suggestions can feel very unclear.
One way I find helpful to work with OCD (and really all psychological pain) is by helping people cultivate relationships with other aspects of themselves and ways of FEELING and sensing their experience rather than only thinking about it (which is where pple with OCD get stuck)
Here are some suggestions for doing so:
- First notice how often you think. How often / do you stop and feel or sense yourself from the inside? Don’t berate or evaluate yourself if you don’t notice much outside thinking. Just notice when you leave your house and walk out onto the street- are you aware that the scenery changed? what the weather feels like in your body? how it feels to step outside? or are you just in your thoughts or OCD. JUST your noticing this is the beginning of more awareness for you. It means – now you are aware of another option of being with yourself and your experiences. Often, and especially with OCD which is very tenacious, it can be hard to shift out of it. So let this be okay and gently see if you can delay engaging in your thoughts for a moment or two and become interested in feeling yourself more.
- Go outside and watch the birds or the ducks play with each other ; See if you can watch how the ease with which they move. Allow yourself to create this point of interest while allowing your obsessive thoughts come and go if possible (this will get easier over time). Nature has a way of reminding us of the flow of life.
- Change the scenery of your mind to remind yourself there is life outside your thoughts by going outside and feeling your feet as you walk and seeing if you can pay attention to you’re the feeling of your feet landing on the ground. Maybe go barefoot on different textures- like walking in the sand on the beach or walking in the grass to connect more with what you feel rather than what you think. If thoughts come- see if you can acknowledge them and return to feeling your feet.
- When you go outside, see what ELSE is there besides your OCD. Pay attention to the trees, see if you can look at a tree and notice what you sense when you notice its shape, its leaves, its trunk. Notice the subtle differences between each tree. (yes really!).
- Sit quietly with your eyes closed and allow yourself to notice the sounds around you. You don’t need to seek them out. Just allow them to come to you without attaching to them or trying to figure out what they are. Notice how each sound feels IN your body. When you hear a sound, it affects your body if you pay attention!
- Let yourself play with a pet you see outside that you find cute or a baby playing nearby
- This one is courtesy of Gestalt therapy! Go to a museum and notice which paintings or artwork draw you in (see which ones pull you in and which ones you feel like walking away from). Notice what you sense vs just what you think (note: sensations can be experienced as: tightness, heaviness, lightness, peacefulness, softness, contraction, expansion, warmth, coldness etc..)
- See if you can tune into yourself during the day by pausing and noticing what you sense in your body. You’re just giving your body that space to be. This can be difficult if you’re new to doing this so be patient if you don’t notice much.
- Taste new things, create new recipes as a way of tapping into your creativity and your intuition. Even if OCD is there and it may be – work around it but do so by noticing just how much attention you give to your thinking faculties rather than your senses. Awareness is all you need here.
- Go to a mall or a shopping area and notice all you can from a sense perspective- smell different perfumes, notice what people are wearing, try on clothes to see what fabrics you enjoy feeling on your skin.
- Pick up a copy of “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle and go sit in your favorite place outdoors where you can read peacefully and allow nature to draw you in which will support you as you read.
- See what else you can come up with that will put you more in touch with your feelings and sensations such as swimming or dancing . Movement helps us shift out of our minds and can feel really restorative.
In all of this you will discover more aspects or avenues of relating to the world than you may have noticed before. You might find you miss your OCD or feel a bit unsettled when you’re not focused on it. This is great! It’s your new space of beginning to create the possibilities for a new you- a you that allows yourself to exist outside your exclusive relationship with your thoughts.
Try to see if you can engage in these activities not as a ritual or way to avoid but again as as if you’re encouraging a scared child to make more contact with the world outside his fears. The goal is to begin to widen your experience of yourself and learn how much more there is to you than your OCD.
When you see this, you will likely feel more motivated to letting OCD go more readily because you will know WHERE you’re heading.
OCD is one channel that you may always have an ability to tune into and get pulled into but in time, you will learn to change to another more interesting channel that feels good and to tolerate feeling good and how good that can feel!