​How to understand anorexia and OCD from the Buddhist point of view?

Oct 26, 2020

QUESTION

Dear Venerable Teacher,

I am so honored by the name you have given me when I took refuge: it has such a powerful meaning and I hope to honor it as best as I can. I am very grateful.

I wanted to ask you about some issues I have in my daily life. 

I have been diagnosed with anorexia. I also have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Mainly my OCD is unwanted horrible thoughts, which makes it quite hard to meditate. 

I wonder what ways I could try to get to the root of the delusional thinking in regards to the anorexia, it has taken over a big part of my life. I’ve lost a lot of weight and have been referred to an eating disorder recovery group. I want to cut this delusion and overcome this eating disorder. 

I would really appreciate any practice you might suggest to overcome those thoughts that are not based on reality or truth about food and how I can move forward in a healthy realistic way.

I have started my commitments as promised and have been taking refuge every day and night and I’ve done a Vajrasattva practice, as well as some of the prayers.

Sincerely,
T

ANSWER

Dearest T,

I’m very happy to hear back from you.

Thank you for telling me what’s going in your mind. Let’s look at it from a Buddhist psychological perspective.

As you know we can divide all of our countless moments of mind — thoughts, feelings, ideas, you name it — into three categories: those that are neurotic, deluded, distressing, disturbing and necessarily I-based, fear-based. We all know them well! Anger, depression, anxiety, attachment, jealousy and what modern psychology calls OCD, ADD, etc.

The second lot, which we also know well, are the positive, realistic, reasonable, virtuous states of mind: self-confidence, contentment, love, compassion, etc.

The third lot I like call the mechanics of our mind: the parts that we all need in order to function properly, whether we’re a saint or a psychopath: concentration, good memory, discrimination, etc.

It’s a very clear picture: everything fits into it. Certainly not how we see things in the modern models of the mind. It’s dealt with in great depth in the literature — going back more than 3000 years, surprisingly for us modern people: we think we invented psychology! — and studied in great depth as well.

The two main delusions that are the basis of all the others are called attachment and aversion. They sound so simple — simplistic even! But the understanding of them as we progress shows us how profoundly deep, how pervasive, and how multi-faceted they are.

Attachment is the main one: at the most energetic level it’s huge dissatisfaction, which gives rise to the emotional huger of always wanting something more, something different, which then gives rise to constantly looking out there for it, and then controlling and manipulating to get it, which gives rise to possessiveness, etc. It’s like a motor that propels us, each of us in our own unique way.

So, anorexia, for sure is huge attachment, but manifesting as dissatisfaction with the body: never satisfied, totally misreprsenting it to ourselves.

This dissatisfaction is really what we’d call self-hate. And this is what aversion is: it’s the bare-bones state of mind that is the response when attachment isn’t getting what it wants — which is all the time! It too is multi-faceted. Volatile anger is an obvious manifestation; then there’s ordinary annoyance, irritation, upset, frustrated; then more deeply there’s despair and depression. 

And then there’s bulimia. Actually the attachment in both cases is also to food, so it’s a constant battle between the attachment to the body to be a certain way and the attachment to food.

Everyone’s attached to their body and attached to food, but instead of starving ourselves or vomiting, we just get fat!

All of it — bulimia, anorexia, overeating, whatever you want to call it — is utterly linked to our obsessive attachment to our body as our very self, and we swing wildly between these different manifestations. Of course, all this is way beyond being articulated to ourselves; it’s all just ancient habit.

And, like attachment to anything – this is primordially deep in us – it’s rooted in, a result of, deep, instinctive dissatisfaction.

As for OCD. We can see how our mind is full of countless thoughts, unceasing and uncontrolled. We’re all like this but as you see some people — whom we label as having OCD — just happen to exprerience this more intensely.

We don’t have methods in our culture to harness the energy of our mind. But that’s Buddha’s brilliant skill.

So the starting point is having the confidence that our mind is not set in stone, that we can change. Then the hard work begins!

One of the major steps on the basis of that is to learn to own all the nonsense. And part of that is to stop looking at the various catalysts: the various events of our life. It’s helpful to see them but in our culture we’re addicted to believing our habits come from the outside. We keep looking into the past for a needle in a haystack such that we’re convinced that when we find it, we’ll be, “Aha! Now I’ve found the cause!”

It’s not like that for the Buddhist view. They’re our own states of mind, and yes they’re the response to external events, but they’re ours. And we brought them with us from previous lives. We come fully programmed with them at the time of conception!

So the key is 1. to own them, recognize them and 2. to not identify with them. This is difficult but it’s crucial. This rubbish is there, but it doesn’t define us, it’s not at the core of our being, it’s not integral to who we are.

This is really why we suffer so much — not because of the crazy thoughts and habits but because we can’t stand them! And, of course, all we want is for it all to go away.

Well, one day it will, gradually!

Meanwhile we need to learn to accept it all. I like to call all the delusions in my mind my “roommates” — it’s a good analogy. We need to learn to live with them, not resist them, not hate them. This itself is already powerful. But it takes time.

And it’s actually part of the process of changing.

Anyway, it’s great that you have a daily practice going. This helps. We need the discipline of it. We need to start somewhere.

What do you think, T? Then we can discuss in more detail good practices for you.

Much love,
Robina

QUESTION

Hello Robina,

I apologize for the delay in responding, I sometimes take a long time to think things over, and I have been thinking about what you’ve said a lot. 

It’s 100 percent a fact that anorexia stems from self hatred, you are 100 percent correct about that and I thought about it a lot, trying to be honest with myself about why I am stuck in this mental place of needing to shrink myself to nothing and it’s purely hatred of the body, anger towards the body, and self esteem issues. It’s hard to admit to oneself that they don’t like something about themselves. And how then does one start to try to turn those thoughts of self hate into the opposite or even just accepting one’s self as is?

The OCD is a tricky one for me, because it is a brain wiring problem, a physical problem that my brain doesn’t fire right in some ways and a lack of serotonin is produced by my brain. When it’s a physical issue I feel confused as to how to try to accept that and meditate around that. Maybe they are just like any other thought and it’s best to just not pay those thoughts any mind? Or to just let them go like other thoughts that arise?

Love,
T

ANSWER
Good to hear from you again, dear T.

For sure, our brain is involved in what goes on in our mind — how could it not be! But the way to understand it from the Buddhist persepctive is that our mind, our actual cognitive process, is not the brain. But they’re totally interdependent, aren’t they? What goes on in the brain affects the mind, but, crucially, what goes on in our thoughts and feelings and emotions — our mind, in other words — can’t help but change the brain. 

That’s what they’re finding now with neuroplasticity: we’re not stuck with the brain we’re born with. There’s clear evidence from wiring the brains of meditators that even simply thinking about compassion, for example, changes the brain.

Another way of putting it is that what goes on in our brain is simply a physical indicator of what goes on in our mind.

The thoughts that come up in your mind — positive ones as well as the unwanted ones — all came with us in this life from the past. They’re ours. And there are countless thoughts stored in our mind from countless past lives. What pops up is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg!

The bigger picture is that there’s nothing set in stone in our mind. We can, slowly slowly, harness them and eventually change them. And this refers to our self-loathing as well as our crazy random thoughts popping up. That should give us great confidence.

Then, as I said earlier – and, yes, you’re right – one of the first major steps is that we are gradually able to allow them to come and go and not identify with them. This is hard but definitely possible.

Part of our misconception of the function of meditation is that it’s meant to make them all go away! No! In fact, when we start to really become away of our thoughts we actually think they’re getting worse! But they’re not. We’re just becoming aware, and that’s the point.

Because if we can’t identify the problems how can we find the solution? We need to become more and more conscious of our thoughts and feelings and emotions so that we can start to unpack and unravel them, and slowly reconfigure them, change them. This is actually the essence of what being Buddhist is.

So, T, do some practice every morning and every night. This is a brilliant start. This is very powerful for our mind. First of all, it gives us a sense of structure and we feel that we’re achieving something. But also the practices, especially the ones that use the Buddha, such as the purification practice, work at a very deep level, putting atomic bombs on all the old habits.

Learning to be our own therapist, to become familiar with our thoughts and feelings and slowly to change them all takes time. But it’s possible. And we need courage to do it; to not just hope that’ll all just go away. It’s hard work! But so worthwhile.

So, have confidence. Go one step at a time. 

And stay in touch, for sure.

Much love to you,
Robina

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