On the boundary between prayer, OCD and superstition

There is a pattern of thought and behaviour that I have seen noted in a psychology book and have also observed in myself. In myself, it occurs as part of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and I would like to work it out of my system, and so am writing out some notes to get to the bottom of it, and also to explore how much of what I see as the religious practice of prayer is also part of this.

This pattern is that by which an action is linked with an idea, in the hope that no harm will befall a friend (or a treasured object). The classic example I saw in a book is something like ``I always touch this plant-pot four times and the windowsill three times when I arrive at home, so that cousin Fred won't get run down. I've done it every day since he moved to Hong Kong, and he's not been run down yet, so it must work! So, in this example, the pseudo-prayer is the system of touching certain objects (a common manifestation of the problem). I suspect that a lot of superstitions arise this way; it would be interesting (although probably impossible) to investigate the origins of a lot of belief that such a thing is lucky or unlucky, in particular.

What I want to distinguish this from

At this point I will point out that I believe that there is such a thing as prayer, and that there are genuine forms of prayer that are distinct from the neurotic thought pattern that I have just described.

I consider actual prayer to be contact with Deity (I am a Christian, but will try to write this in general terms). I do not believe it is possible for us to make contact by force, by our choice ab initio but I believe that deity is always listening, and when we speak, deity hears. Therefore, taking Deity to be omniscient and omnipresent, we need only intend our thoughts for divine hearing for them to be heard as prayer.

Although there is a middle ground (in which we perform some ritual in the hope that Deity will take it as a prayer) I think the two things I have described are distinct -- perhaps as far as the east is from the west.

My personal experience of this -- the confessions of a largely-recovered neurotic

This started some time ago, probably in my early teens (around the time that my clinical depression started) in which I would strongly affirm the opposite of something that I wouldn't like to be, sealing it with a physical gesture (which took the form of clamping my knees together).

That faded, and more recently (since I bought my house and got a car for my first time, I think -- that is sometimes connected? -- a property-owners' neurosis?), a similarly obsessive-compulsive thing has appeared (and since then, largely faded again), this time connected with other obsessive-compulsive traits.

These other traits were to do with putting aspects of my house, car, etc into a state in which they were safe to be left to their own devices -- switching lights off and locking doors being the commonest things.

Thoughts attached to actions

(This has largely faded now.) What I attached to these thoughts was who I was thinking of, and in what way, as I performed the action, in the context of that action. For example, switching a light off for the night might have taken the significance such that I worry that subconsciously I was wishing that friendship with whoever I had in mind might also be switched off -- only not actually wishing it, but ``tempting fate'', as though the two actions could be linked in some mysterious way, and as though I could have been making the friendship more fragile and more likely to be switched off. Or sometimes it wasn't just the friendship, but the actual life... as though I was wishing the person could be switched off.

When this happened, I then felt I must cancel it, by re-doing the action either with positive thoughts of the same person, or sometimes the same thoughts but applied to some I didn't like... only the last time I perform that action in that series (eg switching the light off before I went out or went to bed) seemed to count.

Thoughts attached to objects

(These have almost entirely disappeared from me now.) Sometimes the ideas applied to an object rather than to a person -- quite often to the object being handled or considered. For example, if I saw my bike, felt unsure about what it's locked to, and thought ``That might be the last time I ever see it' I would then look at the bike again, trying hard to get that thought out of my mind and some other one in... which of course could take attempt after attempt, as it is very difficult (if not impossible) to avoid thinking a particular thought, by intending not to think it! (Indeed, that seems to bring it into mind all the more, which is not surprising since to think you mustn't think something, you must think of what it is you don't want to think of!

Thoughts attached to transitions

Sometimes the thought was attached to a transition, typically going through a door or gate -- a ``rite of passage'' of sorts [Genesis 15:17]. This is similar to the last seeing of an object, as described above.

A common milder form -- ``inviting fate''

It seems quite common that people treat, for example, mentioning bad weather as inviting what they have thought of. I think this is a similar idea to the ideas I've described above.

How could one break out of these patterns?

Going by what I've seen in the book ``Living with fear'' by Dr. Isaac Marks, the treatment to use for such a thing is ``paradoxical intent'', that is, one should try to make something go wrong for someone by thinking negative thoughts of them as one perform one of the actions or transitions concerned.

A possible problem in this treatment

My neurosis defended itself (so it seems) from being destroyed by such treatment, by blocking the start of the treatment by seeding my mind with the idea ``What if something really does go wrong for someone while you do this, how bad for you would things get then as the treatment will have just reinforced the problem''...

Another possible branch to the treatment

I could have looked at all the times that I have `intended' something towards someone and it hasn't happened.

John C. G. Sturdy
[John's home] Last modified: Sun Jun 10 18:17:20 GMT Daylight Time 2007