I’d gone into therapy during my sophomore year in college, and remember the day I brought up my current prime-time fixation: how to stop binge eating. No matter how committed I felt to my newest diet plan, I kept blowing it each day, and mercilessly judged myself for being out of control. When I wasn’t obsessing on how I might concoct a stricter, more dramatic weight-loss program, I was getting caught up in food cravings.
My therapist listened quietly for a while, and then asked a question that has stayed with me ever since: “When you are obsessing about eating, what are you feeling in your body?” As my attention shifted, I immediately noticed the painful, squeezing feeling in my chest. While my mind was saying “something is wrong with me,” my body was squeezing my heart and throat in the hard grip of fear.
In an instant I realized that when I was obsessing about food—craving it, wanting to avoid it—I was trying to escape from these feelings. Obsessing was my way of being in control. Then I realized something else. “It’s not just food” I told her. “I’m obsessing about everything.”
Saying it out loud unlocked something inside of me. I talked about how I obsessed about what was wrong with my boyfriend, about exams, about what to do for spring break, about when to fit in a run. I obsessed about what I’d tell her at our next therapy session. And most of all, my tireless inner critic obsessed about my own failings: I’d never change; I’d never like myself; others wouldn’t want to be close to me.
After pouring all this out, my mind started scratching around again—this time for a new strategy for changing my obsessive self. When I started down that track, my therapist simply smiled and said kindly: “If you can notice when you’re obsessing and then feel what’s going on in your body, you’ll eventually find peace of mind.”
During the weeks that followed, I kept track of my obsessing. When I caught myself planning and judging and managing, I would note that I was obsessing, try to stop, and then ask how I was feeling in my body. Whatever the particular focus of my thoughts, I’d find a restless, anxious feeling—the same squeezing grip I had felt in my therapist’s office.
While I didn’t like my obsessing, I really didn’t like this feeling. Without being conscious of pulling away, I’d start distancing myself from the pain almost as soon as I’d contacted it, and the relentless voice in my head would take over again. Then, after a month or soof this, I had an experience that really caught my attention.
One Saturday night, after my friends and I had spent hours dancing to the music of a favorite band, I stepped outside to get some fresh air. Inspired by the full moon and the scent of spring blossoms, I sat down on a bench for a few moments alone. Suddenly the world was deliciously quiet. Sweaty and tired, my body was vibrating from all that dancing. But my mind was still. It was big and open, like the night sky. And filling it was a sense of peace—I didn’t want anything or fear anything. Everything was okay.
By Sunday morning, the mood had vanished. Worried about a paper due midweek, I sat down to work at noon, armed with Diet Coke, cheese, and crackers. I was going to overeat, I just knew it. My mind started ricocheting between wanting to eat and not wanting to gain weight. My agitation grew. For a moment I flashed on the evening before; that quiet, happy space was like a distant dream. A great wave of helplessness and sorrow filled my heart. I began whispering a prayer: “Please … may I stop obsessing … Please, please.” I wanted to be free from the prison of my fear-thinking.
The taste of a quiet, peaceful mind I’d experienced the night before had felt like home, and it motivated me not long after to begin spiritual practice. In the years since, I’ve become increasingly free from the grip of obsessive thinking, but awakening from this mental trance has been slower than I initially imagined.
Obsessive thinking is a tenacious addiction, a way of running from our restlessness and fears. Yet, like all false refuges, it responds to mindful awareness—to an interested and caring attention. We can listen to the energies behind our obsessive thinking, respond to what needs attention, and spend less and less time removed from the presence that nurtures our lives.