ON THE NATURE OF OBSESSION – And The Occupation Of Our Minds.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on August 2, 2010


Years ago, during a weeklong yoga & meditation retreat for weary city dwellers, my teacher, Rodney Yee, told us the following story in an effort to help us focus and clear our minds.

Two Buddhist monks complete their initial training and are ready to travel through the country to practice what they have learned. They are instructed by their teacher to maintain a respectful distance in their dealings with women. And so they are off. As they come round to a river, they encounter a woman who has just finished her laundering, and is struggling with a basket of clothes, which she must take across the stream. One of the monks immediately offers to carry her and the basket across, and promptly does so on his shoulders. She thanks him and goes on her way. The two monks continue to walk the countryside, encountering many on their way, and finally resting when the day’s light fades. They have been silent until then.


“I can’t believe you carried that woman across the stream on your shoulders” the monk says to his companion. “We were instructed not to touch women.”


“I can’t believe that you are still carrying her” his friend replies.

And therein lies the nature of obsession. Obsessive thoughts, worry, rumination, fixation and compulsive behavior are all anxiety disorders. On a continuum of severity, we can be preoccupied or worried about a person or a situation, yet still have the ability to think and act on other events. In this situation we still retain some freedom of thought and action despite our worry. In another version, we may worry in a generalized way, and revisit those worries in a jumble of psychic activity that leads us nowhere while zapping our energy and taking up mental space. In yet a third version, we may find ourselves performing repetitive actions or thinking the same thoughts, we may ruminate over the same issue or problem without being able to arrive at a solution. Lastly, we can become obsessed. Filled up with something or someone, so that they or it occupies all of our mental space, effectively making it impossible to think of anything else. Our mind is under siege, haunted by a persistent thought, image, person. It is in the nature of obsessive thinking to intrude, to impinge upon our consciousness and  evacuate our current experience by occupying all our mental space with a particular object or thing. Compulsive action is the behavioral twin of obsession- filling in all physical space so that other experience is shut out (think of  the compulsive overeater who numbs out with food, or the anorexic who controls and restricts by filling up on thoughts of food). Anxiety, and its neuro-physical connotations is the juice that powers these phenomena of the mind.

In early Greek and Roman history, obsession was thought to be due to a possession of the mind and or soul by an evil spirit, or worse, to be a curse imposed on humans by a God (Greek tragedy is replete with such cases, i.e. Phaedra, Ajax). Now, psychoanalysts think of this  “possession” as more of an “occupation” of the mind fueled by anxiety. The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas describes obsession as a condition that preoccupies our minds, (much like an army settles on and takes over territory), and then terminates our ability to think about or do anything else freely or creatively. This pre-occupation is meant to “protect” the psyche from other knowledge or situations, which are experienced as potentially dangerous and/or overwhelming. The particular object that we choose  to obsess on is used to end any possibility of experience and freedom, because it takes up all of our thinking space.

To think about anxiety in this way helps us understand why people can spin out over and over on the same thought and never seem to be able to resolve it. Their minds are bound by these repetitions. Patients suffering from anxiety and experiencing obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior feel at a loss to stop themselves and often enter treatment beleaguered and exhausted by their symptoms. They look battle weary and haunted, much like soldiers returning from a war. And in fact, compulsive behavior and ruminative thoughts are often associated with post-traumatic stress syndrome. The repetitive nature of the behavior and thoughts is one way in which our psyche attempts to repair itself by re-playing a traumatic event over and over until it can be understood and processed. The trouble is, that it is the very nature of trauma to defy our understanding and logic, so that often, the repetitive playback serves only to re-traumatize the self. In this sense, we can think of obsession as both a pre-emptive state of mind (keeping much of life experience out), and as an attempt at mastery (the repetition being an attempt to make sense of the experienced but not yet understood). The psychoanalytic treatment of anxiety involves understanding the state of affairs that led to this “occupation” of the mind.

The philosopher Krisnamurti knew this, and understood that obsessive thoughts and behavior are a means of escape from conflict. Perhaps because of his meditative practices to quiet and focus the mind, he taught his disciples to follow a thought through to its completion so that they could be finished with it. He understood that our minds are trying to work out the meaning of something in rumination, and they will continue to do so until they can arrive at that end. Effectively, in psychotherapy, we do just that: help someone follow his or her thoughts to completion, to arrive at the source of anxiety behind the obsession and compulsion. To provide a space for thought and experience, no matter how winding or terrifying the road that leads there is.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Milena August 24, 2010 at 11:30 AM

Yes the parable is superb!
This is quite helpful for me, since I went through dramatic experience this year and it’s true that my mind is now obsessing about this person I was with.
Thankfully I have been taking yoga classes for years now, and this really helps when it comes to be “the observer” of your thoughts, and not to identify with them.


Anne Conger August 12, 2010 at 9:52 AM

The lesson from Krisnamurti to his disciples to follow a thought through to its completion is so wise. I like the idea of following the thought instead of having it be an all consuming amoeba in your mind. What grabs me is in trying to determine the outcome or better yet control the outcome. Therein lies my obsession.


Laurie August 6, 2010 at 6:16 AM

Velleda – this is an absolutely brilliant description – particularly the double aspect of obsession – a way of keeping experience out and an attempt at mastery. I can see how this plays out in “normal” anxiety, as well as more severe forms. And I loved the opening parable. I shall carry that with me! Laurie


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