• Austen Hayes

Dose #25: What Can We Learn From Obsessions?

"It would be much better if I could only stop thinking. Thoughts are the dullest things. Duller than flesh. They stretch out and there's no end to them and they leave a funny taste in the mouth. Then there are words, inside the thoughts, unfinished words, a sketchy sentence which constantly returns...it goes, it goes ...and there's no end to it. It's worse than the rest because I feel responsible and have complicity in it. For example, this sort of painful rumination: I exist, I am the one who keeps it up."

~Jean-Paul Sartre


Natalie Goldberg, teacher and author of "Writing Down the Bones", says writers end up writing about their obsessions - "Things that haunt them, things they can't forget, stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released." The author obsesses about family relationships and believes writing about them opens "...space for other topics." She suggests we make lists of obsessions as a way to reveal our passions, saying passions are at the heart of good writing.


There are obsessions, then there are obsessions. The repetitive thinking most of us engage in from time-to-time doesn't rise to the level of a 'disorder', but it can be monotonous and bothersome. Rather than trying to conquer our uninvited thoughts, might we ask why they keep knocking on the door of the mind - what are they trying to say?


O.K. So, I obsess about a lot of things. Surprisingly, the themes haven't changed throughout my life. They take on the colour of different times and places, but they're largely unchanged. My first thought after writing them down - most of what I think about is silly.

My hair "...long or short? Blonde or dark?". This obsession has been the same since I was 13. I've given up hope the theme, or the amount of time I spend thinking about it, will ever subside.


Money..."...will there be enough to meet my financial responsibilities?" I've been calculating and re-calculating numbers for as long as I can remember, except now obsessing carries the weight of the 'older' years. "How long can I work and how will I earn a living after I no longer do what I do?" A chronic theme with its own automatic updates along the way.


Getting things done. I live by lists - for the day, the month and the year. I follow them faithfully, checking in, crossing off what's been done, moving unfinished tasks to the next day. I'm lost without lists. They're my rudder. I feel good when things are done, but, of course they never really are. People compulsive enough to need lists in the first place have a way of finding new items to add to what's already written. Writing down one's life in list form gives the illusion of being in control. The act calms the ever-moving mind and completion of tasks fools the list-maker into thinking they're making progress. Oh boy.


I've recently added a new obsession - physical strength. As I see it wane, concern becomes an obsession...I can't grow weak.


This is not an obsession, but a worry - loss of kindness. When we ask our child to give their seat to the elderly woman on the train, to let someone step ahead of them in line, to place a straw cover in the bin, to send a thank you note for a gift received...we offer lessons in empathy and understanding of reverence for all life. And, reverence well taught, makes us strong. Entitlement makes us weak.


Is there a unifying idea? It's not vanity. It's not caring so much about money. It's not about being organized or children's manners. If I'm not falling apart, have a few dollars, things are not out of control and I'm physically well, I can work, take care of myself and not be dependent. Is it independence?


I go deeper. Independence for what purpose, I ask? To run my own life? Make my own decisions? Not need anyone? A new meaning pops up - 'freedom' - to live fully. To do the things still to be done...to be able to do them with a mind at ease and a body that works.


To be the guardian to the animals who've willingly come to live with me. To share a wide, green field with a flock of sheep long enough to feel their silence and learn from their patience. To walk in early morning in rhythm with the sounds of foot strike and breath that remind me what a privilege it is to be able to walk. To sit in an oversized chair in front of a blazing fire, lost in a book - the telling of someone's courageous life. To plant bulbs and be there in Spring to see the miracle of nature's trust and determination as tiny petals overcome the weight of the earth, unaware of their power.

To drive on an open road, the mountains to my right, a wide, infinite sky all around, bringing me closer to those who've gone before me. To notice a pasture and stop my car to capture it in a photograph. To see my grandson's eyes and be reminded of gifts passed on.


To comfort someone in time of sorrow. To encourage someone in need. To hold a frightened animal until the shaking stops and the breathing is steady. To get up, get out, to meet the day. To be kind.


To love life. To live fully. To not let go...


The longer I practice the more I question the 'medicalization' of everything human.

Maybe clinicians have it wrong. Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to rid ourselves of obsessions. What is there to be discovered in uncertainty? Rather than seeking reassurance for the lines imposing themselves on the mind, are these thoughts there to help us understand more of what matters and what we're about?


Will you make a list?

Taking Time

In The News...


A blog reader has been working tirelessly for the past four years, developing and promoting a remarkable self-advocacy group, "Community as Family (CAF). The program was designed initially as a support system for congregants of New York's Temple Emanu-El, those without "willing and reliable family members" available to provide care as members in their late 40's and 50's, "age solo", and the need for support grows.


The idea of CAF is to encourage members to "...live independently with better awareness and understanding of resources, with a supportive A-team and deepening engagement and strengthening relationships within the temple community". Fortunately, as the population ages, the urgent need for such a program is generating its own kindling effect, causing CAF to gain notice and popularity beyond the temple.


Most recently, CAF facilitator (Small Doses reader), Wendl Kornfeld, gave a PowerPoint presentation as a part of the United Nations NGO Committee on Ageing where attendees from around the globe shared concerns about the aging man or woman living alone who may be childless and without family support. The presentation was a huge success.


If this might be of interest - for you or someone you know - please contact Wendl at wendlkornfeld1@gmail.com...thank you.

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