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Obsessive thoughts - morality or concentration?

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Hello dharma friends!

I have been interesting in Buddhist practice for a couple of years, and have read a variety of books, and have just begun to read Daniel Ingram's 'Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha', I understand that a few people on this website will have also read it?

I already appreciative it's conciseness and how it begins by talking about 'three trainings': Morality, concentration, and wisdom. I realise that until now I have only really worked on the concentration training in a Buddhist or mediative context (of course as is mentioned in the book, morality training is ongoing throughout life, and all people are trainees of this discipline). I appreciate that the book recommends keeping these trainings seperate and not to confuse them, and this seems intuitively to me like sound advice, and something I have not thought about in this way before.

However, I have a specific problem which relates to the morality training, which I imagine is one of the main reasons I have been drawn toward Buddhist philosophy in the first instance, and why I have this desire to better myself. I have suffered with obsessive thoughts since I was a teenager. These are generally very negative and often quite dark, and often give me intense feelings of shame and sometimes a longing for self-annhilation. They often take the form of negative thoughts about other people, and cloud somewhat my feelings of kindness and compassion toward others (although I do not believe that they cloud my actions a huge amount, as I believe that I am generally perceived as a pretty nice guy). I have had obsessions about whether I was a paedophile but didn't know it, whether I would hurt someone, whether I was a racist etc etc. From what I understand these are not too uncommon, but they have caused me a great deal of suffering.

Now, I believed that I would be able to use concentration/mindfulness skills to look into the phenomena and to 'cure it'. However, the thought that concentration training cannot be used to solve morality problems (in this case the morality problem is wrong thought, and sometimes as a result, wrong action) also seems to make some sense to me, so now I am a little confused how I should proceed.

Should I focus mainly on increasing thoughts and actions of kindness and compassion (morality training), or on analysing and deconstructing the phenomena (using concentration training/mindfulness)? Which might be more helpful to me? I can imagine potential pitfalls to either: focusing on purely increasing thoughts and actions of kindness and compassion can find resistance against the negative obsessive thoughts, and also with obsessive mental phenomena, sometimes resistance causes the obsessions to greaten. Wheras focusing on the concentration side, and analysing the problem that way can invoke intense feelings of pain, dissociation etc

Sorry this is rather rambly, and sorry if it doesn't seem to be posed in a way that anyone could answer? Basically I'm just wondering if anybody has any experience with anything similar, and also how people approach morality training, especially with regard thoughts (arguably the hardest thing to 'control') and what people find concentration skills are useful for and what they maybe aren't etc.

Many thanks

N.B. I once read a book called 'White Bears and other Unwanted Thoughts' about obsessions, which basically said that the desire to not think a thought is itself a paradox, as wishing not to think something only makes the thought appear. Therefore almost embracing the thought somehow, or allowing it is the only way out... However I guess you can imagine how hard that can be with these kind of thoughts....

RE: Obsessive thoughts - morality or concentration?
Answer
12/29/15 9:17 PM as a reply to Eddie Smith.
I have been obsessed with using meditation to 'cure' bipolar disorder for about three years.  Insight training worked to level me out to a certain plateau which I reached in July.  I haven't been able to get any gains in the past five to six months.  

My main takeaway in the past 6 months is from 3 sources (each one says something similar): the Pali canon, the Actual Freedom Trust, and Abraham-Hicks.  The takeaway is that feeling good feels good, and the more you can cultivate affective pleasure, just for the hell of it, the better.  I have no expectation that my bipolar will be cured, so the question then becomes, what else do I want, and the answer seems to be "to feel good in the moment."  The Brahma Viharas are a way to do this.  Self-talk and visualization is a way to do this.  Getting into jhana is a way to do this.  Just prioritizing enjoyment is a way to do this.

The only other takeaway I have is that sometimes it is possible to make serious progress towards a 'cure' and other times it is not.  When it is not, it is good to just allow yourself to surf the waves of your mind, and allow life to pass through you, and embrace the craziness of it all.  Remember, to be in form is to have desire and preference, and whatever you may be experiencing in the form of terrible thoughts are just amplified ways of your beingness expressing this.  You are not necessarily 'doing it wrong.'

P.S.- stay safe, do therapy and medication, all that good stuff.

RE: Obsessive thoughts - morality or concentration?
Answer
12/30/15 4:42 AM as a reply to Eddie Smith.
Eddie Smith:
Hello dharma friends!
[...]
Should I focus mainly on increasing thoughts and actions of kindness and compassion (morality training), or on analysing and deconstructing the phenomena (using concentration training/mindfulness)? Which might be more helpful to me? I can imagine potential pitfalls to either: focusing on purely increasing thoughts and actions of kindness and compassion can find resistance against the negative obsessive thoughts, and also with obsessive mental phenomena, sometimes resistance causes the obsessions to greaten. Wheras focusing on the concentration side, and analysing the problem that way can invoke intense feelings of pain, dissociation etc
This reads like a lot of pure speculation without any real experience behind it.
Insight practice may help. Metta practice may help (even without any notable concentration). Go and find some practice (even better: plus teacher) that works for you, stick with it for some time and you can ask more precise questions for yourself. This won't be a short trip anyway.

[...]
N.B. I once read a book called 'White Bears and other Unwanted Thoughts' about obsessions, which basically said that the desire to not think a thought is itself a paradox, as wishing not to think something only makes the thought appear. Therefore almost embracing the thought somehow, or allowing it is the only way out... However I guess you can imagine how hard that can be with these kind of thoughts....
It's not hard. It's a training that starts somewhere. Nothing special about the kind of thoughts you mention.
IMH(humble/harsh)O, Buddhism sucks at those more morality-like problems. Apart from the Brahma-Viharas(very helpful!) and some low-level CBT, there's just not much there. For that reason, I have started to mix elements from Focusing/IFS into my Metta-practice, with some real results.

Some teachers will tell you that their practice (noting, body scanning, samatha, whatever) solves about every problem there is. Ignorance is running high in even highly enlightened teachers. Yes, your favourite bread is slightly bitter.

RE: Obsessive thoughts - morality or concentration?
Answer
12/30/15 5:50 AM as a reply to Eddie Smith.
I like the CBT suggestion. Do you have a psychologist or psychiatrist that you can talk with? There may be something to be said for good old conventional Westery psychiatric something for you.

Still, Buddhism offers a lot on the topic.

The Removal of Distracting Thoughts is a classic. 

Also, concentration, done well, can provide temporary relief from them and write other patterns on the brain. Our minds learn what we do with them: if we think obsessive thoughts a lot, we will learn to do that more often. One can substitute other things for those patterns, such that we slowly rewire our minds to generally do other things. Brains are plastic, moldable, trainable, and so, with something like CBT or standard Buddhist advice or a mix of those and other things, we can change the way the machine works. This obviously takes time and effort, so be patient and just stick with it.

What local resources do you have? Dharma teachers? Therapists? Insurance that covers mental health stuff? Time to go on retreats? Meditation groups?

RE: Obsessive thoughts - morality or concentration?
Answer
12/30/15 9:38 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Thank you everyone for your thoughtful and very helpful input.

I have previously been on a group CBT with mindfulness course paid for by the good old NHS (I'm in the UK), which I did find very helpful. However, I used to have some more physical compulsions, and I mainly focused on these during the course, probably because they were easier to deal with. It was certainly a success as I barely have these physical compulsions anymore, and so I know there is something there. Namely - provoke and then resist the compulsions (whether physical or mental) and then sit with the anxiety. Each time you do this the anxiety will lessen as your brain then learns that there is no real danger.

However, this feels extremely painful with the dark thoughts - literally feels like being in 'hell', strong desire for annhilation etc. Bernd - I am not talking from pure speculation, I have obviously tried these things to some degree; using concentration to sit with the fear and anxiety, or trying to increase thoughts of kindness and compassion. Although it is difficult, yes I probably need to just keep going with both of these concepts. With respect Bernd, when you say 'it is not hard' this is perhaps a little presumptious and incompassionate of you, as you do not have any way of knowing how hard what I am going through is.

The only local resource I really have out of the ones you mentioned Daniel, are meditation groups which I do attend from time to time (local Buddhist centre, and a Zen group) and perhaps the possibility of retreats. Although I think with the Buddhist centre I am meant to pay for and take the Buddhism 101 course or some such thing, before I can go on any of the retreats, which I am slightly resistant to for some reason. I think I am wary about formally joining any sort of Buddhist group. Perhaps this is unjustified. I have read a few inflammatory things about the history of the Triratna Buddhist Order (and many other Buddhist groups!) and I perhaps am unreasonably allowing these to cloud my judgement. I also worry about putting too much faith in members of any 'order' for some reason.

Unfortunately I have no private health insurance, but perhaps I could go back to see my doctor. Maybe the NHS could provide some more time-limited CBT sessions.

Thank you everyone for your recommendations! Daniel - the link to the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, rewiring the mind, Westery psychiatry Bernd - Focusing/IFS, Noah - Brahma Viharas, Actual Freedom Trust, Jhanas, and just your general wonderful advice in your last paragraph.

Much gratitude

RE: Obsessive thoughts - morality or concentration?
Answer
12/30/15 9:45 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Daniel M. Ingram:

Also, concentration, done well, can provide temporary relief from them and write other patterns on the brain. Our minds learn what we do with them: if we think obsessive thoughts a lot, we will learn to do that more often. One can substitute other things for those patterns, such that we slowly rewire our minds to generally do other things. Brains are plastic, moldable, trainable, and so, with something like CBT or standard Buddhist advice or a mix of those and other things, we can change the way the machine works.


Hi Daniel, what would the standard Buddhist advice be for a problem such as this though, is what I'm wondering? Is it a combination of metta bhavana, writing other patterns using concentration as you have mentioned, and looking directly at the problem using concentration? Does this make sense or am I off track?

I'm sorry if I seem to be being so specific, I guess I feel the need, probably unreasonably, to know that I am definitely trying the right avenue.

RE: Obsessive thoughts - morality or concentration?
Answer
12/30/15 2:29 PM as a reply to Eddie Smith.
Another user here, Richard Zen, has talked a lot about 'becoming your own therapist.'  That might be really good for you.  For instance, I benefited from emdr therapy with a professionial, and now they have emdr do-it-yourself cd's!  I would google these, plus google "best pychology book on obsessive thinking/ocd/anxiety/etc."  The trick is to find the one's that are very high-rated within the field, and also to grok the ways of thinking contained within, such that 'aha' moments bring you permanent relief.  

Also, do yourself a favor, and starting today, even if just for five to ten minutes, practice moving towards a better-feeling thought about your situation, your life, etc.  Move from very general statements to very specific ones.  "There is nothing that needs to happen right now."  "I am off the hook."  "I am not doing this wrong."  "I believe that there may be a way to stop obsessing, at some point in the future." "I am grateful for all the things I have in my life right now."  "It is so nice that when I do xyz, I stop having anxiety for a time."  Etc.

The point of this exercise is not to provide permanent relief.  The point is to temporarily taste good feelings, as if you were a connoisseur (i.e. wine tasting) of positive emotions.  Just think of it is a hobby lol.

RE: Obsessive thoughts - morality or concentration?
Answer
3/9/17 6:30 AM as a reply to Eddie Smith.
Eddie Smith:
However, this feels extremely painful with the dark thoughts - literally feels like being in 'hell', strong desire for annhilation etc. Bernd - I am not talking from pure speculation, I have obviously tried these things to some degree; using concentration to sit with the fear and anxiety, or trying to increase thoughts of kindness and compassion. Although it is difficult, yes I probably need to just keep going with both of these concepts. With respect Bernd, when you say 'it is not hard' this is perhaps a little presumptious and incompassionate of you, as you do not have any way of knowing how hard what I am going through is.
This is a misunderstanding. Dude, I'm certainly not suggesting that there's no serious suffering in it. I was trying to point out something else:

You seem to think that allowing/embracing/accepting/... a thought (why a thought? this goes much further than thoughts!) is sort of a binary thing. You either accept it or not. So far you don't accept it. So now if you want to accept it, it's pretty hard.

But that's just not how it works. Accepting stuff is a process. You don't get from here to there in a single jump. This will take time. Also, it will only work if it's actually doable. (There's some sutta where the Buddha says that he asks his students to do only what is actually doable. Some serious wisdom there. I forgot its name though.) If it's hard, then it's basically impossible. So you need a first step that is easy, regardless of the involved thoughts/stuff.

What is that easy step? For me, verbalizing seems to work. Just greeting stuff actually does change something, but it also takes time, is confusing, not a linear process with a ton of unexpected things happening. But note that this is actually not hard. Greeting everything with "Hi, something which feels X, I know you're there." is really easy, regardless of the thoughts involved. Whether you're actively planning to kill yourself or you're sad about that failed math test in grade 3 doesn't make much of a difference for the process. (Beware: that isn't strictly true. In some instances, you should stay away from some stuff if you're not sure you can handle it.)

RE: Obsessive thoughts - morality or concentration?
Answer
12/31/15 9:45 AM as a reply to bernd the broter.
I like the idea of greeting the thoughts Bernd, I think that's a nice easy first step to being a bit more accepting of them and I will definitely try it. And Noah, the idea of being a connoiseur of positive emotions is also a great idea and I will try this too.


Also after you mentioned finding the well-respected methods in the field, I remembered all the stuff that I used to red about OCD before I discovered Buddhist ideas and kind of forgot about them somewhat. Basically the generally accepted solution for OCD is meant to be behavioural therapy - ERP or exposure response prevention. This is a little more straight forward with physical compulsions than mental ones but the theory is the same. Basically when the trigger occurs (in this case a specific thought) and you experience the spike (of adrenalin), you have to do the opposite of what your instinct tells you to do. The instinct tells you to solve the problem - this is called rumination in which one tries to solve the thought or push it away or deny it etc. However if instead of doing this you do the opposite, think 'oh well so what, maybe so I'll live with the risk, I'm not going to engage with this etc' and then try to move on and not ruminate, then you are essentially training the brain with Pavlovian conditioning. The spikes will eventually be accompanied by less adrenalin as the brain learns that they are not important. Best evidence for me points to this potentially being the solution, as this type of behavioural therapy did cure some minor physical compulsions that I had.

In case anyone is reading this who suffers from obsessive symptoms, here is a link to a good explanation of the technique:

http://www.ocdonline.com/#!rethinking-the-unthinkable/cbqk

It's pretty damn direct so it feels pretty insane at first, but it's meant to. I remember being in an OCD group with people with pretty extreme physical compulsions and everyone was freaking out cause they had to eat a biscuit without washing their hands or whatever it was. But each time they did it, they rated their anxiety levels as being slightly lower. It's just so easy to go back to the old ways once your out of the session though. The old ways are easier in the moment even though they only lead to endless suffering.