Learning to Fall Apart: Ritual in Religion and OCD

by Matt B. on September 27, 2013

Just published a new essay in Aeon Magazine. An excerpt is below; the full piece is available on Aeon’s site.

* * *

Our society likes to portray obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as a cute quirk, a goofy, if irritating, eccentricity. It is not. For the person undergoing OCD experience, it is a form of mental terrorism.

This terrorism takes the form of what psychologists call ‘intrusive thoughts’ — unwanted, painful thoughts or images that invade one’s consciousness, triggering profound fear and anxiety. This is the ‘obsessive’ part of OCD, and it can arise in even the most mundane circumstances. Sitting here typing, for example, I sometimes feel modest pain in my fingers, and my mind kicks into gear: You’re typing too much and causing permanent damage to your hands. Feel those little irritations at the second knuckle of your left ring finger? Those are the harbingers of arthritis. This is how it starts.

All around this mental tickertape, tension begins to build — a tidal lift that threatens to drown me if I don’t take immediate action. It’s hard to overstate just how world-shrinkingly claustrophobic this can feel, or just how much I am tempted to do to make the feeling go away. And here’s where the terrorists make their demands. Type slower. Put your wrist guards on. Stop typing altogether. Then you won’t have to feel this way. These are the ‘compulsions’ — ritual behaviours meant to alleviate anxiety.

These rituals can take many forms. For some people, it’s the stuff you see on TV — repeatedly checking to see if the door’s locked, counting the letters in words until a particular total is reached, avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk. I’ve experienced some of this, but for me, invitations to ritualise tend to be more purely mental — to ruminate endlessly, to replay anxiety-producing scenarios until I find a way to view them that will dissipate my anxiety (which, of course, never happens). The common thread are the rituals, the promise that there’s something repetitive and formalised that I can do to make things feel better.

Which brings us to religion. As in OCD, ritual plays a central role in all religious traditions. That’s not to say, of course, that ritual plays exactly the same role in OCD and religion. After all, religious ritual is an enormous arena of human activity, a means of expression for nearly every human want, need, and desire. It would be way beyond hubris for me — a 31-year-old whose experience of religious practice is largely limited to evangelical Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism — to pronounce on all of that.

But I’m struck by the fact that there is common ground between my private rituals, and the rituals that religions have invented. And from my own experience, growing up in evangelical Christianity, and now practising Tibetan Buddhist rituals, I have come to understand one thing. Some rituals are designed to help us ‘keep ourselves together’. Others are designed to help us fall apart. OCD rituals are the former, and so are many religious rituals. But Buddhist meditation offers a radical alternative.

* * *

The anxiety at the heart of OCD makes visible all the implicit certainties and background assumptions that I rely on — and then destroys them. You can imagine the panicky floundering, the thrashing desperation — and, above all, the willingness to reach for anything that looks remotely like a life raft.

Which, of course, is the ritual. Just read over the essay one more time. It couldn’t hurt to check the alarm again, could it? Why not drive at precisely the speed limit for the entire trip — that way, you couldn’t possibly get pulled over. The ritual doesn’t necessarily come packaged as a ritual. Rather, it arrives in the form of perfectly calibrated pain medication, the oh-so-rational solution to my confusion and disarray. When I’m feeling a little groundless it promises to get me back on my feet.

In other words, the rituals of OCD offer to restore the disrupted narrative of my life, to re-create a storyline in which all of my rollicking thoughts, feelings, and emotions can be integrated, and forward motion re-established.

As with OCD, so with religion. Many of the great anthropologists and sociologists of religion, including Émile Durkheim and Victor Turner, have pointed out the ways in which religious rituals serve to unite communities. But many religious rituals attempt to unify the individual as well – to restore a sense of coherence and continuity. This can take many forms: purging oneself of immoral acts, restoring a damaged relationship with a deity, and so on. In the evangelical circles in which I grew up, great emphasis was put on ‘getting right with God’ — on being reborn in Christ and committing to ‘walk with Him’. Doing so was a decisive act; it earned the believer a place among the saved and entry into Heaven.



  • Heidi

    Very interesting. I’ve suffered with many OCD symptoms (but not been diagnosed), and have also felt an inclination towards the rules and rituals of religion for the feelings of safety and security, and of knowing I’m doing things ‘properly’. I’m now starting to see how my participation in religion might all be part of my OCD compulsion, and therefore I’m believing falsely in it all and in the effects I’m hoping to experience from it.(?) The more I learn about any particular religion or denomination, the more I feel they are all partly right, and a bit wrong too, and just as the compulsive rituals of OCD don’t bring any *real* lasting relief (because it’s not even real), the rituals of religion certainly haven’t brought me to what I went to them looking for either!! … I shall read more of your articles…

  • http://www.mattbieber.net/ Matt Bieber

    Thanks Heidi! I think you’re in much the same place as I am…

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