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Dealing with intrusive thoughts

obormottel Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Dealing with intrusive thoughts

Dear GYE,

There are no words to thank you for the tremendous help and support you provide. I have worked with many of the tools, but I think I need the most help in one area: properly dealing with intrusive thoughts - fantasies and triggers that will often sneak in. I am compulsive by nature and I know that I need to learn to live with discomfort instead of trying to relieve every itch. (Just because I'm itchy, doesn't mean I have to scratch). I've been raising the penalties and it is definitely a deterrent, but being compulsive can cause me to make irrational decisions even at the risk of monetary loss. I'm familiar with the concept of ‘mindfulness’ and was wondering if there are mindfulness exercises geared specifically for dealing with clinging, lustful thoughts. I feel like I need to rehaul my thinking patterns. Do you have more literature or other ideas on how to deal with triggers and compulsive thoughts that take over me? Please help. Thanks again for everything.

- Lost in Thought

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman answers in brief:

Dear Lost,

The problem is that you are fighting. A good driver needs guardrails only in an emergency - to drive constantly bumping against the guardrails is a problem. There is truth to the idea of Milchemes Hayetzer but warfare is not a natural or healthy state to be in continuously. Something has to change where you feel and think differently. Until then, it still cannot be constant war.

Much more to say on this but time does not permit.

Dov answers:

Dear Lost in Thought,

Thank you for letting me respond to this important question. I want to first say that I'm sharing and suggesting these things even though I'm a sober addict, and your question is not about recovery from addiction per se. I also prefer to assume that you're not an addict and your description of your journey so far doesn't sound anything like addiction to me - which I think is a great thing.

A few things for you to consider that may differ from the conventional wisdom:

1. There is no natural barrier to obsession. It can appear in good habits as well as bad ones. You may discover that you are simply obsessing about having clean thoughts at all times. And obsession, regardless of the subject, is not helpful for many reasons. Thus, I will suggest to you that it may be time to accept the fact that people have these 'intrusive' thoughts you describe, and they are nevertheless great people, including Kedoshim and Tehorim among us. Obviously, our Rabbis and Gedolim cannot be completely explicit regarding the exact nature of their own inner, hidden struggles. But they are, no doubt, similar to yours. No one dies or loses their Madreigo just from having ‘intrusive' thoughts. Consider getting used to being a real, beautiful, imperfect human being sooner than later.

2. Along those lines, we all know that having thoughts alone is no sin. The only real spiritual or religious problem happens when one, a) acts on those thoughts, or b) holds onto them unnecessarily. (See this great 5 min clip from Rabbi YY Jacobson)

I would like to suggest that by trying to fight them and denying that they are part of your normal mental landscape, you are much more likely to be holding on to them. We know that the Baal Hatanya writes (Tanya, ch. 28) that wrestling with a dirty man only makes you dirtier and dirtier. Addicts in twelve-step recovery use a term called 'surrender', referring to moving on without something instead of fighting it. They come to see that the main reason they were fighting their obsessions and desires before, was because the struggle itself allowed them to hold on to them and ‘deal’ with them virtually forever. When an addict mistakenly correlates 'Kedushas Hamo'ach' with 'Tikkun Habris,' they basically condemn themselves to never letting go of it. In a strange but real way, "not letting go" is a comfort to somebody who sees that it's wrong to have these thoughts but never really wants to let them go.

3. The famous 'Tzet'l Kotton' of the Rebbe R' Meilech discusses your problem and suggests, "Go to your spiritual advisor or even just a faithful friend, and reveal to them on a regular and ongoing basis all your troubling thoughts and desires, not holding anything back due to shame. You will find that this breaks their power over you and that you will succeed, with G-d's help." Would you consider doing that? The email you sent is a very early start at doing that but lacks two essential elements that he was obviously taking for granted: a) it is best done in person, and b) the exact nature of the thoughts and desires must be clearly and unambiguously expressed. By opening up in this fashion to another very real and present person, you can attain true self-honesty. (Actually, I believe it is often the only way to attain it.)

The very fact that a person balks to some degree at this suggestion is the exact reason that what the Tzaddik says works. By opening up to another party in this way, we are setting up a new and very real behavioral pattern of self-honesty, which leads me to my final piece of advice.

4. Intrusive, clinging thoughts that just won't go away, as you described, are affected tremendously by behavior. Our behaviors can change our priorities and thought processes. But they need to be: a) actions, not just ideas, b) at least a little bit out of our comfort zones, and c) they need to be performed on a more or less regular basis.