10/28/2013 12:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

OCD: A Way of Distracting Myself From Something Even Scarier?

Buddhism makes much of the ceaseless stream of thoughts and feelings that course through our minds. I can certainly identify, but there are times when it feels like the stream dries up, when I'm occupied by just a single thought for long periods. The thought itself can fluctuate, but it's invariably of the obsessive variety. It invades, occupies, colonizes, and turns me slowly on a spit.

OCD is a special kind of torture. But as Stephen Batchelor reminds me, in some ways it is nothing more than another technique our minds have dreamed up to steal us away from basic, moment-to-moment awareness. "Much of the time we are driven by a relentless and insistent surge of impulses," Batchelor writes. "We notice this in quiet moments of reflection, but usually just get carried along on the crest of its wave. Until, that is, we crash once more onto the rocks of recriminatory self-consciousness, and from there into moods and depressions." (Buddhism Without Beliefs, 58)

This is exactly how my OCD often plays out. I spend a great deal of time trying to anticipate and avoid situations that might trigger strong obsessive-compulsive cycles. Inevitably, I get distracted and drift off (or simply get sick of my self-imposed sentry duty and let down my guard as an act of protest). When I return to awareness and realize that I've failed to keep watch, I become terrified that something awful has happened in the interim. Usually I imagine it's exactly the thing I was supposed to be watching out for. Cue the recriminatory self-consciousness and depression.

I'm not suggesting that my fear-driven vigilance is anything like awareness, of course. Instead, I'm saying the opposite: OCD itself is a way of distracting myself from a more direct engagement with the unpredictability of my experience. It is a way of prejudging that experience, of dividing it into "acceptable" and "unacceptable" categories and demanding that I find a way to live only in the former. Which is impossible, of course -- hence my inevitable failure.

True awareness, however, doesn't seek to build barriers against experience. As Batchelor writes:

Awareness is a process of deepening self-acceptance. It is neither a cold, surgical examination of life nor a means of becoming perfect. Whatever it observes, it embraces. The light of awareness will doubtless illuminate things we would prefer not to see. And this may entail a descent into what is forbidden, repressed, denied. (59)

OCD likes to fancy itself a last line of defense, a defender of the realm. It is not. It is a cowering, shivering little boy playing dress-up, a bully who picks fights with older kids because he'd rather have the shit kicked out of him than spend a moment alone with himself.

This essay originally appeared at The Wheat and Chaff.